Thursday, 22 September 2011

Not ANOTHER commission!

Not another commssion and another review! Have we been here before? The following article first appeared in the Church of England newspaper on May 7th 2011 about a commission set up by the Church in Wales to look at halting or "managing the decline" (strange phrase) of the Church in Wales:

"Managing the decline of the Church in Wales calls for a fundamental re-think of its structures and finances, the Archbishop of Wales said last week.

In his presidential address to the April 27-28 meeting of the church’s Governing Body gathered at Swansea University, Dr. Barry Morgan said a three-man review commission led by Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, and retired London Business School Professor Charles Handy would examine the church’s structures in light of declining revenues, clergy and members.

The commission would be asked to determine whether “the resources available to the Church in Wales are being deployed efficiently and effectively;” whether the “organisation of the Church in Wales is one which enables the Church to be effective in addressing the nation of Wales;” and whether the “organisation should be adapted to enable the Church to live more fully into a model of church life which is theologically and missionally coherent and sustainable in the long term.”

Declining revenues, rising expenses, aging clergy and congregations and an absence of young people were driving the reforms.  Dr. Morgan noted that “average attendance had continued to fall by 2 per cent in line with the longer term trend,” while “average attendance among young people had fallen particularly sharply.”
Finances were also a concern, as the “level of total direct giving fell for the first time since the statistics began to be collected in this format in 1990” and “for the first time since 1993, total parish income was less than expenditure.”  This was coupled with a rise from 28 per cent to 31 per cent of the proportion of parish funds “spent on buildings.”

Long standing polices, including a presence across all of Wales, would have to be reviewed, the archbishop noted.  However, Dr. Morgan stressed the importance of the work of the church’s bishops, who would be “devoting more time at our forthcoming meetings to further defining our vision for a more ‘fit for purpose Church’ and for ensuring that we have in place the right plans and processes for providing and supporting ministry at all levels of the Church to achieve this vision.”

Dr. Morgan said that “in commissioning such a review, we will all have to be prepared to take seriously its findings and to be open to the possibility of significant change in our structures, ministry, use of buildings and other resources if it is seen to be in the best interests of the church and its mission to the people and communities of Wales as we look ahead to the next decade.”

My response is a mixture of hope and scepticism. Scepticism because I have, over 25 years of ministry, seen several such commissions and reviews - provincial and diocesan - which have done nothing to halt the continuing decline of the Church in Wales. I am not sure grand gestures of this sort ever really work because they take very much a top down approach to such issues and I am not sure that this is God's way of doing it. The incarnation is the model for us here when God Himself, in Christ, came and dwelt among us (John 1) and did not set up a comittee or a commssion to sort out the problems the world was facing. Instead he got alongside the people, started a small movement - beginning with a few disciples - and told them to continue to do what he had taught them to do, and to teach others to do the same. Fundamental to this was a faith in God - evidenced in the amount of time they gave to prayer - and the superantural - which included a reliance on the Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost. Commissions etc therefore seem to be a very human way of dealing with the problem and are an expression of the very human way we have been trying to run and grow the church in express contradiction to the way it was set up and meant to function. You get the impression at meetings of the clergy nowadays that God got the ball rolling and retreated back to his heaven to let us get on with it ourselves. "Thanks for the kick start God - now we'll take it from here." Of course there is prayer at such meetings, but generally they are hurried and seen as a box that needs ticking before the real work begins.

But having said all that I must admit to some hope too because something is happening and maybe, just maybe, the commission will trip over God as He bends down to speak to us and catch something of His guidance and inspiration in all this. But will it be a praying commission and will it be a commission that, in John Stott's famous phrase, practice a kind of "double-listening" both to God and the world? There's the nub for me.

Whatever the rights and wrongs we must pray. To pray is light a candle rather than curse the darkness all the time. It is to do something positive. And maybe, just maybe, this will work.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Looking over the fence - part 3

RTE: Wonderful. Can we go back some centuries and talk about how Wales, as we know it now, came into being?

Fr. Deiniol: The process was complicated. We first had the Celtic-speaking native British, who were pushed west as the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes gained ascendancy. In some places the original population of Britons probably mixed with them, in other places not. In Strathclyde, now in Scotland, for example, the Welsh language was spoken until the twelfth century, and the first Welsh poetry is found in Catterick in northern Yorkshire in England. Even to this day, when we speak in Welsh of the “old North,” we mean the area around Strathclyde.

At a certain point, various of these invading tribes developed kingdoms, such as in Mercia, where a wall was built separating the Brythonic-speaking Britons who had gone west, from the conquering tribes. In about the 7th century, the word “Welsh” began to be used by the English Anglo-Saxons, meaning “foreigners,” and the Welsh called themselves Cymry, which means “the brethren” or “compatriots.” We cannot speak of a separate England, Wales, and Scotland until that point.

So, the original Brythonic-speaking people in the old North, in Devon, Cornwall, and Wales, were now physically separated from one another. The Welsh language was eventually lost from the “old North,” and so it is no longer possible to identify the descendants of the ancient Britons who lived there. The Scots are not their descendants, but descendants of Irish migrants who settled there. That is why Scottish and Irish Gaelic are almost the same language. The Cornish language died in the 18th century. The only descendants of the ancient Britons who can still be identified are the people of Wales, and this is because we have preserved our ancient language. What we now call “the Welsh” is the identifiable remnant of the original people of the British Isles.

RTE: We tend to think of centers of early Romano-British Christianity as being near such places as York. When the Romans pulled out in the fifth century, did Wales also have a fully-established hierarchical church?

Fr. Deiniol: of course. They say that Bangor-in-Arfon in North West Wales was a diocese in the sense that we use the word now, as a territorial area from the sixth century. Bede talks about a monastery in Bangor-on-Dee (another Bangor) with 2,000 monks. Certainly, there were Celtic bishops as well.

Of course, we can’t speak about “The Celtic Church,” as if it was an organized entity that incorporated what we now call Brittany, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland into an identifiable independent body. It was part of the worldwide Church. It was catholic—but not in the contemporary sense of “Roman Catholic”—in faith and doctrine. There was coming and going, and there was much interest on the Continent about what was happening in Britain. Many writers speak of early Christianity here, and early fathers of the Church mention it as well—origen, Lactantius, Tertullian, Eusebius.

They knew of the Christian Church in Britain, and monks used to travel to the East from the Celtic-speaking lands on pilgrimage. There was evangelization along the trade routes, and our monks certainly went to see monastic life in Egypt, the Holy Land, Rome, and Constantinople. Monasticism here seemed to resemble more the Lavra system than the classical coenobitic monasteries that evolved in the West. There is also a tradition that the Celtic bishops St. David, St. Teilo, and St. Padarn were all consecrated by the patriarch of Jerusalem. According to tradition, one was given a sakkos, the bishop’s vestment, another, a portable altar, and the third, a bishop’s staff.

So there were connections with the East, but we don’t have to show a connection with the East to prove that this church of the Celts was Catholic and Orthodox in faith and doctrine. Yes, they had their local customs, such as shaving their head in a certain way for the monastic tonsure, as we find local customs today in various local Orthodox churches. And, as within Orthodoxy today, they had different calendars. After the Synod of Whitby, when the Church of the Celtic peoples adapted its local customs to conform to those of Rome, it came under Canterbury and thereby under Rome. So when the Great Schism came about, it was part of the patriarchate of the West, and went with the western Churches. Canterbury remained the primatial see of Britain.

RTE: How did the 11th-century Norman invasion affect Christian Wales?

Fr. Deiniol: In Wales, the Normans established many monasteries. In fact, all the big abbeys were established by them. The most significant thing about this was that, while previously the monasteries had followed the Orthodox tradition of being independent and generally self-ruling, now each monas­tery had to belong to one of the Western religious orders. The Welsh often chose the Augustinians, as being perhaps the nearest to the way of life they were accustomed to. There were also many Cistercian foundations in Wales, such as the monastery in Strata Florida. This is where the history of Wales, called “The Chronicles of the Princes,” in Welsh, Brut-y-Tywysogion, was written. The history of Wales begins with the death of St. Cadwaladr, the last Briton—i.e. Celt, to be king of Britain before the Saxons obtained the crown. He is the patron saint of The Wales Orthodox Mission. He was known for his compassion, otherworldliness, and generosity—giving away his possessions to those who had lost theirs and caring for the multitudes who were afflicted by a terrible plague which visited the land in those days.

RTE: With such a rich heritage, what allowed the Welsh and Scots to make such a radical change from traditional Catholicism and a Reformation-imposed Anglicanism, to Calvinism?

Fr. Deiniol: By the 18th century, the Anglican Church in Wales was pretty moribund. It was led by English, non-Welsh-speaking absentee Anglican bishops. Many of the clergy were also absentee and did not speak the language of the people (by no means everyone in Wales could speak English in those days).

When the Methodist Revival broke out in the U.K. and spread to Wales, John Wesley and Whitfield, his colleague, came to an agreement that Wesley would have England as missionary territory and Whitfield would take Wales. Methodism spread in Wales through the efforts of great “revivalists” like Howell Harris, Daniel Rowlands, and especially the magnificent hymnographer, William Williams of Pantycelyn, whose hymns are, by any measure, classics comparable to the great hymnographers of any Christian tradition, East or West. Thus, the people of Wales were offered a vibrant and rich religious life, in their own language.

Methodism became a popular movement—unlike the highly Anglicized Anglican Church in Wales which was essentially the Church of the landowners and to which the ordinary Welsh people may never have been very attached since the Reformation. The ordinary, poor Welsh people now had a form of Christianity of their own which flourished and produced some good fruit.

However, Whitfield was a Calvinist and so the form of Methodism that spread in Wales was Calvinistic Methodisim. When a Welsh person speaks of Methodism, he or she generally means this Calvinistic variety also known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales (the title they prefer these days). Methodism in England followed Wesley’s theology which was based on the teaching of Jacobus Arminius,which emphasizes free will as opposed to Calvin’s predestination.

Later on, Wesleyan Methodism also came to Wales, but it was a minority denomination here and strong only in certain specific areas. However, the Calvinists maintain (and I have heard this point being made by a Calvinist minister in my house a few years ago) that the ‘Wesleyans’ have no right to be in Wales owing to the agreement between Whitfield and Wesley.

I must say that the ethos of each of the two forms of Methodism was very different. They had very different cultures from each other. There was even a ditty about the Calvinists: ‘Nasty, cruel Methodists (i.e. Calvinists) who go to chapel without any grace….’

RTE: Have the Catholic and Anglican Churches returned in any force since?

Fr. Deiniol: The Roman Catholic Church, which was illegal for hundreds of years, only returned in the 19th century, although a few “recusant” families who could afford to pay the fines, remained Catholic. Accordingly, most Roman Catholics in Wales are not Welsh, but are usually partly of Polish or Irish extraction. There are some Welsh Roman Catholics but they aren’t numerous.

After the rise of Protestant Calvinism, the Anglican Church became a minority church compared to the Non-conformist denominations such as Baptists, Congregationalists, and Calvinists. only a small proportion of Welsh-speaking or culturally Welsh people belonged to it. This may still be true to some degree. It was only in the 20th century that the Anglican Church in Wales gained its independence from Canterbury and became disestablished.

So, we can say that this is a good time for Orthodoxy as a continuation of the Undivided Church, to be in Wales. None of the other churches dominate Welsh religious and cultural life, and people are not so sectarian in their mentality—it doesn’t mean as much to them now that they are Baptists or Calvinists. There is a very friendly atmosphere. Also, the prejudices against saints and their veneration (customs such as praying at shrines and holy wells, which reflect the sacramental understanding of life) are now more acceptable. At least we aren’t in the position of confrontation, and that is helpful.

RTE: Are people becoming more interested as they see your attempts to recover their heritage?

Fr. Deiniol: No, I don’t think so. The awareness of the saints is too lost. They are mostly remembered in place-names—for example, a majority of places in Wales begin with the prefix “Llan.” This can mean the church building, but it also means a Christian settlement, usually founded by a Christian saint. In many cases we are talking about the period of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, when the original Celtic-speaking British peoples began moving west. A saint might land on a coastal area, as did St. David, the patron saint of Wales, who went to a place called Vallis Rosina, “Valley of the Roses,” to live as a monk. The pagan tribes are at first hostile to him but eventually people are attracted by the holiness of his life and become Christian; a community forms, and around the community, a village. This is almost identical to what St. Sergei of Radonezh did in Russia, founding new hermitages and monasteries as he moved deeper into the forest.

These new communities that came into being because people were attracted by the saint who lived there, are called Llan, and very often in Welsh place-names, the name that follows Llan is the name of a saint: Llandanwg—the Christian settlement and Church of St. Tanwg, or Llandudno—the Church of St. Tudno.

What is this country that we now call Wales? It is the sum total of the Llans, these places created by saints, communities that didn’t exist before they came. As we travel these roads we go through one Llan after another, and each one is a saint’s name. This is why I use the expression, “Wales is a nation created by saints.”

But, even with such a rich history, we need more to awaken us than an understanding of place names. The young people in Russia, for example, still have a link with their spiritual past after the collapse of Soviet atheism—their grandmothers were still Orthodox Christians—but what we’ve had here was a much longer break. of course, after the Great Schism, I’m sure that very little changed, and much in Roman Catholic practice would have been indistinguishable from Orthodoxy for a very long time afterwards.

Even that break, however, goes back a thousand years, and the Reformation, which was largely destructive of tradition, goes back 400 years.

When we acquired our church, the Metropolitan suggested that we dedicate it to “All the Saints of Wales.” The idea is that when the church is finished with icons and frescoes, a person from any part of Wales will be able to come here and find his saint. This is part of our task, recreating this link with history, and this is done by things like the service to mark the opening of the Welsh Assembly, and the opportunity to give talks and welcome visitors to the church. our mission exists on various levels and different fronts.

RTE: And the interest will not only be local. We come across many interesting accounts of the strong appeal that the Celtic culture has, especially for young people, in many parts of the world.

Fr. Deiniol: of course, wonderful things have survived, such as The Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The art and imagery are amazing. The Christian Celts had developed a profound and deeply Christian culture. It’s not surprising that this should be of interest to people in other countries.

Orthodox youth in former Soviet countries or the emigration often think of their ancestral churches as something rather ethnic or old-fashioned. other things appear more interesting to them. But it’s a little bit like the Trojan Horse isn’t it? If they become interested in Celtic history and culture, they will soon find that inside, at the very core, is their own Christian faith.

The question for us is how we can encourage our own young people to be remotely interested in anything Christian whatsoever. As an old colleague of mine, Archimandrite Barnabas—the first Welsh Orthodox priest—used to say, the cultural legacy of Calvinistic teaching seems to have provided an immunization against all religious search and questions.

RTE: May God give the blessing.

From: Road to Emmaus, Winter 2009, No. 36.


© 2011, Journey To Orthodoxy | The Orthodox Christian 'Welcome Home' Network for Converts. All rights reserved. The website can be found here.

Looking over the fence - part 2

RTE: Scotland also has many adherents of Calvinism, doesn’t it?

Fr. Deiniol: It does, and Calvinism was also strong in parts of South Africa, but the form of Calvinism there is not as extreme as the form that dominated in Wales, where the belief in ‘Double Predestination’ was adhered to.

RTE: What is ‘Double Predestination’?

Fr. Deiniol: The Calvinist doctrine is that God has predestined people from before the creation of the world for redemption. ‘Double Predestination’ is the belief that God has predetermined and preordained not only who shall go to heaven, but who shall go to hell. In other words, He has brought some human beings into existence, having already determined that they shall go to hell for eternity. They maintain that He has done this in His infinite Wisdom and that the logical contradiction between that and God’s infinite love is not for us to question and understand. So, the God of love becomes, in their theology, a tyrannical and arbitrary monster, whose excesses are far worse than the worst tyrants of human history, who only tormented people for a limited period of time. The God of Calvinism creates some people in order that they should suffer for eternity.

RTE: And this not only severs any notion of free will, but I imagine that you would have to take care to appear “good” to prove that you are one of the saved, or is that too simplistic?

Fr. Deiniol: No, that’s very accurate. “How do we know who is saved?” “Oh, by their fruits you shall know them.” Accordingly, observable behaviour becomes very important, and at a certain stage in the evolution of things, when conviction and faith are no longer so strongly present, this preoccupation with appearances becomes a very distinctive characteristic of these societies. That is certainly what I think happened in Wales. Also it means that people don’t look at the darker side of themselves, and don’t encounter their shadow. Darkness is then projected onto other people, so you have groups that are the scapegoats, the lowest of the low.

Communities are very hierarchical and there are people right at the bottom of the pile. In Wales, this emphasis on behavior also got linked up with the Temperance Movement, which, much as it may have been needed, divided the society into two—those who went to the chapel and those who went to the pub, those who drank and those who didn’t (or at least said they didn’t drink.)

To this very day, many Welsh people who go to the pub will not visit a church or chapel. The two locations are thought to be mutually exclusive locations, and those who frequent one of these places will usually hold the other place and its frequenters in contempt and think they will not be welcomed there! By now almost everybody does visit the pub, but the dichotomy persists and it is almost impossible to persuade people to visit a church. Furthermore, because every family was a ‘member’ of a Non-conformist chapel or of the Anglican parish Church, it means that people are still aware of their family ‘Church allegiance’.

They may still pay an annual fee for their family seat in a particular chapel, but never attend that chapel or any other place of worship, other than for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. However, they will use their ancestral allegiance to a particular denomination as a reason not to attend any other Church. An invitation to attend the Orthodox Church will therefore usually be met with a negative response. Typically, they might say ‘‘my ‘ticket’ (i.e. membership card which they maintain by payment of the rent for their seat in the chapel!) is in such and such a chapel.” Yet they may not have been there for 25 years.

Of course, as you’ve mentioned, Calvinism undermines any doctrine of free will. In fact they don’t believe in free will. Free will and predestination are opposing doctrines. This is perhaps what happens when you eliminate the role of the Mother of God from your theology, because it was of her own free will that she said,

“Be it unto me according to Thy will.”

At that point she was free to say, “No.” The redemption of the human race was in the balance at that moment. She could have said,

“This is too much, I can’t take this on,”

but instead she said,

“Be it unto me…”

So when you remove the Mother of God, and the very pivotal nature of her response, then the door is open to do away with the idea of free will in Christian theology, and the way is open for Calvinism. The Mother of God is our protection against Calvinistic doctrine. The Calvinistic doctrine that some are chosen for heaven, and others for hell, not only makes God seem very arbitrary, but it undermines any idea that God is the God of love and that our response to Him is a free and voluntary response.

RTE: In that case, you couldn’t possibly love Him yourself.

Fr. Deiniol: Yes—love is voluntary, not compulsory. We can only love God if we have free will. We might be frightened of Him, perhaps, or feel duty towards Him, but without free will we cannot love Him. Without free will our relationship with Him is not reciprocal. This attitude has created antipathy, and although people now don’t go to church, they know something—not theology, but the feel of Calvinism that permeates their culture. They keep their distance because they think they know what Christianity is, but it’s often a negative impression. For this reason, it would be easier to undertake a mission in Tibet than in a Calvinistic culture.

I imagine it will take a generation or two for people not only to consciously reject specific Calvinistic perspectives and teachings, but to rid themselves of its influence on their mentality. It has left behind a certain fatalism. These chapels have died very quickly. They are closing at the rate of one a week in Wales, which is a small country, and it’s as if people are glad to shake off the whole thing.

RTE: Do you think that after these generations pass, people will be ready to reconsider Christianity?

Fr. Deiniol: Because people free themselves doesn’t actually mean they will come to church, but that particular obstacle won’t be there. There will be other obstacles then. When people begin asking questions about the meaning of life, about the significance of things, they begin to touch on religious questions, but in general, people are not asking these questions, and I say this as one who has taught religious education for fifteen years here in Wales, and who has lived in this society most of his life.

RTE: Perhaps it’s a recovery period.

Fr. Deiniol: If it acts as a recovery period that would be very good. Of course, this is an attempt to provide some sort of diagnosis or analysis, and I’m not saying that I have answers as to what the strategy of the Orthodox Church in Wales should be. God does things in His way and His time, and it would be foolish of me to say,

“This is what we must do.”

But I think we won’t go far wrong if, for example, as Orthodox people in Wales, we try to demonstrate some care for people in their situations in life. for example, in our town there are high rates of unemployment. If our church can be instrumental in improving people’s lives so that they aren’t plagued by constant problems, this may be a way to show that God loves them and cares about them, and cares about their situations.

RTE: Do you have ideas as to how your parish can participate in that?

Fr. Deiniol: To be honest, although we are not numerous, many of us have been very actively involved in work in the community and for the regeneration of Blaenau Ffestiniog from the inception of our church. Orthodoxy believes not only in life after death, but in life before death. The quality of people’s lives is important. We are incarnate beings, not just souls, and we can’t be happy if we see people hungry or in anguish. We have to be concerned about people’s situations as a whole, in their totality.

RTE: Yes, and this approach has other 20th-century precedents. After World War II and the Greek civil war, there was massive unemployment and many Greeks were depressed and disillusioned with the Church. Fr. Amphilochius Makris, the well-known spiritual father of Patmos, said that the words of preachers and politicians were like throwing turpentine on the fire, and that only love and works of charity would bring them back to Christ.

Fr. Deiniol: Well, the Gospel actually says that, doesn’t it? Why should I consider preaching at people to be the main strategy? Why should they listen to me? For two centuries, they’ve listened to other preachers who didn’t make them feel good. I have no mandate from them. They didn’t ask me to come here and preach to them. On what basis would I assume that these people want to hear what I’ve got to say? That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that people do not go to church in Wales. I remember asking a young person,

 “What would it take to get you to go to church?” He said, “A great deal of courage to actually be seen coming into the building by my friends.”

This is very different from many countries, even from the States, as I know from my visits there. But we have to be aware of what things are like in the United Kingdom and what things are like in Wales. And as I’ve tried to explain in giving this Calvinistic background, I’m not surprised that people don’t want to come to church.

This not to say we don’t get any people coming into church. In fact, we get many visitors and my parishioners are a mixture of nationalities. For Christmas we were ten nationalities, and there are also foreign Orthodox students at the universities and colleges where I am chaplain. We conduct our services in a number of languages, according to the need on any particular Sunday. We’ve been very fortunate in the support we receive from our hierarch, Bishop Andriy of Western Europe, who is a member of the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Church of the Diaspora, within the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

We are officially called The Wales Orthodox Mission, of which I am the administrator. In fact, the term “mission” is not used very much in the U.K. by the Orthodox Church, but I think it is very important to state what we are. We are not a chaplaincy looking after a separate ethnic minority, nor are we a well-established church full of people who have become Orthodox (although there are increasing numbers). We are a mission. And I think that any church in Wales, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican or anything else, should at this point call themselves a mission, because that is the nature of the situation.

The Wales Orthodox Mission is the contact point between the Orthodox Church and Welsh institutions. If Welsh organizations wish to be in touch with the Orthodox Church, they contact us, and we get many groups visiting us from churches and societies. I’m often asked to give talks and if subjects such as Eastern Europe or certain theological or social issues are being discussed on the radio or TV, they sometimes ask me for an interview on these topics as well. So our church is present and active, but I hope in a way that corresponds to the needs, realities, and possibilities that exist at this stage in Welsh cultural history.

RTE: We were told that you were invited to lead a prayer at the opening of your national parliament, the Welsh Assembly.

Fr. Deiniol: This is quite an interesting history. Wales lost its independence in government 700 years ago, and approximately six years ago, we received our own government again, not completely independent, but with certain powers. There was an ecumenical service to celebrate the opening of the Welsh Assembly Government, which took place at the Anglican cathedral in Llandaff, Cardiff. The Orthodox Church, amongst other churches, was invited to make a contribution to the format of the service. I prepared two prayers. Each prayer had a response, and as the response I included,

 “All you saints of Wales, pray to God for us.”

The ecumenical organizers came back and said that they didn’t think this was acceptable. (Invocation of the saints, of course, had been outlawed during the Protestant period.) My response was,

“If you invite an Orthodox priest, you get an Orthodox response and an Orthodox contribution. If this is not acceptable, why do you ask us in the first place?”

At that point I felt that the ghost of Thomas Cromwell was striding rampantly through Wales. Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s henchman and operator who closed all the monasteries throughout Britain, wrecked the shrines and relics, and destroyed the altars. I thought, “Well, they are still unwilling to invoke the saints,” and was about to write a fax that evening to say words to this effect, but at the moment I was about to send this letter, another fax arrived saying that the prayer was alright. So this prayer was used and the response was used.

Now the interesting part is this. on that occasion, the Queen of England, her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, and her son, Charles, Prince of Wales, were all present at the service. Normally, for security reasons, the three do not travel or appear together. So when that prayer was said, and the whole congregation responded,

 “O, all you saints of Wales, pray to God for us!”,

this was the first time such a phrase had been used in that cathedral since the Reformation—with the successor of Henry VIII, the king who had originally made such an invocation illegal, present and taking part in the service. That was not an insignificant event, I think.

Looking over the fence - part 1

When I used to live with my parents we had a house with a long back garden and running along the left hand  side a six foot hedge and along the right hand side a five foot brick wall. We used to know our neighbours on the right very well and my mother would often pop round for a chat and a cup of tea, or she would lean over the wall whilst gardening to talk about the weather or share gardening tips. Sadly the same could not be said of our neighbours on the left. This was in part to do with the fact that the hedge was so high, but also partly because the person next door didn't come into the garden ofetn and even when they did, all we seemed to hear was them complaining about the noise on our side (made, it has to be said, by me and my friends messing around).

But how different would things have been if the hedge were lower, and we could see and speak to the anonymous person the other side. Perhaps we could have struck up a friendship, or at least a greater understanding of one another. After we lived in the same street, shared a common hedge and were, after all, neighbours.

I use this as an introduction to the following 'conversation' which took place between two people, both Eastern Orthodox Christians.The one being interviewed is Hieromonk Deiniol, the sole native Welsh Orthodox priest, the founder of the Wales Orthodox Mission, and pastor of the Church of All Saints in the North Wales mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. He travelled with Road to Emmaus magazine in 2009 to ancient and little-known pre-schism shrines of the Welsh countryside. Along the way he talked with the interviewer of early Welsh Christianity, the effects of post-Reformation Calvinism, and the state of the Welsh Church today. It's an interesting insight into Christianity in Wales from an Orthodox perspective, as well as an opportunity to 'talk over the fence' with one of our brothers in Christ and get to know them a bit better.

RTE: father, how did a native Welshman end up as an Orthodox priest in Blaenau Ffestiniog?

Fr. Deiniol: I originate from Anglesey, an island off the coast of North Wales, and I became Orthodox at the age of twenty, when I was living and studying in London. I became a monk in 1977, and was ordained a priest in 1979 by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourouzh, who gave me the task of opening an Orthodox church in North Wales. At that time, the nearest church was in Liverpool, which was very far for people from north-west Wales. After ordination I moved a few miles from where I was living to Blaenau Ffestiniog, where I’ve been for twenty-six years.

RTE: And what can you tell us about this remote and beautiful town?

Fr. Deiniol: The town of Blaenau Ffestiniog is a depressed post-industrial town in the middle of the mountains. It was a very busy town while the slate industry flourished, one of three or four such areas in north Wales, and in the 19th century, it employed many thousands of people. Unlike the other slate-mining areas in north Wales, extraction of the slate in Blaenau Ffestiniog took place underground. In other locations it was above ground, or at least in open pits, but here the slate was mined beneath the earth, and the conditions were terrible. Mines were often full of dust from blasting the slate, and smoke from the explosives.

The men worked in the dark with candles on their helmets. They were answerable to the mine’s steward and if they arrived at work a minute late they were sent home. They worked chained. A chain was fastened around their upper leg, and they were suspended from this chain, which was attached to a rod hammered into the slate face. In other countries, these working conditions are considered penal conditions, for example, in the old salt mines in Siberia. In the winter, the slate miners wouldn’t see the light of day. They started work before dawn and finished after dark.

Nevertheless, there was a sort of vibrant cultural life in those mining towns, partly due to the fact that these miners didn’t want bright young men to have to work in the same conditions. They would save money, for example, and gather pennies and subscriptions to send bright youngsters to the university. Many young men from that time owe a lot to their mining families and friends, who made sure that they didn’t have to go into the mines. In fact, those miners paid to set up the University of Wales.

In just such a way they built their nonconformist chapels, of which at one time there were forty-two in our town which, at its height, had a population of 12,000. Having all of these sectarian chapels was characteristic of Welsh society at the time.

That was the formative period for Blaenau Ffestiniog, but we have to realize that because the town is located very high up in the mountains at the end of a valley, in the normal course of events, no one would have thought of building a town there. It came into being only because of the slate mining industry, and is built in the shape of an inverted horseshoe—so you can be on one side of the town and look across the valley to the other side.

In addition to valuing culture, many people, of course, also valued their religious heritage, but as in most other places in North Wales, this was a very Calvinistic form of Protestantism. In the South Wales valleys, where coal mining was the dominant industry, Calvinism didn’t dominate in the same way. This is something we should return to when we analyze the logistics of what Orthodox mission involves in a post-Calvinist society.

RTE: When did the slate mining stop?

Fr. Deiniol: It hasn’t stopped; it continues, but on a much-reduced scale. People sometimes compare the North Wales slate-mining areas with the South Wales coal-mining valleys. If you go to a place called Tylotrstown in the Small Rhondda Valley, you wonder where does Tylotrstown end and where does the next town, Ferndale, begin?

These villages run into each other in a row, whereas in North Wales slate-mining towns were quite separate communities, particularly Blaenau Ffestiniog, and there is a certain air of isolation here. Also, of course, after the decline of the industry, it became a post-industrial town, which means that this town, which produced an income of millions of pounds from which the local people never benefited, then became a place of unemployment.

We have all the characteristics of the postindustrial communities of north-east England that are one hundred times our size, and the Pennsylvania coal-mining areas in the States: high degrees of social exclusion, substance abuse, family breakup, the break-down of social cohesion.

So this is the town I live in, a very poor town, high levels of unemployment and many people with a sense of hopelessness. Nevertheless, they wouldn’t think of turning to church, because the Calvinist legacy is a very negative one. I’m not saying that everything was bad about the chapels; the Nonconformist tradition produced a genuine Christian spirituality with a real love of Scripture, a real love of God, and very fine hymnography, but it had a shadow side, and this shadow side was Calvinism and its censoriousness, being very judgmental and placing people in categories. It wasn’t known for its compassion for the frail and vulnerable, or for those whose lives took a negative turn.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Bible and obedience - 1

The Orthodox Study Bible contains a wonderful article by His Grace Bishop KALLISTOS Ware and I wanted to share it with you as a four-part series. . This article is formative for understanding how the Orthodox Christian reads scripture. I hope you enjoy the article as much as I have.

We believe that the scriptures constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God’s revelation of Himself – in creation, in the Incarnation of the Word, and the whole history of salvation. And as such they express the word of God in human language. We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is one of obedience.

We may distinguish four key qualities that mark an Orthodox reading of Scripture, namely

our reading should be obedient,

it should be ecclesial, within the Church,

it should be Christ-centered,

it should be personal.

Reading the Bible with Obedience

FIRST OF ALL, when reading Scripture, we are to listen in a spirit of obedience. The Orthodox Church believes in divine inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is a “letter” from God, where Christ Himself is speaking. The Scriptures are God’s authoritative witness of Himself. They express the Word of God in our human language. Since God Himself is speaking to us in the Bible, our response is rightly one of obedience, of receptivity, and listening. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.

But, while divinely inspired, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is a whole library of different books written at varying times by distinct persons. Each book of the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does nothing in isolation, divine grace cooperates with human freedom. God does not abolish our individuality but enhances it. And so it is in the writing of inspired Scripture. The authors were not just a passive instrument, a dictation machine recording a message. Each writer of Scripture contributes his particular personal gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture. We are to value both.

Each of the four Gospels, for example, has its own particular approach. Matthew presents more particularly a Jewish understanding of Christ, with an emphasis on the kingdom of heaven. Mark contains specific, picturesque details of Christ’s ministry not given elsewhere. Luke expresses the universality of Christ’s love, His all-embracing compassion that extends equally to Jew and to Gentile. In John there is a more inward and more mystical approach to Christ, with an emphasis on divine light and divine indwelling. We are to enjoy and explore to the full this life-giving variety within the Bible.

Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in human language, there is room for honest and exacting inquiry when studying the Bible. Exploring the human aspect of the Bible, we are to use to the full our God-given human reason. The Orthodox Church does not exclude scholarly research into the origin, dates, and authorship of books of the Bible.

Alongside this human element, however, we see always the divine element. These are not simply books written by individual human writers. We hear in Scripture not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and perceptiveness, but the eternal, uncreated Word of God Himself, the divine Word of salvation. When we come to the Bible, then, we come not simply out of curiosity, to gain information. We come to the Bible with a specific question, a personal question about ourselves: “How can I be saved?”

As God’s divine word of salvation in human language, Scripture should evoke in us a sense of wonder. Do you ever feel, as you read or listen, that it has all become too familiar? Has the Bible grown rather boring? Continually we need to cleanse the doors of our perception and to look in amazement with new eyes at what the Lord sets before us.

We are to feel toward the Bible with a sense of wonder, and sense of expectation and surprise. There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have yet to enter. There is so much depth and majesty for us to discover. If obedience means wonder, it also means listening.

We are better at talking than listening. We hear the sound of our own voice, but often we don’t pause to hear the voice of the other person who is speaking to us. So the first requirement, as we read Scripture, is to stop talking and to listen – to listen with obedience.

When we enter an Orthodox Church, decorated in the traditional manner, and look up toward the sanctuary at the east end, we see there, in the apse, an icon of the Virgin Mary with her hands raised to heaven – the ancient Scriptural manner of praying that many still use today. This icon symbolizes the attitude we are to assume as we read Scripture – an attitude of receptivity, of hands invisibly raised to heaven. Reading the Bible, we are to model ourselves on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one who listens. At the Annunciation she listens with obedience and responds to the angel, “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). She could not have borne the Word of God in her body if she had not first, listened to the Word of God in her heart. After the shepherds have adored the newborn Christ, it is said of her: “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Again, when Mary finds Jesus in the temple, we are told: “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:5l). The same need for listening is emphasized in the last words attributed to the Mother of God in Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee: “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it” (John 2:5), she says to the servants – and to all of us.

In all this the Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a mirror, as a living icon of the Biblical Christian. We are to be like her as we hear the Word of God: pondering, keeping all these things in our hearts, doing whatever He tells us. We are to listen in obedience as God speaks.

The Bible and the Church - 2

This is the second of Bishop Kallistos' talks on the Bible. Today we learn the our reading of scripture should be ecclesial, that is, within the life of the Church.

IN THE SECOND PLACE, we should receive and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is not only obedient but ecclesial.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by John the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why? Because the Gospel of John is accepted by the Church and in the Church.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is also the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” And the Ethiopian answered, “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ – but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we make full use of the findings of modern Biblical research, but always we submit private opinion – whether our own or that of the scholars – to the total experience of the Church throughout the ages.

The Orthodox standpoint here is summed up in the question asked of a convert at the reception service used by the Russian Church: “Do you acknowledge that the Holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which has been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, has always held and still does hold?”

We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. When reading Scripture, we say not 
”I” but “We.” We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ, in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. The decisive test and criterion for our understanding of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church. The Bible is the book of the Church.

To discover this “mind of the Church,” where do we begin? Our first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How, in particular, are Biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? We should also consult the writings of the Church Fathers, and consider how they interpret the Bible. Our Orthodox manner of reading Scripture is in this way both liturgical and patristic. And this, as we all realize, is far from easy to do in practice, because we have at our disposal so few Orthodox commentaries on Scripture available in English, and most of the Western commentaries do not employ this liturgical and Patristic approach.

As an example of what it means to interpret Scripture in a liturgical way, guided by the use made of it at Church feasts, let us look at the Old Testament lessons appointed for Vespers on the Feast of the Annunciation. They are three in number: Genesis 28:10-17; Jacob’s dream of a ladder set up from earth to heaven; Ezekiel 43:27-44:4; the prophet’s vision of the Jerusalem sanctuary, with the closed gate through which none but the Prince may pass; Proverbs 9:1-11: one of the great Sophianic passages in the Old Testament, beginning “Wisdom has built her house.”

These texts in the Old Testament, then, as their selection for the feast of the Virgin Mary indicates, are all to be understood as prophecies concerning the Incarnation from the Virgin. Mary is Jacob’s ladder, supplying the flesh that God incarnate takes upon entering our human world. Mary is the closed gate who alone among women bore a child while still remaining inviolate. Mary provides the house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) takes as his dwelling. Exploring in this manner the choice of lessons for the various feasts, we discover layers of Biblical interpretation that are by no means obvious on a first reading.

Take as another example Vespers on Holy Saturday, the first part of the ancient Paschal Vigil. Here we have no less than fifteen Old Testament lessons. This sequence of lessons sets before us the whole scheme of sacred history, while at the same time underlining the deeper meaning of Christ’s Resurrection. First among the lessons is Genesis 1:1-13, the account of Creation: Christ’s Resurrection is a new Creation. The fourth lesson is the book of Jonah in its entirety, with the prophet’s three days in the belly of the whale foreshadowing Christ’s Resurrection after three days in the tomb (cf. Matthew 12:40). The sixth lesson recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (Exodus 13:20-15:19), which anticipates the new Passover of Pascha whereby Christ passes over from death to life (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 10:1-4). The final lesson is the story of the three Holy Children in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), once more a “type” or prophecy of Christ’s rising from the tomb.

Such is the effect of reading Scripture ecclesially, in the Church and with the Church. Studying the Old Testament in this liturgical way and using the Fathers to help us, everywhere we uncover signposts pointing forward to the mystery of Christ and of His Mother. Reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New in the light of the, Old – as the Church’s calendar encourages us to do – we discover the unity of Holy Scripture. One of the best ways of identifying correspondences between the Old and New Testaments is to use a good Biblical concordance. This can often tell us more about the meaning of Scripture than any commentary.

In Bible study groups within our parishes, it is helpful to give one person the special task of noting whenever a particular passage in the Old or New Testament is used for a festival or a saint’s day. We can then discuss together the reasons why each specific passage has been so chosen. Others in the group can be assigned to do homework among the Fathers, using for example the Biblical homilies of Saint John Chrysostom (which have been translated into English). Christians need to acquire a patristic mind.

Christ the heart of the Bible - 3

Okay here is the second part of the four part talk by Bishop: Kallistos

THE THIRD ELEMENT in our reading of Scripture is that it should be Christ-centered. The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole because they all are Christ-centered. Salvation through the Messiah is their central and unifying topic. He is as a “thread” that runs through all of Holy Scripture, from the first sentence to the last. We have already mentioned the way in which Christ may be seen foreshadowed on the pages of the Old Testament.

Much modern critical study of Scripture in the West has adopted an analytical approach, breaking up each book into different sources. The connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of bare primary units. There is certainly value in this. But we need to see the unity as well as the diversity of Scripture, the all-embracing end as well as the scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers on the whole a synthetic rather than an analytical approach, seeing Scripture as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.

Always we seek for the point of convergence between the Old Testament and the New, and this we find in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy assigns particular significance to the “typological” method of interpretation, whereby “types” of Christ, signs and symbols of His work, are discerned throughout the Old Testament. A notable example of this is Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, who offered bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), and who is seen as a type of Christ not only by the Fathers but even in the New Testament itself (Hebrews 5:6; 7:l). Another instance is the way in which, as we have seen, the Old Passover foreshadows the New; Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea anticipates our deliverance from sin through the death and Resurrection of the Savior. This is the method of interpretation that we are to apply throughout the Bible. Why, for instance, in the second half of Lent are the Old Testament readings from Genesis dominated by the figure of Joseph? Why in Holy Week do we read from the book of Job? Because Joseph and Job are innocent sufferers, and as such they are types or foreshadowings of Jesus Christ, whose innocent suffering upon the Cross the Church is at the point of celebrating. It all ties up.

A Biblical Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, on every page of Scripture, finds everywhere Christ.

The Bible as Personal - 4

I came across this excellent article recently by a man I much admire, Bishop Kallistos Ware where he talks about the Bible in very evangelical terms:

"IN THE WORDS of an early ascetic writer in the Christian East, Saint Mark the Monk: “He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor.” As Orthodox Christians we are to look everywhere in Scripture for a personal application. We are to ask not just “What does it mean?” but “What does it mean to me?” Scripture is a personal dialogue between the Saviour and myself – Christ speaking to me, and me answering. That is the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.

I am to see all the stories in Scripture as part of my own personal story. Who is Adam? The name Adam means “man,” “human,” and so the Genesis account of Adam’s fall is also a story about me. I am Adam. It is to me that God speaks when He says to Adam, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9). “Where is God?” we often ask. But the real question is what God asks the Adam in each of us: “Where art thou?”

When, in the story of Cain and Abel, we read God’s words to Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9), these words, too, are addressed to each of us. Who is Cain? It is myself. And God asks the Cain in each of us, “Where is thy brother?” The way to God lies through love of other people, and there is no other way. Disowning my brother, I replace the image of God with the mark of Cain, and deny my own vital humanity.

In reading Scripture, we may take three steps. First, what we have in Scripture is sacred history: the history of the world from the Creation, the history of the chosen people, the history of God Incarnate in Palestine, and the “mighty works” after Pentecost. The Christianity that we find in the Bible is not an ideology, not a philosophical theory, but a historical faith.

Then we are to take a second step. The history presented in the Bible is a personal history. We see God intervening at specific times and in specific places, as He enters into dialogue with individual persons. He addresses each one by name. We see set before us the specific calls issued by God to Abraham, Moses and David, to Rebekah and Ruth, to Isaiah and the prophets, and then to Mary and the Apostles. We see the selectivity of the divine action in history, not as a scandal but as a blessing. God’s love is universal in scope, but He chooses to become Incarnate in a particular comer of the earth, at a particular time and from a particular Mother. We are in this manner to savor all the uniqueness of God’s action as recorded in Scripture. The person who loves the Bible loves details of dating and geography. Orthodoxy has an intense devotion to the Holy Land, to the exact places where Christ lived and taught, died and rose again. An excellent way to enter more deeply into our Scripture reading is to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Galilee. Walk where Christ walked. Go down to the Dead Sea, sit alone on the rocks, feel how Christ felt during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness. Drink from the well where He spoke with the Samaritan woman. Go at night to the Garden of Gethsemane, sit in the dark under the ancient olives and look across the valley to the lights of the city. Experience to the full the reality of the historical setting, and take that experience back with you to your daily Scripture reading.

Then we are to take a third step. Reliving Biblical history in all its particularity, we are to apply it directly to ourselves. We are to say to ourselves, “All these places and events are not just far away and long ago, but are also part of my own personal encounter with Christ. The stories include me.”

Betrayal, for example, is part of the personal story of everyone. Have we not all betrayed others at some time in our life, and have we not all known what it is to be betrayed, and does not the memory of these moments leave continuing scars on our psyche? Reading, then, the account of Saint Peter’s betrayal of Christ and of his restoration after the Resurrection, we can see ourselves as actors in the story. Imagining what both Peter and Jesus must have experienced at the moment immediately after the betrayal, we enter into their feelings and make them our own. I am Peter; in this situation can I also be Christ? Reflecting likewise on the process of reconciliation – seeing how the Risen Christ with a love utterly devoid of sentimentality restored the fallen Peter to fellowship, seeing how Peter on his side had the courage to accept this restoration – we ask ourselves: How Christ-like am I to those who have betrayed me? And, after my own acts of betrayal, am I able to accept the forgiveness of others – am I able to forgive myself? Or am I timid, mean, holding myself back, never ready to give myself fully to anything, either good or bad? As the Desert Fathers say, “Better someone who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than a person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous.”

Have I gained the boldness of Saint Mary Magdalene, her constancy and loyalty, when she went out to anoint the body of Christ in the tomb (John 20:l)? Do I hear the Risen Savior call me by name, as He called her, and do I respond Rabboni (Teacher) with her simplicity and completeness (John 20:16)?

Reading Scripture in this way – in obedience, as a member of the Church, finding Christ everywhere, seeing everything as a part of my own personal story – we shall sense something of the variety and depth to be found in the Bible. Yet always we shall feel that in our Biblical exploration we are only at the very beginning. We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat across a limitless ocean.

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 118 [119]:105)

Note: You can find access to other teachings about the Bible by Bishop Ware by clicking here.

The Bible in history

I recently came across the following Biblical history timeline by George Konig and Ray Konig, authors of the book, 100 Prophecies. Scholars vary in the dates that they assign to ancient events. The dates shown below are approximations.

2100 BC (about 4100 years ago)
God promises Abraham many descendants
Abraham lived around 2100 BC in what is now Iraq. God told him to move to Canaan, which later became Israel. Unlike many people, Abraham believed in the one true God. God rewarded Abraham's faith, making him the father of a great nation (Israel), and an ancestor to the Messiah (Jesus Christ).

2000 BC (about 4000 years ago)
Jacob (Israel) is born
Jacob, the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham, is born in Canaan. Jacob's name is changed to Israel. (Canaan is later renamed Israel, after Jacob). He has 12 sons, for whom the 12 Tribes of Israel are named.

1900 BC (about 3900 years ago)
Joseph sold into slavery
Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob (Israel), is sold into slavery by his brothers, who are jealous of him. Joseph ends up in Egypt, where he rises to power as a trusted assistant of a pharaoh. His father and his brothers later leave Canaan, because of a famine, and move to Egypt. They are later saved from harm by Joseph.

1446 BC (about 3400 years ago)
Exodus begins
The Hebrews, or Israelites (descendants of Jacob), are enslaved for 400 years in Egypt until Moses leads them out of Egypt. They wander the desert for 40 years. Moses then brings them to the border of Canaan, the land that God had previously promised to their forefather Abraham.

1406 BC (about 3400 years ago)
Israel begins establishing itself as a sovereign country
After Moses dies, Joshua leads the Israelites into Canaan and begins conquering the land, establishing a sovereign country of Israel for the first time in history.

1400 BC (about 3400 years ago)
Israel is ruled by judges, not kings
From about 1400 BC to about 1050 BC, Israel was not ruled by kings. The people think of God as their King. Instead of an earthly king, Israel is led by judges who settled disputes.

1050 BC (about 3000 years ago)
Saul becomes Israel's first king
After about 350 years of being ruled by judges, the people of Israel demand to have a king, like the neighboring countries. By demanding a king, the people are turning away from their faith in God as their king. Saul become king and reigns about 40 years.

1010 BC (about 3000 years ago)
David becomes King of Israel
David becomes king of Israel in about 1010 BC and reigns for 40 years. David, unlike Saul, follows the commands of God. He makes mistakes, but he repents for them. He seeks to please God. He expands the size of Israel and rules over surrounding territories.

970 BC (about 3000 years ago)
Solomon becomes king, builds Temple
Solomon, son of David, becomes king in about 970 BC. He too reigns for about 40 years. Solomon builds the Temple in honor of God. The work is completed in about 960 BC. But, Solomon eventually turns away from God and worships false gods.

926 BC (about 2900 years ago)
Israel becomes a divided kingdom
Shortly after the reign of Solomon, Israel becomes a divided kingdom. The southern kingdom, called Judah, includes the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. The northern kingdom continued to be called Israel. The two often war with each other.

721 BC (about 2700 years ago)
Assyrians conquer northern kingdom of Israel
The Assyrian Empire conquers the northern kingdom of Israel in about 721 BC. The Assyrians torture and decapitate many. They force many Israelites (10 of the 12 Tribes of Israel) out of Israel and bring in foreigners.

612 BC (about 2600 years ago)
Babylon conquers Nineveh (Assyrian Empire)
The Assyrian Empire's capital city - Nineveh - is attacked by coalition of Babylonians and others. As explained by the prophet Nahum in the Bible, Nineveh was to be destroyed because of the Assyrian Empire's treatment of Israelites and other people.

605 BC (about 2600 years ago)
Babylon exerts influence over Judah
The neo-Babylonian Empire, under the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar, begins forcing Judah into submission. Nebuchadnezzar takes many Jews as captives to Babylon to ensure Judah's obedience.

597 BC (about 2600 years ago)
Babylon attacks Judah
Babylonian army attacks Judah and takes more Jews as captives to Babylon. Ezekiel, one of the captives, becomes a prophet of God. Ezekiel explains that God is allowing Babylon to punish Judah because the people have been unfaithful to God.

586 BC (about 2600 years ago)
Babylon destroys Jerusalem and the Temple
Babylon attacks Judah again. This time, the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and the Temple that Solomon had built. More Jews are taken as captives to Babylon.

586 BC to 573 BC (about 2600 years ago)
King Nebuchadnezzar attacks Tyre mainland
Babylon begins a 13-year siege of the mainland of the Phoenician city of Tyre.

539 BC (about 2500 years ago)
Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon
After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the neo-Babylonian Empire begins to lose power. Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon in 539 BC, establishing the Medo-Persian Empire.

538 BC (about 2500 years ago)
Cyrus releases Jews from Babylonian Captivity
After conquering Babylon, Cyrus offers the Jews their freedom to leave Babylon and to return to Judah. Cyrus' kingdom rules over Judah and many other parts of the Middle East, but Cyrus allows people more cultural and religious freedom than did the neo-Babylonian Empire.

536 BC (about 2500 years ago)
Work begins to rebuild Temple
Some of the Jews in Babylon return to Judah and begin work in about 536 BC to rebuild the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

516 BC (about 2500 years ago)
Second Temple is dedicated
The Temple is consecrated for worship, 70 years after the Babylonians had destroyed it in 586 BC.

333 BC (about 2300 years ago)
Greeks begin rule over land of Israel
The Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, defeat Persian armies in Macedonia in 333 BC. This marks the fall of the Medo-Persian Empire and the rise of the Grecian Empire.

332 BC (about 2300 years ago)
Alexander conquers Tyre (Phoenician Empire)
Alexander wars against the island fortress of the Phoenician city of Tyre. He takes rubble from the mainland of Tyre and builds a walkway to the island. Alexander's forces then conquer the island fortress, bringing an end to the Phoenician Empire.

250 BC (about 2300 years ago)
The Old Testament is translated into Greek
A Greek ruler asks the Jews to translate all or part of the Old Testament into the Greek language. The translation is called the Septuagint.

175 BC (about 2200 years ago)
Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes torments the Jews
Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes rules Syria from about 175 BC to about 164 BC. He reigns over Judah and tries to destroy the Jewish religion. He also defiles the Temple.

164 BC to 63 BC (about 2200 years ago)
Jews have independence
The Maccabees, a group that fought for Jewish independence, stage a revolt against the Greeks and establish the Hasmonean royal dynasty, as well as sovereignty over all or part of the land of Israel for about 100 years, from about 164 BC to 63 BC.

63 BC (about 2100 years ago)
The Romans take over land of Israel
After the death of Alexander the Great, the empire of the Greeks is divided up and becomes weaker. During this time, the Roman Empire becomes increasingly powerful. The Roman general named Pompey seizes control over the land of Israel.

About 5 BC (about 2000 years ago)
Jesus is born in Bethlehem
Jesus is born in the town of Bethlehem. The Apostle Matthew later points out that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem fulfilled a prophecy delivered by the prophet Micah, about 700 years beforehand. (See Micah 5:2).

About 25 AD (about 2000 years ago)
Jesus begins His ministry
Jesus is about 30 years old when he begins his ministry. He preaches salvation, delivers prophecies and performs miracles. He announces that he is the Messiah (the Christ) who was promised by the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus promises salvation and eternal life to those who believe in him (See John 3:16, as an example).

About 28 AD (about 2000 years ago)
Jesus is crucified and resurrected
Jesus is falsely accused and is sent to Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of the land of the Jews, to be crucified. Jesus is later resurrected, meaning he is brought back to life, and his followers began evangelizing him to others, allowing Christianity to spread very quickly throughout the Roman world and to eventually become the first religion to spread throughout the world.

70 AD (about 1900 years ago)
Romans destroy Jerusalem and Temple
In 70 AD, the Roman Army, under Titus, destroys Jerusalem and the Temple, to suppress an uprising of the Jews. According to the historian Josephus, about 1.1 million Jews were killed. Others were taken as slaves.

First century AD (about 1900 years ago)
The Bible is completed
During the first century of this era, the New Testament, which describes the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, is completed. The writing of the Bible (the Old Testament and the New Testament) comes to an end. It began during the time of Moses, about 3400 years ago. Jesus becomes, and remains, the final subject of the Bible.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Heaven, children, prayer and the Christian life

In Leonard Bernstein's Mass the following lyrics by Stephen Schwarz are sung at the beginning and have always had a profound effect on me:

Sing God a simple song: Lauda laude;
Make it up as you go along: Lauda laude.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things.
For God is the simplest of all.

Those words have resonated in me throughout my Christian walk and pop up every now and again at odd times. First as a snatched melody that somehow gurgles up from the depths of my soul to be whistled out in the shower or as I shave. Then as the words join the melody I find, more often than not, that they bring tears to my eyes as if they belong to some half-forgotten memory of childhood when life was less complex and violent and more innocent and straightforward. And as I find myself reflecting on the words several things come to mind:

First, I think heaven is like that. There is a reason, I believe, that Jesus told us that unless we become like little children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark10). And that reason is that it will be populated by those who have, through grace and prayer, become childlike once again. In other words it will be full of wonder, worship, play and innocence. All the best that childhood brought us - discovery, new experiences and tastes and smells, adventure and an appreciation of everything as if we are seeing them/it for the first time -these, I believe, will be the features of a heaven (or renewed earth) full of child-like people. We will spend eternity - which won't feel like eternity, because time is only something we become aware of when something is boring or tedious - in the presence of the One who says he will "make all things new" (Revelation 21:5). And so heaven will be full of "oohs" and "ahhs" as we come across seach new discovery, each new aspect of God - Father, Son of Holy Spirit.

Second, I think it gives us an insight into prayer. We human beings are very good at making everything complicated and 'involved' and what's worse we seem to take great pride in doing so as if it impresses anyone. This goes for prayer as much as anything else and I think that the more complicated prayer becomes, the less it is prayer and the more it becomes a means of trying to woo God or persuade Him how serious we are or how He should help us. We - I - need to get back to first principles and see prayer as a conversation with God who is our heavenly Father. Looking, for example, at Matthew 6: 5-15 what impresses me is not so much what Jesus says as what he leaves out! No mention here of what to pray except the Lord's Prayer (verse 9-13) which is so simple and yet so all encompassing and in such stark contrast to the "babbling" of the pagans. No mention of length of prayer-time - how long we should pray; or time - when to pray. No mention of prayer lists or whether you should sit, stand or kneel.

In other words Jesus is not limiting prayer in any way but liberating it, and us, to pray whenever we like and in whatever way we choose whenever there is something to say to God, who as our Father, is always there and ready to speak with us. Of course this can be read to mean that we can pray as little as possible and not feel guilty about it - and of course feeling guilty is one sure fire way of undermining or negating prayer - but if we think like that then God is not really our Father but someone we try and get away from speaking to too much because it is meaningless or He is an ogre and not our Father.

But here again we make things too complex when Jesus is trying to make it simple.

First he simplifies it by freeing it from the restraints of time and wrong motives. Don't pray long meaningless prayers like the hypocrites in order to impress people or God. The 'reward' - surely an ironic word here - is to get what you want and feel important or impressive. But at what cost - boredom and superficiality and a loss of peace or Presence. The Jesus Prayer is one I especially like because it is brief and simple and to the point. Prayed meaningfully it is awesome in it's transparency and power.

Second, he simplifies it by tying prayer into a relationship with a Father who is interested and concerned about us and wants to have a relationship with us that is real and fulfilling. We go to a quiet place to converse with him and receive the reward of knowing that we have done something worthwhile and helpful. WHat is greater and better and more wonderful than engaging with the One who created us out of love?

Third, he simplifies it by showing us that few words, with meaning, are better than many words which strive to give meaning but which too soon run out of steam and quickly become meaningless and frustrating. I don't know about you but I get sick of hearing myself floundering round for the 'right' words to say or the 'right way' to express myself. Jesus rescues us from this by giving us something disarmingly simple and straightforward to say which are right and sufficient.

So keep prayer simple. When you think of someone or something to pray for pray for it/them when you think of it/them. Don't save it up till later. Like food it's always best fresh. Go into your prayer 'room' - a quiet and private place which can be in your head (closing the door (verse 6) can be a metaphor for closing your eyes and "your room" (verse 6) can be a metaphor for your head/mind - and talk to Father.

Third, I think of the Christian life and the need to live it simply in all sorts of ways. Simple living without too many 'things' has a beneficial effect on the planet and the lives of others as well as our own soul. Simple speaking - let your 'yes' be yes etc (Matthew 5:37) - avoids the complexity of lies and what they can lead to.“When words are many, sin is not absent,but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Proverbs 10:19)  "One thing is needful" Jesus told Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) and "Simplicity of life is to will one things" wrote Kierkegaard the philosopher.

"Sing God a simple song - for God is the simplest of all".

The Great SIn

I now come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals. There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, 'How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?' The point is that each person's pride is in competition with every one else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive - is competitive by its very nature - while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. The sexual impulse may drive two men into competition if they both want the same girl. But that is only by accident; they might just as likely have wanted two different girls. But a proud man will take your girl from you, not because he wants her, but just to prove to himself that he is a better man than you. Greed may drive men into competition if there is not enough to go round; but the proud man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power. Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.

Take it with money. Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house, better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point. What is it that makes a man with œ10,000 a year anxious to get œ20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. œ10,000 will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride - the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers. What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid. It is Pride. What is it that makes a political leader or a whole nation go on and on, demanding more and more? Pride again. Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.

The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity - it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that - and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison - you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound's worth of Pride towards their fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good - above all, that we are better than someone else - I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy's Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity - that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride - just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Before leaving this subject I must guard against some possible misunderstandings:

(1) Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says 'Well done,' are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, 'I have pleased him; all is well,' to thinking, 'What a fine person I must be to have done it.' The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says 'Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals - or my artistic conscience - or the traditions of my family - or, in a word, because I'm That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They're nothing to me.' In this way real thorough-going pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves 'curing' a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.

(2) We say in English that a man is 'proud' of his son, or his father, or his school, or regiment, and it may be asked whether 'pride' in this sense is a sin. I think it depends on what, exactly, we mean by 'proud of'. Very often, in such sentences, the phrase 'is proud of' means 'has a warm-hearted admiration for'. Such an admiration is, of course, very far from being a sin. But it might, perhaps, mean that the person in question gives himself airs on the ground of his distinguished father, or because he belongs to a famous regiment. This would, clearly, be a fault; but even then, it would be better than being proud simply of himself. To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.

(3) We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to His own dignity - as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity. The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble - delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off - getting rid of the false self, with all its 'Look at me' and 'Aren't I a good boy?' and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.

(4) Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call 'humble' nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.
From Mere Christianity by C S Lewis

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

St. Cyprian - died September 14th AD 258

Cyprian was born in Carthage, N. Africa from a wealthy pagan background. Before becoming a Christian he was an orator and a teacher of rhetoric. We don’t know the date of his conversion but two things stand out when we consider his change of heart. First, after his baptism circa 245-8 he gave away a portion of his wealth to the poor in Carthage, and second, he took the additional name of Caecilius in memory of the presbyter to whom he owned his conversion (a presbyter was the ancient and original title of what we now call a priest).

Not long after his baptism he was ordained deacon and soon after presbyter and some time between 248 and 249 he was elected bishop. He was a popular choice among the poor although there was opposition among the church hierarchy.

His election was followed by what has become known as the “Decian persecution” when pressure was put on all bishops and church officers to sacrifice to the emperor. On the face of it, it would have been a simple thing just to do what was expected, make the sacrifice, and get on with it, but to the Christians such as Cyprian, this was unthinkable. There is only one Lord and one God, and to acknowledge the Emperor as God—which was what the sacrifice meant - was to deny God. So rather than do that Cyprian, with others, fled Carthage.

But the persecution divided the church between those who gave in and those who capitulated. Because Cyprian ran away it was seen as cowardice and Cyprian’s enemies in the church accused him at Rome. Cyprian’s defence was that he ran away because he had received various visions and commands from God to tell him to, but I obedience to Rome he returned after 14 months and stayed faithfully serving his people until another persecution flared up under Emperor Valerian and both Pope Stephen 1st and Pope Sixtus 2nd were martyred in Rome.

This time Cyprian stayed and refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Jesus as Lord. He was banished to Curubis where he continued to encourage his flock through various writings and epistles. In a vision he saw his approaching fate and after a year he was recalled and put under house arrest in his own villa. On September 13th 258 he was imprisoned he returned to his villa where he was cross examined and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “thanks be to God”. The sentence was carried out in an open place near the city in front of a large crowd. After removing his own garments he knelt down and prayed and after blindfolding himself he was beheaded. His remains were buried near the spot and later various churches erected although Charlemagne is said to have had the bones transferred to France.

There are a few lessons we can draw from his life:

1. Although Cyprian later refers back to his baptism as the moment he received grace from God to believe and live the Christian life he also acknoweledges that baptism alone is not enough—there has to be a corresponding change of heart leading to a change of life. God’s grace must be met with man’s—and woman’s—willingness to believe and trust in Him on a daily basis.

Second, Cyprian was known in his lifetime as a defender of the faith. In his writings and in his preaching he vigorously defended Christianity against the pagan world. And even though he was
gifted as a speaker and thinker, he still had to learn about his faith so that he knew enough to “give a reason for the hope that was within (him).” (1 Peter 3:15.) So must we all, now more than ever, be ready to speak for Christ, when the time comes or the opportunity arises.

Lastly, Cyprian was a realist about the world and it’s problems. Listen to this extract from one of his writings to a pagan called Donatus:

"This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the high road, pirates on the seas, in the ampitheatres men murdered to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is a really bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians… and I am one of them.

Louis Armstrong was right that this is sometimes a wonderful world but it is not perfect- far from it - and we need to keep on working with God to make it better.

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...