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’.

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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.

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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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What’s in a Name?

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Steve Jobs was once asked where the name for Apple Incorporated came from. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs written in 2011, Jobs is quoted to have said:

“I was on one of my fruitarian diets…I had just come back from the apple farm. It sounded fun, spirited, and not intimidating. Apple took the edge off the word ‘computer.’ Plus, it would get us ahead of Atari in the phonebook.”

Earlier in the book the author deflates one of the myths associated with the Apple name:

“At one point I emailed to ask if it was true, as my daughter had told me, that the Apple logo was an homage to Alan Turing, the British computer pioneer who broke the German wartime codes and then committed suicide by biting into a cyanide-laced apple. He [Steve Jobs] replied that he wished he had thought of that, but hadn’t.”

What’s in a name?

A great deal as the above stories illustrate. From the baptisms I have conducted I know that parents sometimes go to great lengths to choose a name for their child and according to the Bible the first job given to the first human being, Adam, was to name the animals. (Genesis 2:20) Even Jesus was not averse to giving his followers nicknames such as ‘Peter the Rock’. (Matthew 16:18)

Names therefore have the ability to be creative, inclusive, affirming. But names used negatively have the ability to do the complete opposite and become destructive, exclusive, undermining. Names have power to build up and break down. From pet names, to nick names, to rude names – we learn the power of names from the playground upwards.

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In the Bible names were also understood to have power and to know someone’s name was in some way to have power over them. This may sound strange but if we think of how acutely aware we all are in our own age of ‘identity theft’ then perhaps this idea may not seem quite so unusual after all. Names existed not only in the physical but in the spiritual realm. And it is with that idea in mind that we come to a story often called ‘The Gerasene Demoniac’. (Mark 5:1-20 & Luke 8:26-39)

Significantly this story doesn’t ever tell us what the man’s real name was. I’m sure the Gerasenes had some names for him. Like ‘that crazy guy who lives in the cemetary.’, or ‘demon possessed.’ Such possession is part of common experience still in some parts of the world, but in the West it is more difficult for people to accept. However, I find that more people believe in the supernatural, whether they are religious or not, than may admit – it’s just that it is generally one of those things we don’t talk about. Behind that probably lies the fear that we may be made fun of, illustrated by such comedies as ‘Rev’.

So let’s picture the story of the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’.

Like some horror movie the story begins with the disciples crossing a stormy sea and nearly drowning. They reach Gentile territory, that is non-Jewish, (ie) people not like them but instead to be avoided, even feared. A passage possibly referred to is from Isaiah 65:2-5. Here are characterised the outcast of God as living in tombs and eating pig’s flesh, so it is interesting to wonder whether the gospels want us to draw conclusions as to what sort of person the demoniac is. ‘Beyond the Pale’, might be a more modern phrase?

This is a foreign and dangerous place, where the demoniac lives howling among the tombs.  Jesus commands the demons to come out, and sends them into a herd of pigs that stampede over a cliff. For the man they were possibly a visible sign of his exorcism. All stuff that even if it does not sound scary by today’s horror standards – does at least sound strange.

Quite rightly, people struggle with this story. Some have said there might be political undertones relating to the occupation of Israel by the Romans. We should take note of the demons being named “Legion” (a legion being a Roman term for 6,000 soldiers), suggesting a symbolic defeat by Jesus in the stampeding pigs who run off the edge of a cliff? If you wish to explore the political overtones of this story an excellent starting place is ‘Binding the Strong Man’ by Ched Myers’.

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But of course we may have other names for the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’ today. Names like ‘Paranoid Schizophrenic’. And that in some ways may be even more difficult to address than the supernatural. Mental illness is one of the last social taboos in this country – which is ironic because at least one in four of us in the United Kingdom will suffer a mental health issue in our lifetime.

Some of the stigma that surrounds mental health issues is probably connected to the fact that behaviour is often altered and no visible physical signs can usually be seen, such as in the case of a broken leg or someone who is blind. This may disturb us deeply because we may associate this with a loss of ‘self’. Personally I have found the slow disintegration of Hal’s mind, the computer in the classic film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, far more moving than perhaps it was originally intended to be.

The relationship between mental health issues and the new challenges presented to us due to technological change is worth noting at this point. ‘iDisorder’ is the title of a book and a theory by research psychologist, Dr. Larry Rosen. Rosen explores the common desire for many people to constantly remain ‘connected’ through their smartphones and other communication devices. In the final chapter of ‘iDisorder’, Rosen says:

“…many of us are on the verge of an iDisorder as our daily interactions with media technologies may be imbuing us with signs and symptoms of one of many psychological disorders… Luckily for us, our brains are constantly changing. Neuroscientists call this ‘neuroplasticity,’ which is basically a constant process of strengthening and weakening neural (nerve cell) connections in the brain as a function of our experiences…. Given that our brains are inundated with stimuli all day long and that the digital content currently available in our world is the equivalent to everyone in the world tweeting or blogging constantly for a century, neuroplasticity is a brain-saver.”

Are we in a healthy place?

The ‘Gerasene Demoniac’ is not some arcane story from the past, indeed it may have much to say to us today. Let us remember that instead of calling this poor man names, Jesus asks, “What is your name?” Let’s think about that for a moment. Everyone was spending a lot of time calling the man in this story names. Yet they didn’t bother trying to name his problem. Jesus was able to see past the labels, name the real problem, then help the man.

The uniqueness of Jesus was in his understanding and practice of healing as revealing and releasing God’s creative and loving Spirit to act upon the moral, mental and physical illnesses of the people and the community around him. Even today, we spend a lot of time labelling people. We name people all the time, whether we admit it or not. But it is good to remember the first thing that Jesus asks is, “What is your name?”

So just what is in a name?

When dealing with demons it’s everything. Those who have dealt with demons of every kind, including addictions will tell you that admitting and naming the problem is half the solution. Naming the demon is the first step in controlling it and being freed from it. Too often we cannot name our own demons – we need help. Naming demons means recognising we are not in control, that we are not as strong and self sufficient as we wish to portray we are – or feel we are expected to be.

What’s in a name?

I don’t fully know – but I need to think about it the next time I’m tempted to label someone. The name of the illness does not become their name. ‘Legion’ may not have remained as the man’s name. And just think what a significant thing it is to change your name. How often do we do that? Usually when something life-changing has happened. Healing then becomes more than the restoration of mental or physical health. It is nothing less than a new dignity and identity. A reconciliation within the self and often with God, that acts as a sign of hope.

What’s in a name? New life – potentially.

What’s your answer?

Name it.

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.”

Dead Man Walking: Lazarus Unbound

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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300

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Is it right to share your faith?

No, I don’t think it is.

Not if that faith involves bitterness, judgmentalism, fear, or any other dysfunctional behaviour. Why share that? But, if faith involves openness, humility, forgiveness, justice, love – isn’t it wrong not to share that? So the real questions are:

  • “What is my faith?”
  • “Is it a faith worth sharing?”

At a neighbouring church the congregation were once asked to provide their own answer to these questions in 300 words. 300 words is not very long. It is the time you might spend waiting for a bus, or ordering a coffee, or reading a blog! It is a window of opportunity to share with another.

  • Can you encapsulate your faith in 300 words?
  • Not quoting one of the historic Christian creeds, but your ‘creed’?
  • If you can’t say what you believe in 300 words, can you say anything?

This last question may seem facile but statistics indicate that our attention spans are shortening in the digital age, it has even been said that an average attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish.

So, if you are still reading this then please consider the following:

300 words is a small number amid the sea of words that surround us every day. But some may recall that 300 Spartans made a huge difference to the battle of Thermopylae, a story retold in literature and popular films ever since. Or think of it like this, 300 words can be like the mustard seeds Jesus once talked about (Mark 4:26-34), in what are often described as the ‘parables of growth’ for the Kingdom of God. Small seeds, and yet, who knows what growth may come?

  • Will 300 words change the world?
  • Do seeds?

“Yes” is the answer – in the sense that each can bring life.  So, take heart – for you only have to pay attention now to my 300 words that I will share. Admittedly they come from a Christian perspective because that is who I am, but instead of over-analysing what I say, as you read my words, perhaps think about what yours might be – whatever your faith or none. Why? Because it seems we do not have time to attend to much more. 300 words might not be much to look at, but then neither are mustard seeds, are they?

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My 300 Words

I am a Christian because I believe there is more to life than what we can own.

There is more to people than a chance group of cells.

We have a soul that seeks fulfilment.

We look for fulfilment in all sorts of ways. But ultimately it comes when we realise that it does not depend upon us becoming bigger, by acquiring more stuff, power, or fame. It depends upon us becoming smaller and seeing ourselves as part of a bigger picture, like a piece in a jigsaw, or a thread in a tapestry.

If God exists, as I believe, I think that is how God sees us. And when I listen to the words of Jesus in the Bible, or think about what he did, that confirms what I feel.

Becoming a bigger person can happen when we learn to give things up.

To let go.

It is in giving that strangely enough, we receive and grow. Sacrifice sometimes makes us stronger, not weaker. Strong enough to face all our fears, even the fear of death.

Death comes in many forms.

There is physical death. But I believe in emotional, relational, social, communal, psychological, even spiritual death. And I believe Jesus can save us from all these ‘deaths’.

Why do I believe this?

Because he already has, in some ways, for me.

And that is enough for me to believe he will do more.

Being a Christian is not about reading books, or being impossibly good, or listening to boring sermons.  It’s about being alive.  And recognising that this life in all its forms comes from God whose generosity is bigger than death in all its forms.

We are not here to be endless consuming machines.

We are here to be alive and to share life with others generously…

The Mass Effect of Games

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I blame it all on Star Wars!

Before the arrival of video recorders (whatever they were?), before dvd, blu-ray, or digital downloads; through the rose-tinted spectacles of a childhood summer, I can remember watching Star Wars (now episode IV: A New Hope), four times in our local cinema.

Science-fiction has been a prominent feature of my life since before the days I reached two numerical digits in Earth years – as you can tell! Through the genre of science fiction possible futures are presented before us. No clearer has this been to me than in the ‘Mass Effect’ video game franchise initially launched on the X-Box 360 games console in 2007. On the new or ‘next’ generation of video games consoles the latest instalment of ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ is eagerly awaited.

Mass Effect as a gaming experience was presented as a trilogy, which was music to the ears of one nurtured on the original trilogy of Star Wars (just to confuse you that is episodes IV-VI). Apart from the innovative third-person gameplay the significant and lasting memory of the Mass Effect trilogy was the possibility of playing a ‘good’, ‘bad’, or morally ambiguous character within the role playing features of the game. This presented endless possibilities of replayability but also the freedom to explore the subtle and complex experience of the consequences of moral choices. This trend continues in ‘Witcher 3″ and ‘Fallout 4’ to name just two in this video-game genre. It appears video gaming is becoming more morally complex and more sociable with the growth of online co-operative and multiplayer gaming.

Games form part of the human need to escape, explore, dream, and control. They can be traced back thousands of years to the beginnings of chess, and earlier. Human psychology does not need to help us to comprehend the significance of games in human development, we know, and we know that development and need for play does not end with childhood.

And yet there is an aura of respectability that surrounds any admission in the love of playing chess, for example, that is totally absent in the same admission of playing video-games. This is unfortunate as it is commonly catalogued that the video gaming industry continues to out-perform the Holywood film industry and that gamers vary so much than the commonly considered teenage young male playing alone in his darkened bedroom. Perhaps it is time to look again at how we understand play as a generation comes of age that have only ever known the world of the internet.

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As the attendance in traditional Christian church worship continues to decline and become more exclusive to the general population’s experience in British post-industrial society so the numbers in video gaming continue to grow and become more inclusive. Although there is no direct correlation and this would be too simplistic, there should be a recognition that the desire to explore and play runs very deeply within the human soul. Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 14-15)

In some ways play has never sat easily with the Protestant Christian work ethic and yet it is God-given. The sabbath is a key concept in the story of biblical creation, and Easter it can be said, of ‘re-creation’. Dr.David Naugle  provides an excellent summary and critique on this subject in his work, ‘A Serious Theology of Play’ and concludes by saying:

“If God is a God of play, and if human play is, indeed, rooted in divine play, then we, as humans, ought to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness. This is both our gift and our responsibility in a often-serious world. Whatever forms of “play” you may pursue—whether it be music, reading, sports, furniture restoration, gardening, photography, or drag racing—do it heartily unto the Lord, as a reflection of a rarely recognised aspect of the divine nature. Your life will be an answer to H. L. Mencken’s stereotypical puritan who worries about people having fun, and your example will testify to the Friedrich Nietzsche’s of the world that, indeed, there is—and that you know—a God who dances.”

We need to look again at play in all its forms. The good news is Christian churches are. One experience I can testify to is the value of ‘Messy Church’ which is growing within Christian churches in the United Kingdom. It holds a very simple yet refreshing message, ‘God creates from mess’ – would that more of our post-industrial, even ‘regimented’ forms of Christianity could hear this message. Play gives permission to explore, experience, learn and comprehend with another area of the brain and yet the very phenomenon of ‘Messy Church’ underlines that many of us do not associate the concept of ‘church’ with the fundamental human need for ‘play’.

We are creatures that cannot help ourselves but play and that can take many forms that can be encouraged. Playing cards can be done in a healthy or an unhealthy way, so can physical sports like football, and even video gaming. None are intrinsically bad but three questions do emerge:

  • As communications technology continues to make all of us increasingly more available for work how can we utilise that same technology to give us permission to play in healthy ways?
  • What should Christian churches be doing or saying to help people engage in play and re-creation, something which can be argued to be God-given?
  • Play is a good medium for providing human contact and interaction. What are healthy forms of play in the digital age with a generation who have only ever known the internet?

Fortunately some are engaging with these questions and those with eyes to see and ears to hear are beginning to reassess and appreciate the mass effect of games.

The Age of ‘Global-Gnosis’

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“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”   (Edmund Burke 1729-1797)

I have always loved history. I was fortunate enough to be inspired by a very good history teacher at school and perhaps that is where the spark of interest began. In many ways I am struck by how the history of early Christianity is being mirrored in our own technologically driven world today.

Take Gnosticism for example. Perhaps the best way to describe Gnosticism would be as a ‘religious philosophy’ that could integrate into various religious traditions and did so in Christianity in the first centuries of its existence. The essential tenets of Gnosticism could be summed up briefly as follows; the material world is under the control of evil. A ‘divine spark’ is trapped within human beings and that alone is capable of being rescued. This rescuing, or salvation, comes through a secret knowledge, ‘gnosis’, which is part information but also part experiential. ‘Gnosis’ is not only truth propositions but also self-knowledge.

In the ancient world Gnosticism was so pervasive that it led to the early Christian bishops drawing up our present canon of scripture in the Bible, excluding texts for example, from the more recently discovered Nag-Hammadi library, such as the Gospel of Thomas. They also formulated the Christian creeds, such as the Nicaean Creed, which are repeated every week in churches around the world to this day. It is hard to generalise but Christian Gnosticism led to certain moral abuses and had more in common with pagan mystery religions than the historical Jesus. For these and other reasons the response of the early Christians to Gnosticism was reasoned information, which it can be argued, still pervades traditional Christian liturgical worship and theology.

But we have a problem. The human experience of God requires more than reason. This is not to downplay reason, indeed within Anglican theology it is said to form part of a ‘three legged stool’ which consists of ‘Scripture – Tradition – Reason’, classically defined by the 16th century English theologian Richard Hooker.  Later the Age of Reason was an eighteenth-century movement which was a reaction to the mystical religion of the Middle Ages and affirmed the scientific disciplines of the Enlightenment. But those who study history will know that historical trends often go back and forth like a pendulum. The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment provided many great things and personal liberties but faith is more than a set of rational propositions about God.

In part I believe we can frame these historic movements as ‘successors’ of the early Christians to define Christianity into a set of propositions that could be contained within an institutional faith that could sit easily with the governance framework of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine and his successors. But reasoned argument about God cannot satisfy the human thirst and experience for the numinous of God. Putting it simply, creeds and the formal liturgies they are placed within cannot guarantee a spiritual encounter of the divine, they can only define what is believed, or more negatively, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. But this is nothing more than ‘club membership’ and fails to meet the needs of the majority, something that cannot be ignored in this country as the inherited ‘Christendom’ model of Christianity continues to unravel and decline.

New statistics confirm the continuing spiral of decline of church attendance or even acknowledgement of membership to the traditional Christian denominations of the United Kingdom. People are voting with their feet and do not want to be considered as even nominally ‘in’. This is a sea change. Or perhaps it can be said that Gnosticism never really went away? It’s attraction remains within the Christian Church even though those who may profess something of it in their understanding of God may never have heard of the word. The debate will continue and not only within theological circles about the human desire for ‘experiential’ knowledge. For example, in a recent article ‘The Information Age is over; welcome to the Experience Age’, commenting on the changing use of social media, Mike Wadhera has written:

“Facebook is an Information Age native. Along with other social networks of its generation, Facebook was built on a principle of the desktop era —  accumulation. Accumulation manifests in a digital profile where my identity is the sum of all the information I’ve saved —  text, photos, videos, web pages….. In the Information Age we represented ourselves with this digital profile. But mobile has changed how we view digital identity. With a connected camera televising our life in-the-moment, accumulated information takes a back seat to continual self-expression. The “virtual self” is becoming less evident. I may be the result of everything I’ve done, but I’m not the accumulation of it. Snapchat is native to this new reality. Many people think Snapchat is all about secrecy, but the real innovation of Snapchat’s ephemeral messages isn’t that they self-destruct. It’s that they force us to break the accumulation habit we brought over from desktop computing. The result is that the profile is no longer the centre of the social universe. In the Experience Age you are not a profile. You are simply you.”

Wadhera argues that we are moving from an Age of Information to an Age of Experience, I would dare to take this further and say an Age of ‘Global-Gnosis’. This is a time of mass information as never before but the irony is that something more is craved, and that ‘something’ is experiential knowledge. I believe we can see this in many ways, from the changing trends in holidays to cater for ‘extreme or adventurous’ experiences to the growth in popularity of meditation practices such as mindfulness, which seek to place us directly in the present moment or the ‘now’.

In 21st century Britain the continuing rejection by the general population, not only via church attendance but membership of traditional Christianity, underlines that people do not want church liturgies to inform them about God but to provide them with an experience of God. And it is more complex than merely suggesting that Charismatic or Catholic liturgical practices fulfil this experiential need. Information, which may include modern translations in worship, are not enough. The human soul in the 21st century still hungers for the numinous that liturgies coming from the era of rationalism cannot seem to fulfil as people continue to vote with their feet and walk away.

A new apologetics is required. One comfortable in the digital age of ‘Global-Gnosis’. Traditional orthodox engagement may not be enough to meet this new millennium of creativity and dialogue that is typified in the memes of social media. As the gulf widens between the Christian Church and the social-milieu within which church communities find themselves, there is a growing need for boldness in creativity and inculturation of the Christian Gospel as there once was in the early centuries of the Church and its missionary movements, such as Celtic Christianity within these isles.

Such an engagement may possess risks but may also provide an impetus to help discover a different dimension of the creative Spirit of God for the new millennium. Otherwise the alternative currently developing for the traditional Christian churches in the United Kingdom is to sadly acknowledge that they may inevitably become ‘history’.

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:

Virtual Dementia Tour

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“You can’t really understand a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”

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?