RETURNING FROM WAR

Related image

When I was a youngster, Remembrance Sunday seemed to be dominated by “the men with the medals”. I would watch from the choir stalls while these men processed to the chancel steps and lowered their flags in solemn remembrance of fallen comrades.

It was very moving. We looked on in awe and wondered what acts of daring and bravery the soldiers had performed to earn those medals. All we had to rely on were the films we’d seen. Were these the men who had blown up bridges, shot down enemy aircraft and survived prisoner of war camps?

As the men with the medals have dwindled in number, we’ve started to acknowledge and marvel at others who contributed to the war effort alongside them: the women who worked on the land and in the factories, those who nursed the wounded on the front line overseas, or in hospitals at home; the animals – war horses shipped out to carry ammunition, – donkeys and mules to carry food and water, canaries to detect poisonous gas, and cats and dogs to hunt trench rats.

We’ve learnt to remember not only the men but the boys,our boys, caught up in more recent conflicts. Young lads and lasses on active service in Korea, Bosnia, Kosova, Afghanistan, Iraq. And we’ve leant to remember the wounded and the traumatised.

The men with the medals didn’t talk much about their experiences. Only in the past few years have we heard their stories, perhaps encouraged by more recent generations of service people publishing their accounts and campaigning for better treatment and care. We also now remember their families, the military wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends and children.

Returning from combat and surviving the trauma of war is as old as war itself. Part of Homer’s Odyssey, the oldest extant piece of western literature, written possibly as early as the 8th century BC, describes the ten year homecoming of the eponymous Greek warrior famous for his exploits in the Trojan War.

Odysseus encounters innumerable obstacles and traumas en route for home; he is blown off course in severe storms, is repeatedly haunted by visions of fallen comrades and returns to a wife who thinks him dead. Worse still, she doesn’t even recognise him since he is a changed man, a man in a new guise, who has to win his way back into the household and into her affections. Furthermore, there is no happy ending to the tale, as Odysseus fights with his son to the very end of his life.

There is much anecdotal evidence to draw on with regard to the problems returning soldiers have experienced in adjusting to “normal” family life; to wives who’ve had to learn to survive independently in their absence, and in redefining themselves both as husband and father who may have missed out on the birth and early years of their children.

We probably all know of soldiers who have returned from war as changed people, unrecognised, traumatised, angry and depressed, and once the initial euphoria of the homecoming has subsided, the consequences of their internal struggles have then gone on to threaten the fortunes of their families for generations.

In 2009 eight and half thousand veterans were serving sentences in UK prisons and a further eleven and half thousand were on probation or parole.

In 2012 in Britain, more soldiers and veterans killed themselves than died in combat in Afghanistan.

An average of six veterans a day over the last few years have requested treatment and are said to be suffering from PTSD Disorder.

The return from the conflict brings no immediate peace for countless veterans, who along with their loved ones have to weather the fallout of mental illness on a daily basis..

Likewise, there is little peace for us. Learn the lesson: life’s battles against injustice, evil, inequality and prejudice affect us all. Like Odysseus and returning veterans, we are all trying to find a way home to ourselves; our way home to God.

We should honour and take as our models not only those who have survived both the physical and mental scars of war in direct combat, but also the many partners, siblings and parents who have helped to nurse their traumatised loved ones back to health

They too deserve to stand alongside “the men with the medals”

WHERE?

It’s the question parents are supposed to dread. “Where did I come from?” Nowadays I suspect most parents are well-prepared. They also know that very young children are not expecting a biology lesson. A lecture on the facts of life wouldn’t quite answer the question.

The child in front of us is not just a bundle of bones, or a brain, or a whirlwind of arms and legs. Children are people and a person isn’t made by sticking cells together. People are created from so many different elements; language, culture, experience, human life and love.

“Where did I come from?” may represent a search for some kind of intention behind a child’s existence. They weren’t an accident but conceived in love. They are wanted and they belong.

When I was training to be a priest, I spent some time working alongside a hospital chaplain. One day we were taken to the morgue. As the mortician was preparing a body for a post-mortem, he produced a little electric saw. “I need to open up the skull” he said. “Where is he?” he asked, “Come on, you’re the experts!”. Again it’s not a geographical question. People are not simply physical objects. To ask the question “Where is he?” is to ask for re-assurance that the person who was part of our lives will remain in our family conversation and in the history of our community. That is what makes them a person and continues to make them a person after death.

Parallels can be drawn with the question “Where is God?” We are not looking for a biology or a geopgraphy lesson, since the notion of a physical “coming together” is not appropriate. God is not made by anything at all but is that which creates love, joy, peace and the fruits of God’s spirit. The question “Where is God?” looks for some kind of assurance that all is well; that there is hope and purpose in our lives.

That’s why the Christian answer to the question “Where is God?” should be “God is with us”. The equally important question is “Where are we?”. That’s not a geographical or biological question either ; Are we with God? Are we where there is hope, courage, humanity, dignity and love?

CONFESSION

Image result for australian child abuse bishops

The Australian Catholic Bishops recently decided not to adopt all the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and rejected a recommendation that reports of abuse disclosed to priests during confession be reported to police.

Three Australian states have already adopted laws making it an offence for priests to fail to report the confessions of child sex abuse. However some priests in these states have said that they are “willing to go to jail” rather than break the seal of confessional.

It seems extraordinary that the highest standards of safeguarding within most secular institutions should not be adopted by the church.

There is on old puzzle that is still presented to theology students: Are God’s commands good because he commands them, or does he command them because they are good? The thinking behind it is that as God cannot be subjected to anything, to say that he commands things because they are good would suggest that God was being subject to standards of goodness.

The crucial and most telling point is this. Anything that we consider to be less than the highest level of morality cannot be of God. Consequently we should have no hesitation in adopting what after careful consideration we think best for our children. The search for goodness is surely by definition a seeking after God. We should begin not by asking what God wants (which makes the extraordinary claim of knowing what God is thinking) but what is the best we can do.

 

 

 

 

 

PAST PERFECT

I’m very excited that this week sees the publication of my new book “Past Perfect: freedom from perfection in life and faith”. It’s available on Amazon and Kindle and other outlets! I’d be grateful if you felt able to share this blog, not only to publicise the book but because we need to free ourselves from ideas of perfection and imperfection.
 
We seem to be obsessed with perfection. It’s everywhere, permeating our conversations, our language, our advertising, our films and our religion. It’s not only widespread across our culture; it has roots deep in the beginning of civilization.
 
Generally when we describe something as perfect, it’s simply an expression of delight, but as soon as we try to impose standards of perfection upon ourselves or others it can become debilitating, undermining our confidence and linked to feelings of hopelessness, eating disorders (especially amongst young people) and in extreme circumstances, attempted suicide.
 
Due to a huge shift in our thinking, the terms perfect and imperfect have become largely redundant and that demands a radical revision of our theology. God is often described as perfect in hymns and services – “Perfect in power, in love and purity” according to the hymn Holy, holy holy. If these terms have little meaning in our everyday language, they  must be regarded as no more than poetic alliteration.
 
I’ve enjoyed looking at the uses and contradictory notions of the terms perfection and imperfection. “Just a perfect day” sang Lou Read… “Drink Sangria in the park / And then later / When it gets dark we go home.” What made the day perfect? Probably nothing exceptional at all. Imagine a wedding in which  everything went wrong – it rained, the bride was late and the groom fluffed his vows. Yet everyone said it was the perfect wedding! It’s been fun unravelling ideas of perfection in concepts of beauty, human life, love and goodness, society and even death – “Grant us, O Lord, a perfect end” and shaping an understanding of God free of this notion.

IDENTITY THEFT

Image result for jacob stealing blessings from esau

IDENTITY THEFT

We are all acutely aware of the vulnerability of our personal data, since Cambridge Analytica was accused of harvesting thousands of Facebook profiles. Many companies keep an eye on our internet searches and online/ offline shopping, and their algorithms deduce our likely profile and preferences, so as to tailor their advertisements and target their propaganda.

For many Christians this has an unnerving resonance in the prayer that opens some Communion Services: “O God from who all hearts are open, all desires known…..” Their all-knowing God is even more informed than the internet giants, and disciples are called to act beneath the gaze of an all-seeing God.

Of course we should all aspire to live with a clear conscience, unafraid of how our actions might be judged by our partners, friends and colleagues. Those working for public institutions will always be mindful of the scrutiny of trustees, stakeholders and the watchful eye of the press, and must be prepared to defend their decisions. Good communication and trust is built on the sharing of personal knowledge.

Yet we would be reckless not to consider carefully in whom we place our trust. The dangers of identity theft are very real and can have serious financial, medical and legal consequences. It isn’t a new phenomena, however; the Genesis 27 tale in which Jacob steals Esau’s birthright is probably one of the earliest recorded examples of self-seeking and calculated identity theft.

Preserving our personal identity offline is probably as hard as online. It isn’t only unhealthy relationships and abusive communities that can rob us of our identity. “Make of our hearts one heart” sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; something to which most lovers aspire. Yet alongside this idealisation of an intimate relationship, is the need to balance mutual dependence and the freedom of an individual’s emotional autonomy. As the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran writes:

Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

The same holds for the intimacy of faith. St Augustine wrote in his Soliliques “If I know myself I shall know thee, O God.”. To lose our identity is not only to lose ourselves but to lose the way to God.

THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY

Image result for another place

I grew up near Liverpool, and returning to the city after a few years was a revelation. Places I remembered as some distance apart were on each other’s doorsteps – the Philharmonic Hall almost next door to the Anglican Cathedral, the Everyman Theatre next to Paddy’s Wigwam, the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel just behind St George’s Hall.

It’s a vibrant city, constantly renewing itself and still bathing in the glory of having been chosen as City of Culture back in 2008. Yet the wealth of the city that produced many of these great buildings was built on the back of the slave trade and thousands of impoverished dock workers whose lives are well-documented and displayed in Liverpool’s museums.

At present, figures from the the Terracotta Army, the underground battalions of life-sized warriors that secretly guarded the tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, are on display at the World Museum. The unification of China under Qin was impressive but again the cultural advancements that we marvel at today were achieved at huge human cost and loss of life, many sacrificed and buried alongside the warriors and the Emperor they had faithfully served.

We ended our visit to this great city with a trip to Crosby Beach, where the hundred cast-iron figures of Antony Gormley’s collective sculpture “Another Place” look out to sea. They reminded me, as we commemorate in 2018 the lives of those who fought in the first world war and the debt we owe, that many aspects of our lives are built upon the dedication and the sacrifice of countless others unknown to us. It isn’t only the pioneers and people of extraordinary talent we need to remember but the many who bore the burden of the political and economic life of the past.

 

INNOCENT SUFFERING

Bonnat02.jpg

Job by Léon Bonnat (1880)

 

We have no hesitation in accepting that some suffering may simply be down to bad luck. It’s no one’s fault and certainly not the sufferer’s. However, for much of human history the sufferer or someone close to them had to be to blame. God looked after the righteous and no ill would befall his chosen ones, providing they remained faithful. If it did, it was a sign that they or their forebears had sinned. There was no such thing as innocent suffering.

A positive step away from this simplistic notion can be seen in the Book of Job, where having been stripped of all his possessions, and seeing his wife and family killed, Job remains faithful. When his comforters try to convince him that his suffering is a punishment from God he pours scorn on them.

It’s a remarkable book and Job’s attitude to his supposed friends is one to be applauded. However, its theology is despicable, for in the opening chapter we learn that God has allowed Satan to inflict such pain on Job simply to prove his steadfastness. Such a God is unworthy of faith and morally indefensible.

For our sanity and well-being we must cling to the notion of innocent suffering. A lazy commentator would resort to speculating over which lifestyle choices and decisions might have brought about a person’s downfall. All decisions have their consequences but the outcomes, whether positive or negative are not inevitable or easy to predict.

Asking “Why me?” is easily answered in medical terms, but as an existential question it makes no sense. Any thoughts about God must begin from our conviction that innocent suffering is a possibility; the concept of it occurring as a result of sin is ludicrous. The “punishment” simply doesn’t fit the crime.

In the Gospels Jesus is asked of a man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” ” Neither” he replies, and suggests that the man’s blindness presents an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. Perhaps we should approach our own suffering in the same way. If possible we must try to gain some benefit from it, and in the management of it, learn empathy and a greater understanding of ourselves and others.

NEEDLES AND CATHEDRALS

Image result for toilet and drug addicts

A friend told me of a recent visit to one of our cathedrals, where having been welcomed by the steward, was offered the pass code for the toilets. Why, she asked, do the toilets command such high security? The answer, “well we don’t want drug addicts injecting themselves in there, do we?” was delivered with an unhesitating conviction that my friend found initially rather unsettling, within the Christian context.

This response, or at least the manner in which it was delivered, so disturbed her that she looked to me for an explanation. Surely the church should be welcoming such people; furthermore, what positive action is the church taking towards engaging with, and caring for them.

Perhaps rather too keen to defend our cathedral churches, I pointed out the health and safety issues involved in having dirty needles lying around in toilets available to visitors. “People often expect the church to be a soft touch…” was a common line of argument that I proffered.

Most cathedrals and city churches do indeed have programmes of support for homeless people and their associated problems, but I knew I was on the wrong side of the gospel. Jesus tells a parable of a Samaritan travelling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He comes across a man who has been attacked and left for dead. A priest and Levite have already passed by the man, either fearing that they would become “unclean” through contact with the man or had urgent or ritual obligations to fulfill. The Samaritan, however, disregarding all health and safety concerns for himself and his patient, entered the crime scene, (were the muggers still around?) applied first aid (had he any idea what he was doing?), supplied ambulance support by putting the man on his donkey (was the man in a position to be moved?) took him to the nearest inn, and left money with the innkeeper to look after him (was he to be trusted to support the man?).

Who, asks Jesus, acted as neighbour to the victim? The answer might seem obvious, but for us to emulate the Good Samaritan in our own lives as Jesus commands, is rarely so clear-cut. We are both to care for our neighbours with planned and responsible programmes of action, and yet be ready to respond to the unexpected where we see an immediate and urgent need, by putting our own plans to one side and taking risks.

I’m looking forward the cathedral’s response to my friend’s letter.

NEW IMAGE OF GOD

face of God

According to a recent survey involving a computer generated “identikit “, this is what a sample of American Christians believe to be an accurate visual representation of God. The 511 participants in the study saw hundreds of randomly varying face-pairs and selected the one which most closely matched their ideal. By combining all the selected images, the researchers could assemble a composite “face of God”.

Note the image has no beard and even if he is younger and more feminine than the clichéd “Old Father Time” model, he’s still white and male. It’s hardly surprising, since our services address God in masculine terms and as Father.

In another American study concerned with gender stereotypes, girls as young as six believe that academic/scientific brilliance is a male attribute. The majority of children and adults will draw masculine figures of surgeons and engineers, and despite a growing interest in maths and science among girls, only 10% of their toys are focussed on science, technology or engineering, compared with over 30% of those directed at boys.

Perhaps most alarming of all, is that in nearly all cultures worldwide, men seem to enjoy higher self-esteem than their female counterparts. Surprisingly perhaps, in industrialized Western countries like the U.S. and Australia, the gap between male and female self-esteem is more pronounced than in non-Western, developing countries.

How can we improve this situation if we still think of God in male terms? As Mary Daly the American radical feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian, wrote in 1973: “If God is male, then the male is God”. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite clear; “God is neither man nor woman: he is God”. Even St Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to “Christ, my mother” and called God “the great mother”.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury could do more for the cause of women by insisting on removing all patriarchal imagery from services and theological texts, whilst using inclusive language in all its publications. Other denominations have set a precedent which we would be well-advised to follow: the United Reformed Church agreed in 1984 to use inclusive language in all its publications and in 2014 its General Assembly called on all URC congregations to use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”. In 1996, a prayer book of Reform Judaism, was published, calling God “sovereign” instead of “king”, and “source” or “parent” instead of father. A change within all churches is long overdue.

 

THE ABDICATION OF GOD

Image result for Harry arctic

Although here in the UK we have a Queen as our nominal head of state, we are not ruled by monarchy in the traditional sense. We live in a democracy, in the hope that the self-evident dangers of investing power in one person alone can be avoided. If we hold that to be a morally sound principle of government in the secular world, then surely we should apply the same philosophy within our spiritual lives.

That is exactly the focus of Pentecost : the power, energy, life and responsibility of God are poured out on each of us. Together as the body of Christ we have the responsibility to act in the world. We have the power to forgive, the power to create, and the power to love.

I think there is a tendency to view the spiritual life as akin to the polarised society of Downton Abbey, or of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; a world of glamour, bright lights and luxury upstairs and a world of darkness and drudgery downstairs.

Even through the distortions of those rose-tinted, period-drama spectacles, we can see clearly what an inherently unsatisfactory existence it must have been; Women wouldn’t have the vote, the food would be cold having been brought long distances from the kitchen, medical treatment would be primitive by today’s standards, not to mention the lack of wi-fi in the house…..and that’s just upstairs.

Some still peddle the notion that down here in our earthly existence we toil away against the odds of nature and disease and then in the life to come we will enter the bright, glamorous world of heaven.

The Gospel of the incarnation asserts that God is with us, born among us, and power is outpoured upon us. We are here to build heaven on earth, indeed the kingdom of God is among us already.

If we think of the spiritual life in terms of an upstairs and downstairs realm, all power will be invested in God alone, allowing us to abdicate our own responsibility to others and society.

Read the parables of Jesus which begin “the Kingdom of heaven is like . . . the kingdom of God is like” . . and you can begin to understand early Quaker Gerrard Winstanley’s notion of the Republic of Heaven. Kingship and God are simply not compatible in post-Pentecost thinking.

In an open, liberal society words themselves cannot be banned but if we are to continue to use the image of kingship in our theology, let us at least have the right sort of image to inspire us. Think of Prince Harry on his Arctic Charity trek trudging to the North Pole with wounded fellow servicemen, enabling them to become the first amputees to ski to the North Pole unsupported; or think of the Queen, powerless to speak her mind in public.

After all, in the New Testament, it is the dying Jesus, powerless, subjugated and nailed to the cross, who is described as king.