Saint George and the Dragon Age: Hic Sunt Dracones

CS Lewis

C.S. Lewis, famous for ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’, stated in one of his non-fictional works,  ‘Mere Christianity’,

‘The moment you wake up, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in listening to that other voice, that point of view, letting that other stronger, quieter life come flowing in.’

In other words, our path toward being fully human involves a recognition each day that we are not the centre of the universe. The trouble is we live in a culture that tells us that we are and that we should always get what we want. We are all consumers now relating to everything in terms of consumption – not just shopping, but education, health care, and religion. But being a consumer is not the height of what it means to be human.

animal-1861504_1280I am reminded of this on Saint George’s Day – 23rd April – the day dedicated to the patron saint of England.  We probably know the story about the knightly George and the dragon. But what do we know about the real George?

All we know is that George, or Georgios, was born around 270 BCE, probably in Cappadocia (now Eastern Turkey), not England. At the age of 17 he entered the service of the Emperor Diocletian as a Roman soldier.

Diocletian was for most of his reign tolerant of religious minorities, but around the turn of the century public opinion blamed the refusal of Christians to participate in pagan sacrifices for a series of unfavourable events and omens, and the Emperor ordered all Christians to conform to the Roman sacrificial system or else lose their positions. Those opposed to Christianity pressed for punishment, and an Oracle from Apollo at Didyma was widely interpreted as calling for the suppression of Christians. So on 24th February 303 BCE Diocletian’s ‘Edict against the Christians’ was published. A spate of persecutions followed, and many Christians died including George the Roman soldier and Christian martyr.

The Roman historian Eusebius, writing twenty years later, spoke of a soldier who was executed on 23rd April 303 BCE for this act. George was identified with Eusebius’s soldier, which is why Saint George is remembered on 23rd April to this day.

There are numerous theories of why Saint George is depicted with a dragon in Christian iconography. One theory suggests that the Roman soldier, George, refused to kneel before an image of a dragon or a serpent – possibly on a Roman Standard – and that this is where the story of ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ originates.

But even stories possess truth and allow us to explore the truth within ourselves. C.S. Lewis knew this, exploring the truth of his Christian faith through ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as much as he did through any of his theological writings or radio broadcasts. Lewis’s friend J.R.R.Tolkien held to a similar principle in his writings that revolved around his famous trilogy ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Role playing games such as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and digital versions such as ‘Dragon Age’ have built upon these stories and developed them for our own age. All of them in some ways look back to earlier stories such as ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. And in that story George had to face a question. Was he the centre of his own universe or was their something more worth defending? A dragon that needed defeating? The real George faced the dragon by refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

George would probably have remained a saint principally revered in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia had it not been for the Crusades. The crusaders journeys introduced them to the icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and they were impressed by the depictions of the courageous soldier-saint slaying a dragon and rescuing a damsel in distress.

They simply did not understand how the symbolism of iconography works, and that George’s dragon stood for evil, or perhaps Diocletian, and the beautiful princess for Christianity, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or for the Church itself. Not knowing how to interpret what they saw, they produced their own interpretations.

Sadly, this expressed itself in the crusades with acts of violence under the guise of ‘knightly valour’ and today Saint George is hijacked by extreme English nationalistic tendencies in some quarters. If only they knew who the real George, or Giorgios, was.

But if we can strip away the layers of legend we are still left with a little pinch of truth. George, the Christian who stood up to something terrifying and was able to do so not because he thought he was at the centre of the universe but because he knew he was not. Realising we are not the centre of the universe is a good thing as the history of map making can illustrate to us.

map-595790_1920.png500 years ago people believed the Earth was flat. We know this from the history of making maps. Anyone who has been a scout knows not only that Saint George is their patron saint but something about map reading and map making.

If you go to an archive and look at any maps from 500 years ago you will see that maps of Europe were fine, but the further away from Europe they got, the less accurate they became. In uncharted places a Latin phrase can often be found:

‘Hic Sunt Dracones’ or ‘Here be dragons.’

So in the history of map making, dragons represented the fear of the unknown. As we know it took explorers to go into the unknown and to face these fears. That is why we have accurate maps today. To me, Saint George’s Day is about facing fear – facing the dragon. For the real Saint George it mean’t facing the fear of being persecuted for what he believed in as a Christian.

What might facing the dragon look like in our own age?

george-and-the-dragon-2406524_1920

‘Hic Sunt Dracones.’

We will all encounter these words, and not just on historical maps. Remembering the real Saint George may help us face those words wherever we may encounter them. I remember a hymn I used to sing at school, ‘When a Knight won his Spurs’, which in one of the verses says the following:

“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed

‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;

and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,

from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.”

Living these words where ‘there be dragons’ lies the path to true chivalry.

Cylons with Soul

In the wake of the success of ‘Star Wars’ in the late 1970’s another science fiction franchise that made an impression on me as a young boy was ‘Battlestar Galactica’.

Drawing upon theories of lost civilisations and humans on Earth being descendants of space travellers, the original story of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ was essentially a reinterpretation of ‘Frankenstein’. The mechanised creations of humanity known as Cylons, turn upon their makers whose surviving remnants then seek a new home known only in myth – Earth.

In the late 1970’s life was quite simple for me as a child and this was reflected in ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – the humans were the goodies and the Cylons were the baddies.

But we all grow up.

Life becomes more complex and so did ‘Battlestar Galactica’ when it was relaunched in 2004. The Cylons now looked like humans, they believed in God, they varied in their opinion as to whether humanity should be wiped out or not – they had soul!

The Cylons became much more of a reflection of humanity with differing shades of virtue, belief, and morality. It became harder to tell who were the goodies or the baddies and civil war in space never felt so real.

I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls.

long divisionWhat I should explain is I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls that originate from the English Civil War (1642-1651), the time of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. It is well known to local historians and Civil War re-enactors alike as being of strategic importance during that period of British history. All I can say is that it was something of a surreal experience as a child to sing hymns of peace and love while surrounded by these historic reminders of divided humanity!

Would you be a Cavalier or a Roundhead, I wonder?

Although we can toy with that idea in our imaginations now, it was a real, stark question for the generations before us in England. Families divided over loyalties, brother against brother, daughter against mother – each having to make a choice in their religious and political allegiances. Some of these divisions have reverberated well into the 21st century, for example in Ireland where Oliver Cromwell’s suppressive policies enacted by his New Model Army inflicted lasting social divisions.

I think of that when I come to the gospel passage Luke 12:49-53, when Jesus says:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!  Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.  From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

I think it is one of the most disturbing passages for any Christian to deal with. One reason being that it may not fit well with our ideas of Church or God at all.

But there it is.

So apart from ignoring it – how can we respond to Jesus’ words today? Perhaps we need to begin by reminding ourselves of some important things in the language that Jesus was using.

  1. The ‘fire’ that Jesus came to cast is best understood as a purifying and refining fire.  The prophet Malachi spoke of the Lord being “like a refiner’s fire and like a fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2) that separates the good from the bad.  This fire is cast upon the earth to refine and purify everyone and everything – it is God’s act and not the act of a group of human beings to be the ‘refiner’s fire’. What I mean by this is that caution should always intervene when the words ‘God is on our side’ are used as history can teach us.
  2. The baptism spoken of here must not to be confused with the water baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16).  The baptism Jesus speaks of in Luke 12 is a baptism that had not yet occurred.  This baptism is his death, burial, and resurrection.  The result of this baptism is the kindling of the refiner’s fire that is cast upon the whole earth.

These two factors pose us with a choice.

In verses 52-53, Jesus shows that this division will affect family loyalties. This is perhaps the hardest verse to listen to, but we know it is true and that it happens. For the listeners of Luke’s Gospel the choice was stark because Christians were a persecuted minority. Choosing to be a Christian was a costly decision. Sadly, that is still true in some parts of the world to this day.

But having said that and apart from the English Civil War, families in this country until relatively recently, have suffered as a result of divisions over religious affiliation. Granted most of the people I talk to on this subject are in their 80’s or 90’s but occasionally I still hear a story like:

“Uncle Bert married Aunt Bertha and because she was a Catholic nobody in the family had anything to do with them ever again.”

I do not think those are the divisions Jesus was referring to. Instead some of us probably know that we have to be prepared as Christians to make choices when it comes to our love of God and love of family – because sadly in some cases – the two may not go together.

We may never have to make the dramatic choices made by those Christians who first listened to Luke’s Gospel and lived under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. We may never have to make the choices of allegiance made by our predecessors in the English Civil War or by Christians persecuted around the world to this day. But even now we will have to make choices and some of those choices may be uncomfortably close to home.

My simple rule in such situations is always to be open to another point of view, even within my own family, but that does not necessarily mean it is my track. And sometimes that can be hard – that cannot be denied and Jesus even tells us that to follow him is not always the easy path.

The second half of this gospel reading portrays Jesus chastising the crowds for not recognising the signs he bares. Like dark clouds or a stormy wind, the teaching and acts of mercy he performs indicate what will come. Jesus is born for one thing: to herald the coming kingdom of God, and to establish this kingdom he will raise neither banner nor sword but instead hang on the cross, the vulnerable insignia of God’s new reign.

Those who recognise the signs and choose to follow him will not only need to forsake the trappings of power that adorn the lords of the present kingdom, but can also expect resistance, even opposition. But if Jesus’ call to a new way of relating to each other — via forgiveness, courage, and humility — stirred up division during his time and that of the early church, what does it bring today?

Christians in the western world are asked to give up very little for the sake of faith in the 21st century. How, then, do we hear Jesus? To answer this question, we must engage in our own weather forecasting by discerning the signs of the times:

  • What elements of our lives hinder our service to God?
  • The God of the lowly and powerless?
  • The marginalised and the forgotten?
  • The God who challenges the status quo?

Hard questions.

But if we fear undergoing Jesus’ baptism by fire, we might take comfort in the simple yet stark fact that Christ who comes to baptise us with fire and the Holy Spirit first embraced his own baptism — experiencing harm that we might know healing, undergoing judgment that we might know pardon, suffering death that we might know life.

Thus, looking backward to Jesus we may find the courage to look forward to discern the signs and challenges of our own times. To run the right way – but also understanding this may not be the same way all the time as others. In the letter to the Hebrews 12:1-2 we are encouraged to choose to live by faith because:

“…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

040820-F-5019K-010Photo via Good Free Photos

And when I still question myself I am reminded of one simple fact from the church where I grew up – the bullet holes in the walls are man made.

God’s fire is a refining fire that comes in love – not anger, or hatred, or fear, or greed – or any of the other factors that make up the division and war of human history, religious or otherwise.

  • How do we choose to run toward that love rather than away from it?
  • How do we express that love to those that might oppose it?

Therein lies not only our history but our story – yet to be finished. Like athletes I am sure the answer to our story lies in our daily training. Hopefully NOT lead bullet holes but gold medals will be the inheritance we pass on.

But time will tell if Cylons with soul will be our final legacy…

The Hidden Life of Trees

Vicar and BrideThis article is dedicated to my daughter and son-in-law, Hannah and James, as they approach their first wedding anniversary. Below are the words of the address I gave on their wedding day…

Today is a significant step in our collective family trees.   So what I would like to reflect on for a moment is just that – trees. I know that sounds strange but please hear me out.

We probably all know that trees are alchemists. Through photosynthesis, they create oxygen and glucose— both building blocks of life. Trees are essential to the environment and good for our health. But did you know there’s a hidden life of trees?

That is the title of a recent book by Peter Wohlleben, ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’. For most of his professional life as a forrester, Wohlleben sized up trees and their worth by what profits they could yield. And then he became an arborist, a specialist tree surgeon, in a forest in Germany. This experience fundamentally changed his understanding of trees.

One day Wohlleben stumbled across a patch of what he thought was strange-looking mossy stones. Lifting the moss, what he found wasn’t stone at all but ancient tree bark firmly rooted to the ground. He scraped a portion and below the bark was a sheath of green, the colour of chlorophyll—something that can be stored in reserve in the trunks of living trees.

Wohlleben knew the tree had been felled over 400 years ago.

  • Can you see what was strange about this?
  • How to account for the green chlorophyll?!?

Wohlleben wrote in his book:

“It was clear that something else was happening, this stump must be getting assistance from the roots of neighbouring trees, the surrounding trees were pumping glucose to the ancient stump of this tree to keep it alive.”

With this discovery a door opened in Wohlleben’s mind. Wohlleben now sees trees not as so much wood for profit, nor as stand-alone entities in competition for survival, but as members of an interdependent social network. Just like a family, or a community – trees help each other to live and grow.

Wohlleben observed that seedlings in the shade and trees starved of food are helped by receiving nutrients from larger photosynthesizing trees – even of different species. But we don’t see it because this help is hidden below the ground in the intermingling root systems. This is the hidden life of trees.

The book has become an international best-seller and not just among foresters. Many read it as a commentary on human beings. We too are individuals but we are also connected and rely to some degree upon those connections for our well-being.

I believe that principle is celebrated as we come together with Hannah and James on their wedding day.

It is not primarily their individuality we are celebrating today. But their relationship and their interconnection with one another and with each of us as family and friends, and how these things may contribute to the health and well-being of all – both today and for the future.

Like trees, our interconnections can bring well-being to all. Hannah and James are planting their lives firmly in that vision today as they make their marriage vows to each other.

In many religions there is mention of a ‘Tree of Life’ and in the Christian Bible this is also true. In Revelation 22:2 it says,

“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

I look at this verse now in a different way as I think of the hidden life of trees.

Where will Hannah and James grow from here? I don’t know.

But may God bless them and help them grow together, and us with them. This is my prayer and Wohlleben’s book is my wedding gift to them – which some might see as just another gardener’s book.

But some may perceive as a manual on the loving and caring connections we can make for the well-being of all – especially those of us who now know about the hidden life of trees…

Tree Cross

 

Iona

Iona Beach

Iona is a place of invitation

Iona Abbey Landscape

Iona invites you to be at one

Iona Cloisters

with God

Iona Stones

with yourself

Singing rock Iona

with creation

iona boat shore

both land and sea

Aberdeen Angus Iona

both animal and human

Iona door

Iona is a place of invitation

Iona cross

to love and be loved…

 

3DVR: A Fizhtale

3DVR Cover

Death is a headache.

Death hurts and it is costly.

When you die always remember to remain still, take a deep breath, close your eyes and then reopen them. The headache goes – death passes – time to reboot.

In 2037 virtual death is a headache but the rush of the game is worth it.

3DVR Load Screen

The games my parents used to play seem so crude. Two dimensional, flat screen pixels, that look infantile when they are shown at Comic Con or social history classes today. Where is the fun in that, I ask you?

But now?

Well, I can only say that 3DVR is as different from looking at rain through a window to going outside and dancing in it. It is real, ‘Three Dimensional Virtual Reality’ is as real as anything can be.

Virtual reality gaming has come a long way since the first clunky headsets were marketed twenty years ago. Who would have imagined then being able to walk down a street and play three dimensional virtual games through an ordinary pair of glasses? Just imagine, one moment you are reading a sign and the next a three dimensional virtual character appears beside you as you are standing there and they look as real as any person. The gaming industry calls them ‘automata’.

How they sorted the licenses out for that I will never know. Times and places are regulated of course, but as soon as governments realised how much money could be made out of virtual reality gaming in public areas their attitude changed from prohibition to regulation.

There are many 3DVR games out there, everything from sport to space, but the most popular is ‘Grand Theft Automata’. Whatever anyone says, crime pays, it certainly pays in the world of virtual reality gaming.

grand theft automata

Near where I live there is an old shopping precinct, long since empty, that is now given over to 3DVR gaming. The company who own it rent out costumes and props so you can completely immerse yourself in the game. Last week I played there in co-op mode with some team mates, we pulled up in the precinct and shot the hell out of the place.

It was fantastic!

No wonder the film industry is waning. Who wants to watch movies when you can direct and act in your own?

But recently one of our team members stopped playing.

I asked Garth why and he said something very strange – he said with every update in the game software he was finding it harder to look into the faces of the automata he killed. This was more than the endless debates that have raged on for decades over whether video games make people more violent. Garth was finding it harder to look at the faces of his victims just before killing them. Particularly their eyes, he said.

instinct

I lost touch with Garth.

For a while I did not think anything more about what he said. Life – real and virtual – carried on. Going to work and levelling up on my game at home became part of my routine, that was until yesterday. It happened while our team was in co-op mode and we attacked the precinct again as we had done before, but this time it was different.

While emptying a safe I heard a scream. I turned and saw it was a woman crouching in the corner. She was clutching a gun but hesitated to shoot at us. My accomplices shouted, “Shoot her and let’s go!”

And so I did. Why not? It’s only a game character, right?

But in that split second before I pulled the trigger she looked directly at me. Her eyes mesmerized me. They seemed so real I thought I was looking at something more than a hologram – her eyes seemed as though they were alive and wanted to stay that way. Was this thanks simply to a software update? I am not religious but in that moment I swear I was looking at what I can only describe as something with a ‘soul’.

After pulling the trigger I wondered, was something being murdered – in her or in me?

perception

I don’t play games anymore, not virtual ones anyway because I have seen too much. Instead I meet up with Garth and we take to the streets without the aid of 3DVR.

The world is no longer enhanced by a pair of 3D graphical interface glasses but strangely enough my vision seems less impaired. Garth and I may stand out and some may laugh.

But that’s okay.

I don’t miss the headaches…

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

‘Fizhtales’ are my own stories inspired by the cyberculture which continues to shape the world we live in. I like to think of Fizhtales as ‘cyberparables’ written as a reflection on some of the moral and spiritual questions that cyberculture presents to each of us today.

‘3DVR: A Fizhtale’ Copyright © 2017 cyberfizh

Westworld Virtually

‘Westworld’ is one of my favourite science fiction films from the 1970’s. Drawing its influence from the ‘imagineering’ theme parks and animatronics of Walt Disney, this was Michael Crichton’s first cautionary tale of a theme park going into meltdown that would later evolve into the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise.

But it is also more than that. In an article by Emily Asher-Perrin the author has written:

  • ‘Westworld’ is not meant to be a cautionary tale about the terror of technology. It’s a cautionary tale about humanity’s failure to recognize its own fallible nature, our tendency to believe that all innovation is good innovation, and our inability to see past the monetary value of progress. All of these themes are commonly present in Michael Crichton’s work, and ‘Westworld’ offers another fascinating backdrop to consider these foibles.

The moral implications of creating humanoid robots complete with Artificial Intelligence have since been explored in such cult classics as ‘Bladerunner’ and with the continuing progress of technology accompanied by a lack of progress in human nature it seems as though the questions raised in ‘Westworld’ are more pertinent than ever. Indeed it is no coincidence that HBO have recently released a new television series from this franchise.

‘Westworld’ challenges us to think about the value of human life and whether sentient beings should be treated as objects of pleasure?

We have to acknowledge that some human beings have treated other human beings as nothing more than ‘objects’ for pleasure or profit. This is true historically and even now, for example, slave trafficking continues to the present day. Dr Molefi Kete Asante stated in a Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture in 2007:

  • One might claim that the leading opinion-makers, philosophers, and theologians of the European enslavers organised the category of blackness as property value. We Africans were, in effect, without soul, spirit, emotions, desires, and rights.

Historic arguments of whether African slaves possessed souls amid European academics of the eighteenth century resonates to a degree with the speculation of science fiction writers today concerning artificial intelligence becoming self aware and thus possessing rights and dare it even be said, a ‘soul’?

The question remains – Should sentient beings be treated as objects of pleasure?

Crash Dummy

Although we may be a long way from creating an adult theme park in which we might imagine that humanoid robots have rights, the world of video gaming is coming ever closer to meeting the darkest fantasies of our human nature.

I am not  a prude about video games but they have come a long way since the days I used to queue at fairgrounds to play ‘Space Invaders’ as a young boy. Although it is in its infancy, ‘virtual reality’ gaming is now a marketable commodity in the living room and is sure to develop just as mobile phones have developed exponentially in the past two decades.

Although the inspiration for ‘Westworld’ may have come from Disneyland it seems that virtual reality will bring the moral issues of this cult classic closer to home sooner than we may imagine. ‘Westworld’ is virtually here and it beckons the question of how this may affect our moral compass as human beings as virtual gaming develops and becomes more accessible. Paul Tassi puts it like this in a recent article:

  • ‘Westworld’ is essentially the endgame for video games. As a physical space on the show, it’s obviously not a virtual experience, but it might as well be, as it deals with all the same issues. I’m not worried about video game characters becoming self-aware and trying to murder me, but I am a little concerned about the ability for nearly anyone to act out wildly violent fantasies in increasingly realistic scenarios that may someday contain characters that feels as close to real as you can get.

CyberfizhVR

In a Storymen podcast on ‘The Theology of Westworld’, a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Minister discuss the dehumanising effect of a theme park with no moral rules and the implications of this on the human spirit. Technology is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool. But technology often raises moral questions as to what it can empower us to do.

When mobile phones first became accessible nobody envisioned the moral debates we would have about social media over mobile phones today. To that degree most people would agree that mobile phones have not only changed in themselves in the past twenty years but have radically changed the way we communicate and function as human beings. Studies have shown for example, how these technologies stimulate dopamine within the human brain and the addictive behaviour that can incite.

As we are witnessing the birth of virtual reality gaming on a viable commercial basis in the domestic market, some questions emerge in my mind on the future of this technology:

  1. What may virtual reality empower us to do, for good or ill?
  2. What behaviour will virtual reality incite as it develops?
  3. Are we on the cusp of creating a digital ‘Westworld’?

Magic Moments

‘Magic Moments’ sung by Perry Como in 1957 is a song we might associate with Christmas as it was once used to sell ‘Quality Street’ chocolates in Christmas advertisements on British television.

Christmas is a magic moment that we may long to capture. Trees, lights, cards, presents, food, decorations – all geared towards capturing the magic moment of Christmas.

The trouble is maybe we carry a lot of other stuff as well – overloaded – and not with presents. Tired? Troubled? Preoccupied with worries, so that the magic moment of Christmas feels, perhaps – just out of reach…

Part of the problem might well be our upbringing. From an early age we are presented with the idea that Christmas is a time for children. Now don’t get me wrong, I think the wonder and excitement that children bring to Christmas is brilliant, but it is not the whole picture of Christmas, and it reinforces the idea that Christmas is something you grow out of.

I can understand why and that children’s nativity plays cannot contain the complex threads of the original Christmas story. What do I mean? Well, you only have to read the Bible for yourself to get the salient points:

  • Mary is an unmarried, teenage, pregnant mother, engaged to Joseph, who for fear of shame initially considers renouncing her – if he had done so, Mary would surely have been scorned even killed.
  • When Jesus is born there is literally no human place on Earth for him to stay, he sleeps in an animal feeding trough – a manger.
  • At the news of the Magi, King Herod murders young children, not that different from brutal dictatorships to this day. Joseph and Mary, with the infant Jesus, are forced to become refugees.

Christmas is hardly a children’s story!

nativityFor all the right reasons we protect children from the harshness of these details but for all the wrong reasons we forget what Christmas has to say to our adult world as we sentimentalise it. Sadly, that is only too clear when the bad things in life happen: bereavement, illness, redundancy, homelessness, fighting…

I think this is made worse during the Christmas season by the common misunderstanding that we may feel we have to be jolly for a whole month of the year. Do you know how hard it is to be jolly all the time?

I can’t do it!

Have you ever had that experience of groaning when somebody says something like, “Cheer up, it’s Christmas!” Which is perhaps one of the worse things in the world to say to someone when they are down, for whatever reason.

All the anxieties of real life that have no room in our jolly commercial Christmasses but are exactly the reason why God came to us when we think about it:

  • Christmas is God’s love making itself open and vulnerable to us in our troubled world.
  • God makes room for us even when we have no room for Him – just as there was no room at the Inn.
  • Christmas is God’s enormous risk of love, and that is no surprise because at the heart of the story is childbirth – with all the risk, anxiety, and hope that comes with it.

For the writers of the Gospels, Christmas is more than a capturing of childhood wonder, or a season to be artificially jolly – Christmas  is about a future yet to be born.

That is what provides the wonder and the joy. And for those in the nativity who can see that, they discover a magic moment – even though it looks to the rest of the world like just another poor baby whose parents can’t even provide him with a bed for the night.

jurassic-coastThis year I went on a mindfulness course for clergy in Dorset. Mindfulness is a form of ancient meditation increasingly gaining credibility in medical circles. Basically it teaches the art of being in the present moment and seeing everything and everyone potentially as a gift.

In other words, a ‘magic moment’.

Although this might be easy to scoff at, the more I hear on the news of…

  • depression and suicide rates going up
  • domestic arguments and violence increasing over the Christmas season
  • homelessness and mental health issues increasing

…let alone all the other things happening in our world – the more I firmly believe that we need to cultivate the art of discovering ‘magic moments’. We certainly need to do something. Because what we are doing is literally making us ill and killing us, and our world.

For me as a Christian it all begins at Christmas in a manger with a homeless baby and shepherds and magi and angels saying, ‘There…”

“There is a magic moment – see it for all it’s worth – it could just change your life, and help change the world.”

sign-of-christmasHowever much we dress up the nativity with tinsel and fairy lights, we cannot hide the real light that shines from the manger. Magic moments are not just to be discovered in church at Christmas, but in your life in the world – each day.

  • For God loved the world so much that He dwelt among us in human form.
  • His Spirit dwells among us now, and I am sure God provides magic moments for us to discover in the gift of each ordinary day.
  • Just as God did over 2000 years ago in the birth of a child and all that followed from the cradle to the cross, and beyond.

Magic moments – like gifts, inviting us to receive them…

Olympos Games

Olympos Games

“Love was as hardwired into the structure of the universe as gravity and matter.” (Dan Simmons)

Dan Simmons is an American science-fiction writer whose works often include themes of history, fantasy, religion and horror. Simmons is mainly known for his novels such as the Hugo award winning ‘Hyperion’ (1989), ‘Ilium’ (2003), and its sequel ‘Olympos’ (2005).

In these particular works Simmons cleverly interweaves the storylines from more classic writings such as Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in ‘Hyperion, and Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ in ‘Ilium’ and ‘Olympos’. If you are not familiar with any of the works of Dan Simmons then an in-depth introduction of  ‘Olympos’ is provided below by www.thescifichristian.com.

An abiding question in ‘Olympos’ is ‘What does it mean to be human?’

This is a question older than Homer’s ‘The Iliad’. Within Homer’s culture of Ancient Greece that question was not only explored intellectually via epic stories but physically through the Olympic games. Beginning in Olympia 2700 years ago the original games honoured the Greek gods, they were as much a religious and political statement, as well as a sporting celebration of human prowess.

Today the Olympic games may not honour the Greek gods but they can still be emotive when combined with political issues and as such may confront us unexpectedly with the perennial question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’

Hercules

We have a clear example of this in in the current Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before the games began riots erupted in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in protest of the wealth of resources invested in the Olympic games in contrast to the absolute poverty typified in the city’s favelas. Furthermore, the recurring scandal surrounding the drug testing of athletes prior to the games compounds the whole question of the purpose of the games themselves. For critics it literally begs the question, ‘What on Earth are we doing?’ Or more fundamentally ‘What does it mean to be human?’

To some degree ‘Olympos’ is a morality tale reflecting on the human desire to be ‘god-like’. This is a common thread within the genre of science-fiction explored for example in films ranging from ‘Metropolis’ (1927) to ‘Elysium’ (2013), the latter of which was performed literally in the contrasting locations of Mexico City and Vancouver. All of these stories try to address in varying degrees some of the issues we now see played out in the stadiums and streets of Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic games.

However, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics this year have been noted for displaying far more of a social conscience. The darker aspects of Brazil’s history, including slavery, were acknowledged. Concerns over deforestation and environmental issues were clearly displayed within the performances. For the first time this year there is even an Olympic team consisting entirely of refugees. In that sense the games are not trying to be a mere distracting spectacle to ‘appease the gods’ but a focusing point on what we should be striving for as human beings.

In his letters in the New Testament Saint Paul also used the imagery of sporting games as a platform to ask the question what we should be striving for, (eg: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 &  2 Timothy 7:4-8). Being a person of faith requires commitment and perseverance just like that required of any athlete. We will falter unless we remain focused on what we are seeking to attain.

But what is the prize?

christos

Yet again the Olympic games have surfaced many questions. For me they are typified in the statue of Christ standing over the city of Rio de Janeiro watching our triumphs and tragedies unfold as much in the city streets as in the stadium. He stands in silence but his arms are outstretched.

I agree with Dan Simmons. I believe that love is hardwired into the structure of the universe as much as gravity and matter. A love that lies at the heart of everything and everyone and ultimately comes from the heart of God. A love that knows no bounds and that once discovered we cannot help but share in our actions and not just in words. Or as Saint Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

What does it mean to be human?

Whether we choose to explore this question through sport or science-fiction I believe the answer remains timeless and the same:

Go for gold in attaining that Love.

runners

Searching for the Rich T

rich t

I was raised on Rich Tea biscuits.

That is not exactly true but certainly some of my favourite childhood memories are of eating Rich Tea biscuits at my grandmother’s house and the secret she shared with me that they tasted even better when dunked in tea. It is a memory I treasure and one that still prompts me to search for the Rich Tea biscuits when shopping.

Treasure comes in many forms – or what I call ‘Rich T’.

Recently we have been reminded by the news of personal memories captured and shared on social media from 2014. Memories of a common experience across the world that raised money for research into the degenerative disease ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Treasured memories raising ‘treasure’ in what was called the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’.

You may have taken part in this challenge yourself. Whether you did or not the point has been made that what seemed like a trivial gesture via social media actually made a difference. Research done through money raised by the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ has made a breakthrough in the treatment of ALS.

ice fizh

For those of us who are wary of social media, and often for good reason, this is something worth remembering. The point is concisely made by Imtiaz Ali when he writes on the positive and negative effects of social media:

“Another positive impact of social networking sites is to unite people on a huge platform for the achievement of some specific objective. This is very important to bring positive change in society.”

Social media is a mirror which reflects what we choose to treasure – our ‘Rich T’. Whether inward or outward looking, social media provides a statement of what we choose to value.

That theme of choice is a point powerfully made in the film ‘Rush’ from 2013. The film retells the true story of James Hunt winning the Formula One Grand Prix in Japan in 1976. Hunt’s main rival through the film, Nicki Lauda, has to make a significant decision which in essence is based upon what he truly values – winning the Grand Prix or being with the woman he loves.

I am reminded of the words of Jesus when he says:

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

Whether you are a Christian or not I think there is much to think about in this sentence. It is a theme repeated in the parables of Jesus, including the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price and the Parable of the Rich Fool. Both ask a simple question:

  • What are you investing in?

The Romans had a saying, “Money is like sea water, the more you drink the thirstier you become.” Beyond that which provides for basic needs the majority of people in the developed world have a considerable amount of choice. However trivial the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ may be considered, there is treasure within it. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ is a true saying but ask yourself this – is it ice? It may not lie within ice buckets but what will lead to true riches in the choices that we make?

Treasure comes in many forms and social media will only reflect the truth already lying within us. Therefore we only need to ask one simple, timeless question:

  • What is the ‘Rich T’ we are seeking?

Maybe it is time to look from a different point of view.

anglez

Feeding the Two Wolves

2 wolves

There is a Cherokee story of a grandfather teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” said the grandfather to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandfather then added, “The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about this and then asked his grandfather,

“Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather replied,

“The one you feed.”

Perhaps the most concise film introduction to a fictional political thriller that I have seen is ‘The Kingdom’ directed by Peter Berg and released in 2007. The film explores the complex relationship of the United States and Saudi Arabia through the 20th century and post 9/11. Although the film had mixed reviews I think the introductory titles are worth watching. But even before the discovery of oil Western culture has always had a fascination with the Middle East.

Earlier in the 20th century the controversial figure ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ captured the popular imagination in the West via his exploits in the Arabian desert, dramatised through newspapers, books, and films. Michael Asher, a former SAS soldier, once retraced Lawrence’s epic journeys in his book ‘Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia’. At one point Asher writes in appreciation but also critically of Lawrence:

“Although Lawrence genuinely tried to see things from an Arab point of view, and did so more successfully than most, his technique of ’empathy’ remained a method of control. He believed the traditional Arabs morally superior to Europeans because they were ‘primitive’ and therefore ‘innocent,’ but not intellectually so. The reality of his privileged position was stated frankly when he wrote: ‘Really this country, for the foreigner, is too glorious for words: one is really the baron in the feudal system.'”

ships of the desert

Trying to comprehend the turbulent relationship that the West has had with the Middle East may help us to understand how this influences the relationship of Christianity with Islam. Thoughts may quickly race to the period in history known as the Crusades. This will often be a starting point for many people, but it does not have to be the end. For example, amid the strife of the Fifth Crusade a little-known true story of hope can be found.

If you were asked to think of Saint Francis of Assisi you would probably picture a medieval saint, dressed as a monk in a brown habit, and surrounded by animals. Unfortunately this caricature does not reveal the depth of character of this revolutionary Christian who had a profound interfaith encounter with a Muslim during the time of the Fifth Crusade:

In 1219 an encounter took place between a Christian from Italy, Francis of Assisi, and the Islamic Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik-al-Kamil. This meeting took place at Damietta in northern Egypt during the progress of the Fifth Crusade. Over a period of perhaps three weeks, religious dialogue took place between Francis and Al-Kamil, after which time the Sultan had Francis escorted safely back to the Christian camp. It is possible to discern from the writings of Francis after his return from Egypt that the meeting had a deep religious impact upon him in the latter years of his life. It can be said that both Francis and al-Kamil experienced through their encounter what the Christian theologian Bernard Lonergan has spoken of as a conversion into a new horizon. The historical encounter between Francis and the Sultan witnesses to the fact that through religious conversion, it is possible for members of different religious faiths to arrive at a common vision of universal peace and reconciliation.”

Dr Paul Rout OFM Heythrop College, University of London

St Francis and Sultan

Which is the wolf we are feeding?

The story of St. Francis and the Sultan is a salutary reminder not to demonise whole peoples due to the terrible acts of individuals or groups driven to violence. Even before the recent and tragic events in France and Germany in the past week or so, social media has empowered us to provide immediate responses in the public domain to such acts, including those denouncing religion as a ‘primary motivation for violence’ from which we need to be freed.

Although this is an understandable reaction the truth is that motivations often tend to be far more complex and involve a number of factors. This is something I have briefly tried to illustrate in the examples provided in the relationship between the West and the Middle East. And although the British scientist and atheist, Richard Dawkins, has publicly denounced religion, there is evidence that suggests that only 7% of all wars in history have truly been caused by religion.

Totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin in the 20th century have been far more lethal in the eradication of human life for the sake of political ideology. It is generally agreed that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people. It seems we will always find a reason to kill one another, with or without God.

Stalin

I accept it is easy for me in the comfort of my home and cocooned within the security of a western-liberal democracy to make these statements. I also appreciate that political and religious extremism of whatever kind not only exists but demands our attention in the 21st century. But extremism is simply that – most people in the world want to live an ordinary life. That is important to remember and to communicate to one another too.

I believe we are all ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14). Whether that is your belief or not we still have a mutual responsibility to engage with that which appears to be in juxtaposition to all that we are. Whatever our creed, ethnicity, or culture, we have the ability to communicate and potentially co-operate with one another like never before.

But will we?

Which is the wolf we are feeding?

Whatever we say –

our children will live with the answer…

where are we going

Personally I do not believe in fate but in free will.

Choice lies in our hands…

palm trees