Thought Provoking Thursday – To Hell With It!

Gehenna!  This is the word used by Jesus commonly translated in our english bibles to the word ‘hell’.  In fact, it is a real place, the valley of Hinnom, or historically, a place where criminals were dumped after execution, where children’s bodies were left after sacrificing to Molech.  It is also recorded by some historians as the rubbish heap of Jerusalem, where fires were always burning and stray wild animals would gnash their teeth and roam menacingly, scavenging off the dead bodies and garbage!  So I guess this is where we will end up if we are stupid enough not to heed the warnings and resist the temptation to raise a hand at the next evangelical altar call!

Forgive me for a little tongue in cheek irreverence here, but really, what do we imagine is being talked about by Jesus here, and what has this done to the message of ‘good news’ purportedly spoken about by Christians all over the world.  Frankly, I have always struggled with the idea of a God who would resign a beloved human being to an eternal torment and agony just because they were not impressed by the message at an evangelical rally.  I remain equally bemused by a ‘heaven’ strewn with harp playing winged cherubs where all we do is sing worship songs all day.  If they are as musically mediocre as much of what passes for creative worship in today’s churches, I am not sure I can stand it!

The thing is, I think we have perverted the heart of the message of Jesus, who, the bible says, came to save the whole world and whose modus operandi was based on love and acceptance, not fear and rejection.  Do I believe in the concepts of heaven and hell?  Absolutely.  But, as with so much of the bible, it all comes down to how you interpret what you read.  Simply substituting the word Gehenna for the concept of ‘hell’, is potentially missing the point of what Jesus was alluding to.  Many believe he was actually referring to the judgement that would befall the city of Jerusalem and the Jews that became a reality in the devastation of AD70.  I think it extends beyond this historical meaning, and takes on a metaphorical significance alongside a similar interpretation of the concept of ‘heaven’.

I don’t believe that either heaven or hell are actual places, but much more significantly, they represent our standing with God and depict a state of being.  Jesus, after all, actually encouraged his disciples to pray for heaven to be brought down to earth, implying the well-being, justice, love and peace could be a ‘state of existence’ here on earth.  Likewise, many of us have tasted what it might be to live in a ‘hell on earth’ when things fall apart, relationships crash and our world caves in.  Those who do not subscribe to a faith in Jesus would not ascribe either of these alternatives as having anything to do with a relationship with God.  But Jesus certainly came to draw people into a whole new way of living that involves denying self for the sake of loving others that few would deny brings its own unique rewards.

My biggest problem with the way that ‘hell’ has been interpreted amongst those who profess faith in Jesus is the underlying message of fear and exclusion.  Even amongst those who do not openly preach a fire and brimstone message, the implication that not responding to the evangelical message means eternal suffering and torment is far removed from the way Jesus is seen to deal with those around him.  What he offers, most strenuously, is reconciliation, love, peace and joy from the positive impact of knowing a loving, caring God.  This God who did not just send his message but became his message in a move that brought ‘heaven’ down to earth and gave us all hope for a better world and a better future from which no one is ultimately excluded.  Let’s face it, the scripture tells us he overcame death.  I can only assume that means this no longer limits anyone from enjoying what he came to give to all mankind and that life continues beyond the realm of this world.  That life can be graced by heaven or plagued by hell before or after the temporal divide.  I realize this is controversial, but I believe that my relationship with God is a journey embraced through love and acceptance and not limited to a one off decision made before we die.

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Topical Tuesday – Its Not Politics!

Well, things were very busy over the weekend, hence no Sunday Sermon, it should be back this week.  For now, I have been struggling with the whole political debate, if I can even call it that.  I listened to someone recently who advocated taking an interest in politics because the meaning of the word originally focused on how we organize our living together in community.  Unfortunately, what passes for ‘politics’ these days could better be qualified by the word bad – ‘bad politics’.  No wonder so many people don’t want to talk about what is happening.  You know the situation at the Christmas dinner table and someone makes a loaded comment about the state of the country, the nationality of the President, the evils of big corporations etc etc.  This either elicits silence or a somewhat heated opinion and sighs from those who want nothing to do with it.

The problem I always face is being branded with a certain political persuasion because I happen to believe, for instance, that guns should be restricted, or we should make sure the poor and disadvantaged are taken care of.  On the other hand, I believe in the free market and I think the government should not interfere with my rights to buy raw milk.  I guess that makes me a liberal, libertarian capitalist.  The problem for a follower of Jesus like myself is that I am guided by principles that often transcend political boundaries and yet, it seems, most people are determined to put me in a box so they can define what I believe.  In a similar way, I have had to move away from using the moniker ‘Christian’ for the same reasons.  If you profess to be a ‘Christian’ in the bible belt here in the US it is automatically assumed that you will hold certain political views that frankly, I find difficult to reconcile with the teachings of Jesus.

So, where does that leave me?  As I have wrestled with this issue over the last few weeks, it seems clear that the established political camps have imposed their thinking on the population at large and caused a fault line to exist that dictates allegiance along party lines.  The irony of this scenario is highlighted by the political leanings of those who regard certain issues as more important than others.  So, the bible belt Christian, who has been largely hijacked by the Republican party with the lure of anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage as the moral issues of the day stands distinct from the African American Christian communities, who largely vote democrat on the basis of civil rights and a much higher proportion of the poor in their communities.

At the root of this divide, it seems, is the issue behind most of the failings of our current political scene, and this is not limited to the US.  Self interest.  It seems to me, that good politics is characterized by an overriding interest in the good of the whole community.  Where this no longer operates satisfactorily is when the needs of a thriving community are subsumed by the interest of the individual.  I remember the elder George Bush being elected back in the late eighties on the back of his famous promise ‘Read my lips.  No new taxes.’  To me, this summed up the appeal to self-interest over the needs of the community as a whole.  When it seems that politicians themselves are more interested in their own success and rise to power.  When the desires of the financial contributors trump (forgive the pun) the interests of the electorate and the electorate are, themselves, more concerned with protecting their own individual rights, then good politics is doomed to fail.

How would it look if, when we prepare to vote, our perspective would be guided by the needs of the community, by social justice, harmony, tolerance and kindness.  Whether Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Labor or whatever political hue, what if we were to vote for the candidate who best demonstrated a desire to promote these qualities in the communities they serve.  I realize this sounds idealistic and impossible to imagine.  However, the recent popularity of surprise political personalities, whatever your views on their personal beliefs would seem to highlight a dissatisfaction with the current political scene.  We stand at a crossroads, where forces of hatred and exclusion are vying for the vacuum that is emerging in our current disillusionment.  I sincerely hope and pray that those who value the rights and needs of others and their whole community will be willing to relegate self-interest as they consider for whom they vote.  This is, after all, is our opportunity to determine a better place for our descendants to inhabit.  We can bury our heads in the sand in disgust at bad politics, or we can help determine our own legacy and look past the labels and vote for what is best for us all.

Thought Provoking Thursday – Our Reaction to Belgium

Sometimes I will read an article and think – I couldn’t possibly put it better and besides, many professional writers do a much better job than I could do.  I had intended to write a piece about the sad events at Zaventem Airport or more accurately, our reaction to those events and then I came across this article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian and decided to let his article do the talking.  I hope you find it as thought provoking as I did…The Scariest Thing about Brussels Is Our Reaction To It

Topical Tuesday – The Kids Are Alright!

So I came across a news article the other day that gave me room for hopeful optimism for the future of mankind!  Oh, you are thinking, a cure for cancer, an announcement promising world peace, or Mr Martin is going to publish the next Game of Thrones book before the end of the next decade?  Sorry to disappoint, but the article I read concerned a study carried out amongst 2,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 21, or Generation K as the article claimed to call them (after Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame).  Whilst it seems that each generation gradually learns to write off the younger end of the population as almost completely incomprehensible, it seems that not everything is as it seems.

“When I came to recently from surgery,” says Sarah, “the first words I’ve been told I uttered were not ‘mum’, or ‘nurse’, but ‘iPhone, iPhone’.”  This quote from one of the participants in the above mentioned study sums up for me what is perceived to be most important to the youngsters of today.  Those of us who are a little older and have lived in a world with no mobile phones can be forgiven, I think, for some nostalgic yearnings for a lost past.  These times of selfie-sticks and seemingly narcissistic reliance on Facebook likes and twitter opinions have caused me pause for thought on many occasions.  I have spent a year abandoning any involvement with social media only to relent and accept that for many younger than I, this has become the favored means of keeping in touch.  Heck, even my own father, in his eighties, keeps an eye on our goings on through Facebook!

We could be forgiven for imagining that these trends herald a shallow world with little regard for what is happening outside the constant barrage of texts and tweets emanating from the Apple or Android communicator of choice.  However, I was both surprised and encouraged by the findings of the study.  Apparently, our young generation, like Katniss, perceive the world as a constant struggle and a majority believe that life is considerably harder than it was for their parents and grandparents.  79% of those in the study were anxious about getting a job and 72% worry about debt and not only student loans.   They are growing up amongst a much greater perceived existential threat.  Terrorism is a reality for those who have little remembrance of life before 9/11.

In the midst of these concerns is a deep distrust for the establishment, including political institutions and especially corporations.  A mere 6% of this young group trust big corporations as opposed to 60% of adults.  When asked what comes to mind when they think of global corporations they volunteer words such as exploitative, selfish, arrogant, greedy, cheating and untrustworthy.  Only one in ten of this Generation K trust the government to do the right thing.

What really surprised me about this study was the strong leaning towards those who were perceived to offer authenticity and who seem to be serious about tackling these issues of inequality.  When asked to proffer the name of a politician they trusted, Bernie Sanders was the sole name mentioned, and this was even true amongst the predominantly UK based respondents.  The perception, real or imagined, is that he seeks to take on special interests in government and business and has a strong commitment to social justice.  Whatever your views on Mr Sanders, it would seem that the ‘selfie generation’ is perhaps not so selfish after all.  There is a yearning for connection with others that is typified by the somewhat obsessive attachment to all things cell phone.  There is a much loneliness expressed in the study’s findings, anxiety for the future, distrust towards those of us in older generations, though their politician of choice is, ironically, the oldest candidate in the US presidential race!  This is not so much about age as it is about those who are honestly addressing their fears and concerns about the future.

I, for one, took a step back and allowed some of my pre-conceptions to be modified by these findings.  Admittedly, there is an element of self-interest in their concern for their own futures.  However, there is equally a strong desire to see an end to injustice, and support for authenticity that we might all benefit from adopting.  Perhaps the future is in good hands after all.  Perhaps, in the end, the Kids are indeed ‘Alright’!

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.