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

 

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’?

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

Neighbours

It all began on Facebook.

In Minnesota, USA, a young African-American woman was describing through live video feed how her boyfriend had been shot and killed by a white American police officer who had stopped them initially for a faulty break light on their car.

It escalated into the murder of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper during ensuing peaceful protests.

In less than a week it was captured in what some describe as an ‘iconic’ photograph by Jonathan Bachman going viral on social media, depicting the contrast between the lightly clothed Ieshia Evans and heavily armoured police in Baton Rouge.

At the heart of these related events a timeless question emerges:

Who is my neighbour?

Social media is nothing more than a mirror on human nature. For all our advancements in communications technology it seems we still have a deep and sometimes dangerous fear of those different from ourselves. We have an unparalleled freedom to communicate which also provides a platform to amplify our fears of all that is ‘other’.

handy apps

Who is my neighbour?

This question was once posed to Jesus who responded with what is called the ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’. Jesus did not invent parables but he did use them to great effect. A parable is literally something “cast alongside” something else. Jesus’ parables were usually “cast alongside” a situation in order to illustrate a truth.

The phrase, ‘Good Samaritan’, is still used and generally understood to mean someone who goes out of their way to help someone. That being said, the parable of the Good Samaritan can be misunderstood. It may be reduced to a story of showing kindness or we may think of the volunteer organisation, ‘The Samaritans’. But in Jesus’ day Samaritans were hated and feared.

Who were the original Samaritans?

Samaritans were related to Jews but due to historic events were racially different to some degree and accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Torah. They once built a temple on Mount Gerizim to rival that of Jerusalem. But about 200 years before Jesus was born, a Jewish reformer destroyed it. Then around 6 BCE Samaritan activists scattered human bones in the temple in Jerusalem, desecrating it. There was open hostility. Most Jews practised a kind of apartheid to avoid Samaria ‑ a convention Jesus broke (John 4:1-42)So let’s revisit this story to discern what Jesus really said about who is our neighbour.

easter dawning

What does it mean to live a good life?

In essence that is the question that is asked of Jesus which we are told in Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37) prompted him to reply with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Loving God and neighbour is the verbatim reply of the questioner based upon Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 but it is clear it is an unthinking response. This is underlined by his next question, “And who is my neighbour?” At which point Jesus tells the parable.

In the parable a man travels on the Jerusalem to Jericho road. Jerusalem is 3,000 feet above sea level.  Jericho is 1,000 feet below sea level.  This is a steep road.  Its geography provides ideal hideouts for robbers. Part of the route is nicknamed ‘Ascent of Blood’ and was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Unsurprisingly the traveller falls among robbers.  But they didn’t just rob him.  They stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead.

What is going to happen next?

I once knew a person who coined a phrase, ‘PLU’, meaning ‘People Like Us’. In essence the first two people to find the victim are ‘People Like Us’: respectable, God-fearing people, who obey the law and practise common-sense. In the context of the story the religious law forbade Jesus’ contemporaries to touch a body that to them probably appeared to be dead. Worse, it may even have been a trap on this notorious road, similar today to people stopping to assist an individual in distress and then being mugged by the rest of a gang in hiding. Therefore both PLU’s in the story pass the victim by.

What would you do?

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Will anyone do what is needed?

The idea of a Samaritan being a good neighbour to a Jew would stun those listening to Jesus. This is the punch line. The one who stops and helps is a Samaritan – neighbours are not by default those who are PLU’s but those who dare risk compassion. The question, “Who is my neighbour?” is answered by Jesus that it just might be:

“The last person you would want living next door to you.”

The one to love is the one we are not loving. From Samaria to Baton Rouge: if Jesus were to tell us this story today, who would be the Samaritan for us?

Who is my neighbour?

The world still longs for an answer in more than just words. Like the victim in the parable lying on the road, needing more than a prayer. There is only one answer and always has been – from our neighbourhoods to our ‘Global Village’:

Be the neighbour you long to meet.

Or as Jesus said at the end of his story, “Go and do likewise.”

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The Somme in Time

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I wonder if you have a favourite Doctor Who?

Mine is John Pertwee, with his yellow vintage car, ‘Bessie’. It is amazing to think that this famous Time Lord has been on our television sets for over 50 years.

We only have to double that number to 100 to bring us to the date being remembered today – 1st July 1916.   In the United Kingdom and beyond, this date is being remembered in services and silence as the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

The British Army suffered huge losses – 19,240 on the first day alone. The tragedy of the Somme marked something of a ‘sea change’ in the British nation’s attitude to ‘The Great War’ or World War One. Arguably the war that continues to define our modern age. One reason being the enormous, industrial scale, of killing that took place.

I have already quoted some numbers and they can be hard to comprehend. But the soldiers who died in World War One on the British and Commonwealth side alone was brought home to me in the poppies seen around the Tower of London in 2014. A vast field of red ceramic flowers, 888,246 poppies, each representing a life. I saw it with my youngest son and together with the crowds of visitors we found it humbling, moving, breath-taking.

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Trying to take in the scale of this may feel like like trying to comprehend time itself. For some years I was a chaplain for a local branch of the Royal British Legion. What helped me comprehend some of the significance of Remembrance Sundays and other events were personal stories amid the vast statistics of destruction.

One of them was Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ – a name fondly given to him by the soldiers. Armed only with a packet of cigarettes and his faith, he dwelt among them. I am not promoting smoking but the cigarettes helped relieve their battle stress, was a rare comfort along with his listening ear, and Woodbine Willie helped the soldiers cope with unimaginable horrors each day.

I believe it was for them something of a ‘communion’. A special word for Christians. But a word that simply means, ‘common unity’ or ‘deep fellowship’. Woodbine Willie shared that fellowship in the trenches, and made God known through what he shared. Eventually Woodbine Willie was awarded the Military Cross with this citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”

One story – amid a vast field of memories. One that reminds me we can make a difference in what may feel like a sea of chaos and sacrifice. There are so many stories that could be shared, but there is not enough time. Silence is probably best, even if it is only for 2 minutes. But 2 minutes can feel like a lot, just as 100 years can feel like very little. Time is relative.

We are not Time Lords. We cannot change history. But we can learn from it. That is the message I once shared at a Remembrance Sunday service where there were many young people and families present. Remembering these events is not about glorifying them but trying to avoid the terrible mistake of repeating them. That is why we should never forget the sacrifices made.

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We have no time machine to make things right, but we can share what Woodbine Willie shared in the trenches – faith.

  • Faith in a better world that can come through the chaos of war.
  • Faith in one another that our only hope is in working together.
  • Faith that good can finally overcome evil, even if that involves terrible sacrifice.
  • Faith in God – the Lord of Time.

We cannot change the past 100 years, but we can learn from it and faithfully shape the future. ‘Tomorrow’ is a precious gift that the words of the Kohima Epitaph remind us, has been entrusted to us by those who gave their ‘today’.

Thanks to them the future is ours. Time is in our hands. In that sense we can be ‘Time Lords’. So let me just say this: “Travel well.”

Being with the First People

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“The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” (Josef Stalin)

“Love the stranger: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Perhaps it was my father’s stories of his wartime experiences in India and Burma, (now Myanmar). Or perhaps it was growing up in a small market town in Hampshire. Wherever it comes from I have often sought to experience other ways of looking at things.

While training for ordained ministry I was fortunate enough to experience the hospitality of the Afro-Caribbean and Sikh residents of Handsworth in Birmingham. The form of community I encountered through the different Sikh Gurdwaras led me to rethink the type of community that can be expressed in a local Christian church.

Years later while on study leave in Canada and the USA I was privileged enough to receive the hospitality of the people of the First Nations, or the First People, from Vancouver to Toronto and from Washington DC to Virginia. Their collective experiences and their relationship with the Earth, (something recently conveyed to some degree in ‘A World Unseen’, a documentary on the making of the Holywood movie ‘The Revenant’), led me to reconsider what it means to be truly connected to creation as a Christian.

A vivid example of this relationship became a personal experience for me when I walked the streets of Toronto with a Cree elder and Christian minister named Andrew. As he picked the plants growing through the concrete pavements and described to me their value as medicine I could not help but be moved by this deeply spiritual man who was helping me to ‘read the land’ in an urban landscape. Before we parted company we exchanged gifts. I gave him a signed copy of an ordination Bible I received from my bishop. He gave me an even more personal gift of a beaded cross made by his mother when he was ordained and began his Christian ministry.

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Sadly, Andrew was also a man with scars. Like many others, he was taken from his family at a young age and went through the ‘Indian’ residential school system which existed in Canada from the mid nineteenth century to 1996. The ‘assimilation’ programme of these schools was a systematic attempt by the government and the Christian Church to remove the traditional cultural identity of the pupils that quickly degenerated into abuse and even death. I visited the ruins of one school and saw for myself the distressing messages of the children scratched on the outside walls.

As you may imagine, Andrew was a man who struggled being a Christian in the face of these experiences – but he did and not only merged them but conveyed his experiences, his heritage, and his beliefs in a powerful way to me and to his kindred in Toronto.

History warns us that when we dehumanise people or treat them as subhuman for whatever reason, prejudice, or ideology, it almost inevitably leads to genocide. In our present era we are in no less danger of this terrible trend. It is true that the Bible has been interpreted with  a mixture of messages, justifying everything from slavery to genocide, and yet we should remember its prevailing message is ultimately one of inclusivity and unconditional love.

In our technological world in which we possess infinite varieties of communication, it is tragically ironic that we can still fear and despise all that is ‘other’ than ourselves and more than this, use social media to amplify these fears to a global degree. I understand I am but one voice in this global village. But with that voice I choose to do the one thing I can do as a man of faith, and that is say a prayer which comes from a fusing of cultures and expresses the hope that all can be seen to be one in the eyes of God, our Creator:

Creator, we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us for our visit within your creation. In Jesus, you place the Gospel in the centre of this sacred circle through which all of creation is related. You show us the way to live a generous and compassionate life. Give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever. Amen. 

(‘A Disciple’s Prayer Book’ – A publication of Congregational Ministries Cluster, Native Ministries and Gospel Based Discipleship, The Rev John Robertson, New York)

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Cyberbullying

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Bullying seems to have been around for a long time. It was Thomas Hughes who immortalised one of the most famous school bullies in the form of ‘Flashman’ in “Tom Brown’s School Days” published in 1857. Flashman ironically became the focus of a series of novels in the late 1960’s and following underlining that there may well be an ‘attract’ ‘repel’ syndrome to bullies also. Some of us may believe that bullying is almost a right of passage that we have to persevere with and get through, others may live in the shadow of bullying to this day. Wherever we are, we will all have a view and an experience of bullying.

However, in the age of the world wide web bullying has taken on a new form in the guise of ‘cyberbullying’. The playground now covers the globe and affects people of every generation as the website www.bullying.co.uk reveals. In the United Kingdom the children’s charity, the NSPCC have revealed statistics that in 2015 they provided almost  26,000 counselling sessions related to bullying or cyberbullying. It provides acute distress to victims and their families alike. Cyberbullying also adds the new dimension of ‘global display’ to a very old problem. The Christian Broadcasting Network has said this about cyberbullying:

“Still more Christian parents, quoting Jesus, tell their children to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) when bullied. What’s remarkable is that when Jesus was slapped on the face by the guard of the High Priest, He did not turn his face so the guard could slap him again. Instead Jesus responded, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:19-23) Jesus not only defended himself with words, He confronted the bully and demanded an answer for his unjust treatment.

Since Jesus does not contradict himself, we are given a valuable lesson into what he really meant. He wants his followers to not return an insult for an insult. Jesus, explained C.S. Lewis, does not want his followers to be neither motivated nor consumed by revenge when something wrong like bullying is done to them. But, and this is a key insight into a faith-based response to adolescent bullying, self-defense is not the same as revenge. This fundamental truth is at the heart of Lewis’ essay, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” A child can defend himself while at the same time not abuse or demean another person.”

Jesus often stood in favour of the defenceless and the outcast and in our global playground of cyberbullies and cybervictims it is important to start with that fact. In the midst of the chaos of World War Two the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” There is more we can do as Christians than say to ourselves or our children to ‘turn the other cheek’. Love sometimes has to be expressed in assertive, but not aggressive, ways.

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The response to cyberbullying will require our own individual judgment. Fortunately for parents and other careers of children the internet does provide a partial solution to this online problem in the form of Childnet International, a charitable organisation specialising in resources for children and their carers to help tackle cyberbullying so that no individual has to deal with this phenomenon on their own.

Without wishing to condone any behaviour it also has to be remembered that to some degree cyberbullies are victims too and that their freedom from such behaviour is part of the solution to an ailment that has afflicted humanity for a long time. Can we overcome this digital ‘Goliath’ together? Like David in the original Bible story, we would do well to remember that belief in God provided David’s incentive for self-belief, (which is often the first casualty in any form of bullying), and therein perhaps lies part of the answer for people of faith in confronting the spectral giant of cyberbullying. (1 Samuel 17)

Cyberbullying will prevail for as long as we have the internet. Like so many other things that humans have invented the technology is not in itself the problem, instead it points toward something much deeper within the human soul and helps to provide a means to express it with potentially devastating effects. If you or someone you know are a victim of cyberbullying then below is a short film on taking some practical steps in not letting it define or defeat you: