From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, December 2013
Being diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness is a shock. Education does not prepare us and culturally it is not a conversation topic. The message can come when you least expect it, sometimes at an age when lifestyle changes are bringing a whole new vista of life’s opportunity into focus.
This situation is a huge challenge over and above the physical demands which come with treatment, or with deteriorating health. This is the valley of the shadow of death, so poetically defined by the writer of the 23rd Psalm – the poem of praise and of comfort made more familiar by the much-loved hymn ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.
Psalm 23 has a particular resonance as a focus for mindfulness and meditation. You find words of comfort that go far deeper than you might expect. There is a call to your spirit which is conjured up by the images the writer’s words describe. Familiar pictures offer themselves to those who are distressed and upset, firstly as reassurance and then as spiritual comfort.
Increasingly healthcare professionals recognise that physical and spiritual co-exist and comfort can be gained from words. By reaching out to your mind the spiritual can be brought into play. This is not a new idea but it is not always one we think of first when health problems arise. In cancer care the value of spiritual wellbeing has long been recognised though how to support it remains a question.
Psalm 23 assumes our natural goodness. Just reaching out to the shepherd is enough to start the process of healing and help. Its not unique. Put the idea alongside the Lord’s Prayer and think about how the two come together. Then there is the certainty in the Psalm “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me”.
There is just the one condition. You can only get help by reaching out to the shepherd with your heart and in your mind. This opens the way to the comforts of green pastures, still waters and the support from the rod and staff. It translates into spiritual strength. Even in the greatest adversity our cups can run over.
Article in Stretton Focus, December 2013
In training for the ministry many years ago I had to read books on theology and philosophy, which I did whenever I could tear myself away from the table-tennis room! The purpose of the study was to pass my exams, and most of the stuff I learned I’ve now forgotten: but I’ve gone on learning in the ‘school of life’, which is where the most important lessons are learnt.
One bit of philosophy that I’ve carried with me is enshrined in the title of my piece – Know Thyself. The whole of Greek philosophy was founded on the wisdom of that maxim. I think it was Plato who said “the unexamined life is not worth living” We could express the same concept today by asking the question “Who am I?” It’s probably the most important question we can ask ourselves, and there would be a lot of different answers (maybe even one for each day!)
I have come to the conclusion that we are the ‘sum total of our experiences’. Every thought and feeling; every decision we have made; everything we’ve said and done; everything that has happenedd to us; all go into making us the person that we are.
Other people will have opinions of us, but we shouldn’t bother too much about that (we can’t please everybody!) What really does matter is the opinion we have of ourselves. In Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ the wise father Polonius gave his son this advice: “to thine own self be true …” As self-conscious beings we know whether we are living up to our highest ideals or falling short of them.
We can personify our ideals, and use that ‘person’ as a kind of mirror to see ourselves in the light of what is highest and best. And from that experience we can feel the challenge and the inspiration to reach for the Good, the Beautiful and the True.
Thankfully we are not a ‘finished product’: we are always in the process of ‘becoming’, so ‘nil desperandum’! What the finished product will finally be like is a deep mystery – but any serviceable religion should be helping you to become the best person that you are capable of being.
Article in Stretton Focus, November 2013
Who Do You Think You Are?
That’s the catchy title of a popular television programme. People are helped to look at their family tree and discover connections with distant relatives, whom they didn’t even know existed. The result of this discovery could be both surprising and shocking.
It might also come as a surprise, or a shock, for some folk to know that there is a family tree wherein every person on earth is a connecting branch, twig, leaf or fruit.
It’s the tree of the human family, which goes back way beyond any written records found in the archives. At the last count, it was 4.5 million years ago when primitive life first appeared on this planet. Life then began to evolve from simple cells to more complex life forms, and eventually about 200,000 Homo Sapiens (i.e. us) began to organise themselves and create the kind of world we now live in.
Haven’t we done well! There is an element of surprise in the amazing scientific advances we have made. But there is also a shocking element when we look at what we have done to each other and to what we are still doing to our Mother earth, who gave us birth.
There have been countless wars, crusades, holocausts, slavery, apartheid. We have polluted seas and poisoned the air, felled forests and wiped out many species of flora and fauna.
“Who do you think you are?” could be heard as an accusation, from God, or from Creation itself. What are you playing at? Don’t you realise that you are part of creation, and that you have some responsibility for what the future holds?
Evolution would, of course, go on without us if it had to (after all, we’ve only been around for a split second in cosmic time) but far better that we should get a bit of wisdom and some humility. Then we might become what the Bible says we are meant to be – co-creators with God.
Article in Stretton Focus, October 2013
The Word of God
Any sentence with the word ‘God’ in it, should carry a health warning – be careful with this word because nobody really knows what it means. Religions generally think that they have access to the meaning of the word ‘God’, and they have made far-fetched, and often contradictory, claims on the basis of what they believe they know. Each religion has its own book or books, which are regarded as the sacred scriptures. They are thought to contain words which have been directly written by God, dictated by God or inspired by God – the result of which being that those scriptures have been regarded as authoritative, unquestionable or even infallible.
The word ‘scripture’ simply means ‘writing’ – and any writing will need to be interpreted in order to get the message. Ah – there’s the rub! Who will interpret these infallible words and tell us what they mean?
As there is no satisfactory answer to that question, it would be better if religions showed a bit more humility and accepted what to many is blindingly obvious, that all scriptures are man-made (with the emphasis on ‘Man’). They are part of our human attempt to understand what the word of God means, and how it can be a guide and inspiration for us to live up to our highest ideals of goodness, beauty, truth and love.
I shall be saying more about this in a lecture for Engaging Issues on November 5th under the title of “Who or what is God?” This is not just an academic question, it has far-reaching implications for world peace and for the harmony of life on our planet earth.
We humans have made for ourselves, and got ourselves embedded in, a religious quagmire from which we need to extricate ourselves as soon as possible. Perhaps a new understanding of the word ‘GOD’ will help us do it?
Article in Stretton Focus, September 2013
What is this life…?
Some of you reading this article will recognise the title as coming from a poem by WH Davies. You may also be able to fill in along the dotted line with the words “…if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.”
During his lifetime (1871-1940) WH Davies had plenty of time to stand and stare, because he chose to spend his early years living as a tramp, roaming round both England and America (having stowed away on a cattle-ship at Liverpool.)
He eventually wrote his life story in a book called ‘The Autobiography of a super-Tramp’ and a very informative and interesting read it is too! He was educated, not in a classroom but in the school of life. It seems that he was born with the gift of poetry in his blood. He would go round, knocking on doors offering to sell sheets of his hand-written poetry for a few pence, in order to keep body and soul together.
He came to the notice of George Bernard Shaw, who recognised his genius, and encouraged him to persevere. Shaw said that “his poems are like a draught of clear water in a desert.” Shaw also wrote a preface to the autobiography, which increased its sales, and eventually made the poet a man of independent means.
Many people since, have asked the same question as the poem ‘What is this life?’ and they have come up with different answers. Is it ‘just a bowl of cherries?’ Is it ‘a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?’ Or is it something else?
By and large, we all have to decide for ourselves what this life is all about. Is it just a matter of ‘earning pennies’ in order to keep body and soul together? Or could we take advice from the poet, and look a bit deeper into our experiences, and discover for example ‘streams full of stars, like skies at night’. Should we take time (or make time) to ‘stand and stare?’ Try to look through what’s visible and feel the invisible: see through the physical and discover the riches of the spiritual? These are there in everybody’s life: for as another poet has said ‘we are made in the image and likeness of God’.
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, August 2013
Lights in the sky
Its a celestial year. A spectacular meteor and so far two asteroid ‘fly-bys’, and now coming up later this year the comet Ison is expected to be so bright that it will be visible to the naked eye in daylight. It will be a spectacle which only happens a few times in any lifetime. Halley’s Comet last visited in the 1980s but was not really visible from the northern hemisphere. The last comet easily visible from Church Stretton in daylight was Hale-Bopp in 1997. I can recall standing in the Cardingmill Valley, my spirit moved as I marvelled at it over the Long Mynd.
Science is very good at explaining these phenomena but even with knowledge the wonder does not diminish. Ancient man knew no science and saw comets as omens, prophetic signals of doom or success – such as Halley’s Comet in 1066 announcing a new king by conquest.
Religious interpretation of something mysterious was once quite normal. Like comets, visions and miraculous cures have been explained as ‘acts of god’, although usually with hindsight. The major difference with stellar mysteries is that science can now explain them and predict their arrival.
This celestial spectacle will remind us that we are surrounded by mystery. Life itself is a mystery, a secret still evading science. Even so science plays an important part in our lives. It helps us to see through earthly mystery to realities in the same way that it gives us an understanding of the true nature of the heavenly object lighting the sky.
Perhaps the greatest mystery is that of the creation. Comet Ison will remind us of that as we marvel at the spectacle. Science has given us the Big Bang and Darwin’s theory of evolution while creationists reject science in favour of a literal reading of Genesis. There is truth in both, the scientific and the biblical, they just need careful unpicking. The allegory and metaphor in the Bible are complemented by the scale and complexity of the science. They both have breadth of vision, both can explain the comet and both touch the spirit reminding us that the essence of our being is yet another miracle.
Enjoy the view, and wonder.
Article in Stretton Focus, August 2013
The Moral High Ground
If you walk up to Pole Bank or climb Caer Caradoc, you will certainly be standing on high ground. From there on a clear day the view can be quite breath-taking as you look at what can’t be seen from ground level.
You can also stand on high ground in a moral sense. That is when you look at life from an altruistic point of view. From there, other people’s needs are seen and felt just as much as, if not more than, your own. You see situations where there is clearly something wrong: injustice, abuse, corruption or cruelty, and you feel compelled to do something about it. So you write to your MP, or you join Amnesty International, or you make a donation to Red Cross, or however else you feel led to respond.
Standing on high moral ground is not a case of ‘looking down’ on anyone, but of ‘seeing through’ some plausible façade, behind which someone may be justifying what you have become critical of.
People with a religious outlook on life, and a belief in God, should obviously be standing on the moral high ground. From the vantage point of Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love (which is as good a working definition of God as I can think of) we should be able to see more clearly where things have gone wrong, or are going wrong, and need to be put right.
We should also be seeing more clearly that any religion worth its salt is not primarily about saying you believe this, that or the other, and wanting to convert others to the same belief. Not so much about ‘believing’ the Truth, but ‘doing’ the Truth. Even Eliza Doolittle understood that when she said “Don’t talk of love – show me!”
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2013
The Baby and the Bathwater
‘Throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ is a well-known and very useful saying. It’s really a proverb, and like all proverbs it contains a nugget of wisdom in a minimum of words.
In its literal sense the meaning is clear enough – take the baby out before you throw away the bathwater! But it can be applied in many different situations. The ‘baby’ could be different in different contexts, but it would always refer to whatever was regarded as essential and irreplaceable.
Even within a religious context, people could understand the ‘baby’ in different ways. For some it would be an infallible Bible, or the teaching of the Church, but for me it would be the concept of God.
Over thousands of years, the concept of God has been discussed, argued about and even fought over and killed for. The bathwater has become very murky indeed, and certainly needs throwing away: but there’s a ‘baby’ in it, so one needs to be careful! People today still want to ‘see’ God (ie to know about, understand and experience God) but the water has become too muddied, with the rival claims of competing religions. We must learn how to pour away the murky bathwater but as carefully as we can, because there is something precious in it.
The concept of God is still needed, because it is the One Ideal which can inspire and draw out all that is best in human nature. But we don’t need the many religions in their present form: they are just the bathwater to be poured away, and replaced with something new and refreshing.
Article in Stretton Focus, June 2013
The Art of Letting Go
It could be said that one of life’s important lessons is learning to let go. So I’ll say it, and try to show what it means!
As babies we instinctively grab whatever is there, and hold on to it for comfort and security. Then through childhood we begin letting go of some things and holding on to others. Learning to let go of ‘childish things’ is an essential part of growing up. If it doesn’t happen, what should have been left behind, but wasn’t, will be an obstacle to having healthy and wholesome relationships with other people.
Growing up, we let go of our dependence on the parental home and learn to support ourselves. Then, as the years go by, wisdom prevails (we hope!) and we learn the art of letting go in other areas of life. As we grow in self-knowledge we might let go of some of our prejudices and defences: we might let go of those beliefs which we realise are no longer appropriate in view of new experiences and a wider understanding.
I call it an ‘art form’ because you are working on your humanity and creating something closer to the Ideal. The ultimate achievement of this art form is learning to let go of yourself. This is where religion can have something helpful and positive to offer.
A good religion will help you to let go of seeing yourself and your preoccupations (and even your own salvation) as the be-all and end-all. Letting go of your ‘self-centered self’, you can discover the freedom (and even the ecstasy) of being part of a greater whole: part of an inter-connected Oneness of all things – which you may want to call God.
One day, of course, we will have to let go of life itself. By then we could have had a foretaste of the Great Ideal, which at present is beyond our understanding, but not beyond the reach of our spiritual awareness. So learn to let go and let God!
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2013
Are you religious?
For some there would be a quick answer to that question. They would say Yes or No without hesitation. But many people would want to step back from the question and give it some thought.
By definition, a religious person is someone who is attached to a religion. But we don’t live by definitions, and people can be attached to a religion in different ways.
They can be loosely attached, or even fanatically attached. Those who are loosely attached to one religion would probably allow others to belong to a different religion. They would not feel threatened by them, or have any desire to convert them to their own religion.
Those who are firmly attached to their religion may well believe that other religions are deficient in some way, and that it would be better if they converted and joined the ‘true’ religion.
Those who are fanatically attached to their religion will hold that unbelievers (possibly categorized as heretics or infidels) are destined to spend eternity suffering the punishment of God’s wrath (while they themselves, of course, are enjoying the pleasures of heaven).
Surely the time is ripe for a world-wide reformation of all religion. In an evolving universe everything changes, and religions need to wake up to that fact. Such a reformation would involve looking deeper than any Creeds and Scriptures, to find what lies at the heart of the religious quest.
Ways would be found of looking deeper into our humanity, and we should not be surprised to discover that the true nature of God is a peace-loving concern for the wellbeing of this world, and of everybody living in it.
And then it won’t matter whether you call yourself religious or not.
Article in Stretton Focus, April 2013
All Things Come in Parables
Sometimes just a few words, like the title of my piece, can start an interesting and even exciting train of thought. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus’ teaching was only in parables (4:34). People had to ‘unwrap’ each parable and discover its meaning for themselves. This was his teaching method, and it is still the basis for true learning. It’s not what you are told to believe as true, but what you discover for yourself to be true, that will stay with you and influence your life.
The idea that ‘all things come in parables’ means that words can only be pointers to a truth that is greater than the words themselves. This is especially true in regard to Scriptures and all religious language. Religious language points to a reality that is greater than the words themselves. Words can never truly describe or contain the Reality that we call God. Indeed, the very word ‘God’ itself is only a pointer to (or parable of) a concept of God that is beyond our reach.
So it would appear that the value of Scripture and religious language is not that it gives us INFORMATION but rather that it gives us an INVITATION.
It is an invitation to be open to the spiritual dimension of life: to begin your own exploration of it, and discover its riches for yourself. It is an invitation to enter into a personal relationship on that level: your spirit interacting with God’s Spirit, and finding peace and joy and a wholeness that religion might call salvation.
But even if you don’t consider yourself to be ‘religious’, the invitation is still there, to find the meaning of life’s parables for yourself.
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, March 2013
Growing through debate
Christianity first took shape in small church groups which multiplied around the Mediterranean and spread across the Roman Empire. As the churches grew debate also grew voicing new ideas about what Christian faith was, and what it meant. Debate shaped those early years.
Then in the 4th Century the Emperor Constantine sought a single church. The Council of Nicaea gave the churches of the Roman Empire one statement of belief, endorsed by the state. The debate at the Council was apparently long and contentious. Eventually the Emperor had to force a conclusion. However, many churches from the western Empire were absent from the council, and churches from outside the Empire had no interest in being there, so debate continued despite the threat of imperial sanction.
The Nag Hammadi gospels are ancient Christian texts discovered in the Nile Valley in 1945. They were probably hidden by dissenting monks a few years after the Council of Nicaea. Their local bishop was a strong supporter of the Nicene decisions. These ancient writings offer a new insight to what many early christians thought and understood about Christ, understandings which were suppressed. Even today many would like to pretend that they do not exist.
The mediaeval European church walked in Constantine’s footsteps. To be taken seriously Martin Luther had to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. It opened up debate and the dawn of protestantism, which was adopted by millions.
Nearly five hundred years later church attendance is down and we are told there is a search for spiritual inspiration among the general population. They want relevance to their life. They see the Bible as a book not as a guide to protocol, and they readily ignore churches which cannot adapt or which hold a dogmatic view about faith.
If our faith is to grow perhaps it is time we re-discovered open debate, considering every view and challenging ourselves. Debate could energise our faith just as it did the early church so long ago. Let’s be open, inclusive and questioning, grasp debate as a way forward, not fear it as a threat.
Article in Stretton Focus, March 2013
The National Census of 2011 revealed its secrets to us in December 2012, and very interesting they were too. Over the last 10 years there has been a loss of 4 million people who call themselves Christian. And at the same time there was an increase in those belonging to minority religions. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jew all showed some increase: but the greatest increase was in those who described themselves as being of ‘no religion’ at all. What can we make of these facts and figures?
Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, (and fount of much wisdom), saw in these changes a welcome trend. He was not welcoming the overall decline in Christianity, which after all is England’s national religion. He was rather endorsing the new situation where there are minority religions which may have no power, but do have influence.
This he sees as a healthier state of affairs than where religions have the power to enforce belief and conformity. Such has been the case with Christianity, and still is in some countries where one religion is dominant. Religion and power is a dangerous combination which should be left where it belongs, in the dustbin of history.
The Census reflects a more open and tolerant society where people are being more honest about their beliefs. There is a growing number of people who are disillusioned with religion altogether – and nobody should be surprised by that!
Religions should be learning how to use their influence, not to manipulate people into believing what they are told, but in setting people free to discover for themselves the riches of a spiritual life which is as wide and deep as creation itself.
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2013
Some people of my age look back to their early years and describe them as ‘mis-spent youth’. One of the ingredients of my own mis-spent youth (which I thoroughly enjoyed) was going to the cinema. There, for sixpence, you could be entertained by Flash Gordon, Abbott and Costello, or Goofy and Donald Duck, as you built up your excitement for the ‘big picture’ which would come next (after the ice-cream).
As you grew older, you realised that there is an even bigger picture to be seen. Not on the flickering screen, but on the flickering Cosmos of an evolving universe, in which we all live and move and have our being. Scientists are analysing the Cosmos by splitting the atom into smaller and smaller particles, hoping to find the ultimate ‘big picture’ of the universe where everything will be seen and understood.
It’s a bit like looking for the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle to complete the picture. This ‘last piece’ has been called the ‘God particle’, after which there would be no unsolved problems or unanswered questions. But in an evolving universe that’s a delusion, because everything is in motion and constantly changing.
Anything ‘ultimate’ is not available to us. It’s not a case of looking for the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but recognising that we ourselves are actually part of that jigsaw puzzle. We can’t stand outside the Cosmos and observe it objectively. For we are part of the Cosmos and so we can never see what we might be disposed to call the big picture.
A new kind of thinking is required. Scientists call it Quantum Physics where the distinction between the observer and the observed disappears; and everything (and everyone) is connected, or perhaps a better word is ‘related’. If there is a big picture to be seen, it can only be seen by God!
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, January 2013
Many years ago I was asked to lead a workshop at a conference looking at issues involving the regulation of religious programmes on local TV services. At the time there were a few local programmes on cable TV but there was, and still is, no widespread local television.
I remember that we agreed that the multiplicity of cultures and religions in our society must be respected, that access to local TV must be on an equal basis, and should be seen to be on an equal basis within each community. At that time established faiths dominated national religious programming and the challenges of local Mormons, or radical Islamists, seeking airtime had yet to be addressed.
One member of our workshop reported back to the main conference – his name was Rabbi Hugo Gryn. Hugo survived Auschwitz as a teenager. His father and brother died there. He became Rabbi of the West London Synagogue, one of Europe’s largest, in 1965 and served his congregation until he died in 1996. His contributions to Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” for much of that time are fondly remembered.
Forgiveness often featured in his talks, although he said that only God could forgive the Holocaust. His messages crossed the demarcation lines which religions draw around themselves and focused on the presence of ‘god’ (by whatever name) in every man. I recall his spirituality as if it were something tangible; to work with someone I so admired was memorable.
In this memory I can see that he helped me think about my faith in new ways. Religions seek convoluted explanations of how a supposedly all-powerful and merciful god can permit the violence of concentration camps, the Sarajevo massacres or tribal genocide. The truth is that powerful people inclined to such violence need no permission. We have to recognize that goodness is a human characteristic. When people demonstrate negative goodness, religions will give words to their gods to explain any resulting human inhumanity.
The spirituality I saw in Rabbi Hugo Gryn was profoundly human. He was a victim of unimaginable physical and mental violence, who sought no explanations, only understanding. He understood the power that lies in human choice, and in that understanding his humility and humanity shone out.
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2013
In the beginning, God . . .
My title for this piece comes from the opening words of the bible. It is of course a statement of faith and not a statement of fact. There was nobody there to observe God being there ‘in the beginning’ and anyway, what would they have seen if they had been there? Any record of the beginning of creation has to be speculation. Religion does this in the form of a story or myth, telling how the heavens and the earth and everything else, including ourselves, were created. Science has its own story, speculating on some event which it calls the ‘big bang’. So it seems that, as human beings, we have a need to know about beginnings and endings. It’s not that simple because we can always ask “what was there before the beginning, and what will be there after the ending?” – and that kind of questioning can go on ad infinitum.
Religion has come up with the idea of God, who is said to be both the beginning and the end. This is a useful idea because it completes the circle (or should that be ‘squares the circle’?) If the beginning is the end, that does away with the need for either, and provides a way in for the word ‘eternal.’
So while the scientists will continue to look for their ‘big bang’, religions should be looking into the mystery of God and asking questions like “who is God and what does the word ‘God’ mean?” God could be understood as the force or power (or spirit?) holding the universe in being. And since we are ourselves ‘in being’, we can be aware of some connection. But if there is neither beginning nor end, there is only NOW, which is eternal. And so it is in the ‘here and now’ that we should be able to discover our relationship with the Ground of All Being that we call God. And if religions were encouraging us to do this, instead of squabbling with one another (and with themselves) about who’s got the right answers – the world would heave a sigh of relief!