Pivotal Points

As a little boy I loved the ‘Space Race’. That time when the USA and the Soviet Union (as it was known then), launched all manner of probes and people into the stars. Now we are on the cusp of a new ‘Space Race’, driven more often by commercial than political reasons. In this past week the world witnessed NASA’s Perseverance Rover, land safely on Mars. Some viewers claim to have decoded a hidden message displayed on the red and white parachute that helped its safe landing. They claim that the phrase “Dare Mighty Things” – used as a motto by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – was encoded on the parachute using a pattern representing letters as binary computer code. What does it mean?

Dare Mighty Things.

24MARS-PARACHUTE

NASA/JPL-Caltech

The phrase, ‘Dare mighty things’, comes from a speech given in 1899 by a former President of the USA, Theodore Roosevelt, who said: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” In short, it is better to have tried and failed, than not to try at all. I wonder what that may mean for each of us in the context of the past year? I wonder what it may yet mean for us this year?

It’s a saying that seems appropriate at pivotal points, whether public or private, that often help us to define who we are. What we stand for. What we aspire to be. We may not go looking for them, indeed if this past year is anything to go by, pivotal points often seem to find us. And it is at a pivotal point in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 8, that we hear Jesus addressing the disciples. To put the words into context we need to remember that chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel is at a pivotal point in itself – it is literally half way through the 16 chapters that make up the book. Is this a coincidence, or is there more to it you might wonder, if you were a literary critic?

And chapter 8 itself contains some pivotal points. It begins with Jesus feeding the 4000 – Jesus is revealed as the true Bread of Life, if you will. And yet, the religious teachers of the day, the Pharisees, still demand a sign from Jesus – acknowledging him only with their indifference and scepticism. Then Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida. So powerful was this incident that, as he travels on with his disciples, that we come to another pivotal moment of the chapter – when Jesus asks them; ‘Who do you say that I am?’ One of the disciples, Peter, proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah. That’s when we might expect the chapter to end – because how do you top that? It’s a show-stopper when Peter proclaims it. A model answer for anyone wishing to be a Christian, in answering Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But there’s more in Mark chapter 8, which ends: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In other words, it’s not enough to answer Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ with the words, ‘You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ Even Peter is rebuked in Mark chapter 8, because he does not want to hear what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And Jesus underlines this himself in Matthew 7:21 where he says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

For anyone who wishes to follow Jesus, the pivotal question is not, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Instead, it’s implied by Jesus’ words that ends Mark chapter 8. That pivotal question is, ‘Who will you be now?’ In other words, what will we do that is different once we recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God? If we do nothing that is different, have we even answered the question: ‘Who will we be now?’

I think that’s why Jesus gives Peter such a strong rebuke, ‘Get behind me Satan!’, which in turn was responding to Peter’s own rebuke of Jesus. Peter’s answer was not enough. Nothing had changed about his expectations, or his actions, although he had given the right answer. It’s a timely question one year on from when the pandemic changed the world we have grown accustomed too. Perhaps, if we’re honest, even taken for granted: ‘Who will we be now?’

Will we be more mindful of anything, or anyone. Will any of our attitudes or habits have changed for the better, or will we revert back to everything we always once were? And collectively, will we be any different in ways that enrich our world both now, and for generations to come? And in our churches – ‘Who will we be now?’ For as Jesus says, just saying ‘Lord, Lord’, is not enough. For too many centuries we have treated being a Christian as though it were a noun. But for Jesus’ early followers it was as much a verb – a doing word. That’s why in the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christians are described time and again as people of ‘The Way’.

In our Lent group this year we are exploring environmental issues in the wake of Covid 19. But one thing we may have all learned from our time in isolation is to count our blessings, and for many of us this has been an opportunity to connect with nature in a way that we have not done before. Many of us, for the first time perhaps, have opened our eyes and ears to God’s wonderful creation, and to the rich variety of animals, plants, and people in it. And we know that whoever we are, we can make a huge difference to help enrich the world.

As I write, we are reminded of this with the funeral of Captain Tom Moore today. A man who, in his hundredth year of life, raised more than £40 million pounds for the National Health Service. His example shows us that there is no reason for us to feel helpless, or fatalistic about the future.

Capt Tom Moore

bbc.com

‘Who will we be now?’ That is the question. And perhaps part of the answer, comes from those other words I have quoted: ‘Dare Mighty Things’. Not just words for astronauts and scientists, but for ordinary people like you and me, as they were first intended. People who can answer them, even after a century of living on planet Earth. They are doing words that shine like the sun, rather than exist in the grey twilight of indifference and scepticism. They are spelt by actions that speak louder than any words. And they will cost something, in order to mean something.

Jesus still asks us today, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And he is answered not just in a minute, by a single sentence. Nor in a lifetime, by repeating a thousand creeds. But in a life prepared to live the answer, moment by moment. There is no other Way.

The Parable of Edward Bear

Edward Bear

This is Edward Bear.

He and I have known each other for over half a century. Edward was made by my Granny when I was born. And when I was young, Edward and I would go on many adventures together. Edward still carries the scars of some of those adventures. Like the hole in his bottom, when he and I sat too close to Granny’s open hearth fire, and a hot coal spat out and burnt him! But Edward’s okay and that was a long time ago.

Edward didn’t always look as he does now. My Granny didn’t make Edward any clothes for him. Nor did she give him the big smile he has now. But I loved him, and he and I were inseparable. Then I grew up, and had a family of my own – and that was when Edward went missing! Now, moving house can be tricky – especially when you move more than once – and where I thought Edward was, he was not. Can you imagine how sad I felt?

Years passed and then came 2020. And a strange, rollercoaster year it has been, hasn’t it? Many of us have learned to become more digitally connected, but in some ways, perhaps we have experienced feelings of being disconnected too.

During last summer I got around to some of those getting ‘A Round Tuit’ jobs – that at other normal times maybe we never quite get around to – do you know what I mean?  Well for me it consisted in clearing out the loft and the garage. And what a clear out it was! No wonder I hadn’t quite got around to it before. And it was then that I found Edward in an old suitcase. A bit dirty, and a bit squashed, but it was him. Immediately I picked him up, brushed him off, and brought him out of that cold, dark place, where he had stayed for so many years. I brough Edward back into the daylight – on one of those glorious sunny days, many of us enjoyed in the summer of 2020. My mother in law soon got to work on Edward. She washed him, restored him, made him some new clothes; and gave him a brand new, beaming smile.

So what does all this have to do with anything, you might be wondering?

Well, you see – Edward is you and me. Each of us has been lovingly and wonderfully made – by God. Each of us has our own adventure story to tell – just like Edward. Each of us may know what it means to be lost, or just feeling a bit squashed! For adventures are seldom risk free. And because of that, each of us may even know cold, dark, places – just like Edward.

But just like Edward, our story doesn’t end there. For God sent his only Son into the world to find us, and to restore us into a wonderful relationship with Him. Jesus didn’t start his quest in fine palaces, but in an overcrowded town – and his very first bed was, of all things – a manger. Jesus ventures into the cold, dark, places to find us, with a light that cannot be overwhelmed by the darkness. And when Jesus finds us, he wants to restore us – just like the people we hear of in the Bible stories of when Jesus was a man. It’s a restoration that may well leave us with a beaming smile, just like Edward’s. And it’s a restoration that can begin today – wherever we are, however we may feel, and however long we have felt like that.

I am sure 2020 has been a very different year for many of us. But the message of Jesus remains the same. That God is seeking to restore us, in a wonderful and loving way – to be the people God knows we can be. We can trust in God’s longing to restore us, but more than that, we can help God in restoring others too. It doesn’t have to take much, just an act of random kindness.

Edward is just a toy of course. But his is more than just a toy story. When I look at him now, I see that it’s our story. And that perhaps the one thing God longs for all of us to have one day, is a smile, just like Edward’s. A smile that comes in this instance, from a restoration plan that began long ago, in a manger and ended on a cross.

But of course, it doesn’t end there…

Brief Encounter(s)

I want to talk about brief encounters. Not ‘Brief Encounter’ the 1945 classic British film scripted by Noel Coward and starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. But the brief encounters we experience and that Jesus experienced in the gospels. Brief and potentially life changing. They may not be romantic, like the classic film, but they certainly can touch deep feelings. Brief, rollercoaster encounters, just like the roller coaster music by Rachmaninov, the theme music for ‘Brief Encounter’ at Noel Coward’s request.

We begin with an extraordinary encounter that Jesus had with a woman who was very distressed, weighed down with a burden that many of us may relate to. Her little child was sick. In the gospel (Mark 7:24-36) the little girl is described as being possessed of a demon, and no further explanation is given. Whether it was a spiritual distress that she was manifesting with some kind of physical and psychological side effects, we do not know. The point is not the affliction itself but the burden of the mother, and where she should turn? She had numerous obstacles to face apart from the affliction of her daughter. What are the obstacles we are told in the story?

1. GEOGRAPHY

Tyre and Sidon were Roman seaports, places full of ‘foreigners’. And this woman is of mixed ethnic origin from that area. You only have to look at the British press about Brexit to see that issues of border and race are still hot topics for human beings today.

2. HISTORY

To this day the Herodian mountain fortress of Masada represents the Jewish struggle for autonomy culminating in its siege by the Romans in 73CE. But even at the time of Jesus and predating him there were zealous movements for independence such as the Maccabean Revolt. Then the Jews fought against the Seleucids. Tyre and Sidon were on the wrong side of that revolt, fighting not with the Jews, but against them. People can have long memories, and the Jews had long memories about Tyre and Sidon.

3. RELIGION

Not only that, but this Syro-Phoenecian woman was a Gentile, not even a Jew.  At this time Jews referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs’. And there is also a fourth obstacle, she’s a…

4. WOMAN

Not only Judiasm can be found wanting when it comes to world religions modelling questionable attitudes. In this instance every Jewish male in the first century prayed a prayer on a daily basis that gave thanks to God that they were not created as a woman. Now perhaps we can just begin to imagine how difficult it was for this woman to come to Jesus? We can imagine some of the feelings, understand some of the obstacles, that are behind this brief encounter, when Jesus says, “It is not right to cast the children’s bread and give it to dogs.”

I cringe when I read this.

I know I am not the only one who gets uncomfortable because there is a great amount of debate amongst biblical scholars about what exactly Jesus meant. Some will say he was trying to test her. Others will say we aren’t translating this quite right, Jesus really called her a little dog, more like a puppy. But everywhere else in the culture of the time being referred to as a dog was a great insult. So what are we to make of this? What we may have here is a story that anyone who knows the Old Testament would understand. This is the story of God who changes his mind through the heartfelt petitions of one person.

There are several stories like this in the Old Testament: Abraham pleads to God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Moses pleads to God for the Israelites in Exodus 32. And following in that vein in the gospels we have this Syro-Phoenecian woman pleading to Jesus, the Son of God, for her daughter. Heartfelt petitions that eventually move Jesus and result in the girl’s healing. Maybe many feel God doesn’t really listen, let alone change his mind. But the Bible very much has that understanding. God’s relationship with people changes and progresses – just as Jesus’ attitude to this woman changes and progresses as a result of this brief encounter.

passion-3111303_1920We have no problem at Christmas in Jesus being born and obviously learning to walk and talk as any child would. We learn through our lives and maybe it’s at this point that Jesus learns no longer to call Gentiles dogs as he had clearly been brought up to by his kinsfolk? We must consider why Jesus would lead this mother through a humbling and difficult process before granting her request. While his response does seem harsh, the lesson of persistent faith displayed through a time of testing is a common theme in the Bible. We also know that Jesus’ mission does go to the Gentiles. For Jesus, could that mission have become clear in his mind from the moment of this brief encounter?

We will never know.

We are told instead of another healing in the seaport of Sidon where Jesus heals a deaf and mute man. The healing echoes Isaiah 35:5, Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” Mark probably includes this encounter to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets. The first brief encounter Jesus had in Tyre with the Syro-Phoenecian woman, shows that he is not the Messiah that Israel may have expected. His mission is wider, and maybe Jesus sees this for himself in her response and the obstacles that she was prepared to overcome. Jesus appears to change his attitude, just as God in the Old Testament appears sometimes, to change His.

And healing begins.

With the deaf, mute man, it begins with the Aramaic word Jesus said and preserved for all time by his followers – ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘Be Opened’. Which represents not just the healing of the man but a command  – Be Opened. But opened from what? I wonder if you have ever experienced a time when an attitude either changed or did not change – and healing either happened or did not happen? Perhaps Mark includes these stories for this purpose, to challenge us? We may never have called a person a ‘dog’ but what have we done? What attitudes have we, either formed or inherited, or passed on? What do we need to be opened to?

human-rights-3805188_1920These questions are all the more pertinent in our present age of brief encounters through social media. The brief encounters we have with people, real and virtual, can be either destructive or creative. The choice is ours as to what they may bring, just as it was for Jesus. From the gospels we know what Jesus chose, and at great cost to himself. Whether we consider ourselves to be religious or not, his choices not only defined himself but the history of the world. But what will we choose in our brief encounters?

That is the question only we can answer, and our answers will not only define us but the world that is yet to be.

 

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.

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…

 

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

Dead Man Walking: Lazarus Unbound

cross & resurrection

I grew up with David Bowie.

What I mean is, I grew up listening to the music of David Bowie coming from the bedrooms of my older siblings.

Like other popular songwriters, the lyrics of David Bowie permeate the English language. Perhaps the most recent being to ‘Major Tim’ by the media in reference to the British astronaut, Major Tim Peake. Many will know that this nickname refers to ‘Major Tom’ in the lyrics of David Bowie’s classic song, ‘Space Oddity’.

But perhaps David Bowie’s most haunting song was his last, ‘Lazarus’. The song is a moving reflection on death from a performance artist coming to terms with his own.

The name Lazarus is in itself a reference used by artists through the ages to refer to a man who died and was brought back to life by Jesus in the gospel of John 11: 1-44. The name ‘Lazarus’ is forever linked with one who has come back from the dead. It is a strange gospel story at first reading. What does it mean?

First, let me say I think there are often many levels to stories:

  • Have you ever come back to a favourite story and seen something new in it?
  • Not because the story has changed but because you have?

For years I have read this story at only one level. But more recently I have had an epiphany. I now read it at a further level.

We are Lazarus.

We are Lazarus when we hear the voice of the one who calls us from the tomb. This story is the story of our coming to life from death now, not just in a future event. We are to see ourselves in Lazarus, whose name, a shortened form of Eleazar, means “God helps.” He is from a town whose name, Bethany, means “House of Affliction.” So God helps one who suffers from affliction. John’s gospel often uses the physical realm as a metaphorical pointer to the spiritual realm.

I think this story reminds us we can experience death in many ways. We will die physically, but we can also die emotionally, psychologically, relationally, communally, or spiritually. I am often reminded of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, who sat in her ragged wedding dress – grave clothes if you like – amid the cobwebs and the darkness of her home. Miss Havisham was in a ‘tomb’.

The character of Miss Havisham warns us that we all have the potential to create tombs. As individuals we can create them in our homes. Collectively we can create them in other places. Death is more than a physical experience and we use the word to express more than the ending of physical life.

dragonfly

I volunteer for a local schools project called REInspired. A few days ago I was discussing with some primary school children the subject of ‘death’ as a part of the national Religious Education syllabus. We reflected on the story of ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’, by Doris Stickney, a story that describes a transformation consequently resulting in a new form of life. We thought for a while what the surface of the water represented in the story and the waves caused when the waterbug breaks through to become a dragonfly.

Grief is sometimes described as being like ‘waves’. And we all need time to grieve. But I am convinced that we are not created to stay in tombs forever – in this life or the next. For Christians that is the simple but powerful message of Easter.

One of the most significant Christian responses that can be shared in this world with other human beings is the response to death. Not in a superficial way but acknowledging all the emotions involved and yet providing a message of something more. This is powerfully conveyed by Sister Helen Prejean in her true story ‘Dead Man Walking’ written in 1993, which subsequently became a film of the same name in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The film not only explores death, but issues of anger, hatred, forgiveness, and redemption. In other words, what does it mean to be human in the face of death?

However, there is another question. Not only what does it mean to be human when encountering death but what does it mean to be human beyond it? From mummification to cryogenics, human beings have sought to defy death through history. Cybernetics now poses the interesting question of whether human consciousness can be transformed into digital data and hence become ‘immortal’?

The ‘mind, body, spirit’ debate continues to remain elusive. An example of this is ‘The God Impulse. Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain?’ published in 2011 and written by professor of neurology, Kevin Nelson, which concludes that spiritual experiences lie somewhere between consciousness and REM sleep. However the book can neither affirm nor deny whether these spiritual experiences are ‘real’. Furthermore, some profound questions arise in other ways:

  • Is there a human soul or are we simply a collection of electric impulses of the brain that may eventually be ‘downloaded’ on to a silicon chip?
  • Is disembodied intelligence classifiable as human?
  • Is immortality the pinnacle of human existence?

The Biblical tradition does not point us toward immortality, which is a Greek philosophical concept in origin. Instead it speaks of life transformed before God, even after death. Resurrection and immortality are not identical.

sol

The gospel story of Lazarus may help us understand the concept of resurrection if we explore the imagery in the story a little further. When Jesus eventually arrives at the tomb in the gospel story he asks, “Where have you laid him?” The crowd reply, “Lord, come and see.” It is hard not to flashback to chapter one of John’s gospel when the would-be disciples were seeking Jesus, asking, “Lord, where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.” Life with God is signified with invitations into the new and unknown.

At the entrance of the tomb Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The Greek verb kraugazein’ occurs six times in John’s gospel. It is used four times for the shouts of the crowd to crucify Jesus. The shouts of the crowd bring death to Jesus. But Jesus’ shout brings life to Lazarus – and to us.

A voice calls at the edge of our tombs. We are to substitute our name for that of Lazarus and live – freed from our grave clothes. For what does Jesus say at the end of this story?

“Unbind him and let him go.”

There are many forms of death. I know what it is like to be in the ‘grave’, and maybe you do too. But a voice spoke to me, through differing voices, and in time… I was unbound. For we are created not for death, but for life and to share that life with others, in this world and beyond.

Life unbound – come and see…