Article in Stretton Focus, December 2015
At this time of the year I am reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s short story, Papa Panov’s Special Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve and Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, was closing his shop. In the street outside there were sounds of happiness and smells of Christmas cooking in the air. They reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. He put up the shutters, settled down in his chair and took down the family bible to read the Christmas story once again. He thought about Jesus’ birth and what gift he may have given. Stretching up into a cupboard he took down a pair of beautiful new leather shoes. Yes, that’s what he would have given.
He fell asleep and dreamed that Jesus said that he would visit him on Christmas Day; but would not be easily recognised.
On Christmas morning he awoke, remembered the vivid dream, and decided to look carefully at everyone in the street. There was only a scruffy road sweeper working in freezing conditions. Papa Panov invited him into his house for coffee and food. The road sweeper was touched by Papa Panov’s kindness, and left thanking him and blessing him. Scouring the streets again Papa Panov looked for someone who resembled the Jesus in his dream. He saw no one but just as he was about to close his door he saw a young girl carrying what looked like a small baby, walking close to the houses to avoid the worst of the weather. He invited her in for a hot drink and offered milk for the baby. As he did so he warmed the baby’s bare feet by the stove. The young mother explained that she couldn’t afford shoes for her baby and that she was on her way to the next village to seek work. Suddenly Papa Panov remembered the little shoes he had looked at last night before he went to bed. He had been keeping these special beautiful shoes for Jesus.
He looked again at the baby’s cold little feet and made up his mind . . .
As we celebrate the Festive season will you recognise Jesus?
Article in Stretton Focus, November 2015
Silentium est aureum*
I am an avid Radio 4 listener. Recently there have been more memorial services than usual, partly due to World War I and II but also to more recent tragic events. Listening to a memorial service programme it occurred to me how many demands we make on God. If we cut out the music, readings and eulogies the memorial service was all about asking God for his mercy, celebrating the lives of those who had died and asking for his compassion for those who mourned. But God did not get a word in.
How often do we sit and listen to God? Do we ever sit and listen? Do we doubt so much as a society that we can find no time to listen to God and have to fill every moment with our requests? Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we shouldn’t make requests. I am seeking connections with God, indeed I want a relationship with God. The one thing we learn very early in our life about relationships is that two-way communication is essential.
Viewed this way the memorial service was very worthy, caring for members of our society past and present is important but it was communication in one direction only. The suspicion is that everyone involved was deaf – those who don’t stop talking often have hearing problems and use talking to mask their disability.
The obvious question is, of course, were the pleas heard and was a response attempted? How would we know if God tried? Maybe God knew no-one would be listening. Faced with an unrelenting barrage of requests I think I would have gone for a cup of tea and waited for the noise to die down. That of course is the mistake. We should not presume that God might act like us, act like a human. We make God in our own image far too often. Our books of religion tell us about divine attributes that are actually human and by extension God’s behaviour is human. It’s not like that at all.
Christ taught us of the spiritual nature of God, how we can reach out, build our faith and be sure. Our own understanding of God grows as we seek and find, listen and reflect, treasure the challenge of our growing relationship.
Many attending that service or listening on the radio will have felt a tug at their emotions, have recalled their love for one departed, been distracted by a random thought, have reached a conclusion to some problem, or modified a firmly held belief during that service. That is the kind of way in which we hear God, calling on our spirit, not on our ear drums. The hope is that through the music and the emotional involvement, our spirit will find silence, open up and create the foundation for a lasting relationship in the knowledge and love of God.
Roger Wilson *Silence is golden
Article in Stretton Focus, October 2015
Old Men ought to be Explorers
Having reached the age of 78, after 50 years as an ordained minister in the United Reformed Church, I’m prepared to be called an ‘old man’ – if that admits me into the category of being an explorer. Even when I spent 20 years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea, I was tempted to put ‘explorer’ on the passport as my profession: but now I’m fully qualified – so what will I explore?
I will explore my past and my future (but only from within the present moment, for that’s all we have). Most of my life is past, so there will be plenty of material. Some of it will be hard going. There will be rocks that I’ve stumbled over before, but never moved: waiting to trip me up again. There will be mistakes that I’ve made, but never really learned from. There will be regrets that still leave a bitter taste.
I must explore all these areas of my past life, and find ways of dealing with them, so that I can face the future with a smile on my face, and a spring in my step. But where is the future?
Tomorrow is uncharted territory. I think the best way to travel into it is on the vehicle called HOPE. The exploration will need a sensitive awareness, and an active imagination. I would like to see the realisation of all that is best in human nature, and the creation of a world where there is peace and prosperity for all.
From where I am today, the unknown tomorrow looks like spiritual territory, where belief in God (whatever you mean by that word) could be a guiding light.
At all events, TS Eliot, whose words from his Four Quartets are the title of my piece, says that ‘tomorrow’ is really today, with just a different name: that all things exist in the NOW of God’s present moment, if only we could see it!
So it’s no surprise that in Little Gidding (from Four Quartets) he tells us that ‘exploration will never cease; and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.’
I find that thought very exciting and challenging; and I am already hoisting my sails to catch the wind of the Spirit.
Article in Stretton Focus, September 2015
In today’s western society there are more people living alone than at any other time in history. There are many reasons for this – families are smaller and spread far and wide; divorce; separation; single parents. We are living longer, and surviving the death of partner and friends.
Thanks to the Internet, our methods of social interaction have changed. We email rather than telephone. We text, tweet, use facebook and chatrooms. Even people who don’t live alone can suffer from loneliness, as in a difficult marriage.
There are other forms of loneliness, for example a Head of State; captain of a ship; priest in a parish – all of them carrying burdens of responsibility, which they cannot share. People who are brave enough to go against popular opinion can find themselves alone.
For most of us, being too much alone can be detrimental to our mental and spiritual health. We can spend too much time brooding on our own problems, and blow them out of all proportion. Nevertheless, we all need to experience some time alone. This can be liberating. It can help us to be creative. But we need a balance, with other people there to stimulate our minds and help us to become better human beings.
It is good to mix with as many people as possible. In that way we can be challenged and not get to depend on just one or two like-minded people. Some people rely on a pet cat or dog for company, and that’s OK, at least they are not argumentative!
We won’t all find a soul-mate, but we do need people to talk with. Our famous British reserve means we often hesitate to make the first move in social contact; fearing rejection or making a fool of ourselves. In Church Stretton we are lucky in having a viable community, boosted by Mayfair and its outreach services, bringing people together.
What else can we do to combat loneliness? Join a club, do voluntary work, go to the pub, join a church. These activities will certainly help, but above all have a healthy friendship with yourself, and then even when you are alone you need never be lonely.
Article in Stretton Focus, August 2015
This is a film set in the late 19th century. Babette was a brilliant cook and worked as chef in a Paris restaurant. Not an everyday café but the sort of place which today would be loaded with stars and rosettes and be the subject of articles in the weekend press. The Café Anglais had an enviable reputation, thanks to Babette. However, she ran into trouble. Not culinary but political and serious enough to force her to leave Paris. Thanks to a good contact she found refuge in Jutland in a house shared by two sisters. These were the daughters of the founder of a small, strict, Protestant sect. The pastor preached a harsh, simple life with no room for pleasure and he had discouraged suitors for his daughters who had remained unmarried. Their religion was as cold and uncompromising as the climate.
For years Babette acted as the sisters’ cook and housekeeper, making thin soup and drying fish, a life as different as could be from her Paris days. She did however keep up one tradition from her previous life – she bought a monthly lottery ticket. One month she won 10,000 francs!!! What was she to do? Here was an opportunity to return to France and maybe to resume her old way of life. However she had heard the sisters discussing the imminent 100th anniversary of the pastor’s birth and their plans to celebrate it with a gathering for tea. Babette asked the sisters if they would allow her to prepare for them a French dinner at her cost, paid for out of her winnings, and they agreed. Invitations were sent out to the community plus two additional guests, an aunt and her nephew. The nephew turns out to be a successful general who, when a young soldier had proposed to one of the sisters and had been rejected in obedience to the pastor.
Babette began preparations for the dinner. Soon the sisters began to see exotic foods and wines arrive and began to get nervous. This was not their style. Would the pastor have approved? They called a meeting to discuss the dilemma! They did not want to hurt Babette but neither did they want to tarnish the pastor’s memory. They reached a compromise. They would eat the food but not comment on it!
The great day came. The table was laid with fine linen and sparkling glass, the guests took their places and the food was served. And what food! Real turtle soup with an amontillado which the general declared “the finest wine I have ever tasted”. A game course consisted of quail served in a pastry case and christened ‘quails in their sarcophagi’. This was immediately recognised by the general as a signature dish of the Café Anglais and he knew who was cooking this splendid meal. The acid-faced members of the community ate without speaking as agreed. At first they were rigid and unyielding but gradually began to soften, perhaps helped by the champagne which one of the guests described as ‘excellent lemonade’.
When dinner was over the general made a speech in which he made it clear that he still loved the girl who rejected him and that whenever he dines she is with him in spirit. Members of the sect confess to one another that they have not always behaved as they should and breaches are healed. The sisters ask Babette what she plans to do now she has some money. But Babette does not have any money. Dinner for 12 at the Café Anglais costs 10,000 francs and that is what she has given the sisters and the community. She is now poor again and is going nowhere.
Babette’s Feast is a lovely story. Babette is in the biblical tradition of the widow who had almost nothing but gave everything and the nameless woman who anointed Jesus with expensive ointment. Like her Babette saw an opportunity for an act of lavish generosity and she seized the chance.
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2015
One day a poor Scottish farmer heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He looked and saw a terrified boy struggling to free himself from the black mud. Farmer Hugh Fleming without thought for his own safety saved the lad from what would certainly have been a slow and dreadful death.
The next day a carriage called at Hugh Fleming’s house and a well-dressed man introduced himself as the father of the boy who had been rescued. He noticed the farmer’s son playing nearby and expressed the wish to provide the same education for him as that enjoyed by his own boy.
Hugh Fleming’s son attended the best schools, eventually graduating from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, ultimately becoming Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.
Years later the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life? Penicillin. The name of the nobleman was Lord Randolph Churchill and the name of the his son, saved twice by the Fleming family; Sir Winston Churchill.
In going to the rescue of the young Winston Churchill all those years ago Alexander Fleming’s father ignored the danger and did what had to be done without counting the cost, i.e. both of them could have drowned. Whilst the historical accuracy of part of this tale has been questioned I prefer to treat it as a parable.
The opportunity to help our fellow humans often occurs unexpectedly. We need to be ready and reflect on what Jesus would do in similar circumstances. Religious faiths are adept at trumpeting their beliefs but this does not make us or the world better; behaviour does. This was brought home to me recently by the observations of Melanie Reid, a tetraplegic, writing weekly in The Times magazine who said that experiencing the kindness of strangers has had a profound effect on her life.
We should all BE the change we would wish to see in the world. Alexander Fleming’s father and Randolph Churchill acted spontaneously, neither anticipating the changes that the discovery of penicillin would have on medical treatment and the lives it would save.
Article in Stetton Focus, June 2015
Changing Times? Maybe Not
More and more the Christian underpinning of our society seems under attack. Britain was renowned for its liberal Christian faith. People mattered. Social welfare, the NHS, state education, a paternal approach to those in need globally, all have been a matter of pride for a country which valued people. Now we have greedy bankers, politicians we don’t trust or believe, and a society where every change or development is measured in money.
The Christian ethic seems to be fast withering away. People like us are merely there to make up the numbers. There seems to be no alternative. Leaders in public life all look and sound alike. Where is faith?
At another time and in another place in a famous incident a young preacher disrupted a money market. He sent the tables flying and released the animals and birds captured for sacrifice. Somewhere else he told a story about a widow and her valued farthing, highlighting a bleak outlook for unscrupulous moneychangers and rapacious tax gatherers. At other times he talked about ordinary people and how their generosity of spirit was a different kind of wealth, even if they were Samaritans.
In his day there was a confusion of religious and secular authorities all of which had to be respected. Above all there was the law, religious rules which governed daily life and which were to be seen as sacrosanct. The keepers of those laws allowed the moneychangers’ tables and were immune from criticism. Woe betide he who challenged them.
We tell ourselves we have to learn from these stories but how often do we surround the real message with dogma and tradition? Our approach should be inclusive, open and questioning, looking for what we can learn, putting no barriers around it and looking at how we can use it in our daily life.
It is our remit to take Christian faith to challenge the philosophies of modern life in practical and pragmatic ways. Little things count, sometimes more than big ones. We may not be able to copy Jesus by turning over the tables of the moneychangers but we can learn from his example and take small incremental steps, driven by our faith.
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2015
Who or What is God?
The title of my piece sounds like an obvious question to ask. But I had been in the ministry for 40 years before I began to ask it. You may think that was a bit late in the day, and so it was! Those of us who are brought up in the Church just take God for granted, and get on with ‘doing the religion’, without asking awkward questions.
When you do get round to this particular question, it isn’t easy to find an answer. Whoever or whatever God is, is beyond reach of any form of words to describe. Religions generally agree with that, but then they go on to write endless volumes of theology, which is a word meaning ‘knowledge’ of God! And they talk about God in personal terms, as if God were somebody, somewhere out there. Not only that, but addressing God in masculine terms as He, Father, King, Lord.
Different religions have names for their God: and there are different stories of God’s comings and goings and activities here on earth. These stories are to be found in what religions call their Sacred Scriptures. These reveal what God is thinking, and what is going to happen to this world and to the people who live in it.
It seems to me that religions have worked themselves into a deep hole, where they have now got stuck.
What is patently obvious is that any concept of God must be a projection of our own thinking here on earth: it couldn’t possibly be otherwise. Some of this projection is good and helpful; some of it not so. Some of what these gods are said to think, and to have done, are unworthy to say the least.
But where they are projections of what we as humans regard as ideal (eg Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love) they can act as an inspiration and a magnet to draw out all that is best within us.
We can never find a definitive answer to the question who or what is God? We can only say what we think the word God means (and if we didn’t have the word, we’d only have to find another one!)
It’s no good looking up into the sky for any God to come and put everything to rights. But ‘God’ could be the word we need, to generate the energy required to fulfil the potential we have, to become God-like.
Article in Stretton Focus, April 2015
“I feel so guilty” – how often do we hear this? It’s often said by people with aged parents, or with a severely ill spouse, who can no longer cope, and has to resort to a nursing home. They have done all they can, but it still does not seem enough.
Parents feel bad if their children have problems, and wonder where they went wrong. We in the ‘developed’ world might feel guilty that our standard of living is so much higher than that in the ‘undeveloped’ world. Do we try to atone by contributing to charities?
There are many other forms of guilt. People, who have survived concentration camps, or wars, or serious accident, often suffer from survivor guilt. We can feel guilty about having bad thoughts. If we wish ill of someone, and they later suffer in some way, we may feel responsible. If we have bad luck, we may wonder what we have done wrong.
How do different religions deal with guilt? Judaism sees it as a way of honing the soul. In Islam, repentance brings Allah’s mercy: but those who despair of mercy commit a greater sin. Buddhism is more of a way of life than a religion. It says one should be contrite, and resolve to control oneself in the future. One should not get trapped in a self-centred melodrama, but treat oneself and others with compassion. Hinduism is a joy-based religion: after doing wrong one should read the Veda, repeat a mantra, and start again.
Christianity has the offer of forgiveness, freely given: and for those carrying a heavy burden of guilt this can be gladly received as good news. But it carries with it the demand to be forgiving of others, and that’s not always easily done!
Guilt is a powerful negative emotion which can paralyse and block the way to happiness. But it can also ‘catalyse’ and move us to repentance, and to make changes for the better. In any healthy attitude to life, we all need ways of dealing with guilt, so that we are not haunted by it. Religion may be the solution for some, but for all of us, we need to accept our guilty feelings, learn from them and move on.
Article in Stretton Focus, March 2015
What is Salvation?
Salvation is an old fashioned religious word that is well past its sell-by date. It carries with it connotations of being saved ‘out of’ this sinful world, and being given a ticket to Paradise. What that Paradise will be like is an open question. Religions have different beliefs on the matter: but whatever it is, it can only be a projection of some worldly fantasy.
Given what we know about the nature of the universe and the origins of life, the concept of salvation as a divine rescue operation, is just incredible. We need a different model. The root meaning of the word salvation is healing leading to wholeness.
Healing is always a process, and wholeness is always an ideal. The process of healing for the human race would be the fulfilling of our potential to become what we have it in us to be. This process can get underway at any time during our life on earth: but the ideal can never be reached. That’s what ideals are for: to act as a lure; to draw us on by stimulating our imagination, and activating our will, to pursue the ideal.
All religions have their ideals, but you have to look hard to find them! They tend to get lost under layers of unnecessary baggage. It’s high time for world religions to make a trip to the theological junk yard, and discard a lot of outdated beliefs, doctrine and creeds.
The concept of salvation is an ideal well worth saving. Not by offering an escape from the world, but in raising hopes of transforming the world from the inside (there is no ‘outside’ anyway!) The process of salvation can be understood as the human spirit relating to, and becoming one with the eternal spirit (or what religions call God.) This can also be understood as the mysterious life-force, or energy field, which ‘permeates and enlivens every fibre of creation’. (Quote from ‘God in the Midst of Change’ by Diarmuid O’Murchu.)
Such a model of salvation (for me at least!) is an exciting ideal, with which to be involved and by which to be inspired: and much to be preferred to looking forward to romping in the Elysian Fields, or walking the golden streets of some Heavenly City.
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2015
Recently, I watched the film Amadeus for the umpteenth time. It is a superb film but is also very cruel. It tells the story of Salieri, a pedestrian composer who wants to write great music. He promises God that if he will grant him the talent then all the music he writes will be to God’s glory. God rejects the proposal which leads Salieri to declare himself God’s enemy and the patron saint of Nonentities everywhere.
To add to the burden of God’s rejection of his plea Salieri has to recognise that the most sublime music he has ever heard is coming from a dirty minded, foul mouthed upstart called Mozart. Furthermore, this music is composed without correction or modification – as if it were dictated! It seemed that God had made an outrageous choice to be the vehicle for His music.
Jesus had something to say about outrageous events. He told the story of a man who planted a small mustard seed. Now everybody knows that if you plant a mustard seed eventually what grows is a mustard plant. Not so in this case. What grew was a massive great tree big enough for birds to roost in. This sort of thing does not happen! But this is a parable about the kingdom of God so don’t expect a conventional, well ordered, civilised outcome. This is the kingdom in which the hungry find food, the lame leap and the prisoner is released – lives are transformed.
The parable of the mustard seed seems to be saying that the kingdom of God will not descend on us from above but will grow among us. And we might be surprised at the form it takes. We may see it in the most unlikely people and places. Most outrageous thought of all we may have a part to play in bringing this kingdom about.
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2015
Knowing and being Known
Science is the pursuit of knowledge. We know a lot more than our predecessors did, about almost everything. Our knowledge of the universe has changed beyond recognition from what it was say 200 years ago. The odd thing is – and the world is full of paradoxes, that the more we know the more there is to know. Every answer throws up more questions; every solution provides more problems to be solved. So it seems there will be no end to scientific enquiry!
Religion must always take note of what science discovers so that its theology doesn’t get stuck in the past. Or, worse still, in the realms of fantasy. Nevertheless, religion has its own agenda and is not so much concerned with ‘what’ we know as with the very nature of ‘knowing’ itself.
As human beings, we not only ‘know’, but we know that we know! We can reflect on our capacity to reflect: and therein lies a mystery as deep as the heavens are high for the scientists to explore. Discovering who we are in the context of an evolving universe lies at the heart of the religious quest; but science and religion should complement one and another, for they are essentially in the same pursuit.
St. Paul, in that wonderful chapter 13 of First Corinthians, aspires to know – as fully as he is already known. This experience of ‘being known’ is one we all have; it is part of our self-conscious awareness. We can be known by our family and friends – but it seems that there is more to it than that. It can also happen at a much deeper level of our being – and surprisingly, it is here that science is bounding along in ‘quantum leaps’, and making some exciting discoveries.
Not all, but many physicists are looking deeper into the nature of the universe, and coming to the conclusion that “consciousness is a property of creation at large, and not just an aspect of human life”. They are coming to believe that the universe itself is alive, and not just inert matter. That the whole of creation is a living, self-creating organism – evolving into some unknown future.
Is it unreasonable to think that we can ‘be known by’ or ‘feel at home’ in this universe that has given us birth – our Mother!? The experience of ‘being known’ implies a relationship with whatever or whoever it is that knows you: and perhaps, in this case, a deeper relationship than just being known by fellow human beings. If present day religions could move into this ground-breaking area, wrestling with such ideas, as Jacob wrestled with God; it could be a step into the next stage of our human evolution.
Those who are interested will find the book Evolutionary Faith by Diarmuid O’Manchu a truly exciting read.