Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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 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

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

 

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

Viktor & I: An Alexander Vesely Film (2010)

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

Viktor Frankl and I_dvd_cover

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

suffering

self-worth

compassion

resilience