Article in Stretton Focus, December 2017
The Unchanging Constant
Have you noticed there is more than ever going on? Change is everywhere, and there is more of it all the time. Every week seems to have more in it – more information, more advertising, more contention, more reported violence, more of this, that and everything else.
Even Christmas seems affected. Once it was an opportunity to slow down, to talk, to listen and to enjoy the company of loved ones. Now there are more TV channels, more TV repeats, more food is required, more hysterical hype, more toys and more technology, more chocolate, more of this, that and everything else.
This year we have had more anniversaries than ever. Radio 4 was 50, the Today programme and Test Match Special both had 60th birthdays, it is 20 years since Lady Diana sadly died, and the Battle of Passchendaele had its centenary. So it goes on, remembering more of this, that and everything else.
If we look for the unchanging constants there is the Queen and the Shipping Forecast. I would have liked to add Big Ben to that list but … sadly …
However, Christmas itself is a constant, although I detach the material hype and hysteria to see it that way. The story of the nativity, accompanied by readings and carols which are loved and familiar, is a story of a new beginning. You may or may not believe it as a tale of divine intervention, that is irrelevant. It is a story of a child born into a world of uncertainty, where gratuitous violence existed, poverty was widespread, and kind hearts were more difficult to find than hardened ones.
The child grew to manhood and taught about justice, hope, compassion, and neighbourly love. He created an unchanging constant, one which man has attempted to ignore for centuries but remains alive today. Even amid our world’s uncertainty and violence there is a place for unlimited justice, compassion and neighbourly love, and hope is eternal. Let us not forget all that. We can put aside the this, that, and everything else that goes on in life; the unchanging constant which came one Christmas is above it all.
Article in Stretton Focus, November 2017
Lest we forget
A recipe for War
Take 500 teaspoons of marinated hatred.
Heat for several years.
Fill 2 cups to the brim with ignorance.
Mix with 50 spoons of anger.
Stir in thoroughly
Take 75 grams of secrecy,
Sprinkle liberally over a cup of fresh revenge.
Add 60 cups of sorrow lightly cooked and mix in some selfish actions.
Take 17 salty grenades each with a crispy bullet and mix.
Blend in 25 kilograms of pure greed melted in with some nuclear weapons.
Mix all of these ingredients together thoroughly,
Place in the microwave and wait.
Mixture quickly explodes causing death, sorrow and eternal pain.
This poem was written by one of my pupils, 15 years ago when I was teaching in the local primary school. The theme is one which has always been in the minds of the young. Yet adults, especially politicians, have failed to allay their fears. The l9l4-18 war was said to be the ‘war to end all wars’ and yet it was the beginning of another 100 years of conflict worldwide during which religions/faiths have been unable to exert any meaningful influence. Jesus’ message, similarly to other faiths, was of loving your fellow men, and yet the conflicts continue, with no end in sight, mostly targeting the very old, young and vulnerable. Think of Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and others where children are experiencing and witnessing unspeakable suffering.
But life goes on; so also does the pain of cherished memories for loved ones no wreaths at cenotaphs can wipe away.
Such pomp and circumstance is hard to bear,
When you are staring at an empty chair.
Conflicts will be seen to run their course,
War soon sputtering to an untimely end.
All parties claim a hollow victory won.
Yet nothing will have changed, nothing can be said
To heal the grieving and the mourning for the dead.
(Taken from a poem I wrote in 2011 whilst watching the repatriation of servicemen’s coffins through the town of Royal Wootton Bassett).
Article in Stretton Focus, October 2017
Asses and Hogs
I am attempting to write for URC Voice in the middle of August. The Stretton festival has just finished and the Prom concerts are well under way. We have been able to enjoy a feast of music both nationally and locally. We are fortunate in Church Stretton that we have so many able musicians
willing to share their talents with the rest of us. We benefit from their performances in coffee concerts and the like and their teaching through the University of the Third Age.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Luther’s treatises to the church door thereby signalling the start of the Reformation. One of the reforms which was important to Martin Luther was congregational singing. He expressed his strong views about music and worship in the
following uncompromising words:
“Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs!”
He wanted everyone to be able to sing of their faith in their native tongue.
Ageing congregations and shortage of accompanists are making it more and more difficult to maintain congregational singing, but we should do all we can to encourage it. Singing together is a great act of fellowship and we should take part in it even if our contribution resembles the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs!
Article in Stretton Focus, September 2017
Who or What is a Christian?
The Oxford Dictionary defines Christianity as a religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, with the qualities of decency, kindness and fairness.
All of the following claim to be Christian:
• Christian Scientists
• Jehovah’s Witnesses
• Orthodox (of many varieties)
• Plymouth Brethren
• Roman Catholics
• Seventh Day Adventists
• Salvation Army
• United Reformed
Have I missed anyone out?
Are you as confused as me?
We can’t all be right, can we?
We can’t all be wrong either.
This situation is positively TRIBAL !
We all have faith in the same God, but express it in different ways. The only things we agree on are:
• Our awareness of the wonder of creation
• Our awareness of our ultimate mortality
• Our desire to care for all people
Let us understand and respect each other.
Let us enjoy our diversity.
Article in Stretton Focus, August 2017
Boys in skirts show subversion is good for us
I write from the month of June that might be seen as the annus horribilis of months. It had murderous terrorist attacks in two of our largest cities, and the appalling Grenfell Tower fire with such a huge loss of life. There was a general election resulting in a hung parliament. Political authority, once assured of its own rhetoric, even arrogant in its assumption of its natural right to rule, was lost and shamed.
In June we learned that in 1992, the then archbishop suppressed evidence of child abuse by a fellow bishop, thus allowing it to continue for another 20 years. The area of life which declares the dignity and unique value of each individual chose the wrong route to follow. Religious authority had its own shaming in the failure of leadership to put morality before the protection of the institution.
During the hot spell of weather in June there was the story of boys at the Isca community school in Devon who had asked to wear shorts instead of longs, but were told shorts are not part of the school uniform. Some boys promptly borrowed skirts that were part of the girl’s uniform. Clearly the school had succeeded in creating a mild form of subversion. Breaking the rules is part of learning which are the ones that really matter. The school quickly realised that there are rules that assist towards forming character and there are rules which are just not relevant to the day.
The response of many, borne out of frustration and bearing rage towards authorities, was to gather and work together, across cultures, faiths, rich and poor, in the Manchester, London and Grenfell communities. Voluntary groups, local churches and mosques engaged with each other to help with the basic needs of life. The Fire and Rescue, Police and Medical services worked tirelessly and often sacrificially, whilst the stilted response of authorities appeared dispassionate, slow and unimaginative. It is more observable today that authorities have become distant from their populations, responding by robotic telephone messages and questionnaires. Authorities grow weaker and more incompetent in themselves, but in the streets and communities, people are stronger.
If we want all our institutions to serve the best interests of people, the people within need the space – freedom – to be independent-minded, questioning, more imaginative, and creative, even original in our thinking, morally aware of the wider view, and much less reverential about tradition – and like the Isca boys, even subversive.
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2017
A Reserved Place in Hell for . . .
Hell-fire sermons can still be heard in fundamentalist churches, where the Bible is taken literally. The doctrine of Hell can be a powerful incentive for people to say they believe what they are told is necessary for their salvation.
However, many churchgoers have abandoned such a belief, as being incompatible with the existence of a loving and merciful God. For them, any such God sitting in judgement and condemning people to an eternity of torment is deserving of the same!
If the doctrine of Hell wasn’t so grim, it would be laughable. Humour is actually the best way of dealing with this theological nonsense. Here’s how. The hell-fire preacher had told his congregation of the ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ that would be experienced by unrepentant sinners. An old lady who had lost all her teeth, asked him how she would get on, if she ended up there. The preacher solemnly told her that ‘teeth will be provided’!
How else but with ridicule, can you cope for example with the hellish account in Luke’s Gospel (Ch 16), where Lazarus is sitting comfortably in Abraham’s bosom, looking down into the Inferno where Dives is in torment, pleading for a help which is not available?
In the Middle Ages, viewing Hell from above, was offered as entertainment for the chosen few, who made it to Heaven. In those days they were familiar with such torment: they would turn up in thousands to watch witches being drowned and heretics being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Today, some might say ‘there’s a special place in Hell reserved for …’ whoever they are in strong disagreement with. Last year in the USA, Madeleine Albright said that such a place was reserved for all women who didn’t vote for Hilary Clinton to become President! Justin Webb, from the Today programme on Radio 4, said there are reserved places for journalists who take their craft too seriously! The saying is just a humorous and light-hearted figure of speech and as the Devil can’t stand being laughed at, to do so is good theology!
Article in Stretton Focus, June 2017
I recently spent an evening with friends looking at Max Ehrmann’s well-known Desiderata. You know, the one that begins ‘Go placidly . . ..’ and ends ‘strive to be happy.’ As a consequence of being mildly critical, I was challenged to produce my own for URC Voice. Here it is:
Do not pass through this world unnoticed. It will be different because of your presence – try to make sure it is better.
Do not tolerate mediocrity. Use your talents to the full. Use your abilities for the benefit of the community not solely for your personal gain.
Life is a gift – enjoy it! Do not be like a wine taster – taking a sip and spitting it out. Be a gulper. Take draughts and drink it down.
Without being reckless, be prepared to take risks for this adds spice to life. Try to find a team sport you can engage in, for this will bring out your best qualities.
Listen to music for if you can find a style you like it is a source of eternal joy.
Learn to love language so that you can appreciate and benefit from the experience of others.
Cultivate good relationships with neighbours, family and friends.
Embrace change for the alternative is stagnation and decay.
In particular support the young, for the future is theirs. Encourage them to reach for the stars.
Do not neglect the spiritual side of your life. Read, pray, contemplate to bring you closer to your neighbours and to God.
Cultivate a healthy dissatisfaction that will stop you getting smug.
Seek to do what is right. Be generous with your money and your praise. Be stingy with your advice, and who knows you may achieve an enviable level of peace and joy.
I would like to extend the challenge. What would your Desiderata look like? Take a few minutes to think about it and share your thoughts with us, perhaps through Focus.
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2017
The number 42 in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is the ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’. It is calculated by an enormous computer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years. Unfortunately by the time the answer came no one could remember what the question was.
Adams was one of the great creative storytellers of recent years, sadly dying when only 49. There was a strong philosophical thread through his science fiction. He took modern life and made us look at ourselves through metaphors of space and time travel, the challenge of alien cultures and cataclysmic events. It was also ridiculously funny. The number 42 lingers in the memory because of the contrast between the simplistic answer and the unknown ultimate question.
Perhaps the concept of the ultimate question is Adams’ most significant legacy. Is there such a question? If so, what is it?
Maybe the importance is that we can all conceive of an ultimate question, although its expression would be different for each of us. I can think of a number of candidates. Their ranking and priority varies from day to day. The one about the existence of God cries out for a yes/no answer, but it leads to so many follow-up questions whichever answer you decide on. If you go for ‘maybe’, the number of extra questions multiplies. Is that the nature of ‘ultimate’ questions?
In the absence of an enormous supercomputer and the luxury of 7.5 million years, we have to work on all those questions ourselves, we have to apply our own deep thought. That is one of the challenges of a modern religion, being open enough to look at the questions about faith, which matter to people living and working in the modern world.
We have also to accept that the answers may not be easy to find and may not be comfortable when we find them. How we get from question to answer can be quite challenging too. It is likely that while we each may ask a similar question, the answers we get may be different just as the journey to get there will be different. The challenge in the questioning may be matched by a challenge in the answers. The only certain thing is that none of these questions has the answer 42.
Article in Stretton Focus, April 2017
Leaving is an integral part of our life as human beings. Our first traumatic sensation occurs at birth, when we leave the warmth of the womb and enter into the world. As children we become accustomed to leaving, for example to go to school, meet friends, visit relatives. In most cases we return to the security of our home. Later in life we leave school for employment or to engage in further study, for example at university, and again we invariably return home. At this stage in life we may find a partner, set up on our own and raise a family. We may still however return to our previous home to visit our parents. After a lifetime of work we would hopefully enjoy a long and happy retirement. Eventually like all other humans we would die and leave this world for what lies ahead.
For Christians there is trust and hope in the creator God that death is not the end, but that the human spirit is now embarking on a journey and moving into a new dimension.
The following poem is my interpretation of how this final leaving journey, into what I would call the God mystery, might be experienced.
Coals, once flaming, barely flicker in the fire.
Sharp-edged rocks, once firm, now crumble at a touch.
Blurred vision replaces sharply focussed lines.
What lies beyond is conjured in the mind.
The gentle soothing of the cold embraces all.
The feeble body twists to face the calm.
The veil, once closed, now slowly opens wide,
One forward step confirms the path ahead.
The burden lifted leads to swifter pace.
The light now shining spurs the traveller on.
Hope now strengthened rises from the depths,
Reaching upwards towards an ever-moving sky,
Labyrinths of spirals moving in the mind.
The traveller looks for truth to guide the way
yet all around seems mystery and doubt.
But wait; trust now prevails,
and heaviness is banished with the cold.
Sightless eyes, their scales removed,
now peer to find the way,
upwards ever upwards into welcoming light.
Article in Stretton Focus, March 2017
Back in 1939 Church Stretton did care. The old workhouse (which stood where the swimming pool is now) was used to house refugees from Nazi Germany. It was named ‘The Haven’. The Congregational Church (which became part of the United Reformed Church) was a prime mover in getting this scheme organised.
Seventy seven years later there is another, larger refugee crisis. A few Syrian families have been allowed to come to Shropshire. They are being helped by local people. Other groups in Shropshire are collecting for the refugees who are still stranded in Europe, particularly in Greece.
The Christian message to the world is ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself ’. But who is my neighbour? It is the person and people in need of the care we can give.
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2017
Imagine all the people living life in peace: John Lennon
Around the world February is the month when the Christmastide cycle ends on the 2nd with Candlemas, the 40th day after Christmas. In many countries Christmas decorations do not come down until then. Candlemas itself is a festival of candles lighting the darkness of the night. Churches link Candlemas to a Jewish rite of passage, the presenting of a new-born boy in the temple and at the same time they add the festival of the Virgin being purified after childbirth; a ceremony that women used to ask for after the delivery of their baby.
Over Christmas/New Year I met a grandparent who told me of a school nativity play that they had attended. In this play there were many shepherds, great numbers of fluttering angels and dozens of kings. Even Mary had a host of look-alike friends to support her, as did Joseph. Everyone in the school had a key part to play. There were no extras, no animals, only the main characters in the story, which was every child.
Well, it is all about stories where facts don’t matter too much at all. The only reliable fact we have is that sometime around 4BC a particular person was born who led a journey that has impelled people, throughout history and now, to imagine and help create a better world. For what lies above fact is truth: that search for understanding and meaning that leads us to new and better ways of living together. It is currently believed that imagination comes from the widespread areas of the brain that co-ordinate and manipulate symbols, images, ideas. Good religion is about imagining beyond what is.
If you look through the diary at the beginning of Focus you will see the pages full of the coming attractions in the month of February, representing a part of the life and opportunity the town and its environs offer. At the beginning we are invited to an Open Day at our only Mosque in Craven Arms. Imagine the possibility offered here for increasing our understanding of what is going on in the UK now. The diary closes with women all around the world thinking and praying together about the Philippines, what potential this has for the world and the same day learning the truth about Haiti and imagining it emerging to be refreshed. If in Haiti, why not everywhere?
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2017
What time is it?
At the beginning of a New Year, we might become more aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
Time is passing, because that’s what time does – too quickly for some us! There is a time to be born and a time to die and in between is the time to live. That’s where we have to come to terms with the reality of life, and try to live as fully as we can.
Time is a great mystery; but it’s not a mystery to be solved. We can’t solve it, and we shouldn’t try, for we don’t have the equipment. We live ‘in time’ and we can’t ‘step out’ to observe and analyse it. So we’d better ‘step into it’ as best we can: step into the mystery, and make the most of the time we have.
For our convenience we divide time into time past; time present and time future. But if we do stop and think about it for a minute, we will realise that time past has gone; the future doesn’t yet exist and that the only real time we have is NOW.
It was ‘now’ when we did something yesterday; and it will be ‘now’ when we do something tomorrow. We only live in the ‘now’, and so the present moment is all we have.
From a religious point of view, it will always be ‘now’. That’s God’s time, always ‘now’; never past and never future; always ‘now’, or in other words ‘eternal’.
But we are not God! We are aware of passing time. Nevertheless, we might occasionally have experiences when time seems to stop, and we are fully absorbed in the ‘now’; giving us a foretaste of eternal life.
St. Paul tells of having such experiences of ‘heaven on earth’. But more importantly he tells us that NOW is the day of salvation.
This means that at any moment we can leave the past behind and step into the future; and with God’s blessing begin to ‘fill the unforgiving minute with 60 second’s worth of distance run’ as Rudyard Kipling nicely puts it in the poem IF.
For us, time is indeed passing, but you are not helplessly shackled to it. You can enter more fully into each ‘present moment’; and start to enjoy the freedom and responsibility of living ‘at one’ with God.