Iona is a place of invitation
Iona invites you to be at one
both land and sea
both animal and human
Iona is a place of invitation
to love and be loved…
Iona is a place of invitation
Iona invites you to be at one
both land and sea
both animal and human
Iona is a place of invitation
to love and be loved…
‘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:
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:
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?
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:
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:
‘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:
Christmas is hardly a children’s story!
For 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:
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.
This 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…
…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.”
However 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.
Magic moments – like gifts, inviting us to receive them…
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.
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:
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:
Maybe it is time to look from a different point of view.
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’.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
We have no time machine to make things right, but we can share what Woodbine Willie shared in the trenches – faith.
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.”
“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.
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)
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.
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:
This Cherokee proverb came true for me this week when I was invited to participate in something called the Virtual Dementia Tour by a local residential care home manager. Designed by P K Beville in 2001 the tour bus is designed to help you experience what it is like to be a sufferer of dementia. It is based upon years of research and the tour literally puts you in their shoes.
More effective than participating in a two hour lecture , this seven minute ‘virtual reality’ tour bombards the senses and leaves you with a unique and valuable experience that will make a lasting impression upon you. Your hearing, vision, sense of touch, and even the very soles in your shoes are all impaired. You cannot perform basic tasks. I used to picture dementia as an experience perhaps like being in a fog – I now know it is more like being in a whirlwind for many sufferers. I was moved.
Deliberately given instructions in a terse and impersonal manner by an unnamed ‘tour guide’ the tour also helps you to understand how sufferers can feel treated and in that sense helps you to empathise with the often frightening situation they are placed in through their condition.
Affecting more than three quarters of a million people in the UK alone and expected to rise to two million by 2050, dementia is the ‘D’ word that has replaced the formerly unspeakable ‘C’ word of cancer in many ways in our society. As used to be the case with cancer sufferers a BBC news programme only today has reported that over two thirds of dementia sufferers feel as though their life is over when they are diagnosed. Shame, embarrassment, and fear still surround this disease for sufferers and relatives alike. And that stigma will continue wherever there is resistance by the majority in walking in the shoes of the marginalised.
Research continues and there is even a mobile app called ‘Sea Hero Quest’ to assist in continuing studies in understanding dementia and how to counteract the disease. My own personal recommendation would be that the Virtual Dementia Tour Bus not only be made available to residential care workers and others in the caring professions, but in other community organisations and secondary schools. There is such a prevailing stigma about being a dementia sufferer, that I think all generations could benefit from walking in the shoes of the afflicted, even if only for seven minutes.
Finally, as a Christian I think I have learned a valuable spiritual insight that applies more generally to everyone who may come across my path: If I am not prepared to walk in the shoes of others how can I help them walk with God?