WHY ?

Why? That is the big question on the lips of politicians, media pundits and ordinary people today. Why are young people being groomed and radicalised to throw in their lot with the barbaric ideology of Islamic extremism. It is a supremely important question because unless an answer is found and acted upon hope for the future of our society is bleak indeed.
And yet the answer is staring them in the face if they only had eyes to see. Idealism is one of the most precious virtues of the young, they cannot survive without it They demand visions where their elders are content to dream dreams.    Of no age group is the proverb more relevant that “where there is no vision the people perish.”

But what has our Western Society to offer – 24 hour supermarkets,  glitzy shopping precincts,  television reality shows, soaps and talent competitions, interrupted with adverts for luxuries they do not need and cannot afford, or a national lottery promising £millions to someone else ?

The United States proclaims democracy as the ultimate panacea but what is that worth if this is the best it can offer a sick world.

Our Government seeks to inspire with “British values” :  respect for the law, respect for your neighbour, tolerance of different opinions, freedom of expression etc. etc.    All these things are important and precious.   They are essential for a just and peaceful society.   They are a necessary foundation on which to build.    But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and when the idealistic young see the pudding that this recipe has so far produced can it compete with the illusion of utopia that the Islamic State promises to offer.    To return to the foundation metaphor, do they see a derelict building site because the capital to finish is exhausted and compare it to the magnificent, shiny edifice of Islamic State delusions ?

There is a vision that is worthy of the idealism of our young people.   It is the vision of a society built on the values of Jesus of Nazareth.  Values that cross every barrier of race, nationality, culture, social status, sex, sexual orientation, politics, religion or whatever else separates God’s children to bring people together in friendship, love, compassion and forgiveness.     That is a vision worth living, and if need be dying for.   And thank God that there are those, Christians, Muslims, Jews, people of every creed and none, who are living by that vision, crossing the barriers of prejudice and enmity that separate God’s children.   In these lie the hope for our world.

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What is logical ?

It was only recently that I realised the connexion between the Greek word “logos” (rendered as “Word” in most English translations of John’s Gospel) and the English word “logic”.   This may seem obvious but to me it was a eureka moment transforming the significance of the incarnation in an explosion of light.

We live in a logical universe.   To the eye of faith this logic is of God, it is divine.   Every atom is infused with it, every moment is governed by it, it is the ultimate reality, it is non-negotiable.   The incredible mystery of the incarnation is that this divine logic has been expressed in the human life of a man born in a remote corner of the Roman Empire who grew up in obscurity, spent a couple of years in a teaching and healing ministry authenticated by its grace and truth alone, died an ignominious death as a blasphemer yet some 2,000 years on is acknowledged as Lord by over 2 billion people world-wide.

To put it the other way round, the way of living that we see in this Jesus, the way of justice for the poor and under-privileged, the way of comfort and healing for those who suffer in body, mind or spirit, and perhaps supremely the way of gracious, forgiving acceptance of those who hurt or offend us is not some freakish, altruistic utopia but is the logical way, the way the universe is meant to be.    Jesus had a name for a world in tune with such logic. He called it the Kingdom of God.

It follows that whoever is living in harmony with the way of Jesus, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or of any other persuasion, though they rail at God with Stephen Fry or sneer with Richard Dawkins, are living logically, they are heirs of that kingdom, they belong to it.

By contrast whatever is in denial of that way: war, cruelty, greed, prejudice, resentment, indifference to suffering, is not simply wrong, it is illogical,  in denial of the logic of the universe, or to use the vivid metaphor of the risen Christ to the apostle Paul it is “kicking against the pricks” – and as such is an alien intrusion, out of harmony with the purpose of the universe, it does not belong.

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A Better Way

I ended my last blog on events in Paris with the question “What to do about it ?”.

Predictably the response from Western governments is tighter security and from Charlie Ebdo more deliberately provocative cartoons.     Just what the perpetrators of the atrocities wanted.   Raise the stakes !  Heighten the the tension !   Increase the hostility !   A more appropriate cartoon would have shown the perpetrators rubbing their hands in glee.

There must be a better way.   What if rather than frantically shoring up the ramparts and hurling insults or bawling “Je suis Charlie” from the parapets we hung out a sheet emblazoned with the invitation “Can we talk?”.    Can you imagine how deflated those behind the atrocities would feel.

By now 99+% of readers will have written me off as a naive idealist and looked for a more “realistic” blog elsewhere.     But if you are of the -1% who think there must be a better way please read on.    I write as a Christian but not as one who believes the church – still less the state which claims to inherit Christian values – is whiter than white.   I write as a member of a church that acknowledges Jesus as Lord but not of a church that has the monopoly of Jesus.     Moslems claim to acknowledge Jesus as a prophet and we have a starting point for dialogue here.

What if we all – Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Bhuddists, Atheists….. – started to take the words of Jesus seriously and live as if his words “love your enemies…do good to those who hate you…bless those who curse you…etc.etc. really were the things that make for peace.    I am not so naive as to imagine we might bring heaven on earth overnight.   But hurling insults gets us nowhere;  those who are responsible for our security admit that we can never be totally secure;  sowing the wind of guns and bombs has only reaped the whirlwind of ever escalating violence.   Maybe it is time to look for a better way now.    It is the only hope for our world.

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Charlie Hebdo or Hyper Cacher ?

Huge crowds and some 40 world leaders have gathered in Paris for a unity march after 17 people were killed during three days of deadly attacks.

40 world leaders including UK PM Cameron and German Chancellor Merkel attending.

Two quotes from the BBC website at aproximately 13.30 p.m today, January 11th 2014.
The brutal murders perpetrated in Paris during the past week are atrocities that call for utter condemnation and tragedies that demand deepest sympathy for the loved ones of the victims.   But such atrocities and worse are taking place around the world daily and receive little more than polite condemnation from world leaders and fleeting moments of despair from the rest of us.     David Cameron speaks of “freedom, democracy and tolerance” as the values to be defended at all costs but I suspect the mass response to the events of last week is less about “freedom of expression, democracy and tolerance” than about the fact that events that have been common-place for years in Asia and Africa have come too close to home for comfort.

If that is so then it is rightly so for that is where the true threat lies.  Freedom of expression,  democracy and tolerance are relative.    We are not free to incite others to racial hatred or acts of terrorism;  democracy – rule of the people by the people for the people – can be subverted by the media, by demagogues and powerful commercial interests;   tolerance has its limits, we do not tolerate murder, rape or child abuse.    But the aim of the Islamic terrorists is absolute – the right to life except under submission to their rule.

Charlie Hebdo has been a convenient handle both for the terrorists and Western governments and media for their propaganda purposes.   The terrorists could use it as a response to provocation and blasphemy while Western governments and the media could make much of it as a threat to freedom of expression.    The hijaching of the Jewish supermarket on the other hand shows it as it really is – a blatant unprovoked attack on the right of innocent people to peacefully go about their daily business.

So much for the problem.   What to do about it ?   That is the question which must wait for another blog.

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Defining marriage.

We have been asked by our church, which has been asked by our synod, which has been asked by the United Reformed Church General Assembly to consider whether we “would wish General Assembly to allow same-sex marriage, in those local URC churches that wish to offer and host these services?”   The question is specific but it is difficult to answer honestly apart from a position on the vexed issues of same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general.
SO…
…as with so many moral issues secular opinion has swept along the bypass to the gleaming new town leaving the church an isolated village community.   That does not make the one right and the other wrong – society is still the poorer for the sacrifice of a sabbath day of rest on the altar of mammon – but it does challenge us to ask whether we are standing firm on a vital moral issue or kicking against the pricks of an enlightened humanity.

The subject raises two distinct but related questions – the nature of homosexuality itself and our understanding of marriage.

As for the nature of homosexuality, without having researched the subject in detail I think there can be little doubt that the bible regards homosexual behaviur as sin, with the implication that it is a matter of deliberate choice by the persons concerned to pervert the natural order of human relationships.     Many Christians would therefore sincerely believe that this must be the attitude of the Church today.     But the biblical writers were unaware of the scientific knowledge that I understand teaches us that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice but of birth, it is innate.      If that is so, if that is how God has endowed some people, then surely that same God must wish them to enjoy the same intimacies as those who are heterosexually endowed.   Indeed it might be argued that it is literally their birth-right.

On the question of same-sex marriage the most commonly held, and perhaps the strongest, argument against is that it redefines marriage.   But could it indeed be time for such a redefinition.     Historically marriage has been regarded as primarily a sexual union. So much so that it would not have been considered legal until it had been consummated and then the only ground for disolving it was adultery.    During the latter half of the 20th century the attitude to sexual relationships grew progressively more relaxed so that in today’s society marriage is regarded as an option.      If the holiness of the estate of matrimony is to be restored it will not be through scruples about sexual orientation but by defining it in terms of companionship and commitment which is surely what it is about.

And it might be argued that such a definition is not without biblical mandate.   In the creation story of Genesis chapters 2 and 3 God’s first thought after creating man was that “it was not good for the man to be alone”  God would make him a partner, a companion..   It was not until they ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that sex became an issue and “they knew that they were naked”.     As for commitment the words of Jesus on marriage in the Gospels of Mark and Luke suggest that it is the act of divorce itself – that is to say the lack of commitment-  that marks the failure of marriage and adultery is the result rather than the cause.   It is only Matthew who has the let out clause – “except for unchastity” making the sex act rather than unfaithfuness the prime issue.

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Silent night ?

Yesterday, Christmas day, Classic fm announced their top 20 favourite carols.       I followed the count-down with interest  wondering what would be number one.   At last it came – “Silent night”.    Silent ?  with a woman in labour, a new born baby crying its first breath, an inn crowded with travellers – many no doubt  complaining volubly at the oppressive bureacracy that had imposed this inconvenient and probably arduous journey,;  diners grumbling that the lamb was underdone or the wine not matured;   others excitedly greeting former neighbours from their home town.     “Holy night”, yes indeed, but “silent”? – I don’t think so.   And that raises a more important question – what is holiness?

How far is the profound truth of the carols we sing with such gusto at Christmas overlaid by – buried under – a veneer of sentimentality.        Take Christina Rossetti’s beautiful carol, “In the bleak mid winter…”    or Edward Caswell’s “See amid the winter snow…”   They both witness to a deep truth but who said anything about winter snow?    I cannot find it in my Bible.

It seems to me that so much of our Christmas celebrations are like the treasured paintings of some old masters.    Over the years or centuries viewers grow accustomed to the accumulation of varnish and grime and can be shocked to see the painting restored to its original pristine glory.   If we could strip away the sentimental piety that has gathered around the Christmas story, we would be shocked to see it as it was.   We would not find the decourus, hygenic scene of our nativity plays and Christmas cards. we might even find it blasphemous just as the pious of Jesus’ day saw him as a blasphemer.   It would never have got the approval of the health and safety inspector or passed the censorship of our sensitive pious consciences.

So how could that night be “holy”?   The answer is simple.   It was holy because God was there and holiness is of the essence of divinity.    God was there in all the hubbub of the inn;  in the excitement and joy of old friends reunited;  in the weariness of those exhausted from long and arduous jorneys;   in the anxiety of the innkeeper and his staff trying to cope with this influx of visitors;  but most of all he was there in a baby destined to bring hope snd salvation to this messy world.      And he was there too in judgement on those who in their preoccupation with their own affairs could be indifferent to the needs of a mother with nowhere but a cowshed to give birth to her baby.

As it was, so it is.   Christmas may not be silent either literally or figuratively but it is holy because God is here in the  muck and mess of this 21st century world;  in the department store and the supermarket, in the high street and the back alley,  in the church and the pub, in the night shelter and the A & E ward; with all its beauty and ugliness, its pleasure and pain, its loving sacrifice and its selfish indulgence.    Silent night?  No!    But holy, Yes! Because God is here.   As it was then, so it is now, so it will be to the end of time.

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Judgement and hope

I once described the “9/11″ attack on the World Trade Centre as a wake-up call. Thirteen years on that call has been ignored. The Western world has continued sleep-walking into an abyss, clinging to the illusions that its decadent materialistic society can be secured with more and more arms and its appetite for economic growth met by more and more advanced technology.    Yesterday I was dismayed by the news that the Lima talks on climate change had ended in dissaray with an inconclusive agreement.   Tonight I have been physically sickened by the news of 132 school children murdered in cold blood by Taliban gunmen.

I feel it is time to ask whether there is a point of no return, and if so whether that point has not been reached. This may seem an outrageous question but I ask it in all seriousness. Historically every empire and every civilisation has had its day and it is sheer arrogance to assume that ours should be an exception.

The warnings of the Old Testament prophets were not empty threats. The Israelites were carried off into captivity. The messages of the prophets were messages of hope but it was hope beyond judgement, not instead of it.  The captivity was not forever, there would be a return. The judgement was on human wickedness and folly; the hope was in divine faithfulness.

Could we be about to enter a new dark age?   If so hope will be kept alive not by ever tighter security, not by technological inovations, not even by the church as an institution, which comes under the judgement of every institution insofar as it is infected by the materialism of the age, but by the spark glowing among the embers of an  exhausted culture, in those remaining faithful to the spirit of divine humanity revealed in Jesus Christ, waiting to be fanned a into a flame when society has been purged of its idolatry.

Postscipt:
After all, isn’t this cosmically what cross and resurrection are all about?   To suppose that we can have the hope of resurrection without the judgement of the cross is to live in cloud-cuckoo land, it is to cry peace where there is no peace.

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