Here are a few of my recent reflections/poems:

BY THE WELL

Sychar in Samaria
by Jacob’s well
A shocking scene
A Samaritan and a Jew
Female and male
Countercultural and perplexing, 
where shame meets perfection.

Jesus does not recoil
He interacts; he listens
A stark reminder that everyone matters
That in the heart of Christ
‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one’.

No-one exists outside the circle of his love
Not the unlovely
Nor the despised
Or the contemptible
Divine love is radically inclusive
Beyond our comprehension

What we turn away from
Jesus embraces
Where we build barriers
Jesus breaks them down
Where we judge
Jesus loves

When we dwell in the simplicity of his message
We are blessed
Our imperfections are contextualised
Our flaws appear universal
But so does God’s overarching grace.

In the light of that grace
We can let go of our guilt
Let our failures rest in the past
Acknowledge our pain
And look forward
To a radiant future
Grounded in hope
Where expectation is infinite
And in the words of Julian of Norwich:
‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’

Amen


IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT

As the coolness of the mid-summer night
enshrouds our physical form.
As the serenity of the eventide saturates our souls
God’s tranquility advances in lovingness

He watches over us in the dead of night, in the obscurity of the wee small hours.

When our minds are at rest, or ravaged with torment.

God is at hand
Supremely proficient in protection
Charged with our care
Captivated by our concerns.

‘At night his song is with me’

Amen

————————————————————————————————-
IN THE MIDST OF DESPAIR

The real work of faith begins when we are in the midst of despair; when it is all too easy to give up hope and become spiritually moribund.

To reach out; to cry out when there is nought left to give – that is where we encounter the depth of Christ’s love. Imperceptible at first, in his gentleness…….in his compassion……his presence burns brightly.

It is from that kernel of hope and expectation, the evolution of love dwells in our souls.

‘He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters’.

In the timelessness of these words we are guaranteed never to be lonely…..never to be foresaken… and never to be lost.

Amen


LET US BE THANKFUL

‘May we give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus’

And so let us be thankful for being alive:
Alive to the potential of growth
Alive to receiving and giving love
Alive to grief and its cathartic effect
Alive to grace and transformation

Let our thankfulness underpin our faith:
Faith in the goodness of others
Faith in the power of forgiveness
Faith in the reality of reconciliation
Faith in divine love
Faith in truth

Let our thankfulness allow us to connect:
Connect deeply with each other
Connect meaningfully with God
Connect with, and appreciate the cosmos
Connect with those who despise us
Connect with the pain in our hearts

Loving God, encourage us to be ‘thankful in everything, in all circumstances’.
When life is hard and the future bleak
When life is triumphant and the future glorious
Let us ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his live endures forever’.

Amen

Today, in my sermon at Cliftonville Moravian Church, ‘Embracing Vulnerability: Honesty in Prayer’, I explored the Prophet Jeremiah’s complex relationship with God.

With Jeremiah one can feel his honesty, expressed vividly by the language used, as he vents his frustrations with God directly to God.  In suffering persecution, mockery and public shame on account of his calling as a prophet, Jeremiah experiences emotional agitation that is, at times, much more than he fears he can bear.  Nevertheless, there are periods, amidst the tumult, where calm descends upon him and enables him to withstand the cruel criticism and soothes his suffering.  Jeremiah’s honesty with God is refreshing and at times almost brutal, and therein lies its importance.  As Michael Casey, the Australian Cistercian Monk and accomplished author has written of Jeremiah’s strongly worded complaints to God:

‘There is a sense in which the very act of addressing such a complaint to God is the beginning of its solution.  What we fear above all is the unnameable.  Being able to speak of a terror relativises it.  The possibility of reaching out to God from the depths of our affliction indicates that a skerrick of our faith survives.’

As Clement of Alexandria recognised: ‘Prayer is conversation with God’.  And as a conversation, it should be open and honest. As Jeremiah vigorously reminds us, we are at our most authentic when we come to God, just as we are; when we bow our heads in prayer and open our hearts unreservedly and unconditionally.  Yes, at times what we uncover is painful and perplexing, but it is at that point of realisation, where we experience an earnest communion with God, and sustain, as Martin Luther described it: ‘the fire of faith‘.

So pray with all your heart, and all your mind and all your soul; pray with a a purity of intention and an honesty that lays bare the tumult and turmoil.  Name the unnameable; explore the unexplored in the light and love of God’s presence.

Every blessing, Scott

 

 

 

As a Logotherapist and Existential Analyst I’m often asked what my favourite Viktor Frankl quote is. Such a difficult question! There are so many profoundly moving and insightful words contained in his writings and now very firmly ensconced in his legacy.

If I had to choose though, it would be a sentence I’ve clung onto many times as I’ve faced adversity, failure and unavoidable suffering:

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” (in Man’s Search for Meaning).

No further comment or exegesis is required…….

An excerpt from Thomas Merton’s beautiful poem, ‘Song: If you Seek…’:

Follow my ways and I will lead you
To golden-haired suns,
Logos and music, blameless joys,
Innocent of questions
And beyond answers:

For I, Solitude, am thine own self:
I, Nothingness, am thy All.
I, Silence, am thy Amen!

Quote  —  Posted: May 19, 2017 in Consciousness, Contemplation, Merton, Poetry, Silence, Solitude
Tags: , , ,

This is the text of my reflection/sermon shared with the congregation today at Cliftonville Moravian Church:

Today, I want to reflect on Genesis 8: 1 ‘But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded’.

Our Old Testament passage, Genesis 8:1-19 is rich in imagery and meaning.  In the character of Noah, we see a man who is faithful, patient and perseveres in the face of uncertainty.  During the trials that he faced, he understood, consciously and subconsciously that God had not forgotten him….that God kept his promises. It all took some time of course, to go from the drama of the flood to the deliverance represented by dry land and new and vibrant beginnings. The transition from being ‘all at sea’, to being quite literally ‘grounded’ is a powerful and deeply meaningful image.

But let us step back from this unfolding picture for a moment and reflect on Noah’s actions as the water was omnipresent and the land submersed.  During that time, we read of a man who reaches out again and again in hope and expectation; we encounter a person who has placed his trust in God, that ultimately, all will be well and salvation is very firmly in God’s hand.

Trust, in God’s providence permeates Noah’s existence.  We see that motif reflected very powerfully in our New Testament lesson, especially in the opening verse where it is written: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me’ (John 14:1).

Noah’s trust in God is a given. He in return is entrusted with an enormous task, despite his very human character flaws and failings. Trust is vitally important; so too is hope – it flows from the foundation of trust that accompanies, and exemplifies a faithful life.

We read of a Noah who sends out first the Raven, then the Dove, calmly waiting for the return, or ultimately for some sense that the waters are subsiding and life is returning to the land; that the wait is over.  Noah then, is the picture of trust in the divine; the dove is the symbol of hope.

Last week, we touched on the contours of hope as we navigated the biblical narrative.  This week, we are drawn once again to contemplate its importance.

Noah’s actions, in sending out those birds, awaiting a response and initially being disappointed, but ultimately experiencing the joy of hope fulfilled.  He lived out the words of the American civil-rights activist and Baptist Minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr when he perceptively said:”We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope”.  What a maxim to live by! How insightful.

So, the example of Noah and a the words of a contemporary Christian leader fuse together and remind us that yes, we will experience disappointment in our lives, but our hope is infinite; it is build upon the God of love and his omnipotence – the reason that we gather here today to worship and to give witness to a far greater reality than we can even describe.

Consider then, what the great reformer, Martin Luther said: ‘Everything that is done in the world is done by hope’. Indeed it is.  Hope can transform the most despairing of situations, the most anxious of moments, and the most intractable problems that perplex us and seek to wear us down.

The roman poet, Albius Tibillus surely also catches the mood of the moment when he writes: ‘Hope ever urges us on and tells us tomorrow will be better’. And it will. We look forward with hope, despite the turmoil of the world we live in; despite the innumerable uncertainties that perniciously attempt to steal our joy and purpose.  Our hope is so much deeper and broader than all of that; it is un-measurable and unfathomable, but nonetheless it is tangible; we can feel it in our hearts….if only we stand still, and silent, for a few moments.

We honour that hope by living a life that is open to possibility and steeped in the knowledge that God is the source and sustainer of that hope.

And so it seems pertinent to finish this brief reflection with a short prayer.  This prayer comes from a meditation entitled ‘The Gift of The Dove’ and is published in ‘Meditations from the Iona Community’ by Ian Reid.  Iona holds special memories for me; a ‘thin place’, God’s presence is realised in its ruggedness and holiness; that sense of hope permeates the soil, the sea and the air of a place where God’s presence is undeniable.  Hope and presence go hand-in-hand. Here it is expressed in that very prayer; let us pray:

‘Ever-present God, open our eyes to see

the coming of the dove.

As we look over the waters of

our doubts and fears,

enable us to see in the world signs of hope.

 

As we despair over the injustices and conflicts

in our own lives and in the world,

enable us to see in the world signs of peace and reconciliation.

 

As Noah was called to leave the ark and go out into

the world, enable us, like him, to share with others

the visions of hope, peace and reconciliation we

have received’.

AMEN

 

 

Death, and dying are not topics that we discuss freely in our Western Christian culture; we tend to live life with the certainty of death hidden in the recesses of our mind.  It is all around us, but we dare not think of it in case the impact of it is too much to bear.

We have made enormous advances in openly discussing other existential issues – relationships and human sexuality immediately come to mind.  We have matured in our various faith (or non-faith) communities to the point that we can, at least in many quarters, discuss issues that were previously taboo, or ‘brushed under the carpet’ as we would colloquially refer to it.

But death……death is still stubbornly knocking at the door that we dare not open.  From an early age, we have been taught not to talk about it – perhaps this has not be conveyed to us consciously, but sub-consciously through the culture we live and move in, or the avoidance of the issue in our homes and places of worship.

We fear death.  Most of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves would admit to this as a factual reflection of our emotional status.  We fear the unknown, or the ambiguity, or the fact that we take that final journey alone.

Yet, if we face death head on, we find that we can liberate ourselves from the shackles of fear and meaninglessness, and instead walk in the light of peace and contentment.  Yes, that might sound clichéd, insensitive and lacking in pastoral tact, but it does have a biblical basis and a sound psychological underpinning.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and best-selling author made the point ad infinitum, in his writings and speeches, that there is meaning in all circumstances and situations, including death and the process of dying.  Our will to meaning may indeed be enhanced when we face the finitude of our earthly life and contemplate what lies ahead.  We may be, in the words of NT. Wright’s book title, be ‘Surprised by Hope’, or in the Franklian sense ‘Surprised by Meaning’.  Those of us to minister to others in such circumstances can attest to that, although we may find it difficult to articulate the profundity of our observations at the time, or to grasp its import fully without a period of prayer and reflection.    We have seen it in front of us, in its rawness and unpredictability, therefore we can attest to it in our convictions.

As part of my training as a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, my colleagues and I were required to write a  ‘spiritual autobiography’ (with the spiritual aspect not being confined to the ‘faith dimension’, but rather in the much wider sense as delineated by Frankl to include all of those experiences that make us uniquely human). This autobiography took us from before we were born to how we might envisage our death , and importantly, our legacy – not, at first glance, a particularly easy thing to do!  Nor was it in truth.  But it was, as I’ve alluded to a few seconds ago, not only enlightening, but it was uplifting.  As Frankl understood, it is only in the shadow of death that life can be seen for all its beauty, and the opportunity to realise meaning in its myriad forms presents itself more clearly and urgently.

In our Christian faith, our tradition has much to say about the topic of death, particularly in terms of continuity and a new mode of being. But how that manifests itself in practice is often difficult to pragmatically articulate, and crucially, to employ as part of a wider roadmap that can be consulted as we inevitably go astray from time-to-time.

By far the most helpful book I have come across in that respect is a small volume by Dr. Ann V. Graber, author of the incredible ‘Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology’ and a Professor of Pastoral Logotherapy.  This book, published in 2009, entitled ‘The Journey Home: Preparing for Life’s Ultimate Adventure’ is nothing short of phenomenal; Dr. Graber combines a detailed, and a times very personal insight with her talent for writing simply, yet profoundly, distilling a wide-range of pertinent issues into an accessible format.

Dr. Graber asks those questions we are sometimes so reticent to ask: 1) how can we help a loved one who is dying, 2) does death frighten us, and 3) how would we, as unique individuals, deal with the reality that we were about to die, if and when, that situation arises?

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that such questions would inevitably result in a book that is very difficult to read! Instead what we find is a book that represents a journey, or an unfolding adventure that begins with an exploration of Dr. Graber’s own transformative experience, where she confronted mortality following a traumatic injury.  She writes convincingly of an ‘expanded awareness’ that she encapsulated in this short reflection: ‘There is a wondrous life to be lived, here and beyond, as we love and serve each other!’

Throughout, Graber skilfully and gently offers practical suggestions as to how those who are facing death can do so in a meaningful way, thus confronting uncomfortable emotions that can be characterised by fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Graber describes this ‘transformation of attitudes’, it can be facilitated and understood in terms of one’s belief system, but crucially, can also go ‘beyond the rites and rituals available to a person’.  She identifies these as ‘attuning to nature, imagery, stories, art, music, and whatever helps one cultivate an inner peace in which fears melt away’.

Preparation then, is central to the process of understanding the nöetic dimension of the dying process.  Graber rightly points out that, as Viktor Frankl himself noted, we need to prepare ourselves for death before we can venture to help others.  Part of that process includes acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with the insights of religion, science, poetry, literature and philosophy and how they enrich and underpin the ‘transitoriness of our mortal existence’.

Key to Graber’s approach, as explained in her own words, is that ‘the transformative process will take on a hopeful note if it is accepted as a presupposition that spirituality is central. And that a person’s particular religion is supplemental’.

In journeying with others, Graber posits altruistic love, or self-transcendent caring, where the soul of another is touched at its core, as a liberating experience; how that works out in practice differs between individuals.  Although the overarching meta-narrative is the same, the micro-narrative differs from person to person.  Thus the ‘familial encounter, friendship, or therapeutic relationship’ is moulded to suit individual personalities, needs, desires and fears.

In reflecting on her own experience, Graber refers to the journey into one’s own ‘interior castle’ where meditation and the invocation of particularly meaningful imagery leads to a ‘communing with one’s ‘higher self’, the point at which we experience peace and wellbeing within.  This state of acceptance then is a powerful antidote to the fear of the unknown that often characterises death.  Moreover, by facing our fears directly, they lose their power to manipulate and direct our wider emotions.  Graber moves beyond ‘meditation’ and examines the role of storytelling, the arts and music as a repertoire of accessible tools which can lead to a gentle acceptance of fate.

Graber briefly touches on the conceptual elements congruent with a continuity of consciousness beyond death, based on religious insight, particularly that of Christianity.  That personal and empirical insights can be instructive to those facing their own mortality is a point well made by Graber. In that respect, I am reminded by a few short words penned by Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but are to be lived’.  One could apply such insight into the spiritual process, and experiential value, attendant with dying and death.

At our Journey’s end, Dr. Graber draws on Prof. Frankl’s maxim that our lives are a monument to our experiences and values.  It therefore makes good sense that Graber discusses memorialising and ways that the needs of the living can be expressed healthily in their grief and attendant loss of a treasured friend, relative or colleague.  In-so-doing she touches on various practices such as candle lighting ceremonies, prenatal loss memorials, commemorating body/organ donation and memorial plantings and gardens, among others. Throughout Graber emphasises sensitivity to individual preferences, a practise that is increasingly important in an evolving society that becomes more pluralistic by the day.

Perhaps the most touching part of Dr. Graber’s book is the example of one person’s specific preparation for ‘the journey home’ as explored in the final chapter entitled ‘Kay’s Legacy’.  She asks the question ‘how do we assist people who seek us out to be available to them, soul to soul, as they explore inner territory that is unfamiliar or hitherto untraversed?’  That indeed is the crux of the matter for those of us who minister to others.

Kay’s preparation was a very conscious one – she began by withdrawing from ‘earthly’ attachments such as property and business interests, prioritising healing relationships by expressing thanks for those who enriched her life, and extending forgiveness to those who had wounded her. She embraced those ‘spiritual companions’ who loved and supported her.  Her specific journey thereafter consisted of a ‘final farewell’ get-together, was surrounded by those who meant most to her.  Her funeral included participation by loved ones and a garden was constructed as a lasting memorial to her life.

Graber ‘s last sentence in her epilogue sums up succinctly the purpose of her book, that it ‘was written for anyone who may be willing to consider death as a doorway one passes through when physical life comes to an end and new vistas on the continuum of consciousness open up’.

For those who are searching, for those who are afraid and unsure of the contours of the ‘journey home’, how to live well and to die well, this book is a must read.  Our final earthly journey is an opportunity to realise meaning in profound and unexpected ways; Dr. Graber’s book provides us with the opportunity to reflect deeply on our own mortality, the continuity of consciousness and how we can embrace others.

May you journey well, Scott

Ben Ferencz, who at the age of 97 is the last living Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, has issued a powerful reminder of the horrors of war, as reported in the Independent in the UK.

He said this:

“…the Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities were not “savages” but “intelligent, patriotic human being[s]”, and that war can make any normal person do horrifying things.

“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage?”, he asked. 

“Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.”

A sobering and very insightful statement………

And so we still look to the day when ‘The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4).

You can read the article here.

Here is the text of my sermon from today’s service at Cliftonville Moravian Church:

Grounded in Reality; Transformed by Hope!

On Wednesday evening, I was teaching dream analysis in Glengormley to a group of therapists and other interested individuals.  Here, in our church, I have spoken briefly about dreams as they occur in the Biblical narrative, particularly in relation to the Old Testament; that is a story I will certainly pick up again in the future – there is so much we can learn from reflecting on those moments and situations where God reveals important truths to us. The form of those dreams varies from straight-forward instruction to metaphor and allegory.

The type of dream analysis I do in a professional capacity is of course a reflection of the kind of Psychotherapy I do – Logotherapy & Existential Analysis, a meaning based approach to confronting the vagaries of life and dealing with them intelligently and purposefully.  At the beginning of last Wednesday’s session, I spent a few minutes providing an overview of the philosophy behind Logotherapy – without an understanding of that philosophy, it is not possible to go very far in making sense of our dreams.

In its most basic of forms, the philosophy of Logotherapy always strikes me as having similarities, and intertwined motifs, with Judeo-Christian theology. It is nonetheless a secular psychology grounded in human experience that is not bound by any faith tradition; it is universal in its application.

But I do often think about how Logotherapy speaks gently to my own faith orientation.  In that respect, I am drawn specifically to the highs and lows of life articulated in the Psalms; Leopold Sabourin, in his book ‘The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning’, reminds us that the Psalter has been referred to as ‘a microcosm of the whole Old Testament… the epitome of Israel’s spiritual experience’. It does, in my opinion, go far beyond that; it provides the foundation and points towards the Christ of the New Testament.

In Logotherapy, we refer to the ‘tragic triad’ that epitomises our existence: suffering, guilt and death.  No life is spared these three experiences.  Likewise in the Psalter, we see suffering embraced and lamented, not just once but repeatedly.  Consider the Psalmists cry in Psalm 88:18 – ‘O lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before you’. And what about guilt? Well, we see it in Psalm 38:4 – ‘My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear’. And then of course, there is death; Psalm 82:7 describes its inevitability in poetic terms: “Nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes.”

 If the ‘tragic triad’ was where Logotherapy began and ended, then we would certainly be in trouble! But it isn’t.  Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy, talks at length of the case for ‘tragic optimism’, where we remain optimistic despite life’s enduring difficulties. In her Foreword to Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’, Claudice Hammond says this – Frankl ‘talks of tragic optimism….that life brings pain, guilt and death and yet, for the most part, we manage to carry on’.  Somehow we manage to get through. And it gets better! Frankl also understood the reality of the ‘triumphant triad’, where there is healing, forgiveness and meaning.

In the Psalms, that ‘triumphant triad’ is also clear to see. Even in the Psalms of lament, optimism remains, seeping through, sometimes at points when we least expect it. How true that is in the reality of our own lives.  Consider again what Claudice Hammond says of Frankl’s philosophy – she writes that Logotherapy is a personal catalyst for radical change and progressive development.  As individuals then, Hammond reinforces Frankl’s philosophy, where she brings us back to our call to ‘turn suffering into achievement’, to ‘use guilt to improve’ ourselves and to utilise ‘the knowledge that life is short as a spur to action’.

Interestingly, the triumphant and the tragic often co-exist in the Psalms, just as they do in our day-to-day lives.  Our Old Testament Lesson, Psalm 39, is one such example, where despair and hope are expressed, and those two realities held in tension throughout.  There is a recognition that hope would be incomprehensible if it were not for anguish and despondency.

Here then, is how that observation plays out in our Psalm.  In the second verse, the Psalmist writes: I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse’, but then goes on say in verse seven: “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you”. Life, as we know it and as the Psalmist understood it, is never clear cut….the edges are often blurred and our emotions fluctuate. We can feel despair and hope in the same day…..and in the same moment.

It is in the latter half of the seventh verse, though – “My hope is in you” – where we see the entire Christian message writ large.  Our hope rests very firmly in God.  We look to him through our individual experiences of suffering, guilt and the shadow of death and see him radiant in our sights. We call on, and cleave to those words that reverberate intensely in Psalm 55: 22: Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken’.

So yes, we live lives that are frequently difficult. But we also live lives that are grounded in hope and animated by expectation.  Viktor Frankl was a realist; the Psalms, and the wider Old and New Testaments are realistic too – they echo with the stuff of a life lived authentically, the tragic juxtaposed with the triumphant.  From our faith perspective, we can go even further.  Our hope is infinite; it is all around us; it moves as the Spirit moves and it seeks us out.  We must allow ourselves, in the midst of life, to be engulfed in love and transformed by hope.

Although I have spoken in this short reflection in very broad terms of the message of the Psalms, and Psalm 39 in particular, let me finish with some New Testament wisdom, specifically Romans 15:13: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

Powerful, yet serene, there is nothing to either add or take away from Paul’s striking message to the church in Rome. It is a call to reflect deeply on our journey and gain insight into the radical nature of Christian faith.

And so, it seems appropriate that, in a few moments of silence, we allow ourselves to reconnect with the God who meets us where we are – in the reality of pain, suffering and death, but also in the transformative realm of healing, meaning and hope.  We are met on that journey with a love that knows no boundaries; a love that seeks us out. Let us feel the vigour of the Holy Spirit move among us and within us, in the stillness, and deep peace, of this holy place…………..where we are grounded in reality and transformed by hope.

‘Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever’. Jude 24-25.

AMEN

I am quite a fan of TEDtalks – there have been many fabulous talks and enlightening speakers presenting on a wide-range of subjects from surviving a suicide attempt to becoming an activist, with almost every conceivable topic in-between.

Strangely enough religious leaders often do not make the best speakers, regardless of the topic they’re exploring. Pope Francis though, unlike his immediate predecessor, has an engaging, well-grounded and warm personality that brings to life the subjects he passionately cares about.  His delivery is straightforward, as are his public messages; they are not couched in convoluted theological language.  In this respect, I often feel that there is a clear parallel between the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury and his predecessor.

Anyway, I digress! Francis’ TEDtalk is not delivered from the typical TED stage; instead he talks from behind a desk in the Vatican.  His message is simple – change starts with individuals; hope begins in the individual heart. From that starting point, hope and solidarity with ‘the other’, those who are marginalised and powerless becomes a powerful possibility. In-so-doing he makes the point that there is really no difference between us – we are all loved by God in our uniqueness and imperfection.

That said, Francis reminds us that the powerful….the significant in worldly terms……are especially tasked by God to use their wealth and influence in ways that bind us together rather than pull us apart.

That our world is in a mess, largely because we have ignored the radical message of Christianity and settled for something that is, in many ways radically exclusive and uncaring, is obvious.  Our world is fractious and riddled with war and cruelty in myriad forms.

But Pope Francis provides a timely reminder that each and every one of us, regardless of creed, can harness the power of hope and promote equality, solidarity and tenderness.  His call, in essence a reminder that we all need each other and that none of us exists in isolation.  In that respect he echoes, in his own words, that wonderful Ubuntu saying, ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’  Hope demands therefore that we should all be ‘team players’, constantly looking at ways to co-operate with each other for the greater good of all.

Never has Pope Francis’ plea, “Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the ‘other’ is not a statistic, or a number,” been more important than it is today.  How we work that ethic out in practise in a complex and perplexing world is another matter.  But then again, we need simply start with ourselves, reflecting on the work that needs done within us and amongst us – the rest will unfold against the universal backdrop of hope and love.

You can make your own mind up by watching the whole presentation here:

I generally write a short reflection for our (Cliftonville Moravian Church) newsletter. Here is the May instalment:

Quite a few years ago now, when I travelled extensively with work, I would often pick up items of interest from the countries, town or cities I visited.  One of my favourite items is a Malaysian painted face mask I bought whilst visiting the Johor Bahru region, a few miles across the causeway from Singapore.

These masks, I later found out, were historically tribal attire that was used in a range of ceremonies, in addition to decorating homes.  I was struck by the intricacies of the hand-painted design and the beautiful mixture of vibrant colours that really brought an inanimate object to life.

And so this ‘souvenir’ sits proudly on a display shelf in my sitting room; the colours catch my eye each and every time in walk in to the room.  It is a welcoming face that reminds me of an earlier period in my life, filled with travel and the joy of learning about new and diverse cultures, some of which are significantly different to our own.

The mask is an item known to many cultures throughout antiquity.  In our own contemporary society, we frequently ‘put on a mask’, although in a metaphorical sense. We hide our true emotions behind that mask, which can be multifaceted and every changing, but however it manifests itself, it always has a spiritual dimension at its core.

How many times, I wonder, do we hide our true emotions behind a smile or an upbeat demeanour?  How often, do we say ‘I’m fine’, when the truth is somewhat different, or even radically different – when we are struggling to cope with a painful life event or series of perceived failures? Or what about those instances when we wrestle with a spiritual malaise that there seems to be no answer to?

In truth, we can never really tell at first glance whether or not the facade is real or forced; it can take some time to unearth emotional turmoil and pain bubbling underneath the surface.  And that is why we need to take to heart that aphorism attributed, sometimes to Plato, but by others to John Watson: ‘Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’. How hard that battle actually is we can only guess at, in each individual we meet, from an emotional and physical distance.

As a therapist I see people from all walks of life; many exhibit an outward demeanour of confidence and contentment with life, but behind the mask, constructed to please others, or even to convince themselves, there is much suffering and pain, struggling to find an outlet.  As a Minister I know that those who care for others are sometimes the hardest hit and feel under the most pressure to retreat beneath the facade they have either carefully constructed and cultivated, or has been projected on to them.

But society is changing, and I would contend, very much for the better.  No doubt you are aware that recently, in their quest to encourage us all to tackle the stigma and prejudice that still sadly accompanies mental illness, the new generation of the royal family have been very proactive in encouraging us all to step from behind the facade and to talk openly of our emotions.  That can only be a good thing, for individuals, but also for wider society. The typical ‘stiff upper lip’ approach of our culture has been advantageous in displaying fortitude and Stoicism, but leaves us ill-prepared to deal with the emotional health and wellbeing of ourselves and others.

As a community of faith, we should be especially alert to these messages of openness and honesty.  After all, Jesus himself was a master of seeing beyond the facade and engaging with the real person behind it.  When we consider those many awe-inspiring and life-changing encounters he had in his earthly ministry – reaching out and touching the spiritual core of those on the margins.  We read of a Jesus who could see the pain of the Samaritan woman, the struggles sick man at the Pool of Bethesda, and the spiritual distress of the woman who was haemorrhaging and ostracised from her community.

Also as a community of faith, we are reminded in an equally important manner of the Jesus who saw beyond the legalistic and pious mask of the Pharisees, and found within a dearth of spiritual connectedness with the God of grace and love for all.

So what do we do?  Where do we go from here?  Well, it is no small step to admit our vulnerability, to each other as a loving, Christian community; it is no small step to open up and admit when we need help or support, emotional or otherwise.  It can be hard too, to see those around us in the light of their own struggles.  Remember those words of the famous Lutheran Minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’:  “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passiva, suffering because we have to suffer.”  And I would add, not being ashamed to own that suffering and to let others enter into our emotional and spiritual lives to share in all that we go through; we can only do that by ridding ourselves of the ‘all is well’ mask.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer did of course put this more poetically than I ever could, when he observed: We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” And we can only do that when we begin to chip away at that facade and reveal our true selves to those we live in community with, and to live honestly in the light of God’s love.

We all have burdens that we carry – some less significant and disabling that others – but they are burdens nonetheless that prompt us to turn to God.  We all know those immensely powerful words, uttered by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.

But as we turn to God, we need to be cognizant of the fact that he works through others in their vulnerability, and opens us up to new possibilities through our vulnerability.  Here, I want to finish this short reflection with the words of Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

So I look now at my magnificent souvenir mask, as an object of beauty and a reminder of new cultural vistas explored, but also as an aide memoire that the mask is not always meant to be worn – the contours of our true selves is infinitely more cherished and loved by God than any facade we may construct.

Every blessing, Scott