Sunday, 26 December 2010

Pope Benedict XVI's Thought for the Day

Recalling with great fondness my four-day visit to the United Kingdom last September, I am glad to have the opportunity to greet you once again, and indeed to greet listeners everywhere as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Our thoughts turn back to a moment in history when God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, were living in intense expectation.

They were waiting for the Messiah that God had promised to send, and they pictured him as a great leader who would rescue them from foreign domination and restore their freedom.

God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfils them

The child that was born in Bethlehem did indeed bring liberation, but not only for the people of that time and place – he was to be the Saviour of all people throughout the world and throughout history.

And it was not a political liberation that he brought, achieved through military means: rather, Christ destroyed death for ever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the Cross.

And while he was born in poverty and obscurity, far from the centres of earthly power, he was none other than the Son of God.

Out of love for us he took upon himself our human condition, our fragility, our vulnerability, and he opened up for us the path that leads to the fullness of life, to a share in the life of God himself.

As we ponder this great mystery in our hearts this Christmas, let us give thanks to God for his goodness to us, and let us joyfully proclaim to those around us the good news that God offers us freedom from whatever weighs us down; he gives us hope, he brings us life.

Dear friends from Scotland, England, Wales and indeed every part of the English-speaking world, I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers during this Holy season.

I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick, and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time.

I pray especially for the elderly and for those who are approaching the end of their days.

I ask Christ, the light of the nations, to dispel whatever darkness there may be in your lives and to grant to every one of you the grace of a peaceful and joyful Christmas.

May God bless all of you.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The importance of patience in prayer

I think impatience is a very modern disease of the soul encouraged by the fast life we live. That is one of the reasons it is so very difficult to teach people how to pray, because prayer requires patience. The patience to sit still instead of running off to perfom some task; the patience to keep praying every day without immediate changes in us; the patience to persevere in prayer for those who are ill or in need. This was something the desert fathers recongnised when they taught others .Take this from Evagrius:

Abba Evagrius said: If you know how to practice patience, you shall always pray with joy.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Christian street preacher wins award for false arrest

An autistic Christian street preacher who was handcuffed and arrested for speaking out against homosexuality and many other sins has been awarded £4,250 in damages following a court case against West Midlands Police. Birmingham County Court ruled on Wednesday that PC Adrian Bill committed assault and battery against Mr Anthony Rollins when he handcuffed him unnecessarily. The court also ruled that Mr Rollins was wrongfully arrested, unlawfully detained and his human rights to free speech and religious liberty were infringed. The court ordered the police to pay Mr Rollins' legal costs. In fact, there is no such thing as "hate crime" in English law. It is not a phrase that is used by the law.

The actual facts of the arrest of the case were recorded on video and make disturbing viewing. Among the the first words of the police when they arrive is:

"Hello sir. What have you been saying, homophobic wise ?"

This is barely English, let alone a question that can be answered by someone about to be arrested. Matters got worse:

"Preacher: I spoke to your officer earlier and he was upset that I was saying homosexuality was a sin – which is what the Bible says. And I affirm that’s what I say because that’s in the Bible. And there’s no law, there’s no law…

Policeman: Well there is.

Preacher: No there isn’t.

Policeman: There is. Unfortunately, mate, it’s a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act"

Well, actually, constable, it is just isn't and you are an ignoramus for knowing so little about the law that you were claiming to arrest someone for! And to cap it all the arresting officer actually arrests him for a "racially aggravated public order offence". Yep - racially aggravated! You just can't make this stuff up!

Nevertheless, the preacher was arrested, taken to a police station, made to give his DNA and fingerprints and eventually charged. What then happened? Err...well.... all the charges were dropped. Straight away. Like that.

Why? Once the facts of the case were examined by Crown Prosecutors, lawyers and police officers who were capable of using more than one brain cell at a time, it became blatantly obvious that there was no such law as the heavy-handed officers of the law had falsely claimed.

How could this be contrary to section 5 of the Public Order Act? It has never been any part of the Public Order Act to decide what is or is not "a sin" and it is not illegal to say that any form of behaviour is "a sin". So - were the 3 police officers and 2 PCSOs involved in this situation just plain stupid or is there a problem with the wording of the law itself?

Section 5 actually reads as follows:
"Public Order Act 1986, s. 5 Harassment, alarm and distress
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he–
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
(2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that or another dwelling.
(3) It is a defence for the accused to prove–
(a) that he had no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, or
(b) that he was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation displayed, would be heard or seen by a person outside that or any other dwelling, or
(c) that his conduct was reasonable.

S6(4)Mental element: miscellaneous)
A person is guilty of an offence under section 5 only if he intends his words or behaviour, or the writing, sign or other visible representation, to be threatening, abusive or insulting, or is aware that it may be threatening, abusive or insulting or (as the case may be) he intends his behaviour to be or is aware that it may be disorderly"

So the Police had to decide that Mr Mcalpine was using "threatening, abusive or insulting words" when he said that "homosexuality was a sin". There is no legal definition of "threatening, abusive or insulting" and the words are to be taken in their normal and natural meaning. Clearly, the phrase "homosexuality is a sin" is not "threatening", nor "abusive". Someone might, conceivably, consider it "insulting". But should it be an offence to use words that are merely subjectively insulting?

Where does that end? Is it criminal? In fact the judge in the Rollins case used his commons sense and came to the conclusion that Mr Rollins had been wrongly arrested and had been assaulted. The question has but to be stated for its answer to be obvious. Of course, it cannot and should not be criminal. In fact, it is simply not criminal. The police officers were simply off on a crazy frolic of their own.

The proper view must be that the words "threatening, abusive or insulting" ought to be taken together, that the preacher could not be said to have caused "alarm, harassment or distress" and/or his conduct was perfectly reasonable (per s.5(3)(c)). Doubtless, the CPS came to their conclusion for these or similar reasons and the charges had to be dropped.

There have been numerous similar incidents of police over-reaction to complaints of Homophobia, Islamaphobia, racism etc and the reason for this is the abysmally low standard of training of police officers regarding the dubious concept of "hate crime". Common sense and the right to freedom of speech seem to have been left on the shelf at the police station.

Now view the video and see what I mean. The uniformed official grinning vacantly in the background is apparently the PCSO (Police Community Support Officer) who had actually called the police to report the preacher for "Homophobia" (which is not an offence known to the law).

Monday, 13 December 2010

Are you saved?

Bishop Kallistos Ware answers the question "Are you saved?" from an Eastern Orthodox standpoint and in the process gives us much food for thought.

Monday, 6 December 2010

More on hope

Here are a few more quotes and an illustration on the subject of hope:

If you do not hope, you will not find what is beyond your hopes.
Clement of Alexandria

If you feel like you're at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on! Because God's a God of miracles, and He's holding the other end.
Pat Hicks

A number of years ago researchers performed an experiment to see the effect hope has on those undergoing hardship. Two sets of laboratory rats were placed in separate tubs of water. The researchers left one set in the water and found that within an hour they had all drowned. The other rats were periodically lifted out of the water and then returned. When that happened, the second set of rats swam for over 24 hours. Why? Not because they were given a rest, but because they suddenly had hope!

Those animals somehow hoped that if they could stay afloat just a little longer, someone would reach down and rescue them. If hope holds such power for unthinking rodents, how much greater should is effect be on our lives.

---------------

I am not a connoisseur of great art, but from time to time a painting or picture will really speak a clear, strong message to me. Some time ago I saw a picture of an old burned-out mountain shack. All that remained was the chimney...the charred debris of what had been that family's sole possession. In front of this destroyed home stood an old grandfather-looking man dressed only in his underclothes with a small boy clutching a pair of patched overalls. It was evident that the child was crying. Beneath the picture were the words which the artist felt the old man was speaking to the boy. They were simple words, yet they presented a profound theology and philosophy of life. Those words were, "Hush child, God ain't dead!"

That vivid picture of that burned-out mountain shack, that old man, the weeping child, and those words "God ain't dead" keep returning to my mind. Instead of it being a reminder of the despair of life, it has come to be a reminder of hope! I need reminders that there is hope in this world. In the midst of all of life's troubles and failures, I need mental pictures to remind me that all is not lost as long as God is alive and in control of His world.

Hope

I was preaching on Romans 15 verse 4-13 last Sunday and talking about hope when I came across the following illustration which I wanted to share with you as it moved me so much. Here it is verbtim:

As Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev's widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev's wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband's chest.

There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that the same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.
Gary Thomas, in Christianity Today, October 3, 1994, p. 26.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Origins of Advent

In the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian churches of the West, the several weeks prior to Christmas are known as Advent, a name from a Latin word meaning "coming." It happens that the beginning of Advent always falls on the Sunday closest to November 30, the ancient feast day (in both East and West) of the Apostle Andrew. Among Christians in the West, this preparatory season, which tends to be slightly less rigorous than Lent and often involves no special fasting at all, always begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Thus, from year to year it will vary in length between 3 and 4 weeks, but always with four Sundays.

The observance of the season of Advent is fairly late. One finds no sermons for Advent, for instance, among the liturgical homilies of St. Leo the Great in the mid-fifth century. About that time, however, the season was already was already emerging in Spain and Gaul. A thousand years later, the time of the Reformation, Advent was preserved among the liturgical customs of the Anglicans and Lutherans; in more recent years, other Protestant groups have informally begun to restore it, pretty much as it had originally started--one congregation at a time.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the corresponding penitential season of preparation for Christmas always begins on November 15, the day after the Feast of the Apostle Philip. For this reason it is popularly known as St. Philip's Fast. A simple count of the days between November 15 and December 25 shows that this special period lasts exactly 40 days, the same as Lent.

More recently Christians of the Orthodox Church have begun to call this season by its Latin name, "Advent." One now finds the term standard in publications of the Antiochian Archdiocese, for instance. The adoption of the word "Advent" by Eastern Orthodox Christians is inspired by the same reason that prompted the adoption of other Latin theological terms, such "Sacraments," "Incarnation," and "Trinity." Very simply, these are the recognizable theological terms that have passed into Western languages. They also happen to be theologically accurate! If the Christian West can adopt Greek terms like "Christology," it seems only fair for the Christian East to adopt Latin terms like "Incarnation."

(On the other hand, one finds some Orthodox Christians, especially among recent, hyperactive converts from Western churches, who resist the adoption of the word "Advent," preferring to speak of "Winter Lent" or some such anomaly. One is hard pressed to explain this eccentric, lamentable preference for Anglo-Saxon over Latin on a point of theology.)

Several other features of Advent deserve some comment:

    First, in the West the First Sunday of Advent is treated as the beginning of the liturgical year. (In the East, the liturgical year does not begin with Advent but on September 1, which bears the traditional title, "Crown of the Year." Its historical relationship to the Jewish feast of Rosh Hashana is obvious.)
    Second, during the twentieth century there arose the lovely custom of the Advent wreath, both in church buildings and in homes. This wreath lies horizontal and is adorned with four candles. The latter, symbolic of the four millennia covered in Old Testament history, are lit, one at a time, on each Saturday evening preceding the four Sundays of Advent, by way of marking the stages in the season until Christmas. This modern practice has already started in some Orthodox Christian homes, where the longer season requires six candles on the Advent wreath.
    Third, because of its emphasis on repentance, Advent is a season of great seriousness, not a time proper for festivity, much less of partying and secular concerns. Advent is not part of the Christmas holidays, and Christians of earlier times would be shocked at the current habit of treating this as a period of jolly good times and "Christmas cheer," complete with office parties, the trimming of Christmas trees and other domestic adornments, the exchange of gifts, caroling, and even the singing of Christmas music in church.

All of these festive things are part of the celebration of Christmas itself, which lasts the 12 days from December 25 to January 6.

The seasons of the liturgical year involve more than liturgical services. The liturgical seasons is supposed to govern the lives of those who observe them. For this reason, anticipating these properly Christmas activities during Advent considerably lessens the chance of our being properly prepared, by repentance, for the grace of that greater season; it also heightens the likelihood that we will fall prey to the worldly spirit that the commercial world would encourage during this time.
Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Mercury poisoning makes male birds homosexual

I came across the following article from the New Scientist which may contribute something to the homosexual debate which continues to roll on.It's by Michael Marshall:

Low levels of mercury in the diet of male white ibises cause the birds to mate with each other rather than with females. As a result many of the females can't breed, and fewer chicks are produced.It's the first time a pollutant has been found to change an animal's sexual preference. Many chemicals can "feminise" males or reduce fertility, but males affected in these ways still prefer females.

Mercury is extremely toxic, particularly in the form of methylmercury, which reduces breeding in wild birds by disrupting their parenting behaviours. To find out if it also affected mating, Peter Frederick of the University of Florida in Gainesville and Nilmini Jayasena of the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, captured 160 young white ibises from south Florida. They gave them food laced with methylmercury and monitored them closely.

The birds were split into four groups. One group ate food with 0.3 parts per million methylmercury, which most US states would regard as too high for human consumption. A second group got 0.1 ppm, and the third 0.05 ppm, a low dose that wild birds would be exposed to frequently. The fourth group received none.

All three dosed groups had significantly more homosexual males than the control group. Male-male pairs courted, built nests together and paired off for several weeks. Higher doses increased the effect, with 55 per cent of males in the 0.3 ppm group affected. Male-male matings were responsible for 81 per cent of unproductive nests in the dosed groups.

Meanwhile the heterosexual pairs courted less and were bad at parenting – patterns of behaviour that were both already known to be caused by methylmercury poisoning. The combined effects of male-male pairing and poor performance by male-female pairs could be severe. "In the worst-case scenario, the production of young would fall by 50 per cent," says Frederick.

Looking for effects on courtship and mating is novel, says Tony Scheuhammer of Environment Canada's National Wildlife Research Center in Ottawa, Ontario. "People normally study pairs that have already mated to see how good they are at parenting," he says.

Other birds would probably be similarly affected, though both Frederick and Scheuhammer say it's far from clear whether other animal groups would be. In particular, there's no evidence for increased homosexuality in humans resulting from mercury poisoning, despite several long-term studies. "If the effect was as strong in humans as in the ibises, they'd have found it," Frederick says."

One wonders how much mercury is in the environment and we don't realise it. And what about mercury fillings or a century ago the use of mercury to treat various diseases like syphillis?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Hidden Message In The Lord’s Family Tree

I came across this fascinating article about the discovery of a hidden message in the Genesis 5 genealogy of Adam. Here is the passage followed by the explanation of the hidden message:

Genesis 5: The Family of Adam (New King James Version)
1 This is the book of the genealogy of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created. 3 And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. 4 After he begot Seth, the days of Adam were eight hundred years; and he had sons and daughters. 5 So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died. 6 Seth lived one hundred and five years, and begot Enosh. 7 After he begot Enosh, Seth lived eight hundred and seven years, and had sons and daughters. 8 So all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died. 9 Enosh lived ninety years, and begot Cainan. 10 After he begot Cainan, Enosh lived eight hundred and fifteen years, and had sons and daughters. 11 So all the days of Enosh were nine hundred and five years; and he died. 12 Cainan lived seventy years, and begot Mahalalel. 13 After he begot Mahalalel, Cainan lived eight hundred and forty years, and had sons and daughters. 14 So all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years; and he died. 15 Mahalalel lived sixty-five years, and begot Jared. 16 After he begot Jared, Mahalalel lived eight hundred and thirty years, and had sons and daughters. 17 So all the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years; and he died. 18 Jared lived one hundred and sixty-two years, and begot Enoch. 19 After he begot Enoch, Jared lived eight hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 20 So all the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years; and he died. 21 Enoch lived sixty-five years, and begot Methuselah. 22 After he begot Methuselah, Enoch walked with God three hundred years, and had sons and daughters. 23 So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. 24 And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him. 25 Methuselah lived one hundred and eighty-seven years, and begot Lamech. 26 After he begot Lamech, Methuselah lived seven hundred and eighty-two years, and had sons and daughters. 27 So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years; and he died. 28 Lamech lived one hundred and eighty-two years, and had a son. 29 And he called his name Noah, saying, “This one will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.” 30 After he begot Noah, Lamech lived five hundred and ninety-five years, and had sons and daughters. 31 So all the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years; and he died. 32 And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

When translating the names from Hebrew to English, you get the following:

HEBREW / English
Adam / Man
Seth / Appointed
Enosh / Mortal
Kenan / Sorrow
Mahalalel / The blessed God
Jared / Shall come down
Enoch / Teaching
Methuselah / His death shall bring
Lamech / Despairing
Noah / Rest or comfort.

Putting these names in translation into a sentence, it reads:
Man (is) appointed (to) mortal sorrow; (but) the blessed God shall come down teaching (that) his death shall bring (the) despairing rest.
Is this not the Gospel of our Lord!

John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Friday, 26 November 2010

Christmas Trees - Pagan or Christian?

I always thought that the Christmas Tree was a pagan symbol which the Church has tried to Christianize. Imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that actually the opposite is true. It first emerged in the context of the Liturgical Drama. In the Middle Ages liturgical plays or dramas were presented during or sometimes immediately after the services in the churches of Western Europe. The earliest of these plays were associated with the Mysteries of Holy Week and Easter. Initially they were dramatizations of the liturgical texts. The earliest recorded is the Quem quaeritis (“Whom do you seek?”) play of the Easter season. These plays later developed into the Miracle and Morality plays. Some were associated with events in the lives of well-known saints. The plays were presented on the porches of large churches. Although these liturgical dramas have now virtually disappeared, the Passion Play of Oberammergau, Germany is a recent revival of this dramatic form.

One mystery play was presented on Christmas Eve, the day which also commemorated the feast of Adam and Eve in the Western Church. The “Paradise Play” told the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. The central “prop” in the play was the Paradise Tree, or Tree of Knowledge. During the play this tree was brought in laden with apples.

The Paradise Tree became very popular with the German people. They soon began the practice of setting up a fir tree in their homes. Originally, the trees were decorated with bread wafers commemorating the Eucharist. Later, these were replaced with various kinds of sweets. Our Christmas tree is derived, not from the pagan yule tree, but from the paradise tree adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve. The Christmas tree is completely biblical in origin.

The first Christmas tree dates from 1605 in Strasbourg. By the 1700s the custom of the Christmas tree was widespread among the German people. It was brought to America by early German immigrants, and it became popular in England through the influence of Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria.

The use of evergreens at Christmas may date from St. Boniface of the eighth century, who dedicated the fir tree to the Holy Child in order to replace the sacred oak tree of Odin; but the Christmas tree as we know it today does not appear to be so ancient a custom. It appears first in the Christian Mystery play commemorating the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

In one article I read recently the writer asks: "How legitimate is it to use a fir tree in the celebration of Christmas? From the very earliest days of the Church, Christians brought many things of God’s material creation into their life of faith and worship, e.g., water, bread, wine, oil, candles and incense. All these things are part of God’s creation. They are part of the world that Christ came to save. Man cannot reject the material creation without rejecting his own humanity. In Genesis man was given dominion over the material world.

Christmas celebrates the great mystery of the Incarnation. In that mystery God the Word became man. In order to redeem us, God became one of us. He became part of His own creation. The Incarnation affirms the importance of both man and the whole of creation. “For God so loved the world…”

A faith which would seek to divorce itself from all elements of the material world in search for an absolutely spiritual religion overlooks this most central mystery of Christmas, the mystery of God becoming man, the Incarnation."

So it is not a case of Christianizing the Christmas Tree so much as reclaiming it again for what it really is, a Christian symbol representing the tree from the Garden of Eden which itself is seen, in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, as a figure of the cross of Christ. Think of Adam and Eve, their fall from grace, and the Tree on which Jesus died to redeem us and the Christmas Tree is a wonderful Christian symbol which deserves centre place in our celebrations.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Happy Birthday King James Bible - or is it?

A recent survey has revealed that many under-35s have never heard of the King James Bible despite being one of the biggest selling books in history. It's been praised by some as the most beautiful book ever written and is set to celebrate its 400th anniversary next year, but many young people have never even heard of it.

According to this new survey out this week, 51 per cent of under-35s have never heard of the King James Bible. However awareness was far greater among the over-55s, with only 28 per cent saying they had never heard of it.

The poll was carried out for the King James Bible Trust, which is spearheading nationwide celebrations surrounding the translation’s anniversary. A spokesman for the Trust was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying: “There has been a dramatic drop in knowledge in a generation. Yet this is a work which was far more influential than Shakespeare in the development and spread of English.”

In fact Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885) - no friend of the Christian Faith - once wrote: “England has two books; the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare, but the Bible made England.”

I suppose the question that can therefore be asked is: "If the Bible made England (Britain) can the rejection of the Bible un-make it?" My answer - and it is my answer - is yes, in time. For as the Bible and its teachings begin to fade from our memories we will lapse into godlessness, where selfishness and self-interest will rise to new heights. It is up to us - the Church - to do all we can to stop this happening.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

John Lennon and the X Factor

Okay I confess. I watch X Factor. Usually it's over the top of my laptop, but I can't resist watching the unfolding drama as the public insist on voting in one of the worst singers in the whole competition each week, usually at the cost of more accomplished performers. But what caught my eye - or rather ear - last time was the perfomance of one of my least favourite songs 'Imagine' by John Lennon. Why don't I like it? It's because of what I have always perceived as it's anti-Christian lyrics:

"Imagine there's no heaven,
it's easy if you try,
no hell below us,
above us only sky".

For years I have struggled with the phenomenon which was John Lennon, and in particular his outspoken views on Christianity. But, as is often the case, I have been rather too quick to judge and I was interested to learn a few things about John Lennon that I did not know before and which have softened my view of him.

For example I learned recently that John, when a teenager, was banned by the local vicar from coming back to the Liverpool church where he had been baptized and confirmed, because he had laughed during a service.

Again John could be outspoken on various subjects, included Christianity. Take this quote originally published in an interview for the London Evening Standard in 1966:

"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity."

Before judging Lennon harshly—especially those of you who have come across these words for the first time—note that Lennon also said, when asked about this, that he did not approve of that much popularity, and that he could as easily have said that television was more popular than Jesus as that the Beatles were. More importantly, he said repeatedly that he was talking only about his native country, England, and nowhere else.

Moreover, three years later he said, “I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans, and if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do.” Sadly, Lennon’s understanding of that message may have amounted to little more than his own anti-war message of “peace and love.”

In a recent article from Touchstone magazine, Robert Hart who is rector of St. Benedict’s Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wrote:

"That Lennon was naive, and honest to the point of genuine eccentricity, is also to be weighed among other factors, such as his having, in cognitive terms, an earliest memory of seeing German planes in the sky over Liverpool, and hearing the harsh whistle of falling bombs and ground-shaking explosions while his mother, in a state of panic, rushed him to the nearest bomb shelter. He had been abandoned by his father, and as a young boy was sent to be raised by an aunt even before the death of his mother.

Add to these factors an IQ known to have been above genius level and a lifetime of artistic endeavor, and it is clear that John Lennon was predestined not to be boring. This complicated man died, tragically murdered, on December 8, 1980, having said on the same day that he was, among other “Zen” things, a “Zen Christian.” He left us confused about his meaning, as always.

It was a sadly ironic death. Born during an air raid, having his earliest memory that of an air raid, and dying forty years later from gunshot wounds inflicted by an unprovoked madman, the self-appointed messenger of “peace and love” came into this world in violence and was taken from it in violence. Though his sins were not hidden, neither was his sincerity about what he thought to be the message of Christ, as he said plainly on various occasions."

Actually what John Lennon said in 1966 is not what so many were quick to assume and to decry in a knee-jerk reaction. The real problem is the element of truth in what he said. The Beatles were more popular than the Lord himself among youth in England at the time, as was Frank Sinatra among the older set in America—and as are television, video games, and many other things of this world to very many people today. Lennon, the eccentric artist, poet, and musician, spoke all too accurately."

And what was wrong with the performance? Oddly enough the fact that it was popped-up and not sung in a way that did the song justice. I may not have liked the song - and I am still not a huge fan - but like it or loathe it, it is still a good enough song to be sung properly and in a way that does justice to the words and sentiments. The young lady turned it into a pop song and ripped its heart out. John would not have approved and neither do I.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Emmanuel, God with us

One of my favourite titles for Jesus is 'Emmanuel' meaning 'God with us'. And one of my favourite hymns of all times is "O come, O come, Emmanuel" which I look forward to singing every Advent. Why is Emmanuel such a precious name to me for Jesus? Because it reassures me that Jesus is not just the person who WAS with us, but also the person who IS with us, now and everyday. That is why I love the Jesus Prayer because it is a daily reminder of that wonderful truth.

In T.S.Eliot's poem The Waste Land there are these wonderful lines towards the end:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is alwasy another one walking beside you...

In his notes accompanying the poem Eliot explains that he had in mind the story that was told of Shackleton's Antartic expedition: how the party of explorers, when at the extremity of their strength, repeatedly felt that there was one more member than could actually be counted. It's also hard not to imagine that Eliot's Christian faith woudl also have dredged up his own memories of stories from the Bible where others had a similar experience. Like for example King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who, looking into the burning fiery furnace into which Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had been caste for refusing to worship idols, saw an amazing sight:
"Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? Yet I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God." (Daniel 3:24-25)

So for me, as for Eliot, the idea of God with us has come to mean a great deal. And as we continue this Nativity Fast - or in my case, prepare for Advent - it is with eager anticipation of the celebration of when Christ came among us and stayed.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Condoms and the Pope

Apparently Pope Benedict XVI has suggested that condoms may be justified in some situations to prevent the infection of HIV/AIDS. A new book, Light of the World, features excerpts of an interview with journalist Peter Seewald in which the Pope cites the example of a male prostitute and suggests that it would be acceptable for him to wear a condom.

The Pope says: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.

"But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanisation of sexuality.”

The Pope indicates in the interview that the Catholic Church remains opposed to the use of condoms as a means of addressing the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.

He says that the use of condoms are not in themselves a “real or moral” solution to HIV/AIDS but adds that the intention of reducing the risk of infection could be regarded as a “first step” towards a “more human way, of living sexuality”.

In response to media headlines reporting that the Pope had given the green light to condoms, the Catholic Church in England and Wales insisted that the Pope had not wanted to express a position on the problem of condoms in general but had rather wanted to "affirm strongly that the problem of AIDS cannot be resolved solely with the distribution of condoms".

Comment: Condoms may not be the way to deal with the problem of AIDS but in the light of the failure of people to understand the teachings of the Church/Christian Faith we must surely make allowances for people's sin, weakness and blindness to the truth. We surely have to agree with the use of something that can protect them and others from the spread of HIV/AIDS. I suppose the problem is that by saying condoms are okay we appear to be saying that sex outside marriage and/or with no sense of responsibility is okay when clearly it is not.

A parents love?

Just when you think you have heard it all along comes the following from America:

"A US couple’s decision to let the public vote on whether or not they should keep their baby has dismayed prolifers. Pete and Alisha Arnold, both 30, have set up the website, www.birthornot.com, to allow people to place their vote, as well as share their thoughts and see pictures of the foetus – nicknamed “Wiggles” by the pair.

Alisha is already 17 weeks pregnant, meaning that the unborn baby is entering the stage of growth where it is able to suck its thumb and hear voices. The couple have given the public until December 7 to vote, just two days before the couple reach the legal limit for an abortion in their home state of Minnesota – 20 weeks, a stage at which it is believed babies can experience pain.

The Arnolds say on their website that the public’s vote “will not go unheard”.
“The whole point here is to let people have a real way to voice your opinion on the topic of abortion and have it actually make a difference in the real world,” they say....

At one point, there were more votes for the pair to abort their baby but the last few days have seen a significant increase in the number of votes for the birth to go ahead after some prolifers began rallying people to vote against the abortion.

Out of more than 70,000 votes polled, 56,000 people want the couple to give birth – nearly 80 per cent of the votes so far."

If the prolife votes win the day you can only imagine what the child will think when it grows up and finds how his/her life hung in the balance due to the votes of people who cared more for them than their parents did.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Church

"The Church gives us not a system, but a key; not a plan of God's City, but the means of entering it. Perhaps someone will lose his way because he has no plan. But all that he will see, he will see without a mediator, he will see it directly, it will be real for him; while he who has studied only the plan risks remaining outside and not really finding anything."
Fr Georges Florovsky

To live is Christ, to die is gain

"I shall soon be far away from those I love. I shall soon be cut off from the brothers and sisters whom God has given me. I shall be driven by evil men from the place where God has called me to live and work. I confess that I am sad. I may even say that I am bitter. I will add that I am angry. But I do not despair. On the contrary I feel hope. The source of my hope is the knowledge that, though I shall be separated from my brothers and sisters in body, I shall not be separated in spirit. The proof of this is in Christ. The first apostles knew Him in body; and when He was crucified, theyr feared that they would be separated from Him for ever. But as He Himself had prophesied, the bodily separation brought them even closer in spirit. After His death they knew Him in the very depth of their hearts. Equally, when I am separated in body from my brothers and sisters, I shall be even closer in spirit; I shall know them even more deeply than I know them at present. In this knowledge my sadness will melt away, my bitter emotions will grow sweet again, and my anger will be soothed. Nothing can destroy love which is rooted and founded in Christ."
St. John Chrysostom

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Christians happier than atheists

There’s an interesting article in USA Today by David Campbell and Robert Putman, two political scientists who’ve just completed a magisterial, five-year study of the way in which religion affects American society. They try and present their findings in an even-handed, politically neutral way, but there’s no escaping the fact that religion and religious people emerge vey well. Their new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us All, sounds like a definitive rebuttal to Christopher Hitchens’s assertion that “religion poisons everything”.

One of Campbell and Putman’s main discoveries is that religious people are “better neighbours” than their non-religious counterparts. By this, they mean that they’re more likely to volunteer to help out those less fortunate than themselves, as well as give to charity.

The rest of the article can be found by clicking here:

Friday, 19 November 2010

Happiness at all costs?

"When I worked as a headmaster, prospective parents would frequently say to me that above all they wanted their children to be happy. While this is a very reasonable aspiration for parents, part of me wanted to challenge them and say: what do you mean by happy? Do you really want your children to 'feel good' above all else, even if they have to compromise their integrity in order to carry on 'feeling good?' Why do you not want your children to be above all decent, just and honest? I suspect that for some parents, 'happy' does indeed involve virtue, but the atmosphere around the word nowadays means that this cannot be taken for granted. It seems some people are quite prepared to be vicious rather than virtuous in order to be what they call happy.

Recently, some schools have attempted what they call 'happiness education'; yet this easily becomes health education, where health has now been expanded to include mental health. To offer mental health education in schools is a welcome development, but health should not be confused with happiness. To teach happiness does not simply mean offering healthy lifestyle advice; it means teaching that goodness and virtue are integral parts of happiness.

The Christian monastic tradition, like all classic religious and monastic traditions, sees a profound link between happiness and virtue. While there is nothing morally wrong with feeling good, it is not in itself a moral guide to right and wrong. To find such a guide, we need a wider framework. The commonly used principle 'avoid harm to others' seems to be that guide for many people, but it has the unforeseen result of allowing people to neglect the interior, spiritual world from which all our actions spring....If we are to find happiness, we need to go beyond the world of simply feeling good and avoiding harm to enter the world of knowing good and doing good."
Abbot Christopher Jamison: Finding Happiness

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Too little Christianity

In a fiery address at the annual Christian Democratic Union conference at Karlsruhe on 15 November, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to stand up for Christian values more resolutely. Chancellor Merkel said she was taking the debate on Muslim immigration in Germany, which has been in the headlines for weeks, very seriously. "It isn't that we have too much Islam, but rather too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian concept of humanity, about the values which guide us and about our Judaeo-Christian traditions. We must once again put them in first place and then we will achieve the consolidation that we need in our society."

Greater love

In 1921 there broke out a jungle fire in the Himalayas. While most of the people around were busy putting it out, I noticed several men standing and looking fixedly into a tree.

“What are you looking at?” I asked.

They, in reply, pointed to a nest full of young birds in a tree whose branches were already burning. Above it, a bird was flying about in great distress.

They said, “We wish we could save that nest, but we cannot go near because of the blazing fire.”

A few minutes later the nest caught fire, and I thought, “Now the mother bird will fly away.”

Instead, to my great astonishment, I saw her fly down and spread her wings over the young ones. In a few minutes the bird was burnt to ashes, along with her youngsters.

I had never seen anything like it before, and I said to those standing near: “Are we not astonished at this wonderful love? Think how much more wonderful must be the love of Him Who has created such an unselfish love in His, creatures.”

Hannah W. Smith wrote, “But now I began to see that if I took all the unselfish love of every mother’s heart the whole world

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Holy Fire of Jerusalem

The ceremony, which awes the souls of Christians, takes place in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The date for Pascha  is determined anew for every year. It must be a first Sunday after the spring equinox and Jewish Passover. Therefore, most of the time it differs from the date of Catholic and Protestant Easter, which is determined using different criteria. The Holy Fire is the most renowned miracle in the world of Eastern Orthodoxy. IIt has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries.  No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. It happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth[2], where Christ was crucified, entombed, and where He finally rose from the dead.

In order to be as close to the Sepulchre as possible, pilgrims camp next to it. The Sepulchre is located in the small chapel called Holy Ciborium, which is inside the Church of the Resurrection. Typically they wait from the afternoon of Holy Friday in anticipation of the miracle on Holy Saturday. Beginning at around 11:00 in the morning the Christian Arabs chant traditional hymns in a loud voice. These chants date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to chant anywhere but in the churches. "We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!" - they chant at the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drummers sit on the shoulders of others who dance vigorously around the Holy Ciborium. But at 1:00 pm the chants fade out, and then there is a silence. A tense silence, charged from the anticipation of the great demonstration of God's power for all to witness.

Shortly thereafter, a delegation from the local authorities elbows its way through the crowd. At the time of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Muslim Turks; today they are Israelis. Their function is to represent the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of the Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so that his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Holy Saturday come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door, they follow a custom to enter the tomb, and to check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle.

"I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after His death and where He rose again from the dead... (narrates Orthodox Patriarch Diodor - ed.). I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees.Miracle of God. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature... See also a line of lights at bottom-left Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the colour may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake — it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn — I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp... At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church."

While the patriarch is inside the chapel kneeling in front of the stone, there is darkness but far from silence outside. One hears a rather loud mumbling, and the atmosphere is very tense. When the Patriarch comes out with the two candles lit and shining brightly in the darkness, a roar of jubilee resounds in the Church.

The Holy Light is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but operates also by itself. It is emitted from the Holy Sepulchre with a hue completely different from that of natural light. It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps of olive oil hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters some of the chapels inside the church, as for instance the chapel of the Calvery (at a higher level than the Holy Sepulchre) and lights up the little lamps. It lights up also the candles of certain pilgrims. In fact there are some very pious pilgrims who, every time they attended this ceremony, noticed that their candles lit up on their own accord!Marvel picture. For a few minutes after Holy Fire appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burnhis divine light also presents some peculiarities: As soon as it appears it has a bluish hue and does not burn. At the first moments of its appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burn. This is proof of its divine and supernatural origin. We must also take into consideration that the Holy Light appears only by the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop.

The miracle is not confined to what actually happens inside the little tomb, where the Patriarch prays. What may be even more significant, is that the blue light is reported to appear and be active outside the tomb. Every year many believers claim that this miraculous light ignites candles, which they hold in their hands, of its own initiative. All in the church wait with candles in the hope that they may ignite spontaneously. OOften unlit oil lamps catch light by themselves before the eyes of the pilgrims. The blue flame is seen to move in different places in the Church. A number of signed testimonies by pilgrims, whose candles lit spontaneously, attest to the validity of these ignitions. The person who experiences the miracle from close up by having the fire on the candle or seeing the blue light usually leaves Jerusalem changed, and for everyone having attended the ceremony, there is always a "before and after" the miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem.

The first written account of the Holy Fire (Holy Light) dates from the fourth century, but authors write about events that occurred in the first century. So Ss. John Damascene and Gregory of Nissa narrate how the Apostle Peter saw the Holy Light in the Holy Sepulchre after Christ's resurrection. "One can trace the miracle throughout the centuries in the many itineraries of the Holy Land." The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary written in the years 1106-07, presents the "Miracle of the Holy Light" and the ceremonies that frame it in a very detailed manner. He recalls how the Patriarch goes into the Sepulchre-chapel (the Anastasis) with two candles. The Patriarch kneels in front of the stone on which Christ was laid after his death and says certain prayers, at which point the miracle occurs. Light proceeds from the core of the stone - a blue, indefinable light which after some time kindles unlit oil lamps as well as the Patriarch's two candles. This light is "The Holy Fire", and it spreads to all people present in the Church. The ceremony surrounding "The Miracle of the Holy Fire" may be the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. From the fourth century A.D. all the way up to our own time, sources recall this awe-inspiring event. From these sources it becomes clear that the miracle has been celebrated on the same spot, on the same feast day, and in the same liturgical frame throughout all these centuries.

Miracle of God. The Orthodox Patriarch was standing ... near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox PatriarchEvery time heterodox have tried to obtain the Holy Fire they have failed. Three such attempts are known. Two occured in the twelfth century when priests of the Roman church tried to force out the Orthodox church but by their own confession these ended with God's punishment. But the most miraculous event occured in the year 1579, the year when God clearly testified to whom alone may be given His miracle.

"Once the Armenians (monophysites - ed.) paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, the Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch.

A Muslim Muezzin, called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, immediately abandoned the Muslim religion and became an Orthodox Christian. This event took place in 1579 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony IV.(The above mentioned split column still exists. It dates from the twelfth century. The Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the "place of the split" as they enter the church).

Turkish warriors stood on the wall of a building close to the gate and lightning-struck column . When he saw this striking miracle he cried that Christ is truly God and leaped down from a height of about ten meters. But he was not killed-the stones under him became as soft as wax and his footprint was left upon them. The Turks tried to scrape away these prints but they could not destroy them; so they remain as witnesses.
He was burned by the Turks near the Church. His remains, gathered by the Greeks, lay in the monastery of Panagia until the 19th century shedding chrism.

Muslims, who deny the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, tried to put obstacles in the way of the miracle. Well known Muslim historian Al Biruni wrote: "… a (note: Muslim) governor brought a copper wire instead of a wick (note: for the self lighting oil lamps), in order that it wouldn't ignite and the whole thing would fail to occur. But as the fire descended, the copper burned."

This was not the only attempt. The report written by the English chronicler, Gautier Vinisauf, describes what happened in the year 1192.

"In 1187, the Saracens under the direction of Sultan Salah ad-Din took Jerusalem. In that year, the Sultan desired to be present at the celebration, even though he was not a Christian. Gautier Vinisauf tells us what happened: "On his arrival, the celestial fire descended suddenly, and the assistants were deeply moved...the Saracens... said that the fire which they had seen to come down was produced by fraudulent means. Salah ad-Din, wishing to expose the imposter, caused the lamp, which the fire from Heaven had lighted, to be extinguished, but the lamp relit immediately. He caused it to be extinguished a second time and a third time, but it relit as of itself. Thereupon, the Sultan, confounded, cried out in prophetic transport: 'Yes, soon shall I die, or I shall lose Jerusalem.'"

One can ask the question of why the miracle of the Holy Fire is almost unknown in Western Europe. In Protestant areas it may, to a certain extent, be explained by the fact that there is no real tradition of miracles; people don't really know in which box to place the miracles, and they rarely feature in newspapers. But in the Catholic tradition there is vast interest in miracles. Thus, why is it not more well known? For this only one explanation suffices: Church politics. Only the Orthodox Churches attend the ceremony which is centered on the miracle. It only occurs on the Orthodox date of Easter and without the presence of any Catholic authorities.

It is a miracle - for a few minutes Holy Fire does not burnAs with any other miracle there are people who believe it is a fraud and nothing but a masterpiece of Orthodox propaganda. They believe the Patriarch has a lighter inside of the tomb. These critics, however, are confronted with a number of problems. Matches and other means of ignition are recent inventions. Only a few hundred years ago lighting a fire was an undertaking that lasted much longer than the few minutes during which the Patriarch is inside the tomb. One then could perhaps say, he had an oil lamp burning inside, from which he kindled the candles, but the local authorities confirmed that they had checked the tomb and found no light inside it.

The best arguments against a fraud, however, are not the testimonies of the shifting Patriarchs. The biggest challenges confronting the critics are the thousands of independent testimonies by pilgrims whose candles were lit spontaneously in front of their eyes without any possible explanation. According to our investigations, it has never been possible to film any of the candles or oil lamps igniting by themselves. However, I am in the possession of a video filmed by a young engineer from Bethlehem, Souhel Nabdiel. Mr. Nabdiel has been present at the ceremony of the Holy Fire since his early childhood. In 1996 he was asked to film the ceremony from the balcony of the dome of the Church. Present with him on the balcony were a nun and four other believers. The nun stood at the right hand of Nabdiel. On the video one can see how he films down on the crowds. At a certain point all lights are turned off - it is time for the Patriarch to enter the tomb and receive the Holy Fire. While he is still inside the tomb one suddenly hears a scream of surprise and wonder originating from the nun standing next to Nabdiel. The camera begins to shake, as one hears the excited voices of the other people present on the balcony. The camera now turns to the right, whereby it is possible to contemplate the cause of the commotion. A big candle, held in the hand of the Russian nun, takes fire in front of all the people present before the patriarch comes out of the tomb. She holds the candle with shaking hands while making the sign of the Cross over and over again in awe of the miracle she has witnessed. This video appears to be the closest one gets to an actual filming of the miracle.

2.47 AM

Can’t sleep. This is becoming a regular occurence, but not an annoying one. I have come to the conclusion that as much as I like – and need – sleep, there is something I like about being downstairs, in the silence, sipping a cup of herbal tea (with honey) and either just being still in a dimly lit room drinking in the noislessness or adding another post to my blog. I suppose it’s the nearest thing I have to a desert, here in bustling Swansea. Encountering the starkness of the night is the city’s equivalent to those barren wastes where Jesus and the saints retreated in order to advance in their walk with God. I need that too. It’s my escape from the insanity of restless busyness which every day threatens to drown me with its endless demands. So I like the night – it’s somewhere to run to and hide. Somewhere to re-charge my batteries and re-connect with God, myself and that silent centre within.

Saturday football

(A two year old blog imported from a blog I have just erased.)

It’s 10.15 AM and I have just finished breakfast. There is movement along the landing, between one of the bedrooms and the bathroom as Hannah gets ready for her job in Shoezone, a rather downmarket shoe shop in Swansea. Hannah is better (or worse) than any alarm clock on Saturday morning because she never walks without stomping, never opens a door without crashing it shut and never steps into the shower without somehow making it sound as if a large burly man was trying to squeeze through a rather narrow but cluttered space.

Alternatively Ruth, our youngest, comes a close second, with her radio/cd player blasting out Michael Jackson’s ‘Killer’ or her loud conversations with one of her friends (who must be deaf) about arrangements for their Saturday trip to Town.

It’s Saturday, and Saturday in the Williams household means only one thing – football (or to any Americans who may be reading this – soccer). It’s a day when we either go and watch our favourite team the ‘Swans’ – the nickname of Swansea City Football Club – at the Liberty Stadium, or if they are playing away, listen in on the radio. Either side of that main event we watch just about any other football match we can find on Sky, because football – any football – is something we have come to love.

It has not always been this way. For years Saturdays have come and gone. They have been days of easing down before the rigours of the Sunday rush when the most we would do was visit one of our parents, done a little shopping or just generally taken it easy. But one day everything changed. Hazel ’saw the light’.
I, personally, have always followed the Swans over the years, and even if I was too busy or far away to actually go and see them regularly, I would always check the results every Saturday and keep an eye on their progress (or regress). This however got much more serious for both Hazel and myself when over two years ago we decided we go and see the Swans play in their brand new 20,000 seater stadium at the Liberty. Hazel had never been to a live match before and was curious to see what it would be like and besides it was Ben’s birthday and a chance to go with him to see his favourite team. We could not have picked a better day. It was a bright September Saturday afternoon, the sun was ablaze in a cloudless blue sky and the Swans were playing their second or third match of the season. The place was packed and the atmosphere sparked with expectation. We were not disappointed. Swans put seven past a rather lacklustre Bristol City prompting the club to sack their manager a few days later, and Hazel was well and truly hooked.

One of my favourite stories in the New Testament is the conversion of St.Paul on the road to Damascus. What a story. One minute he was after the blood of Christians, approving of the murder of St. Stephen and arresting just about any of ‘The Way’ he could lay his hands on and the next he was telling anyone who would listen how Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. It was a complete turn around, a one-point turn, and for many years became for me a kind of model of Christian conversion that I longed to see in my own ministry (although I failed to realise at the time that it is actually the exception rather than the rule).
What happened to Paul in Christian terms happened to my wife in football terms. That day in the Liberty was her ‘Damascus Road’. Not only did we go on and see every other Swansea City home game for that season but the following year we bought a season ticket each and we have done so ever since. Our new foudn enthusiasm did not end there. We have bought dvd’s of their more outsanding games, treated ourselves to supporter’s scarves and other accoutrements and regularly check the clubs’ various websites to see what the latest news was. Once I even spent several hours queuing up for the players to sign the club calendar so I could surprise Hazel for Christmas. And the ‘magnificent obsession’ does not end there. All this has had the knock on effect of us watching just about any football match that comes on the television even minor league matches. It has also resulted in Hazel developing an understanding of the minutiae of the game even to the point of understanding the notoriously difficult ‘off-side’ rule. I was in awe of the change that had occurred.
What caused this turn around? What was responsible for such a transformation? Was it the atmosphere of the occasion, the weather or the score? I am sure it helped in some way as it all conspired to make something truly memorable and enjoyable. Like any true’ conversion’ the test would come when the skies are grey and rain-soaked, the atmosphere is poor and we lose at home. Hazel passed them all and she kept going. Her ‘conversion’ was the genuine article.

Was it some need or lack in her life which going to watch football filled? Was there a space or ‘football shaped’ hole in her life that needed filling? Maybe, as there were few things we would do together other than Church, shopping or occasional (and I mean occasional) trips or meals out.
Was it some kind of revelation or insight into something previously hidden that afternoon as we watched twenty four men chase a white ball around on a green blanket of grass watched by 18,000 chanting onlookers? Maybe. What else could have accounted for such a turn around in a life which, until then, faced in a competely opposite direction?

Whatever the cause, in the end, like St. Paul, it’s one of those wonderfully profound mysteries where everything seems to come together, coalesce and conspire to take an individual from one ‘place’ to another, where joy pours in to where joy was not before and life takes on another meaning or direction. It was certainly that for us. Now we do something that brings us closer together, and whether it was God or an inspired Swansea perfomance or both, I don’t really care. The fact is that life on Saturdays will never be the same but something we now both look forward to doing and enjoying together.

What's wrong with bigamy?

Watched a television article on bigamy today which told the heart-rending story of a woman who after eleven years of marriage discovered her husband had another wife. Although she was concerned about the many times he was away from home on ‘buisiness’ during their years together, she did not suspect that it was because he was spending time with the other woman. She only found out when this other wife got in contact with her and told her. You can only imagine the deep sense of betrayal both women experienced and the programme reflected that, focusing on the emotional and financial fallout for both women and the children fathered by their common husband.
But watching the programme I felt myself asking the question, why was there such insense? Why, in a society which has year on year undermined and distorted marriage, does it consider bigamy wrong? Isn’t bigamy just another variation on a theme? We have single parents, family units with several children by different fathers, homosexual and lesbian ‘marriages’ and arrangements where people live together as ‘partners’. Why not add bigamy to the ever-growing list of legitimized arrangements which succeeding governments have considered such an essential ingredient of today’s society where the only thing that is really sacrosanct is personal choice and freedom?

What is the measure of right and wrong anyway? Bigamy is wrong according to the Law but the Law, as we have seen, can be changed. In a society of shifting values which acknowledges no absolutes, truth is as shifting as the sands of the Gobi Desert. So what is there to say that something like bigamy is wrong except that people, who have entered into a legal arrangemnt of marriage, have been hurt in some way? But what about the thousands of women who live with an arrangement in which certain men come and go as they please, fathering children left right and centre? How many of these women and children face betrayal and financial deprivation every single day and yet no one cries ‘foul’ for them? On the news recently one woman (Sharon Matthews) was said to have had seven children by five different men! The mind boggles at the muliplying of the anger and sense of betrayal these ‘arrangements’ have caused.

Bigamy IS wrong because it breaks several fundamental laws, not least the Law of God which proclaims the inviability of the marriage bond. But in a land where God is denied, doubted or undefined then everything is up for grabs. The Centre has disappeared and everyone is a victim. Shouts of ‘wrong’ are growing louder and yet more faint because while we know it’s wrong even as we shout we are losing the notion of ‘why’. Once ‘why’ goes then everything is up for grabs and all we are left with is a sense of fear, loss, anger and betrayal with no-one, except God, to hear our cries for justice.

Learning from my mistakes

“We all learn from our mistakes” they say, but what ‘they’ don’t tell you is how long that process can take. I say this because I am still learning how to grow a parish and like all growing there are pains involved. For example how do you know what to do to be doing what God wants? For a time – well for the last twenty years – I thought it was all about stepping out in faith, you know like Abram who left his country, his people and his father’s household in order to strike out for the Promised Land. (Genesis 12:1-5) So my ministry has been about stepping out in faith left right and centre. Sometimes this has worked but more often than not it hasn’t. But because I have known no other way I have just kep doing it in the vain hope that something will ‘give’ along the line. Well it hasn’t and so I have had to stop and trudge wearily back to the proverbial drawing board and finally ask why. It’s taken me several months but I think I know the answer.

Going back to the Genesis text I realise I have mis-read it. Abram did not take the initiative. He did not one day decide he was going to step out in faith all on his own in the vague hope that his faith would somehow nudge God into a response. No. God came to him and called him. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Note the emphasis. God spoke and God promised to show Abram the way. The step of faith by the father of faith was in response to God’s initiative.

We find the same pattern throughout the scriptures. Moses stepping aside to investigate a bush that was burning but not consumed only to be confronted by God who calls him to go and set His people free. (Exodus 3) Joshua given instructions by God to go and take the land (Joshua 1). Mary greeted by an angel who tells her she is carrying the Messiah, God’s Son in her womb and responding in faith “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:26-38). Jesus telling the disciples to feed the hungry thousands “You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16) And the disciples being told to wait in Jerusalem for the power from on high before going out to the nations to bear witness to him. (Acts 1:4,5)

Time and time again we see God’s people not acting on their own initiative but waiting on God before venturing out on a new challenge. That’s not to say that they did nothing in the meantime. They prayed and they served and they worked. But significant growth and a new movement of God only came when God acted and God’s people responded in faith.

So the lesson I am slowly learning is this. Wait on God and while you wait, work. Only be ready to respond in faith when the time comes. And the best way to be ready is to pray.

A time to live and a time to die

(I wrote this blog last year before my father died).

I write this blog having visited my father who is in hospital recovering from an infection. He is in the later stages of dimentia and so only vaguely knows who I am. There was a time about a week ago when we thought he was nearing the end. He had developed a chest infection, was confined to bed and had stopped eating or drinking. He was admitted to hospital in a very poor state and had to be put on a drip. He continued to show no interest in food or drink and slept most of the time. Knowing a little bit about dimentia (I am part time chaplian in a local Mental Health Hospital) I wondered if he had reached that stage in his illness when the eating/drinking reflexes had ceased to work and his mind was finally shutting down. But today he woke when we called and the nurse told us he was responding to the antibiotics and had eaten dinner. He jabbered away during the whole visit and smiled and winked and laughed – at what we don’t know. It was quite a transformation and suddenly there is life again and we are all amazed, puzzled and pleased.
Dad has had several ‘near misses’ over the past year with a couple of admissions to hospital after mini-strokes or a chest infection. Each time he has bounced back although a little weaker each time. He is 92 going on 93 and although there is little real quality to life, he is not ready to go yet. Why is this? When he is unable to recall his wife of 63 years, talk and think coherently, read a book or a newspaper or follow sports or watch a film, why does God keep him here when others die tragically young full of life and vigour with so much to look froward to and do?
I think that like much of life there is a deep mystery here which we cannot fathom and being a CHristian is, to a certain extent, about accepting this and trusting God. What is faith but trusting someone who possesses knowledge and power that you do not have but whose character is one of love and wisdom?
There are possible answers in my own situation which are not the full picture but seem to be lessons I am being taught. For example dad has never been demonstrative and so we have never been close in that sense. However as he jabbers away in bed I find myself stroking his hand or touching his face or tidying his hair. I kiss him before we leave and I smile a lot when he looks at me. There is intimacy now where there was distance. Is that why he is still here so that God has given me a chance to get closer to my father – a kind of healing? I don’t know.
Also in my busy life where I get caught up just doing ‘things’ almost on automatic pilot it does me good to make the trip down the hospital and feel upset and anxious about someone close. It’s a way, I suppose, of being made human again. I can’t protect myself all the time or become so ‘professional’ and self-controlled that I bury feelings and retain a sort of aloofness from the pains and sufferings of others. Of course breaking down at every funeral etc will render me completely incapable of seeing things through – someone has to be in charge – but at the same time it can lead to a kind of robotic subhuman behaviour which is surely not good for the soul.
So visiting dad is a kind of healing. It keeps me reaching out instead of closing off. So there is a “time to live and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2) but only when whatever needs to be done is done, or a lesson that needs to be learnt is learnt? And of course when God in His infinite wisdom decides, with dad, that it’s time to go.

Sleepless in Swansea

(From an earlier blog written in 2008)
This is the second night in a row that I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it is something I ate or drank or whether this is something that every 52 year old might as well get used to because this is what will occur on a more regular basis from now on in? One blessing is that this is one of the few ‘free’ moments I seem to have to write my blog, so “every cloud…”
What does fascinate me however about these nocturnal forays downstairs is how sharp my mind is and will be tomorrow too. Okay half way through the day I will need some kind of slap across the face or something to stimulate my digestive system, but generally I know I will be on top form mentally. Another side effect (benefit?) is that I get more emotionally tuned in to things. I mean that things move me more. I relate on a deeper level to the tragedy on the TV news or I find myself able to so empathize with a bereaved person so that I am on the verge of mingling my tears with theirs.
I know it does smack of some kind of loss of control and anyone reading this can be forgiven for thinking that maybe I am on the verge of some sort of breakdown. But a sleepless night does have its benefits, although I would not choose to remain awake like this and certainly not on a regular basis.
Which brings me to the subject of the spiritual disciplines. In the gospels Jesus several times calls on his disciples to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38). Jesus himself would spend time with God at all kinds of unearthly hours. In 2 Corinthians 6:5 Paul refers to something called “watching” which I take to be a kind of abstinence, not of eating or drinking, but of sleeping, in order to spend time in prayer. So maybe this is God nudging me awake to spend some time with Him that I could not afford in the day. Maybe it’s a call to “Come away…and rest a while” with Him (Mark 6:31) in His presence? If that’s the case then I am glad to be here, awake, banging the keys with God looking over my shoulder. Just me and Him and the dark hovering behind the bright computer screen on my desk.

The democratization of morality

In the absence of God, who decides whether a thing is right or wrong? Take sex outside of marriage, for example. Christians would agree that it is wrong and potentially destructive, undermining marriage and opening the door to unwanted preganancies etc. But times have changed and now society has decided that it is no longer taboo but actually perfectly acceptable. It has voted with its feet – or some other part of its anatomy – and collectively decided that we no longer need to view it as wrong. Morality therefore has become democratized. Because the majority are in favour, any conflicting – i.e. Christian - view is demonized as moralizing. A decision has been made, the votes cast, and sex before marriage is officially ‘in’. (Note: for many it has always been ‘in’ but never in such a publicly approving way). But there are huge problems with this approach because something (or someone) is fuelling this this way of thinking. Someone is persuading the majority that this is okay and the way forward. They, the public, are not uninformed, so who is informing them? Who or what is driving this forward?
Also there is a danger that if enough people think it is good then bad is turned on its head and evil is the new ‘good’ so to speak. Which reminds me of a passage from Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” Isaiah 5:20. Isn’t that what has happened in Germany in the last world war. Somehow a whole nation was persuaded into thinking that getting rid of the Jews was a ‘good thing’ and that their presence was somehow evil. So thousands of blind eyes were turned as Hitler set about their extermination.
So the way things are going I am getting increasingly worried. Today it is sex before marriage, yesterday it was abortion on demand, what will tomorrow bring?

Isaiah and the art of preaching

Today I am thinking about my Sunday sermon. It will (possibly) be based on a text from the prophet Isaiah who was active about 745-680 BC. According to Jewish and Christian tradition he was the son of Amoz from the tribe of Judah and was the nephew of King Amaziah. In the Orthodox Liturgical calendar he is commemorated on May 9th which is the day before my birthday. All the Old Testament writers are remembered as saints in the Orthodox Church and some (all?) have a special day on which to remember them. So before you say happy birthday to me perhaps you will whisper one to Isaiah the day before.
People sometimes ask what makes me decide which text to preach on? As there are usually several texts to chose from, how do I know which one God wants me to use? Some are under the impression that it’s a ’simple’ process by which we – meaning priests, ministers and pastors etc – ‘hear’ a voice from God directing us what to say. “And the message for today is…” kind of thing. They assume that being men of God this is as natural to us as knowing how to mend a broken pipe is to a plumber! I must admit that would be great as it would remove the doubts I (too often) get as to whether I was in fact properly ‘tuned in’ to the Almighty when I sat down of a Friday to ponder what to say.
Others imagine a more mysterious process by which after prayer and fasting or all-night vigil, or maybe through meditation or even a dream, God communicates what He wants me to deliver. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s much more prosaic and mundane than either of the above. I merely go through the passages for that particular Sunday and use the one that ‘jumps out’ at me in some way. I then pray asking God to guide me and then sit down and read, reflect and write out (excuse the preacher’s alliteration) what the passage means, using illustrations to draw out the meaning and an application to put it into practice. Whether it ‘works’ or not is something I always wonder about – not without a little self-recrimination – but, when my faith is up to it, I am happy to leave it all in God’s very capable hands. If He can take a little clay and make a man, He can take something far less promising and make a sermon that will ’speak’ to the appropriate (and humble) person on the listening end.
Actually I am making it sound really easy and something anyone can do – and maybe they can. But we must be careful not rule out the much larger picture. The sermon is prepared and given within the context of a life that has been set aside to serve God – no matter how imperfectly, and I mean imperfectly. Also it’s meant for a congregation to whom God has – I believe – appointed me to lead and guide on the spiirtual path. Plus there’s the whole thing about Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to lead his Church into all truth, a promise made to a bunch of rather unpromising disciples just before his betrayal when every single one of them fled. And the fact is that I do pray every day in some form or another, so its not as if the lines of communication are closed until the day I prepare my sermon. Add to all that my desire to do God’s will and my congregation’s (assumed) desire to listen and learn, and what you get is something a bit more than just me in my study straining to produce another message to get me through another Sunday.
So mystery solved (or deepened). God cannot be restricted to a prayer or an hour with the Bible or constrained to construe a sermon within the narrow parameters of a rather specific means of guidance. He is always at work – as Jesus reminded his hearers – before, during and after my sermon-writing time because getting the message across is not just about the moment, its about all the moments put together flowing in a God-ward and God-ordained direction. So I will sit with Isaiah and God as the three of us collaborate together on what it is that needs to be said this forthcoming Sunday, safe in the knowledge that God, in some way, is in it all.

Caesar and God

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Tea...