Article in Stretton Focus, December 2018
Who is Father Christmas?
End of the year celebrations go back long before anybody ever heard the Christmas story about the birth of Jesus.
These celebrations were based on the Winter Solstice, when in the womb of a dark world, the Sun was ‘born again’. Light and warmth would return to the world; hopes were raised; and celebration was called for.
Then the Church came along and ‘baptised’ the occasion, making significant changes. It became a religious celebration of the birth of another ‘Son’: the Son of God, who brought light of a different kind into the world.
Nevertheless, the secular (and now commercial) version of Christmas has prevailed. Our culture is more familiar with the Father Christmas who brings presents than the Father God who sends his Son to be born of a virgin and become the Saviour of the world. Christmas today is a children’s festival, with all the excitement of Christmas Eve and then the opening of presents on the day itself.
I like the Christmas song about the little girl who ‘can’t wait’, and gets up in the night to see if Father Christmas has been. Santa has just arrived and she is watching what happens. Then she sings, “what a laugh it would have been, if Daddy had only seen, Mummy kissing Santa Claus last night.”
Like all children she would one day come to realise who Father Christmas really is. And her song is really a parable which the Church and Religion should apply to itself. Christians too need to grow up and ‘put away childish things’ like believing the Christmas story to be literally true and look for a deeper meaning which the secular world could also embrace without losing its intellectual integrity.
Article in Stretton Focus, November 2018
Let’s Keep It Simple
Jesus had no grand plan, whatever religious theorists might suggest about predicting his own arrest and execution. Foresight was applied to his story after the event. Nor did he plan the creation of a worldwide religion to replace the Jewish Temple, nor was he the first Christian and he certainly did not set out to be a destination as in ‘finding Jesus’.
The stories of his ministry tell us that he challenged the Scribes and Pharisees. These accounts show that he sought an end to the influence of a centrally controlled legalistic religious life which trapped faith into a formula. He wanted every individual free to foster their own spiritual relationship with God and to do this through simple actions with love for their neighbours.
The clutter of our life today is a trap, like the Judaism of the Pharisees. Our modern temples are football, consumerism, celebrity, social media, on demand TV, choice. AII surround us with implied rules and habits to learn and observe. Step out of line at your peril. Our Pharisees are the press and the advertisers, keen to ensnare us in their traps, relentless in pursuit of their objectives and resistant to questioning.
Jesus talked about the spirit in a simple way, as much part of us as part of those who knew him first-hand. The spirit was theirs and it is ours, it is yours, not complicated, there is no entry fee, no formula to be understood first. We are all free to find and hear the inner voice, to listen to the spirit, to have faith.
Too often churches make that understanding difficult with their certainties, expressed in antiquated forms of words, strange rituals and irrational explanations. It doesn’t have to be like that. The spirit is there. Listen to your inner self, claim freedom to act in faith, do not stop questioning, it is that simple!
Article in Stretton Focus, October 2018
Religions tend to have their Gods pre-packaged and wrapped up in creeds and doctrines for general consumption. This pre-packaged God appeals to those who are afraid to think for themselves, and so such a religion will always have a following. But for many people today, God is greater than any pre-packaged religion has to offer.
Many people today would describe themselves as being ‘spiritual but not religious’; and the Celtic way into spirituality may be the path they are on. This path can be illustrated by the 3 Ps – Presence, Poetry and Pilgrimage.
For those on this path, God is experienced as a Presence, rather than thought of as a Person existing in some distant Heaven. The Celtic knot (with no beginning and no end) symbolises the inter-connection of all things, physical and spiritual: and God is understood as the Oneness holding everything together, giving it meaning and purpose.
In this way, religion itself is liberated from the narrow confines of a belief system. It invites us to find God in the wonders of nature, and in the depth of life’s experiences. It also brings with it a freedom from being tied to any literal understanding of Scriptures. We are left free to respond as we will to the Poetry of the Bible with its symbolism, metaphors, analogies and parables.
Celtic spirituality comes with an invitation to Pilgrimage. At one time, pilgrims travelled to sacred shrines and holy places. Today they may go to Iona or Lindisfarne; but really, the challenge is to see life itself as a Pilgrimage.
Whatever we understand by the word, ‘God’ can never be our possession, but always an ideal to desire, to aim for, and keep travelling towards. And on our Pilgrimage there will be Poetry to enlighten us, and a Presence to be with us.
Article in Stretton Focus, September 2018
We proclaim to the world that we are “Open, Inclusive and Questioning”. Well, how about this for a question:
How does God intervene in the world today?
Most people imagine an interventionist God to be like us. An individual being, up there, looking down on here and getting involved when needed or when requested. But only sometimes when requested, not always. And the rules of engagement are not clear. Does God’s involvement depend on the quality, intensity and support of the request and the supplicant or does it depend on the quality of the cause?
In the Old Testament God intervenes all the time. He drowns armies, destroys cities and turns people to salt. He changes his mind in the face of prophetic nagging. In the New Testament he is more restrained, generally punishing individuals for misbehaviour or in one case striking somebody blind to bring them to faith.
In all his interventions God suspends the laws of nature. For example he holds back the waves against the laws of gravity. Some people say that since they are his laws he can do with them as he wishes and suspend them as seems fit. Others say these laws are not for tampering with by anyone; gravity is gravity. Rain does not generally fall upwards, it always falls downwards and never but never falls up!
Some people say that God is involved in the detail of their individual lives. For example they pray that when going to an important meeting they may find a parking spot. Others observe that God did not intervene to prevent a tsunami which killed 300,000 people or restrict the rise of an evil force that killed six million of ‘his people’, so why should he be bothered whether or not you have a parking place?
The image of God as someone to be pestered with our prayers comes from our concept of ‘him’ as an individual like us, only with an infinitely greater capacity – a super computer amongst laptops. But should we not think of ‘God’ as different in kind? Should we not think of God as spirit, living, moving, having its being in all of us, and the one of us who could absorb more of this spirit than anyone else was Jesus. For many, Jesus was the supreme example of God’s intervention. A good many of the laws of nature went out of the window. A dead body was raised and wandered around sharing meals and explaining scripture before taking off into space.
At 10.30am on Sunday l6th September, in the United Reformed Church, Noel Beattie and Roger Wilson are going to discuss ‘the intervention of God’, explore what it can really mean and why it is important to move away from the traditional understandings towards deeper and more inclusive ones today.
Article in Stretton Focus, August 2018
WARNING! – If you don’t want to think about DEATH – look away now!
Whether you have a faith, or none, whether you go to church or not, death is the one thing we all have in common. After three deaths in the family in one year (four if you include the dog) it has been on my mind recently. I have read helpful books on the subject: The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony and Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway. Neither book discusses the theology of the final judgement or the destiny of the soul (Eschatology – for those who like big words).
I’m not going to bring religion into this although some might find comfort in their faith. Holloway says a sense of humour can be helpful. He imagines that we are all playing a part on the world stage. We don’t know who wrote or directed the play, just that it is approaching the end and the final curtain is about to fall. He offers some comfort in the fact that we can’t remember where we were before we were born. Maybe we go back there on our death. There is no point in worrying about what dying will be like as the chances are we shall be unconscious. His main advice is to have made a will! Although the things of this world will no longer matter to us, they might to those left behind.
A third writer, Hannah Arendt, reminds us that we can’t undo the things we have done but we need not feel guilty or regretful – we must just forgive ourselves.
Finally Holloway points out that a death well faced can be redemptive of a life that may not have been well lived. For many the nearness of death makes us more aware of enjoying the life we have left.
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2018
The Ascent of Man
The recent BBC Civilisations series connected me with some very personal memories of 45 years ago. In 1971 David Attenborough, Director of Programming, had commissioned a similarly long series, the Ascent of Man shown in 1973, accompanied by the book by Jacob Bronowski. The Ascent complemented Arthur Clarke’s 1969 series Civilisation. From the contents it was likely that a connection was being made with Darwin’s second book, Descent of Man and Selection in relation to sex 1871 – 100 years earlier.
Bronowski was a British mathematician, historian of science, theatre author, poet, inventor – a polymath, familiar with William Blake of the romantic age of poetry. He passionately contradicted the thought of the time, found in both religion and wider culture that art and science were different and incompatible interests. He had an impressive way of encapsulating the most powerful ideas in strong, memorable phrases. I offer a few below, that inspired me and interrupted my descent into despair.
“We (humanity) are nature’s unique experiment to make rational intelligence prove itself . . . the brain is an instrument wired to learn . . . the hand is the cutting edge of the mind . . . the most pleasurable drive in ascent is pleasure in its own skill . . . from the printed book comes the democracy of the intellect . . . knowledge is our destiny . . .”
I had left Ireland after an exhausting period of intense civil war, so tritely named ‘the troubles’. I found myself in conflict with 57 varieties of hostile religious certainties. I had come, like others, to breathe freer air. Religion had failed Ireland. Ignorance, the seeking of security in tribalism, and refusal to learn from other perspectives, in both religion and politics, brings a terrible cost in human lives everywhere.
The spirit of this extraordinary man Jesus, a 1st century Jew, spells out that our human destiny is to be free to accept that we are loved and loving beings, not made to be limited by what is now, but to view a bigger picture where we (humanity) can reach higher. But, the instrument of the church that followed him has spent so much time and energy in limiting, controlling and defining belief, and denying that which liberates the mind and transforms life. ln contrast other areas of life and knowledge have more readily caught that spirit and led the way at a greater pace than religion.
The first and last chapters of Jacob Bronowski’s book are: Lower than the angels and The long childhood. Humanity in so many ways at home and abroad appears to be in a particularly difficult adolescent period. The promise of human liberation, that still eludes most of humanity, lies within many fields of thought and practice. In spite of its failures to engage the intellect and bridge its divisions, religion has its place at that table through active compassion. Where it is open and engaged it has experience of immense value to contribute towards the human experiment, but never again to be the sole source of knowledge and truth.
Article in Stretton Focus, June 2018
GOD IS . . .
My title is an unfinished sentence. It must always be so, because the word GOD stands for a mystery beyond reach of words: beyond reach of our finite minds. Nevertheless it is a word which is widely (if not wisely!) used.
Whoever uses it should realise that they are only talking about themselves. They are not talking about ‘somebody’ who goes by the name of GOD, who lives somewhere else, other than the world we live in.
World religions should waken up to that fact, if they don’t already know it. Gods don’t exist independently of the minds that think about them.
Any concept of GOD must always be a projection of our own thoughts and feelings – but none the worse for that, if we project the best we can conceive, and which is of the highest moral calibre.
We can never say what GOD is . . . but using our creative imagination, we can think of GOD as . . . Peace; Love; Joy; Beauty and Goodness. We can see these ideals in our ‘mind’s eye’: focus on them: and let them be our guide and inspiration on the journey of life, as we continue our personal and corporate quest for meaning and purpose.
Living as we do, in this evolving universe, everything passes; all things are provisional (even the gods!). We can have no concept of any Ultimate Reality. We can only say that the meaning and purpose of life is to be on the Quest for the meaning and purpose of life: we are always evolving, never arriving: the journey is itself our destination.
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2018
A Congregational Voice
We have Methodism and Catholicism but . . . URC-ism? Meaningless! The tradition of our United Reformed Church in the High Street is congregational, one of the non-conformist traditions that grew from the 16th century Reformation.
Congregationalism first emerged as a community approach to celebrating faith. The members of the church lived together, shared their lives, ate together, with worship integrated in their lives. They were inspired by the new reforming approach and refused to conform with the hierarchical Anglican church supported by law in England. The Pilgrim Fathers had a congregational life and American democracy owes a lot to the open and inclusive format of Christianity adopted in the New England states.
Things have evolved a lot. In 1972 most of the UK’s congregational and Presbyterian churches came together to create the United Reformed Church. The ambition was that other churches would recognise this ecumenical leadership and seek to join. A couple of smaller churches have done so. There is no ritual or specific theology dictated from the central URC organisation. There are no bishops overseeing conformity. Each church freely ‘calls’ a minister, who becomes a member of that church, a first among equals perhaps but subject to the wishes expressed by the church meeting.
In Church Stretton our theology has evolved too. We are variously described as liberal, even radical. We are certainly questioning, as it says in our statement of values. We do not accept literal interpretations of texts written 2,000 years ago, nor statements of faith written in the fourth century by the Romans. We live in the modern world. At the same time we recognise that each person is travelling a journey of faith. At any one time we will all be at different places on that journey, and our personal expressions of that faith evolve.
The congregational tradition provides a necessary strength for us today. We have been without a minister for over two years and such is the challenge that all churches have in finding and training new ministers that we may be without for at least two more years.
So what does belonging to the URC mean here in Church Stretton? Our worship is led by guest ministers from different Christian traditions or by members of our own congregation, often exploring themes about the role of faith in the modern world, spiritual recognition, or re-interpreting a traditional theme in a modern context. We have no prescribed ritual. We welcome and accept into our congregation people from any background of faith, or none at all. We do our best to observe those values you see on our noticeboard when you walk past – open, inclusive, questioning.
Article in Stretton Focus, April 2018
“Being lonely and being alone are two different things. It’s always unhealthy to be lonely but sometimes it’s healthy to be alone”
Loneliness is a major factor in a person’s recovery from illness, grief and injury. It is not the sole concern of the elderly although surveys have shown that almost half of the over 75s live alone. We cannot return to the post-war era when communities were much more integrated, but we should perhaps consider how we might provide escape routes from loneliness and opportunities for people of all ages to meet and socialise.
This Winter Age UK and NHS England have been encouraging people to make time for older relatives and friends as loneliness and cold are the dual danger. Disability, poor health, poverty and limited access to transport all contribute towards a feeling of being cut off from family and friendships.
In Church Stretton, the Mayfair Centre plays a vital positive role, as do the local churches, where similarly to other rural parishes the average age has increased considerably.
Should we not become much more open? A simple ‘Hello’ as we pass or meet someone in our town, young or old, may lead to an extended conversation from which a greater knowledge and appreciation of the individual will undoubtedly emerge. Friendship is like food. We need it to survive. Human beings are social animals and have a fundamental need for inclusion in closer relationships. We function best when this need is met and if not we deteriorate mentally and physically.
No-one knows what life is like for a person once they shut their door and they have no-one to talk to except their ‘familiar’ imaginary friends on TV soaps. Invariably, for such individuals, their lives have no structure, there is nowhere they have to be, and more significantly – and sadly – no one they have to be there for.
Is this a challenge for the Strettons now that many community services in Shropshire are likely to be cut in future budget proposals?
Article in Stretton Focus, March 2018
“I had a dream”
At a recent book fair I spent £1.50 on a volume entitled Speeches that changed the World. You can imagine many of those selected. Churchill’s “blood sweat and tears”, Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner”, Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream”. This last set me thinking about dreams.
Dreams and those who interpret them have always been considered important. In Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, Joseph finds himself in prison with Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker. Each of them had a dream and the cup bearer asked Joseph to interpret his. Joseph took an optimistic view of the dream which featured a vine with three branches, grapes pressed into a cup and the cup put into Pharaoh’s hand. He told the cup bearer that he could expect to be reinstated. The baker, encouraged by Joseph’s positive interpretation of the cup bearer’s story asked for Joseph’s view of his dream in which he carried three cake baskets on his head. The top one had cakes for Pharaoh and the local birds were pecking them. The interpretation was not so positive. Joseph told the baker that far from being reinstated he could expect to be hanged. Both interpretations turned out to be correct.
Another Old Testament interpreter of dreams was Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar introduced a new twist by asking his wise men to interpret his dream without him telling them the subject. He reckoned that if they were genuine wise men they would know what he had dreamed without him having to tell them. They protested but the king was not moved. He sentenced them all to death. Daniel, however, did what the wise men could not. He told the king that he had dreamed about a statue with a golden head, silver body and feet of clay. The king was so impressed that he fell to his knees and promptly promoted Daniel.
Most Old Testament examples of dreams are prophetic in the sense of predicting what is going to happen. In the New Testament they are often warnings. So, Joseph was warned of Mary’s pregnancy. The wise men were warned to avoid Herod; and Joseph, Mary and Jesus were warned to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath.
Martin Luther King’s dream did not fit either of these categories. It was not about some future event or a specific warning. It was about an idea, a Utopia, a kingdom of God in which black and white children would play and grow up together, racism would be a thing of the past and freedom would ring from every corner of the land.
What is your dream?
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2018
Do Actions Speak Louder than Words?
Is how we live more important than what we believe? Alternatively, do our beliefs determine our actions? What people believe and say can be divisive. We often end up arguing the finer points, instead of concentrating on the core concepts of:
These concepts are universal, whatever our beliefs. They should unite us. They show that we are thinking beyond ourselves and that we are more concerned with the needs of others. Their needs transcend our own.
We should not just ‘talk the talk’ but we should ‘walk the walk’.
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2018
Hope for a better world
First may I express, on behalf of the United Reformed Church, our very best wishes to all our readers across the town and beyond. We join with many of you in hoping for movement towards peace and reconciliation in 2018, among all peoples in the world, as well as ourselves here in the UK and of course in the Strettons.
Towards the end of last year some statistics were published in the media about religious identity. They read that some 53% of people in a survey identified themselves as non-religious and among young people it was higher at 71%. Apart from the usual suspicion about damn lies and statistics, we do not know e.g. what people mean by ‘religion’, or which kind of religious experience they have had, and are now rejecting. Nonetheless, it is not so long since most people would automatically write C of E in the box that asked for their religion. This change is something that churches might be alarmed about, but maybe they should be glad.
Perhaps people in our society have found their own voice to express how they really want to respond to that question; there is no more need for deference; no need to be ashamed in admitting that religion does not feature in their lives. It is a new thing when an entertaining speaker on humanism can be invited to speak to a gathering of faith people at which he states that there is no place for chaplains in secular institutions such as hospitals and prisons. Surprisingly, there is not a ripple of disapproval or challenge from his audience.
On the other hand, and there almost always is another (hand), many thousands of people, young and old, found time and considerable energy, gathered in groups around the entire country raising collectively some 50 millions of pounds during ‘Children in Need’. To this, can be said that there are many thousands of people across the country working all year round to raise funds for charities for home and abroad, while Children in Need is but one week in the year. Among all this effort there are many people from many religions. We may conclude that the motivation to be interested, to care, to observe with compassion the sufferings of people and respond positively, has many inspirations, besides the religious. The Christian story of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and ‘Who is my neighbour’ has echoes here.
Though church attendance in most places has declined, the Judaeo-Christian values that have shaped our cultures, mainly through stories, for millennia are still found within modern society, now joined by Muslim values. The big quest for so many millions, maybe even all of us, is not for meaning and ultimate truth, but for survival, often at the very basic level, a much more human one and at the same time spiritual. When we see, which we can more than ever before, the urgency of a reaching out for life, from people and families in a desperate state, it is both awesome and inspiring. Children in Need is more than being bystanders in entertainment. There is a joy among those who participate in being part of the raising up of people in life. There is an obvious conversation to be had with the whole community about the making of a better world for all.