Sunday Sermon – A Kinder World

Outside the local government offices, a politician exits the council chamber and makes his way to his parked Nissan.  On his way, he almost trips over the prone form of a vagrant down on his luck, penniless and hungry.  Thank God we have that bill going through committee to clean up the streets; such an eyesore, and an imposition on citizens just wanting to mind their own business he thinks to himself.  Shortly after this, a pastor emerges from the mega-church complex over the road.  He has a lunch appointment, and heads briskly to his awaiting BMW 7 series, thankful for his part, that his journey to the car will not require him to pass anywhere near the ailing body on the sidewalk.  Lastly, a woman dressed unseasonably warmly in the garb of a practicing muslim walks toward the unfortunate in her path and she can be seen to give him something, then using her phone, it transpires that she calls him a cab and in a few minutes, he is making his way to a nearby hospital, where his needs for treatment can be met.

This modern take on a story told by Jesus is testimony to an attribute much demonstrated and yet, in my experience, not often stressed today.  Personally, I have been deeply challenged concerning the demonstration of this precious commodity, kindness.  The thing I noticed as I meditated on the way it is emphasized in the life of Jesus, was the universal nature of both giver and receiver.  The story above could involve a homeless unfortunate, or a well to do citizen who had been robbed and left by his attackers.  The original story was, in fact, the latter.  However, from the start, Jesus himself demonstrated his kindness in the provision of wine at the wedding in Canaa.  These were no needy recipients, simply friends and family celebrating a wedding where wine consumption had been under-estimated!  Later, he protects the dignity of a prostitute about to be stoned to death and kindly releases her from her fate by shaming her executioners.  He even surprises his own followers when encouraging a woman who anoints Jesus himself with perfume and washes his feet with her tears.  A simple act of kindness with no other purpose than to enhance the dignity of the one served.

The many acts of kindness and stories demonstrating humanity reaching out to touch others seem to be a major theme of the life and teachings in these new testament accounts.  And yet, I find myself constantly challenged that this is not my default behaviour towards others, nor does it seem to be the prevailing culture of today’s church.  The problem with kindness is that it requires an inner attitude of preferring others to ourselves.  We live in a world of selfies, self-fulfillment, finding our own destiny, the American dream and protecting ourselves from an ever more threatening world.  Kindness withers when the weeds of self-preservation take hold and encourage us to protect ourselves, our property, our privacy or whatever else we hold dear and inviolable.  The problem is that true community and a thriving culture of kindness relies on self taking second place whilst our trust in those around us flourishes despite the many failures we experience.

And there lies the real secret of a culture of kindness.  In the film ‘Paying it Forward’, a young Haley Joel Osment sparks a series of acts of kindness, all of which depend not on receiving something back in return, but, instead, produce a chain reaction of kindness that spreads further as it impacts each random recipient.  At the heart of real kindness, is the lack of expectation in reciprocity.  The simple sense of passing on something that benefits the object of kindness for no other reason than to augment the sense of well-being engendered.  It seems to me that, with enough momentum, a viral epidemic of kindness could very well transform our families, neighborhoods, and communities.  And perhaps that is why Jesus majored on the subject.  His willingness to suffer and demonstrate this in his own life, whilst being repaid in quite a different manner is the ultimate example.  A preacher friend of mine often used to say that Jesus is the kindest person he knows.  I have a feeling the world we live in might be quite different if this became the prevailing culture.

Thought Provoking Thursday – The Unborn Child

So, today, I read a very moving story about a mother who tried to procure an abortion in the UK but when the procedure failed, and she finally gave birth to her little boy, Jack, she admitted to seeing him as a ‘beautiful gift’ and she ‘wouldn’t change it for the world’.  It is a strange story of blunder and exacerbating mistakes whereby she chose to undergo a surgical procedure to have her baby aborted because, with two children already, and barely making ends meet, she felt that a third would just push her over the edge.  The procedure failed and after a further two months without a period and multiple positive pregnancy tests the midwife finally agreed to give her a new scan.  Sure enough, the baby was still alive and growing in her womb.  Faced with a much more dangerous procedure at a much later date, she finally decided she had no choice but to go ahead and see the pregnancy through.

Now, I realize this subject is fraught with emotional landmines and if I seem to be supporting a certain stance, I will only alienate those who seem to support the opposite stance.  However, this issue is just not that simple and what struck me about this story was the conclusion and the message it carried to any woman potentially considering abortion as an option.  Let’s get real here, with the best will in the world, abortion is not about to be made illegal again either in the US or here in the UK, though there is still a battle raging over legalizing in The Republic of Ireland, largely because of the influence of the Catholic Church.  I am not sure the criminalizing of abortion would actually achieve the aims of those who support such measures.  One thing I do know is that before abortion was made legal in the UK in 1967, the number of women who died during illegal procedures was entirely unacceptable.

In the US, many evangelical Christians voted for George W Bush on the basis that he was supportive of making abortion illegal, but after eight years in office, there was no change to the law.  What is unfortunate on both sides of the Pro Life, Pro Choice debate is the lack of understanding for those with whom we disagree.  When pressed, many supporters of the right to choose abortion would say they believe abortion is morally wrong but should still be legal.  The majority of the pro-life camp believe that it is morally wrong and that legislation should somehow impose that moral imperative.  The problem with this stance is that we opt for a democratic system of government, and the majority of those who live in the US for instance, support legal abortion.

Going back to our story above, what struck me were two important observations that bring me to the thought I want to share today.  Firstly, when our mother was being counseled about the procedure to remove her baby, the term that was used was ‘pregnancy material’.  To me, this is a deliberate masking of what is actually about to be performed.  At the very least, a pregnant mother should be well educated about such an important decision and terms such as ‘pregnancy material’ and ‘foetal parts’ are just euphemisms for the real live baby that is to become.  I am only suggesting that education on a surgical procedure should be honest and open, particularly in the light of this story, where the mother concerned is now absolutely committed to raising her new son, Jack.

On the other side of the coin, it would serve those who oppose the practice of abortion to truly understand the plight of the pregnant woman who feels compelled to make the decision to abort.  In this story, this was not a case of willful lack of care, but a genuine mistake in forgetting to take the pill.  Faced with the financial commitment involved, she was overwhelmed and felt she had no choice.  Clearly, she will still need to support this third child along with her partner and I have a feeling she will manage to make a way.

The very positive outcome of this story illustrates the rather ambiguous issue presented by this debate.  Here was a woman who was intent on destroying the potential life inside her because she just could not cope with the implications.  In the end, she embraces her new born son as a beautiful gift.  I for one would urge a greater level of understanding on both sides, as this issue is not going away and we would do well to engage in meaningful dialogue instead of the vitriolic stance engendered by many on both sides.

Sunday Sermon – A Short Thought on Riches

Short thoughts today as on location in Portugal giving time to being with family and having very poor internet!

I used to think that being rich would mean I could have the things I desired.  In my wildest dreams, I owned that red Ferrari and my own plane and luxury yacht.  Of course, I never really thought this a realistic ambition and in truth, when I acquired my first ever car, an old Singer Gazelle with rusted wings for exactly £100, I remember the thrill at sitting behind the wheel.  It had a walnut dashboard for heaven’s sake!

Many years on, having been through times of relative material comfort and times when bankruptcy stalked at our door, I have come to realize that being rich has nothing to do with how much I own.  Material things offer a chimera of satisfaction that is both fleeting and shallow.  No sooner is the coveted item acquired than the next best version is available and just out of reach.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love new stuff, I love to experience new things.  I did really enjoy that old Singer Gazelle until the rust took over and I transferred my affections to the shiny white Triumph that came next!

But as the years have progressed and I’ve flown that plane, driven that car and visited that far flung place, I realize these things are all relative and their impact on my well-being fleeting.  I doubt many reading this would disagree, but how often have I fallen for the allure of the next best thing.  So what makes me feel rich and never ceases to satisfy?  In my experience, it is not defined by acquisition, but by my capacity to give.  How does that work?  It works when my own life and being is replete with that which can be shared with others.  It can be material when that material enhances the lack of another, it can be time given, meals shared, thoughts expressed, comfort extended, lives transformed for the better.  It can be small in the eyes of those who judge success by numbers or it may impact way beyond what we can touch or see.  But in the end, it feels like true riches.

Ironically, this kind of life cannot happen if we have nothing to give, and this paradox means acquisition is an essential element.  Now, though, my acquisition has a purpose beyond myself.  Having the resources to share with those around us brings true satisfaction.  Those resources can be material, but often the most precious gift is time coupled with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual capacity to enhance the life of another.  Paul seems to be pressing this very point when writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, “Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.”  Understanding these thoughts is one thing, living this way is another.  But the deeper satisfaction of the times when I do give to others grants a sense of being rich that comes from nothing else.

Thought Provoking Thursday – The Pied Piper of NYC

There is an old legend concerning a Pied Piper who visited the town of Hameln in Germany.  According to the story, the townsfolk of Hameln had a problem with rat infestation and asked the piper to help them deal with it by playing his magic pipe.  When they refused to pay for his services, he used his magic pipe to lead all the children of the town out and away from their parents as a form of retribution.  I can’t help likening this old legend to the emergence of a certain Republican presidential candidate.  I hesitate to name him, as his pipe is playing so loudly, I really don’t need to tell anyone reading this to whom I refer!

I do not, however, wish to write about the man himself, but the very thought provoking issue of those millions who are clearly supporting his tilt at the White House, and specifically those who profess to be ‘Evangelical Christians’.  More than ever, I feel justified in the decision I made, a few years ago, to stop using the nomenclature ‘Christian’ in describing my own faith.  Unfortunately, the word suggests certain patterns of thinking and political positions to those looking on from outside.  Although many of my friends and plenty of those I read about distance themselves from the teachings of Mr Trump, there are seemingly vast swathes of ‘Christians’ who support him and his vitriolic stance on many issues.  This I find puzzling and at least a little disturbing.  Apparently, I am not the only one.  Shane Claiborne is offering free copies of his book ‘Jesus for President’ to anyone completing an essay in less than 500 words on how their faith in Jesus induces them to vote for Mr Trump!

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand some of the reasons why Donald Trump attracts many to his cause.  For some years now, more and more people have become deeply disillusioned with the political establishment.  I find it quite heartening that so many people see through the silky smooth maneuvering of most career politicians.  I see their aspirations for something better being projected on the figure of a non-conformist maverick like Mr Trump.  A similar phenomenon is playing out on the other side of the partisan divide with Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.  What is even more puzzling is the clear preference, especially among many older white evangelicals, shown to a man who insults women, folks with disabilities, immigrants and Muslims.  This is in preference to the ‘evils’ of proposing more social equality as espoused, for instance, by Mr Sanders.  I use the word ‘evil’ with some tongue in cheek affectation.

And this is where the Pied Piper comes in.  It seems to me the tune that is performing its magic on so many ears in the predominantly white ‘Christian’ culture of the bible belt in the US is the one that is echoed albeit somewhat raucously by Mr Trump in his more extreme pronouncements.  Trying to put partisan allegiances aside (impossible I know), have we not created an inherent set of beliefs amongst the Christian community that favors our own self-advancement, our own comfort and prosperity above the needs of the world around us?  How many of the songs we sing, the books we read, the sermons we listen to these days concern our own inheritance, destiny, comfort and healing.  And then we are surprised when this focus on self is taken to extremes by standing against those who purportedly threaten our comfort and way of life.

I would humbly suggest that the message of Jesus (after all, Christians were named after Jesus!) focuses primarily on meeting the needs of those around us, welcoming the stranger, being kind to one another and preferring others over ourselves.  There are so many examples of this approach in both the sayings and the actions of Jesus that I can only suggest reading all 4 accounts of the life of Jesus.  I guarantee you will catch the drift.  I realize that many of you reading this would have no truck with the Pied Piper of NYC but I appeal to those who find themselves attracted to his divisive agenda to re-examine what is best for the community we live in and the increasingly global village to which we belong.  Whether you profess faith in Jesus or not, I fear for us all in a world where self-interest rules and love for our neighbor is merely an afterthought.

Topical Tuesday – Its A New Day

New DaySomething new and topical happened here in the UK yesterday.  Something that doesn’t happen very often.  A new printed newspaper was launched called ‘The New Day’.  The introduction to the paper on the inside first page states, “They’re launching another newspaper?  But we have the internet now.  They must be daft.”   I must admit, I did wonder.  But as I read further and then proceeded to read through the print, it became clear that this is indeed something different.

To start with, they are claiming that they will have no political bias, which must be a first.  Then, in another bold and refreshing gesture, they have the audacity to promise the following: “And we’ll have good news not just bad.  Like life.”  Furthermore, their stories are intended to interest readers, not to impress other journalists and they intend to make everything in the paper either useful or beautiful.  Ideally both!  The main article on the front page, but actually placed inside the paper is about the thousands of children, as young as 5, caring for adult parents and relatives.  As if to live up to the initial promise, this article itself sports a balanced mix of good news and bad news.  The heart-warming stories of young kids doing the washing and cleaning the house for their sick parents is weighed against the lack of support and care given to these household heroes.

Further in to the paper, we have a full page spread on the European referendum.  On the left is the case for Britain staying in the European union, and on the right, the case for leaving.  For those of my US readers who are not aware, on June 23rd, the UK will hold a referendum to decide their future with regard to the European unity project.  Finally, I have to grit my teeth and read about Man City beating my unfortunate Liverpool in the League Cup.  Even their account of the game is pretty fair, and that coming from a very biased reader!

If you are looking for an in depth source of analysis or a repository for journalistic awards for the written word you may be disappointed.  However, there is something refreshing about being able to read the news in 30 minutes from front to back and derive a good feel for what is happening both positive and negative around the country and further afield.  As someone who will only be in the UK part of the year, I am a little disappointed I will not have access from the internet, but I will enjoy seeing its progress on our visits here.

I sometimes wonder just how well informed we are.  The traditional media outlets are clearly influenced heavily by their political allegiances, though at least they are fairly clear on where they stand.  The problem with the internet is the lack of verifiable sources and the sheer weight of information and opinion.  As a follower of Jesus, I believe it is vital that we learn as much about what is going on around us.  Why is that important you might ask?  I believe much of the church, especially in the US, is represented by two diametrically opposed philosophies, neither of which is really good news for the world.  On the one hand, there is a large group of ‘Christians’ who believe this world is going to ‘hell in a hand basket’ and the sooner we die or are raptured out of here the better.  Then I observe the other camp, who believe that the good news mainly concerns a kind of aspirational self-improvement program granted to those who speak the name of Jesus.

The real good news, I believe, should feature a world that is being transformed for the better by a bunch of self-sacrificing radicals who believe it is better to serve others than themselves.  The church was meant to be a revolutionary force for good that is impacting the sort of people and their stories that inhabit papers like The New Day.  I am challenged daily by how little difference I am making, but being aware of what is going on with my fellow human beings is inspiring me in some way to think about where I might serve more effectively.  We need reliable sources of information to educate ourselves on what is happening around us and how we can be good news in it.  I wish The New Day success in their inspiring new venture.