Archive for the ‘Discipleship’ Category

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

 

 

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 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

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?

Man carrying a heavy box on his back

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

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

Moravian Logo

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

Culross Abbey Stained Glass Window

Culross Abbey Stained Glass Window

This is the text of a sermon preached at Cliftonville Moravian Church on 25th September:

Yesterday, I was following the news more closely than I normally do.  I can’t say that politics excites me, but I do tune in when there is something vaguely interesting happening.

In that context, many of you will know that Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected as leader of the Labour party, by a substantial margin.  The politics, and policies behind it, do not concern me as we gather here today.  What has piqued my interest though, is the wider question of how we view leadership.

This question is not merely an abstract point of debate for political anoraks or party activists.  It is very much of importance to us all; the course our country will take through the turbulent waters of global economic instability, the shape that Brexit takes and numerous other domestic and international policy decisions, will be determined in the next few months and years. The leader of the opposition will have an influence, at least to some degree, on all of these.

Over the last number of weeks I have heard many commentators say that Mr. Corbyn simply does not have leadership qualities, or that he is not leadership material.  I have to say though, that in all honesty, I am not quite sure at all what they mean.  What makes for a strong leader?  Is there one model that these individuals are referring to?  I suspect not. We all approach these questions from our unique perspectives.

Over my career, I have been in several leadership positions in an array of environments ranging from the commercial to the charity sector.  I have operated differently in each case, and I have been managed differently in each case; there is no one size that fits all. The context is always different and the personality of the leader makes an enormous difference.

So leadership is very much in our minds.  And I almost forgot to mention the leadership contest that is reaching a crescendo of activity, and nastiness, across the Atlantic.  Our friends in the US will soon be choosing between two of the most unpopular candidates in US Presidential history. Again, I make no comment on the merits of each individual – that is for each of us to do ourselves – but these events, and the wall-to-wall media coverage certainly do make us think about the wider issues.

And so let us turn our attention to leadership in the Church – and I mean ’Church’ in its widest sense, as the body of believers.  Each denomination has its own form of government and organisation.  Our own is more egalitarian than most; that means that the responsibilities of leadership are spread widely amongst our membership, and that, in my opinion, is just as it should be.  We all play a central role in leading and shaping local congregations and the wider church family.  And we do so, not in a vacuum, and not just on the basis of our own talents and ideas, but infused with a will to follow God at all times. Our leadership is based on the premise that, although we will surely make errors in how we go about things, we acknowledge God’s providence; we hold in our hearts those words from Jeremiah 29:11:

‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future!.

Nevertheless, that task, taking hold of leadership, may at first seem daunting.  The church faces so many challenges; the need for change and renewal is perhaps greater now than it has ever been.  The need for effective and collective leadership is plain for all to see.  With the challenges before us it can be tempting to give up……to leave it all to others….to sit back and to think that very little can be done.  But as we do so, let us turn our eyes and open our hearts to those magnificent words spoken to Joshua:

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”  

Joshua had leadership qualities in abundance.  Reflecting on his example shows us the way forward.  Joshua was a man of humility……he had faith and trust in God in abundance……and he was very much a man of prayer.  His lived example of humility, faith and prayer represent the triad of essential ingredients for effective leadership in the spiritual realm.

Yes, Joshua was humble.  For forty years he served God through serving Moses; thereafter he continued to serve God, albeit in a more prominent, public role.  But throughout he never lost his focus on God.  God was always paramount and Joshua never forgot this.  Neither did he forget that true leadership is very much about service.  As Helena Blavatsky once wrote: ‘the greatest among men is always ready to serve and yet is unconscious of the service’.

Joshua was also a man whose very being was infused with faith in God.  He realised that futility of placing his faith in other flawed and fragile human beings; he knew that relying solely on his own innate abilities was no less futile.  And so he looked to God and to God alone.  His life echoes with the words of the theologian Karl Barth: ‘In God alone there is faithfulness and faith in the trust that we may hold to him, to his promise, to his guidance.  To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty’.

Humility and faith abounded in Joshua.  Both of these attributes were enhanced by his prayer life.  He prayed frequently, honestly and earnestly.  As Carlo Carretto reminds us: ‘the degree of our faith is the degree of our prayer.  The strength of our hope is the strength of our prayer.  The warmth of our charity is the warmth of our prayer.’

With humility, faith and prayer all things are possible.  Joshua is an important reminder of the truth of that statement.  In his inner and outer life he reflected the ‘moral’ leadership displayed by a number of Old Testament figures.  As Hershey Friedman wrote in his paper entitled ‘Moral Leadership: Ancient Lessons for Modern Times’, published in the Journal of College and Character (2001), ‘careful examination of the lives of several leaders described in the Hebrew Bible indicates that the purpose of leadership is not fame, power, or fortune, but to lead people with truth and righteousness’.

Leadership, however, does not flow from perfection. God uses us, as he did with the plethora of Old and New Testament leaders with all our insecurities and imperfections to advance the cause of his kingdom.  He calls on each and every one of us to exercise leadership in our congregations and communities; exactly what that leadership looks like will depend on our own talents and personalities, shaped by God and those we serve.  With humility, faith and prayer we can follow his will in our own lives and collectively in this place, and beyond.  We do not embark upon this  task, or indeed any task, alone. And as God himself reminded Joshua, and by extension reminds us in our modern age:

Joshus 1:5f ‘As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you’.

AMEN

Wednesday 21st September was a special day in the calendar – it marked the United Nations International Day of Peace.  Established in 1981, Peace Day is commemorated globally as a way for all humanity to reflect and to commit to peace, despite differences of religion, culture and race; the day also encourages all of us, wherever we are, to facilitate and promote a culture of peace.

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I was privileged to take part in an event in Girdwood Community Hub with my fellow North Belfast Clergy to mark this important day.  We joined together as Moravians, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics to make our peace pledges alongside three hundred primary school children from twelve local schools.  It was a powerful reminder that when we come together, we are stronger and the cause of peace has a much greater chance of succeeding. It was, on reflection, an example of Galatians 3:28 in action, where Paul wrote: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.

And as we come together as Christians, the peace pledge also reminds us of our very personal obligations. Peace, after all, starts with us.  As the spiritual writer Thomas Merton once said: “We are not at peace with others, because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves, because we are not at peace with God.” 

Peace then, is not an ethereal concept that resides with ‘the other’.  It is found within; true peace then, comes from God and we receive it when our relationship with him is fulsome, honest and evolving.  As Jesus said:  “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).

With that assurance of peace in our hearts we can reach out to a troubled world with confidence.  Not just on one day, but on every day.  Not just in one place, but in every place.  And so let us endeavour to make our small Christian community here, together with our other Brothers and Sisters across the denominations, a beacon of peace, today and every day.

Every blessing, Scott

The former Bishop of Durham, Dr. David Jenkins, has died.  His theological viewpoints were always much more nuanced than were reported, or misreported, in the press at the time.  Nonetheless, what I thought was always rather striking was his espousal of a very publicly engaged form of Christianity, where the questions and answers were worked out ‘on the ground’.  As such he challenged unfeeling market economics and argued that people with the least power and influence should always be at the centre of government policy.

This balanced insight into the man and his approach was produced in 1994 to mark his retirement and is well worth watching. In my opinion we need more Christian leaders that are willing to challenge unjust social structures in such a tenacious and consistent manner.