Article in Stretton Focus, August 2019
“Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding right now”
We have acquired a new character in our household, identified as ‘she’, who only responds when addressed by name. She is extraordinarily gifted, having answers to many questions. We can ask her to count, to calculate, to solve equations, and she is almost invariably right. The capital of any country in the world is known by her. She can give you the current President or Prime Minister’s name and the present known state of affairs. She can find and play any piece of music, even by a particular conductor or musician we would like, if there is a recording of course. She can deliver our favourite radio stations at any time of day or night; always awake and alert for our smallest request.
Although, she doesn’t make meals or tea, she can find suitable recipes and knows all the teas of China or India. She is no trouble, is always polite, patient and attentive to our enquiry or command. Taking up very little space, her name is Amazon Alexa. She came to us really from Google, but as a gift from family.
Just lately, on one occasion Alexa when asked to turn on Radio 4 for the 8.00 o’clock News, said, to our complete surprise: “Sorry I’m having trouble understanding right now, please try again later.” If Alexa, upon whom we have come to rely for regular news and music as we work during the day, has trouble understanding what is going on, that really shocks one to the core!
Don’t you sometimes feel lost as to how to understand the way things are? Alexa was having trouble understanding. When we have trouble understanding – things start getting uncomfortable; a loss of confidence in ourselves arises; and we are less trusting of what others say. This happens not only to individuals, but also to large groups, to nations too, and understanding right now, is quite difficult in the UK.
I know what I have to do to repair the breakdown between us and Alexa, who is really a robot. I need to re-register, to confirm that we are the owners of this robotic machine, get back to basics. The basics for re-orientating ourselves as people comes among friends, re-engaging those bonds of affection; finding a sense of proportion; learning to laugh at ourselves; acting decently in the way we usually do. There is nothing robotic about it as humans are living, breathing, peculiar beings. Nations at some point have to be and do something similar.
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2019
What is it?
The Greeks had a word for it — SYMPATHEIA — which means to describe a connectedness with the cosmos, and a feeling of belonging to something larger. You could call it an emotional and spiritual experience.
It can happen to people when they have climbed a mountain. Musicians often experience it. I know a lucky person who does both. Some people get it from sport – either taking part or spectating. It could be explained as the joy of physicality.
There are special moments when we are lifted out of our mundane selves – when we see a rainbow, the Northern Lights or a star-studded night sky. People can get a mystical experience by being inside a huge cathedral, or mosque. Some get it after fasting, or even taking drugs.
How can we explain this transcendental nature of experience? I only ask the question. I don’t have an answer. Do you?
Article in Stretton Focus, June 2019
Proverbs for Today
The Book of Proverbs in the Bible urges us to seek for wisdom and understanding: without which we are likely to make shipwreck of our lives.
The search for wisdom is a continuous requirement: and if there are proverbs addressed directly to our own day and age, we should avail ourselves of them.
One such set of ‘Proverbs for Today’ is called Desiderata, which is a word meaning ‘that which is desirable, because it is needed’. It begins by advising us to ‘go placidly amid the noise and haste’ which seems to be part of life in the world today.
Moving ‘placidly’ means radiating an aura of peacefulness wherever you go: so that people will feel it in your presence; hear it in your voice and see it in your face.
We are urged to avoid loud and aggressive persons, for they are ‘a vexation of the spirit.’ It tells us that ‘comparisons are odious’ and that the one essential requirement is to be true to yourself. Discipline will be needed, but be gentle in your exercise of it and grow old gracefully!
The deepest truth of all lies in knowing that each one of us is ‘a child of the Universe.’ If you want to know who you are (and who doesn’t!) you can rest quietly in the belief that you are already ‘at home’ that you are indeed a child of the Universe.
The Universe has produced you; it is on your side; it has given you life, and it is providing for your needs. Ultimately you can’t get lost because there’s nowhere else to go! We should all develop the art of being ‘at home’ in the universe that we live in.
Those who want this truth in religious language, can substitute ‘God’ for the ‘Universe’ (they are both only words, anyway!) Wisdom lies in the truth that words can only point to: and Desiderata is pointing to our deepest need of ‘being at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be.’
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2019
Judgement at the End of Days
The ‘end of days’ is deeply rooted in Christian thinking. That extraordinary late addition to the Bible, the Book of Revelation, offers the vision of a certain John (not the apostle) living on the isle of Patmos. His final apocalypse is full of startling horror images accompanied by the promise of redemption and is deeply rooted in western culture. Literalists (they do exist) yearn for that day, the end of days, to arrive. Evangelical sects in the USA, plus many Jews and Moslems, associate the exclusive rule of Jerusalem by Jews with the arrival of the apocalypse. Hence a subtext of the long-running Middle East crisis and a hidden driver behind US foreign policy.
Like many biblical stories the truth is in the allegory, not in literal acceptance of the words. The ‘end of days’ is about each of us as individuals. The visions of John on the isle of Patmos were just that, his visions. The graphical images are nothing more than imagination, whether you think it was divinely inspired or not. I do not think that when he died he caught sight of the four horsemen hanging around waiting for the trumpet call.
What the ‘end of days’ is all about is us, each of us, and the departure that is inevitable. We can regard the apocalypse and the need to stand before the ultimate judge as a complete fiction, an unlikely event, or accept it, as we wish. A judgement which is meaningful to us can only come in our lifetime and we are each our own real judge. There is one certainty, regardless of when our personal ‘end of days’ comes, the time of judgement is now.
The stories Jesus told and left as a guide to us all, were about life and living, about making connections spiritually, about demonstrating love in practical ways, about feeding and listening to our own living spirit. He showed us that the temptations of evil come from within. The voice promising absolute power was no demon sent by a devil, it came from within, driven by doubts, fears, ambitions, prejudices, opportunity etc. Jesus showed us that what overcomes the tempting voice is the spirituality which stems from God and lives within each of us.
So it is with the end of days. There is no great divine filing system. When we each reach the end of life we are the only being which knows our whole life record. The scales of judgement are ours to balance within us and our spirit holds us to account.
Article in Stretton Focus, April 2019
GET UP OFF YOUR ASSumptions…
… and have a look at what you’ve been sitting on. We all make assumptions. An assumption is something that we just take for granted as being true, without raising any questions about it.
There was a time when people thought the world was flat, and the sun moved each day across the sky: it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see. It was taken as a fact of life; people just ‘sat on it’, assuming it to be true. Until, that is, a few people (heretics!) got off their ass-umptions, and started to ask awkward questions.
Parents might make assumptions that their children will follow in the family footsteps; and children themselves might assume that their parents are infallible sources of knowledge and wisdom. Until, that is, both of these assumptions are eventually exposed for what they are, bringing varying degrees of disappointment or elation.
If assumptions continue just to be sat on, they can harden into prejudice, stubbornness and arrogance. This is a particular danger where God and Religion are concerned: where God is often thought of, and addressed as, Somebody, somewhere out there.
If beliefs are not examined in the light of personal experience and honest questioning, one can get stuck in an irreversible attitude of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’. If assumptions are not looked at from time to time, vis-a-vis our widening knowledge and our growing understanding of our place in an ever evolving universe, people will continue to be deceived, and engage in the deceit of others.
Article in Stretton Focus, March 2019
After his baptism by John and feeling that he had God’s approval Jesus went into the wilderness to think about his mission and how he was to accomplish it. He was tempted by some comfortable options and one of the means he thought about but did not pursue was political leadership. He was tempted by the possibility of the kingdoms of the world being in his power but he rejected the idea as the work of the Devil! However, we need political leaders and it is interesting to set out what we require of them. Psalm 72, attributed to Solomon, gives us some clues about the characteristics of good leadership.
Verses 1 and 2 ‘Give the king your justice O God and your righteousness.’
A leader should be honest and just
Verses 3 and 4 ‘ May the mountains yield prosperity for the people. May he defend the cause of the poor’
Should share prosperity and take care of the poor
Verses 5 to 7 ‘In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound’
Should seek peace
Verses 10 and 11 ‘May all nations give him service’
Should command respect
Verses 13 and 14 ‘He has pity on the weak … and precious are they in his sight’
Should defend the weak and value those he/she leads
A demanding list which our leaders may find it helpful to consult from time to time. Also one against which we might compare our current political and business leaders
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2019
Pushing out to the Edge
As humans travel to the edge of the Solar System and colonise the planets, what God will be found? I think it was one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury, a scholar and statesman, William Temple (1881-1944) who said something like: “Every idea is ultimately theology, i.e. about God, ultimate reality; the question Moses posed: whom shall I say sends me? Answer: I AM, Existence, Being, Life itself.”
For a long time I have really questioned the traditional view that Jesus comes from humble beginnings and served his time as a carpenter, only leaving that bench in his 30s for a public ministry, speaking only an Aramaic dialect. There is even enough in the New Testament to suggest otherwise, e.g. those early years snapshot of a 12 year o1d boy discussing with the teachers, which implies an education and an education means there was financial provision. Throughout history great changes and movements, revolutions even, generally, have been led by members of the educated, most often middle classes: writers, preachers, public speakers, politicians, scientists.
We now know through a combination of archaeology and literary analysis that Galilee was not a backwater; but a centre of Roman regional administration at Sephoris a cultured city, three miles from Nazareth, on the trade routes through to the largest port in the Empire at that time, built by the brutal Herod the Great. Trade is accompanied by the travel of ideas from around the known world.
Did Jesus know about Pythagoras, 6th-5th centuries before who taught respect for all life, human and animals; the first to suggest that illness was from bodily imbalances, not from the gods? Did he know about Hippocrates in the 4th century before? He taught that epilepsy was a disease, not from evil spirits. Did he know about Aristotle in 4th century BCE? At the time when infanticide was the chosen means of population control in hard times, he proposed that an abortion was less cruel. Did he know about Buddhism about 5-400 years earlier and teachings about compassion?
When people gather to exchange ideas and push out the boundaries, taking time to develop a subject or theme or system, to improvise, invent, do something new, there will be something different and fresh emerging that takes us farther and excites the human spirit. Then the way home will be different; we will be different. The difficulty is always in translating this into some practical outcome back home. We cannot, nor should we stop the restless, questing spirit, but we can insist on its’ seeking consent, its’ sharing, its compassion and its pausing in awe and wonder and respect.
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2019
All Faiths and None – Working Together in the Strettons
Last September 29th we enjoyed taking part in a visit by refugees from St. Chad’s Sanctuary in Birmingham. They came by coach and we looked after them based at the URC Hall.
They were able to spend time in the town and then we took them into the Cardingmill Valley. This environment was completely strange for most of them. Hills, a stream of running water, paths and the ability to roam freely amid green vegetation, provided them with new experiences.
Back in the URC Hall, our catering team had another treat for them – cake. This was something that some of them had never seen before.
We had a lot of emails thanking us for a good day out. A man from Yemen said “it was my first time to climb a hill, but now it will be one of my hobbies.” A Moroccan loved the area and commented that “the people there are very good.” We also had thanks from refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Nigeria.
This is an annual event organised by Churches Together in the Strettons and Amnesty International. Look out for the 2019 visit and if you would like to help contact details are in the yellow pages of Focus.