Searching for the Rich T

rich t

I was raised on Rich Tea biscuits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What are you investing in?

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

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

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

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

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Feeding the Two Wolves

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

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

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

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

The grandson thought about this and then asked his grandfather,

“Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather replied,

“The one you feed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Paul Rout OFM Heythrop College, University of London

St Francis and Sultan

Which is the wolf we are feeding?

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

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

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

Stalin

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

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

But will we?

Which is the wolf we are feeding?

Whatever we say –

our children will live with the answer…

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

Choice lies in our hands…

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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.

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.

ordination

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

300

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 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’.

The Meme is the Message

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Meme – a noun

  1. an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
  2. an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase,”The medium is the message”, meaning that the form of a communication medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. I believe digital media is shaping our consciousness in a way as revolutionary as the printing press half a millennia ago. That particular medium changed the world in a way that the mindset of handwritten manuscripts and oral wisdom could not foresee. Now as printed newspapers and books continue to decline in circulation are we experiencing another symbiotic revolution?

In its simplest terms we can say that books, radio, television, and film medium, are a collection of communication devices in which the reader, listener, or viewer, are normally assumed to be passive recipients. The internet however, often encourages the recipients to be active participants, interacting via the medium of the internet with the message.

The medium of print changed the world and inevitably changed the Christian Church. What are the implications of the current transition from print to digital medium for the Christian Church in the 21st century? In 1996 Mark Dery wrote a prophetic book called “Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the end of the Century.” At the beginning of the book Dery says this:

“Escape velocity is the speed at which a body – a spacecraft, for instance – overcomes the gravitational pull of another body, such as the Earth.” More and more, computer culture, or cyberculture, seems as if it is on the verge of attaining escape velocity. Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 pronouncement that electronic media have spun us into a blurred, breathless “world of allatonceness” where information “pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously,” sometimes overwhelming us, is truer than ever.”

Digital media is not merely replacing books but shaping our pedagogies, our world views, and possibly our consciousness. We live in the age of the ‘meme’, a phrase first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe small pieces of culture that spread from person to person by imitation but with the possibility heightened in the digital age for more rapid distribution and adaptation. The digital meme defines our post-modern condition filled with irony, interaction, and anxiety. Thanks to the explosion in social media the meme is now becoming the message communicating our current existential condition – but is it enough? I would say, “Virtually…”

What is required is nothing less than a new theology, even a ‘cybertheology’. Encouraging signs of such a Christian theological framework in the digital age can be seen in research centres such as CODEC at Durham University. Biblical literacy and discipleship are two key areas of exploration there. I would also argue that national ministerial training to provide a basic understanding on the subject of evolving social media and the world wide web should be as integral as preaching and pastoral care in the Church of the future. To neglect this would be to neglect the context of the ‘marketplace’ we are now in as Christians.

If we are tempted to berate such ideas then we would do well to remember the language that the Christian Gospels were originally composed in, Koine Greek, ‘ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος’, or “the common dialect.” They was the everyday language of the ordinary citizens of the Roman Empire.

  • If ‘the medium is the message’ then we have to ask ourselves what is the common dialect in the context of evolving social media in the 21st century?
  • How can it convey the Good News told by a 1st century itinerant preacher from Nazareth who first used the medium of parables, or stories, to proclaim the Kingdom of God?

However Jesus of Nazareth is understood it is clear that he was an effective, popular teacher and preacher who communicated in the way he did at least in part because the ordinary people felt alienated from the religious institutions of their own day. Reflecting on this I am reminded of the words to a hymn, “There’s a Spirit in the air…”, and I believe it is time to leave the ‘house’ once more, as happened on the day that is sometimes described as the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Church – Pentecost. (Acts 2: 1-11)