I came across a very widespread quote the other day that made me stop and think for a few seconds – ‘A lot of what weighs you down isn’t yours to carry.’   Yes, I have seen it before, but for some reason it resonated with me that day.  Perhaps it was because I felt an extra burden of being faced with a situation I found both painful and almost impossible to change?

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Or maybe it was a by-product of dealing with some difficult cases in my patient advocacy job; ‘turning off’ after work can be a difficult task at times and the thoughts linger – have I done enough? Have I missed something?

Being weighed down with worry, the expectations of others, our own expectations and the situations in our lives that are – no matter how hard we try to change it – beyond our control, are common to the human condition; more common than we might think.  We all carry something within us, whoever we might be and whatever our life circumstances are.  Jesus understood this: that is why he uttered those immortal words from Matthew 11:28-30:  “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light”.

These words, and the sentiment behind them, do not occur in isolation. Consider this, from Psalm 55:22: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved”

And so we have no need to carry such heavy weights of failure, expectation, brokenness, fear, guilt and despair.  Those burdens are not ours to carry, at least not alone.  We need to take God at his word here and let go of what holds us back and prevents us from living a life of faith, hope and love – love directed towards others, and ourselves.

All of this is difficult and takes time and effort.  But we need to look towards the future, and indeed the present moment, with confidence In God

The American ‘inspirational’ writer, Orison Swett Marden, made the point that: ‘When we are sure that we are on the right road there is no need to plan our journey too far ahead. No need to burden ourselves with doubts and fears as to the obstacles that may bar our progress. We cannot take more than one step at a time’.

One step at a time.  No overwhelming worry.  Just one step at a time.  Time to let go and let God shoulder the burden, just like he said he would. And remember: ‘A lot of what weighs you down isn’t yours to carry’. So take a deep breath and let it go.

Every blessing on your journey,

Scott

Text of a sermon preached at Cliftonville Moravian Church on 19th February 2017:

The Hebrew word for dream occurs 55 times in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament, the equivalent Greek word only occurs 6 times.  So it’s quite evident that the Hebrew Bible is richer in dream-like imagery than the Gospels and the Epistles.  Why might this be? Well, there’s certainly a cultural component and the understanding amongst the Hebrews and Isrealites that dreams transmit important information, and perhaps more importantly, were seen as revelations from God.

We all know what dreams are, but it’s really quite hard to describe them.  Eminent psychological thinkers such as Freud and Jung thought of dreams as a window into our unconscious.  For example, in Freud’s book published one hundred and seventeen years ago – ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ – he describes the dream as the ‘royal road to the unconscious’; I love that descriptor.  But then Jung developed Freud’s thinking and expanded the understanding of dreams – he suggested that we had both an individual unconscious, but also a collective one too.  The implications of this are complicated, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Suffice it to say that we bring cultural and religious notions that reside deep in our subconscious, to the table, and these complement and inform what is unique to each and every one of us.

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This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Flag of Germany.svg Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

There was another Psychiatrist though who thought much about dreams and their importance – a man I’ve spoken about often: Viktor Frankl.  And he says this: ‘There is, in fact, a religious sense deeply rooted in each an every man’s unconscious depths’.  So for Frankl, the content of our dreams are necessarily religious, or perhaps more accurately, spiritual, in content and form.  And that’s fascinating given what I’m about to say about the Old Testament concept of dream analysis, and also what I’ve just said about it in passing.

But wait a moment.  I’ve said something about the content of dreams, but does not the unconscious and unconscious intertwine; are they two completely separate entities? And crucially, how do we interpret them? And that’s perhaps the most important point; the mechanics of it all is secondary to what the dream is telling us.  Traditional dream analysis works on the principle that during sleep our unconscious becomes conscious and we get a different, fuller, perspective on reality.

This is a quite brilliant quote ion dreams from the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, that helps us to understand the nature of dreams and dreaming:

‘Bergson conceives of a dream as being the direct link between sensation and memory; being constructed around what we have seen, said, desired, or done, and their elaboration depends on memory images collected and preserved in the unconscious since earliest childhood. The same faculties function when we dream as when we are awake, but in one instance they are tense and in the other relaxed. The fullness of our mental life is available in our dreams, but with a minimum of tension, effort, or movement’.

I like that last sentence in particular: ‘The fullness of our mental life is available in our dreams, but with a minimum of tension, effort, or movement’.  Our lives become so much fuller when we understand our dream life.

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But back to the Theological emphasis for a moment.  Again, according to the Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, there are three main ‘types’ of dream: The first can best be described as natural (Eccl 5:3); the second is divine, or from God (Gen 28:12), and the third is a different category altogether – evil (Deut 13:1, 2; Jer 23:32). But the most important, and frequent issue the word ‘dream’ in the Old Testament relates to a message, in some shape or form, from God.

So let’s consider our reading for today. The Pharaoh, a man to be feared, had had a previous set of dreams and had asked all manner of individuals to interpret them for him; he was angst ridden and had no idea what the future held for him.  And none of us, especially when we feel like we are in a particularly precarious position, like or can even tolerate uncertainty.

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The Pharaoh repeated the dreams that he had to Joseph, adding only slightly more detail, that is the comments about the ugliness of the cows; this was obviously significant for him, although like many aspects of our dreams, is rather strange. It seems that he equates ugliness with ‘evil’ and contrasts it with ‘good’ cows.

So we have good and evil, a construct that ultimately comes from God.  There’s continuity here – the earlier chapters of Genesis are, of course, all about good and evil. The dream is a vehicle for exploring this and making a truth apparent.

The Pharoah’s dream comes from a troubling subconscious that makes itself known in his conscious world.  And his dreams repeat themselves until he gets some form of resolution to what they mean and what they’re telling him.  You may have experienced this yourself.  We often have what are called ‘stress dreams’ that are repetitive and appear on the scene when we’re worried about something, someone or some situation. Or maybe our consciences are troubling us – we’ve done something we shouldn’t have, or we omitted to do something we should have.

So, we can learn a huge amount from dreams. I’d love to spend so much more time on this topic – it’s so rich and deep and meaningful. From our faith perspective, our Old Testament is particularly rich in this respect.  Freud and Jung have some points of contact with OT dream analysis, but perhaps the most ‘connected and holistic analyst was Viktor Frankl.  His book ‘The Unconscious God’ is a perfect example of how important our religious and spiritual lives are and how they manifest themselves in our dream lives. His foresight and insight can be used by you and I today; we don’t need to be trained in dream analysis – although that can help – we just need to pay attention to our dreams and our lives.

May we dream well and may we dream productively!

AMEN

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DREAM ANALYSIS COURSE

Mirabilis Health, 7 Farmley Road, Glengormley, Co. Antrim, BT36 7TY

First Workshop: 1 March 2017 (7-9pm)

This 6 session dream analysis course is open to everyone. By understanding your dreams better, it is possible to live a more meaningful and purposeful life. The course tutors are Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie (Logotherapist & Existential Analyst) and Prof. Paul Miller (Consultant Pyschiatrist and EMDR Therapist). Scott will examine dreams from an existential perspective, while Paul will concentrate on a Jungian approach.

Each session costs £20 per person. To book your place contact Rosie Marshall at Mirabilis Health on 08458 340194, or mirabilishealth@me.com.

Subsequent dates are 15th March, 5th April, 3rd May, 17th May and 31st May.

The text from the Holocaust Memorial Service held in Cliftonville Moravian Church on 29/1/17:

In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Micah brings to the fore a community that has suffered much hardship, but has brought justice and mercy to the forefront of their thinking.  Interestingly, there is a recognition that with such enormous injustice, reconciliation is difficult and takes time.  Nevertheless, Micah points to the way forward, and is calling the people to start where they are and get themselves, as we would say colloquially, that first foot on the ladder.  To do just that, takes courage and foresight and is primarily an individual endeavour rather than a strictly community-wide one, at least in the first instance.

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In the beatitudes, at the beginning of the remarkable Sermon on the Mount, we hear a powerful echo of centuries old Jewish teachings on ethics, where God seeks out the vulnerable, the suffering and the marginalised. And not only does God seek out those individuals he imparts his blessing upon them. But there’s one more thing: the beatitudes are a reminder that persecution of the righteous has always been with us – it is, sadly, not new.  We see it throughout human history.

In many senses then, the question that is posed for the 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘How can life go on?’, is at least partially answered in our two readings for today.  In the Old Testament, there are the intertwined themes of justice, mercy and reconciliation.  In the New Testament, we see God’s blessing on those who suffer and are persecuted. None of these things are remotely easy though, and perhaps that goes without saying. The horrors and sheer magnitude of the Holocaust hardly need to be reiterated; only those who have experienced first-hand the depravity of Man and the depths to which humanity can sink can comment. It is presumptuous for the rest of us to do so.

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One of those prophetic voices from the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl, is one of those remarkable people who survived and went on to write so insightfully and poignantly about their experiences.  When we read their words, their descriptions of unimaginable suffering and cruelty, it is difficult to believe what they endured.

Viktor Frankl, a Psychiatrist and Neurologist, lost all of his loved ones in the gas chambers, including his pregnant wife.  He went on to detail his experiences in that World famous book – ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  Although it is a very slim volume, it is replete with compassion, determination, self-transcendence, and of course finding meaning in the most awful of situations. There are many lessons contained within it and it is one of these books that begs to be read again and again.

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Many people have found it to be life-changing, if that is not too grand a phrase. For me, as we gather here today to reflect on that phrase ‘How can life go on?’, there are at least three themes that we can draw on from Frankl’s experience.  These are: the ability to choose how we respond to the circumstances before us, how we view suffering and the centrality of love. These three categories are of course interlinked, but nonetheless we can tease them apart to gain more clarity.

 

The Ability to Choose How We Respond

 

Viktor Frankl’s experiences in the camps taught him a valuable lesson about choice.  He understood that even when everything is taken away from a person, we still retain the ability to choose our response.  To be more precise he wrote: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way’. In essence he meant that we can respond to adverse circumstances by recoiling and giving up….or we can make a stand, by altering our attitude or perspective on a situation.

 

How We View Suffering

 

Frankl said this of suffering: ‘If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.  Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.  Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete’. He goes on to make the main thrust of his point: ‘The way in which man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may (be to) remain brave, dignified and unselfish’.

 

So once again, Prof. Frankl present suffering, which he knew much more about in practice than we can even begin to grasp, from a different perspective, one in which we Christians can surely identify with.

 

The Centrality of Love

 

This, at least for me, is one of the most stunning, and perhaps surprising insights provided by Viktor Frankl in his short autobiography of his life in the concentration camps.  He says this:

 

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

 

Remarkable.  So here Prof. Frankl is setting out how love works.  When we love someone, then we enable them to be the person they can be; we give them permission, if that’s not too clumsy a term, to move beyond any perceived limitations and to flourish. In any case, we’re reminded of God’s take on this.  Consider 1 John 4: 7: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’.

 

Conclusion

 

In the fifteen or so minutes we have in a Sermon, we can merely scratch the surface of the topic we have before us.  But as we reflect on the question ‘How can life go on’, we at least have a framework.  From the biblical narratives that tell us of God’s constant presence to Viktor Frankl’s insights into human freedom, the nature of suffering and the centrality of love.  From the Holocaust this remarkable man has left a lasting legacy that helps us immeasurably in facing our own suffering; and it is very much compatible with our Christian worldview.

 

We can see a way, because of Viktor Frankl and his lived example, that life can go on.  By remembering the Holocaust, not just on Holocaust Memorial Day, but every day that we live and breathe, we can lament the senseless carnage, but we can also be thankful for the defiant nature of the human spirit.

 

AMEN

 

Friday past marked Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, and the International Holocaust Memorial Day across the globe. Each year people come together, from across religious and cultural divides to remember the genocides that have scarred humanity deeply and irrevocably.

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Many moving commemorative events have taken place; some have been very public events, whilst others have been very private.  I watched Auschwitz survivors gather at the former camp in Poland on the 72nd anniversary of its liberation, and I marvelled at the stoicism and dignity of those elderly survivors.  Having visited Auschwitz several years ago – an experience that I will never forget – I simply cannot understand why seemingly ordinary people can inflict such horrors upon their fellow human beings.  But then darkness and unfathomable cruelty are part of our collective human nature; for those that committed such atrocities, I am reminded of Proverbs 6:18 where it is written that there are those with ‘a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil’.

We now know the staggering statistics for the Holocaust, where six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in forced work camps and extermination camps. The scale of the suffering was, and still is, incomprehensible.

There were other groups of people that were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.  Consider political opponents, priests, ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsy people, Slavic people and gay people amongst others.  But there is one group that is sometimes overlooked: the mentally ill.

The Mental Health Foundation website published a powerful article to remind us that those with psychiatric conditions were deemed, in that most egregious of phrases, to be ‘life unworthy of life.’  The prevailing eugenic ideology in Nazi circles was driven by defective science and woeful ignorance.  The consequence of this was that an estimated quarter of a million people living with varying degrees of mental illness were murdered. That few people spoke up against this outrageous programme is chilling.

As we reflect on the voiceless and the persecuted, the question of speaking up and speaking out against injustice comes to mind.  As the Holocaust Survivor and Author Elie Wisel once wrote: ‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest’. This maxim is applicable today as it was before and during the Holocaust. Our world does not want for examples of injustice and persecution; it is therefore our duty as Christians to raise our voices, to challenge and cajole, and to remain informed and vigilant as to what is going on, on our doorsteps and in the world around us.

Every blessing,

Scott

This is the text of my New Year sermon, shared today at Cliftonville Moravian Church in Belfast:

Moving into 2017: Recognizing the Value of All Human Life

Last night, and in to the wee small hours, and across the globe, the words of one of Robert Burns’ most famous song – Auld Lang Syne – would have been sung.  Sentiments of togetherness and a looking forward to the future in friendship mean so much to so many at the dawning of a New Year and the leaving behind of a turbulent old one. Auld Lang Syne is a song that reminds us of the values we possess across geographical and religious boundaries.

I love these displays of togetherness; it is so important that we come together whenever we can and wherever we can.

But all of this comes in the midst of global turmoil.  Crucially, as I have been reading and watching the news of late, I have been struck by a number of things.  One in particular: It strikes me that today, and throughout human history, life is often cheap, dispensable and non-consequential.  Now that is a very bold statement, I accept that.  But let us start at our New Testament Reading for today, where we encounter an enraged King Herod, lashing out in his paranoia, ordering the killing of male children under the age of two. What a ghastly and unthinkable thing to do.  Herod’s narcissism was all-pervasive.  As he aged and his behaviour became increasingly erratic and unstable, he clearly had no concept of the intrinsic value of life; the life of others was only important inasmuch as it served his purposes.  He clearly did not grasp the fact that life was precious, a gift from God, as we read in Genesis 1:27: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. It was this divine imprint that makes the life of each one of us valuable.

And we think of our experiences today.  The first example: the war in Syria, where we see night after night on our TV screens, or our newsfeeds, young children being pulled lifeless from the rubble of a bombed house…or hospital….or school.  It is unbearable to watch.  But, we hear those words ‘collateral damage’ used by the protagonists in the war, and somehow this is supposed to make the situation less desperate and appalling – these children were not directly targeted. Implicit in these situations, and the explanations that emanate from those involved, is the notion that some lives are worth more than others…..some lives are expendable in the rush for military and political conquest. The echo of Herod can be heard loud and clear amidst the din of the shelling and gunfire.

Then there is another example.  Just yesterday there was news breaking of a market suicide bomb in Iraq that killed dozens of people and injured at least fifty.  The area in Baghdad that had been targeted was packed with shops and the bomb (or bombs) went off during a particularly busy time.  Yes, there was news coverage, but it was quite far down the list, the global response was muted, and the story will most likely have disappeared into the ether today or tomorrow; we’ve almost become conditioned to expect such atrocities in Iraq.

And then there is the situation in Myanmar, or Burma.  Just the other day a group of 11 Nobel peace prize winners wrote to the United Nations pleading for it to ‘end the human crisis of the country’s Rohingya Muslims.  There have been widespread claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and somewhere in excess of 30,000 people have been forced to flee the military onslaught.  That’s a huge number of people – women, children, families. And we hardly hear anything at all about it.

From these three examples, we might be tempted to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.  Is it just because these atrocities are committed so far from home that we here little of them? Or is it because they have little impact on our own lives that the media does not focus in on them as it might?  Or is it because the people affected are different to us in some way or another?  Or even more uncomfortable is the notion that, in the collective subconscious, not all lives are equal?

I read an article, some time ago now, on the ‘Big Think’ website.  It was called ‘The Geography of Empathy and Apathy: Some Countries We Care about More than Others’, and it was written by a man called Frank Jacobs.  He concluded that, from a Western perspective, when there is a tragic event, ‘Those feelings of empathy decrease as the cultural, economic, and geographical distance to the disaster and its victims increases’.  In other words, we care most for those who are most like us, and less for those who are less like us.

Now that really is really difficult reality to reflect on, but as our New Testament reading reminds, us, it is nothing new; our generation is no different in this respect from any others.

But, the challenge comes when we pause to imbibe what Luke wrote in Acts 10:34, ‘Then Peter began to speak: “I now truly understand that God does not show favouritism’. Indeed he does not; and neither should we.  Each life, wherever it is lived, regardless of the circumstances, is as valuable as any other. Imagine how radically different our world would be if we truly took this on board?  It would be revolutionised.

Francis Schaeffer once so perceptively wrote: “Man, made in the image of God, has a purpose – to be in relationship to God, who is there. Man forgets his purpose and thus he forgets who he is and what life means.” 

He is right.  Let me suggest to you that we do not always take on-board fully our mission, who we are in relation to God, and the life we have been given to live.  We do not always adopt unequivocally that intention to live out the Gospel message, to show compassion to all and to live out our faith in this broken world, difficult though that nay be.  Acknowledging our connection to God is the key that unlocks the ethic of love for one another, despite our differences.

Now, this might all seem quite overwhelming.  And it is.  How can we, ordinary individuals make that difference, to reflect more deeply on how we relate to others?  How do we do something that, is quite frankly, so difficult?  Well, we start with what we have and what we have been given; we start here.  Once we have acknowledged the intrinsic value of the other, whoever that might be, then we can reflect on what our response might be.

And here is just one more thought.  Even within those most like us, for example those who share our Christian faith, there can still be a hierarchy of empathy that develops.  Consider then these words from Thomas Merton, which were written in the context of segregation in the US, but the sentiment undergirding it is more broadly applicable, and surely causes us to stop and think: If we realize that we are each bound to the other members of the human race in the Mystical Body of Christ, that we must love the human race as a whole, and love all the groups which constitute it, then we can scarcely fail to realize the evil as well as the stupidity of hating any part of the Mystical Body of Christ…. There are persons who feel quite acutely the duty of individual kindness to persons of other races, and yet who seem to be totally unconscious of the injustice of race relations as a whole…who are violently antagonistic to any effort to reform the political, economic, social, and even religious oppression of the coloured race. Would this be possible to anyone who really believed in the doctrine of the Mystical Body?’

Merton’s point is well made.

Now personally, I do not really ‘do’ New Year Resolutions.  But this year, the closest I have come to one is to think more deeply, more prayerfully on how I affirm the God-given identity of others.  I need to take on-board, not just intellectually, but emotionally, the profundity of that truth that we are all made in the image of God. You too will, I have no doubt, make your own response to this call.

As we collectively go forward into this New Year, we have the opportunity to take on board the biblical injunctions we have explored, to listen to the prophetic words of people like Thomas Merton and Francis Schaeffer, and yes even revisit Robert Burns and his calls for brotherhood and a recognition of the value of the other.

With the help of God, Let us do just that.

AMEN

Looking Backwards…..and Looking Forwards

I suppose that we have all by now been reflecting on the seemingly long list of high profile celebrity deaths that have occurred throughout 2016.  Many household names are no longer with us: George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, Prince and many more that mean different things to different people.  And so we reflect on their impact on our cultural heritage and how their unique talents will be missed.

Often when people pass away, we find out more about their true nature.  The singer George Michael was one such example; it turns out that he was a secret philanthropist who gave away millions of pounds and volunteered in a homeless project on the understanding that there was no publicity surrounding it.   It is, in some respects, an echo of Matthew 6:3-4, where it is written: But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’.

And so, we are reminded that celebrities, by virtue of their financial status and high profile, can do much good.  But there is a negative side to the celebrity culture, where celebrities become the only role models available in a social media-driven culture.  Our focus then, becomes myopic and we are unable to see the wider picture, where there are many more people achieving amazing things in the fields of literature, science, medicine, engineering and other fields of human endeavour.

That is why it is essential to look behind the prevailing news stories and the celebrity obituaries to get a better sense of the totality of human talent.  For example, the Independent Newspaper, which is only available online now, ran a story recently on a man called Dr. Donald Henderson who died on 19th August; I’m sure you will not have heard of him – I certainly had not.  But his contribution to societies across the globe was colossal.  Henderson was an epidemiologist who, with colleagues, managed to almost eradicate smallpox, a disease that claimed 300 million lives in the 20th Century alone. His scientific work was an embodiment of Galatians 6:10, where we read: ‘So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone’.

Within the examples of those who have gone before us we can learn much as we embark upon a new year.  Yes, 2016 was not a good year in many ways.  But on the cusp of a new year, we have an opportunity to refocus, to see the good that is going on all around us and to celebrate those, from whatever walk of life, who enrich our existence and ameliorate suffering in our fellow human beings. And in-so-doing, we can reinvigorate our faith in God, where the future is never in doubt. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: ‘but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’ (Isaiah 40:31).

May 2017 be a year of love, compassion, service and spiritual growth for you and your loved ones.

 

Every blessing, Scott

Viktor & I: An Alexander Vesely Film (2010)

Screening on Thursday 26th January, 7.30pm @ The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast
Part of Holocaust Memorial Day

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Viktor & I is about famous Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl, author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Filmmaker Alexander Vesely travelled the world to document the personal and unique side of this important man. For the first time in film, people will see Dr. Frankl through the eyes of those closest to him. A defining character of the 20th century, he was not only a genius, doctor and survivor of Nazi terror and tragedy but a man who lived, believed and loved. Making his US directorial debut, Vesely shares intimate glimpses of his eminent grandfather who, amidst great suffering also gave us all hope.

Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie, Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, will give a brief introduction to the film, while Prof. Paul Miller, Consultant Psychiatrist and Trauma Specialist, will give a short postscript talk on trauma and human responses to it.

Tickets £4.  To make a booking, or for further information, visit the Strand Art Centre’s website at: http://www.strandartscentre.com/movies

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Christmas Reflections with Bonhoeffer & Merton

My Sermon from Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, 25th December 2016

We come here this morning, in the midst of a hectic time of commemoration and celebration, to sit in this sacred space – a place of calm and reverence.

This year has been a tough one – it is no exaggeration to say this.  As I speak there is geopolitical turmoil, terrorism, refugees dying, war and enormous uncertainty on the world stage.  Many think that this is unprecedented.  And yes, it is in some ways – the scale of refugees on the move is enormous; tyrants and dictators are wreaking havoc and poor governance and maladministration rears its ugly head in the form of hunger and poverty.

But none of this, in the broadest terms, is new.  Consider the nativity narratives – amidst the darkness of turmoil and uncertainty there is the unquenchable light of hope, love and expectation in the form of Jesus Christ. And as is so simply, yet eloquently written in John 1:5: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. And indeed the darkness will never overcome it – as Christians, we have hope in abundance and peace that can never be subdued.

Now, it is certainly true to say that the life of faith is one of constant reflection, and I do think therefore that it is fitting that today we reflect on the writings of two very different, but equally insightful and influential Christians – the Lutheran Pastor and Nazi Resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Cistercian Monk, Poet, Mystic and Peace Activist, Thomas Merton.

I’ll read some their words now, and then we’ll very briefly contemplate what they are saying to us.

We begin with Bonhoeffer:

“Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus came to us, and continues to come to us, in the lowliness of a stable and not in the glories of material wealth and opulence.  He is a radically different Leader.  And yes, we see him, not just in one snapshot of historical time, but we encounter him every day, time and time again; we see him in the eyes of those we meet, especially those on the margins – the disenfranchised, the dispossessed and the forgotten. There is nothing more radical than this; with the arrival of Jesus on the scene, the world, with its love of hierarchy and power, has changed forever.

And now back to Merton:

“There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.” 

Here Merton does not mince his words.  Again, we are drawn in to the reality that the religious elite, then and now miss the point of faith and how it should be lived in the light of the personhood and divinity of Jesus Christ.  Faith has nothing to do with titles, buildings and being seen to be doing the right thing.  Rather it is about recognising and adopting an attitude of love, compassion, humility, sacrifice and service.

With this insight in our hearts, let us turn to Bonhoeffer:

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” 

God is in the manger! It doesn’t get any more radical than that! And so if we entrust God with all that we have and all that we are, all will be well.  Even during those times when life seems unbearable, and we struggle to carry on, nothing ultimately can harm us. Yes, there may be tumult all around us, but within the depth of our being, there is peace.  God is with us, no matter what.

Now back to Merton for the final time:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room”.

This offering from Merton is a fitting quote to end on, largely because it sums up the previous themes we have hear explored.  The reminder that the Christian faith is often counterintuitive, that God has, as one Liberation Theologian put it, ‘a preferential option for the poor’ is there in bold and unambiguous language.  Why? Well, because it is a perfect echo of the Gospel message, not just that which we glean from the infancy narratives, but beyond through Jesus’ earthly ministry, death and resurrection.  Making room for Jesus in the midst of the prevailing culture, which drowns out the Christian message, is a calling we all receive. Looking in the right place for that voice, for that presence, is the journey we are asked to undertake, again and again. Christmas, and our reflections on it, is just the very beginning.

The world was never the same following that first Christmas time.  God calls us each and every Christmas time, to never be the same in the light of that message.  And so Christmas is a time of newness and reflection; Christianity is not easy – it was never meant to be, and the nativity narratives are a testament to that. But we need to lose heart; Jesus Christ is the ultimate beacon of hope that reaches out to us in our lostness and brokenness.  And as such, we never journey in faith alone.

Finally, on this special day, let us then dedicate ourselves to growing in faith and service; let us take the radical nature of the nativity to heart, where love and compassion drown out the noise of darkness, this Christmas Day and forever more.

AMEN

suffering

self-worth