Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ever-present God, open our eyes to see

the coming of the dove.

As we look over the waters of

our doubts and fears,

enable us to see in the world signs of hope.

 

As we despair over the injustices and conflicts

in our own lives and in the world,

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

 

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

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

the visions of hope, peace and reconciliation we

have received’.

AMEN

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you journey well, Scott

This is the text of my sermon preached today in Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast:

When I was training to be a scientist, and later when I worked in that field professionally, it was very common for co-workers to get together and discuss their latest results from any experiments that had been done.  A very common comment, that I heard, and indeed made, was ‘is that result real’, or ‘are we just seeing an artifact of the experiment’?  In other words, we approached the work of investigation with a profound dose of scepticism…..or doubt.  We looked at what was in front of us from a number of different perspectives, re-evaluating it again and again, testing our assumptions each time.

And so that expression of doubt was, and is, very healthy.  It prompts deeper reflection and it fosters a questioning outlook.   It recognises the fact that life operates at a level of complexity that requires a thoughtful, questioning and unfolding response.

Christianity, at its best, operates with similar assumptions.  But sometimes, we know that it doesn’t.  It can be presented to us as far too formulaic and simplistic; questioning, in this environment, is not to be encouraged or entertained.  The rational component of Faith is subverted and it verges on becoming a superstitious endeavour – formulating a simplistic list of ‘facts’ that must be adhered to and not explored to the full extent our intellect allows.

Charles Spurgeon, the famous British Baptist Minister recognised this.  And it is of course worth remembering that Spurgeon was hardly a liberal!  It is after all ‘liberals’ (whatever that label means…..and it is often used pejoratively!) that have unfairly been seen as having the monopoly on doubt.  So here is what Spurgeon wrote in his sermon entitled “Desire of the Soul in Spiritual Darkness” (quoted in Relevant Magazine: See Further Reading)

“I think, when a man says, ‘I never doubt,’ it is quite time for us to doubt him, it is quite time for us to begin to say, ‘Ah, poor soul, I am afraid you are not on the road at all, for if you were, you would see so many things in yourself, and so much glory in Christ more than you deserve, that you would be so much ashamed of yourself, as even to say, ‘It is too good to be true.'” (Quoted in Relevant Magazine)

And doubt wasn’t the preserve of Spurgeon.  None other than that great reformer, John Calvin, had something positive to say of it too.  He said this:

 “Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.” (Quoted in Relevant Magazine).

There are many other prominent Christians, across the ages, who have expressed similar sentiments in relation to the utility of doubt in shaping our faith and helping us to better understand the divine more holistically and realistically. Luther was one, and so was the writer C.S. Lewis. I’m sure you’ll each know other examples.

We also see numerous examples when we look to Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.  Look at our Old Testament Lesson today – Judges 6:36-40, a rather strange story of Gideon doubting God’s plan for him.  And so he ‘tests’ God, and God indulges him, and Gideon eventually gets the message and moves on to fulfil his role and live out his vocation. Here, doubt had served a concrete purpose for a man who was unsure.

Perhaps the most famous example of a biblical ‘doubter’ is that of ‘Doubting Thomas’, where one disciple struggled to comprehend the reality of the resurrection.  But if we think about how the biblical narrative portrays the disciples, especially in Mark’s Gospel, where they frequently question Jesus, miss the point of what he was saying and teaching, and fail to grasp the import of his message.  They were very human in their attributes, and that’s the way it was meant to be.  And so it was with Thomas – he was wrestling intellectually and emotionally with everything he had seen, heard and believed.  It was through that process of questioning and probing, that his faith made sense to him as an individual.  And that’s surely the point, is it not? We approach questions of faith and understanding as individuals; we need to satisfy those questions that have meaning for us. That’s why Thomas’ doubting….his deviation from the ‘norm’……is instructive; it was his nature to doubt.

Crucially though, in all the instances we encounter across in the Biblical narrative, God uses that doubt for greater use, to bring forth a series of messages that are universal in their application. Doubt, in its thinking, rational and constructive form is not to be viewed in a negative light as it often is Christian circles.

You may be familiar with a book entitled ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ which is written by Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke; it included a number of letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, a young soldier. Rilke wrote the following words in one of his letters:

 “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

Now, that’s perceptive!  And it served the basis for a recent publication ‘Letters to a Young Doubter’ by William Sloane Coffin, an American Minister, Chaplain and Social Activist.  In this book, Coffin writes a series of letters to a fictional young college student. He reflects and offers advice on a diverse range of issues centred around faith and how this interacts with those perennial problems of life – bereavement, failure, politics, ambition, relationships, love and achievement.  Coffin says this in one of his letters:

 “…don’t be anxious about your newfound doubts.  Doubts move you forward not backward, just as long as you doubt out of love of the truth, not out of some pathological need to doubt.”

And there we have it.  When we doubt out of love for the truth, we follow the path set before us with integrity.  True discipleship is tough; it includes failure and doubt, but also victory and certainty.  When we love the truth, doubt is transformed from a negative to a positive.  Doubt takes on a beauty that unquestioning conformity can never understand nor enjoy; it journeys with us a delineates our path.

So let us today embrace what God has given us – a questioning mind, a loving heart, a desire for the truth and a peace that comes with it – a peace that surpasses all understanding.

AMEN

Further Reading: Jesse Carey, 7 Prominent Christian Thinkers Who Wrestled With Doubt, Relevant Magazine. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/7-prominent-christian-thinkers-who-wrestled-doubt

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This is the text of a short reflection I delivered today at Cliftonville Moravian Church in North Belfast:

As we grow in years and experience of life it becomes evident, rather quickly, that life is complex; people are complex.  Often what we see on the surface belies a much deeper level of complexity – very rarely are any of us what is euphemistically called an ‘open-book’.  We carry with us the scars of difficulties past alongside the wisdom of experience gained. There are regrets at mistakes made, people hurt…..and there is contentment at things done well.  There is brokenness…..but there is also wholeness.

One of the issues that we Christians quickly have to come to terms with, is that we live in the sight of God replete with all our imperfections – the complexity that I have just mentioned; some of those are seen readily by those around us – we may have a temper, we may have treated others badly….we may have let our egos get the better of us to the detriment of other others. And some of our imperfections, of course, are unseen by those around us – the thoughts we have….the real motivations behind our actions…and we could name many, many more.

 None of us are one-dimensional; our characters are multifaceted, the good and the bad are intertwined – that’s what makes you and me human.  The psychiatrist Carl Jung had an interesting take on it; he wrote: ‘How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole’.  And in the same vein, but with a slightly different slant, the author Sarah Vowell said this: ‘We are flawed creatures, all of us.  Some of us think that means we should fix our flaws.  But get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left’.

Vowell’s insight, and indeed Jung’s too, raise some interesting questions that go to the core of what it means to be person struggling to do the right thing and to make a positive impact.  How indeed do we deal with those flaws? Well, that notion of human imperfection is perhaps summed up best in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he wrote: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.  Or as expressed in that secular source – the author Augusten Burroughs, who wrote; “I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” I like that.

And so, darkness, if you like, dwells within each and every one of us. And as we reflect on that reality, we are perhaps called to deal with it in a constructive way.  St. Porphyrios made this suggestion: ‘Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul.  Open a tiny aperture for light to enter, and the darkness will disappear’.

Forgiveness too plays a very important part here.  We can be harsh in dealing with our own failings, but perhaps we need to be more understanding and compassionate with ourselves? Fred Luskin said this, which I think is very pertinent: ‘Forgiveness of self emerges when we understand that even with our own actions we do not have total control.  Nobody is perfect.  Everybody makes mistakes.  We all make bad decisions and act from poor information.  Being human means you and I will fail at some things and cause other people harm’.

Accepting our limitations is an important first step in, what is after all, a process. The key to understanding that process comes directly after those words of consolation in Romans:for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.  Consider if you will Romans 3:24-26: ‘they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’.

And so here we reach crux of the matter.  There is much to unpack theologically in those few verses; there is much to reflect on that has been given to us to guide our faith.  And we will of course do that in the weeks and months ahead.  But in simple terms, the over-arching message is clear. Because of our flaws, our faults, our very obvious failings, we are human.  But it is despite these aspects of our character that we are justified through faith in the eyes of God.  This is what makes the Christian faith, the message and personhood of Jesus Christ, the ‘Good News’. It is not through good character and an accumulation of good deeds that the ‘mind of God’ is influenced.  We are who we are and God knows that….all of it.  And so there is no need for false piety or a denial of our real selves; we can come before God just as we are, in the knowledge that He loves us and that our faith conquers all and transcends our flaws, failings and brokenness.

Let us take that reality with us as we begin a new week, meet new people, go about our daily tasks and tackle new challenges.  As we do so, in the light of today’s reflection, there is no need to feel burdened by the fact that we are less than we could be.  Let God deal with that.

Now to Him

who is able through the power

which is at work among us

to do immeasurably more

than all we can ask or conceive,

to Him be the glory

in the church and in Christ Jesus

from generation to generation evermore!

Amen.

 

 

It don’t often post my sermons on this blog, but here’s one I delivered today in All Souls Church in Elmwood Avenue, Belfast:

Finding Meaning through Faith: Learning from Viktor Frankl

MEANING IN LIFE?

In response to the question: ‘What is the most important lesson life has taught you?’, one of my favourite contemporary philosophers (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious!), Slavoj Žižek replied somewhat tetchily: ‘That life is a stupid meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you’. 

Succinct and brutally honest. But Žižek was at least trying to articulate his worldview that the quest for meaning is in and of itself meaningless….so we might as well just get on with life unencumbered by distractions and wishful thinking.  Freedom then, for Žižek, comes from accepting and confronting our meaninglessness.  It just is what it is – nothing more and nothing less.

Contrast this outlook with another of my favourite philosophers – although he’s much more than that – Viktor Frankl.  Professor Frankl was a deeply interesting man: he was a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a philosopher, prolific author and founder of ‘the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ – otherwise known as ‘Logotherapy’ (or therapy through meaning).

Frankl’s worldview, both clinical and personal, was shaped to a significant degree by the fact that he was a Holocaust Survivor.  From 1942-45 he lived, or rather existed, in four concentration camps, including the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz.  What he witnessed and experienced there left an indelible mark on his psyche, deepening his comprehension of human nature and the centrality of meaning.

Frankl’s most famous book is ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  It’s a slim volume and it recounts his experience of the Holocaust.  Against that backdrop of unimaginable horror, he lost all of his family members and suffered terribly, yet his book is hopeful and inspirational.  Each page is replete with meaning.

Now when we talk about meaning, it’s important to remember that Frankl spoke of it terms of ultimate and proximate meaning.  The ultimate is difficult to quantify; as finite creatures we often find it difficult to comprehend the infinite.  But in simple terms, for someone like me, and yourselves, as people of faith – ultimate meaning equates to God.  Proximate meaning on the other hand, is still linked to the ultimate, but it consists of the things that we do, or attitudes we take, that give us meaning in everyday life tasks.  So for example, I find an enormous amount of meaning in the work that I do as a mental health advocate; I find meaning in my family life…and so it goes on; that’s proximate meaning, but it’s inextricably linked to my sense of ultimate meaning – or my Christian faith.  I can’t decouple the two.

Your story will be different.  But as I’ve just said, like me you will find that the ultimate meaning informs what you do in the rest of your life.  If there’s a disconnect there, then it leads to tension and strain.

All Souls

All Souls

MEANING & FAITH

As Christians we’re called upon to look for, and to find our ultimate meaning – and in doing so we connect God.  And here I’m reminded of a sentence from the Book of Isaiah:

‘Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace — in peace because they trust in you’ (Isaiah 26:3).

Here we have the Prophet Isaiah transmitting a very powerful  and well thought through message.  He makes us think….. that a mind that is steadfast – or fixed on God – is a mind that has engaged with ultimate meaning.  When we understand God, in-as-much as we are able given our very obvious human limitations, we find meaning: meaning in happiness….or failure….or pain……or suffering. We find meaning in all that is around us….in the frailty of relationships, the broken dreams and stilted aspirations…..just as much, or even more, as in the positive aspects of life….the beauty of friendships and the wonder of creation.

We transcend ourselves when we fully engage our faith.  We look beyond our failures and victories and we see that we are part of something greater than ourselves.  Our faith can be expressed in a myriad of different ways.  Viktor Frankl was a practising Jew his entire life, but he was very careful not to impose, or even be seen to be imposing, his religious conviction upon others; that was not the way he operated as a therapist, physician or man.  He understood that each and every one of us must reach our own conclusion – and find ultimate and proximate meaning for ourselves; we are after all, fully responsible for our own lives and the way we live them.

All Souls

All Souls

The Nazi’s who persecuted Viktor Frankl and millions of others, simply because of their religion, race, sexual orientation or political affiliations used their freedom to pursue nihilistic goals.  They misused their freedom and perverted their will to meaning; they did not understand the concept of love and it fuelled their malevolence and barbaric cruelty.

Paul the Apostle wrote of how we should properly use our freedom in a letter he wrote to a number of Christian communities in Galatia.  He said this:

‘For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one command: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ Galatians 5:13-14

The choice is there for all to see.  Paul understood it; the churches in Galatia also understood it.  It is a stark choice that applies to us all; it is timeless – we can use our lives selfishly, or we can use them to make a difference, large or small; to truly love our neighbours as ourselves.  Viktor Frankl writes of one such occasion, or more likely a series of occasions where the love of neighbour was made manifest in the actions of a number of people; this was a costly and humbling love this still moves me to this day.  He wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

‘“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man (person) 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.”’ 

This ability to choose one’s own way is a central strand of Frankl’s Logotherapy.  Reclaiming that ability is of inestimable therapeutic value.  Too often we let events overtake us and we feel stranded. But we have the ability, as Frankl did, to change our attitude in difficult situations.

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

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

Consider this story from ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Indeed.

OUR LEGACY

And there is just one more thought I want to leave you with today.  We are very much a sum of our parts; as we make our way through life we accumulate much in the way of experiences, both negative and positive. That is the nature of life.

With Frankl though, no experience of meaning is ever lost or wasted.  We take it with us.  As he has said himself:  “In the granaries of our past everything is safely stored.”  So even suffering cannot erase that sense of meaning and the experience of meaningfulness; it does not, no matter how hard it tries, have the last word. Here we have Frankl again: I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.’ “

And so when we look back over our lives, there will no doubt be periods of regret or disappointment, or even times when we’ve been ashamed of our actions or inactions.  None of these experiences and feelings have been wasted if we can recognise within them a kernel of meaning.  We cannot change the past, nor should we attempt to try, but we can always attempt to place it within that wider context.

We may think of a job lost through redundancy for example.  In a life lived where such an event is seen purely through the lens of suffering a misfortune, there is no room for growth and positive experience.  But where we have a change of attitude, we can see past the difficulty and be thankful for the space to reflect and re-evaluate, and ultimately, to re-orientate our priorities and to move our life in a different direction.

Many of us will have experienced real hardship for reasons beyond our control; the death of a loved one; the loss of a home; a life-changing illness. Frankl’s experiences teach us that in all situations, even in the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camp, there is meaning. He found it every day in the simple things – the sunset, human company and being able to use his medical knowledge to help and console his fellow inmates.

Nothing is ever lost.  When we die there are the memories that live on; there are the people we have helped and the family members we have left behind, their personalities shaped by our influence.  The struggles? Well, they live on too, shaped by the meaning we’ve assigned to them.

The physicist and Anglican Priest, Professor John Polkinghorne, gives us one final pause for thought. He puts his understanding of what happens when we die this way:  “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.”  So then we have even more reason for hope; the meaning we have engaged with and has so enriched our earthly lives goes with us too.

CONCLUSION

To conclude, Viktor Frankl, and his Logotherapy, can help us and guide us through our faith journey, encouraging us to finds meaning in our worldview and to practice the ethic of self-transcendence.  Looking beyond ourselves, engaging in service and living for others is the very basis of the Christian life.

Understanding Frankl’s message can help us to become better Christians, to understand our motivations and to be happier in our own vocations and content to live the life God has given us.

And let us not forget, as I give the last word to Viktor Frankl: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” 

AMEN

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

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

Viktor Frankl, founder of the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy – Logotherapy and Existential Analysis – makes a very important point about the meaningfulness in life and how a person of faith experiences life in a different dimension.  It is this dimension that augments a person’s understanding of life as a task (or series of tasks) that they are uniquely given to fulfill.

Frankl says this in ‘The Doctor and the Soul’ (p.70-71):

While the man who is not conscious of his responsibility simply takes life as a given fact, existential analysis teaches people to see life as an assignment.  But the following addendum must be made: there are people who go a step further, who as it were, experience life in a further dimension.  They also experience the authority from which the task comes.  They experience the taskmaster who has assigned the task to them.  In our opinion we have here an essential characteristic of the religious man: he is a man who interprets his existence not only in being responsible for fulfilling his life tasks, but also as being responsible to the taskmaster.

By Prints & Photographs Division Library of Congress (Commons File:Jung 1910-rotated.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Prints & Photographs Division Library of Congress (Commons File:Jung 1910-rotated.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For some time now I’ve been fascinated by Carl Jung and groundbreaking work in the field of psychology and psychoanalysis.  Although for me, Jung was far more – he was a mystic and a very unconventional ‘holy man’ who gave us a profound insight into human nature and its interaction with the Divine.

I was interested therefore to read an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Jolande Jacobi on the 24th June 1935 (Carl Jung, Letters Volume 1, Page 191) and reproduced on the Carl Jung Depth Psychology website (http://carljungdepthpsychology.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/carl-jung-when-i-treat-catholics-who.html).  In this letter Jung was outlining how he treated Catholics suffering from a ‘neurosis’; he wrote the following:

… When I treat Catholics who arc suffering from neurosis I consider it my duty to lead them back to the bosom of the Church where they belong.

The ultimate decisions rest with the authority of the Church for anyone who is of the Catholic faith.

Psychology in this context therefore means only the removal of all those factors which hinder final submission to the authority of the Church.

Anyone who puts another “factor” above the authority of the Church is no longer a Catholic. .

In many aspects Jung is to be admired in the stance he took – he understood the primacy of faith and tradition in the life of a believer, as well as the role of religion in providing meaning (ultimate and proximate), as well as direction and focus in life.  Although he was himself raised in the Swiss Reformed Church (where his father was a Minister), Jung quickly outgrew the confines of narrow denominational Christianity.  Crucially, he did not allow his own beliefs, which rapidly become very eclectic and non-conventional in nature, to cloud his therapeutic worldview; that he had the humility and wisdom to accept that wholeness can only be achieved with reference to a persons spiritual ‘home’, is shown very powerfully in this letter to Jolande Jacobi. Jung was indeed ahead of his time in this respect.

Image courtesy of Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Much media attention lately has focused on the difficult negotiations between the Iranian Government and representatives of what is commonly called the ‘P5 + 1’ (which consists of France, Germany, UK, USA, China and Russia). An atmosphere of distrust typically permeates such meetings, although recently this has abated somewhat.

What many people are not aware of, is that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei,  has issued a fatwa  (legal judgment) saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam.  Indeed, on 22 February 2012, Press TV reported that Ayatollah Khamenei also said the following:

The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

Although there is grounds for scepticism regarding Iran’s stance, the religious impetus to opposing nuclear weapons has some serious history.  Those of us who are Christian know that most denominations oppose the use of nuclear armaments based on their indiscriminate and horrific destructive power. That some may justify the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent is balanced by the abolitionist stance of the historic peace churches – the Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers. Many of us would concur with Archbishop Renato Martino who once said: “Nuclear weapons cannot be justified and deserve condemnation. The world must move to the abolition of nuclear weapons through a universal, non-discriminatory ban with intensive inspection by universal authority.” Or what about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “Nuclear abolition is the democratic wish of the world’s people, and has been our goal almost since the dawn of the atomic age. Together, we have the power to decide whether the nuclear era ends in a bang or worldwide celebration.”

But what of Islam?  Is Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa an isolated incident? It would appear not.  In an article entitled: ‘The Moral Case Against Nuclear Weapons‘ and published on the Methodists United for Peace with Justice website (http://www.mupwj.org/moral_case_against_nuclear_weapons.htm), Howard W. Hallman explores Islamic attitudes to weapons of mass destruction. Drawing on “An Islamic Perspective on the Nuclear Weapons Danger” as presented in the Muslim-Christian Study and Action Guide on the Nuclear Weapons Danger (pp. 21-27), Hallman presents “six powerful reasons for Muslims to oppose the production, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons.”

  1. They represent a serious threat to peace, while peace is a central theme of Islam.
  2. They are brutal and merciless, and thus violate the Qur’anic description of the message of the Prophet Muhammad (p) as “mercy to all the worlds.”
  3. They are contrary to Islam’s promotion of human fellowship.
  4. Nuclear weapons do not fall within the scope of legitimate self-defense.
  5. Nuclear weapons research and production waste a huge amount of resources.
  6. While the argument for nuclear deterrence is not un-Islamic in principle, and while such deterrence apparently did work during the Cold War, there is no guarantee that it will work in the future. Nor is there any guarantee that nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of non-actors.

So, perhaps there is much that unites our divergent faiths.  Mutual distrust and a lack of insight into the ethical underpinnings of our respective religious worldviews can, and already has, obscured the ‘bigger picture’, leading to firmly entrenched misunderstandings. But there is hope – a hope that we can work together to rid the world of these heinous weapons and to remove the threat of their use forever more.

 

A bishop who once famously threw his mitre in the River Thames, I have long been fascinated by the former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh turned agnostic, Richard Holloway. A post-dogmatic liberal, Holloway is still very much impassioned by the figure of Jesus, but rejects the institutional church and its outdated certainties and failure to fully engage with the marginalised or the doubting. Indeed he once famously said:

“The institutions that claim to represent God, when they are not ignored altogether, are treated like other human institutions that have to earn their right to a hearing by the value of what they say, and not by virtue of who is saying it. Today, authority has to earn respect by the intrinsic value of what it says, not by the force of its imposition.”

Holloway is a proponent of critical thinking in the realms of faith and rails against ill-thought through certainties and the cruelty employed by the institutional church when it deals with minorities, particularly gay men and women.  Fear and ignorance frequently wins the day argues Holloway, and this is not the kind of teaching he recognises as being grounded in the words and deeds of Jesus.

My first foray into Holloway’s writings came some sixteen or so years ago when I first read ‘Dancing on the Edge’. Although I found myself at odds with a number of his assertions, I concurred with his central thesis that overcritical, even oppressive, forms of religion encourage only fear, and it is fear that is the enemy of real faith. Holloway makes a very persuasive argument that doubt is healthy and leads to a vibrant and probing faith where one should always be ‘dancing on the edge’.

Since then, Holloway’s thinking has evolved to a point beyond which I can personally identify with, but then again that is in some ways irrelevant. Holloway’s openness should be welcomed as an entry point for healthy debate among Christians (and indeed non-Christians); nothing should be beyond the scope of deliberation and doubt if we want to foster a vibrant and authentic faith.

You can listen to a BBC HardTalk interview with Richard Holloway below:

It’s official! Two separate experiments run by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider have found a particle widely believed to be the Higgs boson, also known in popular culture as the “God particle”. First theorised a quarter of a century ago by the Edinburgh University physicist Peter Higgs, previous experiments have been unable to confirm its existence.

Lending support to the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics, which explains what the universe is made of and how subatomic particles interact with one another, the discovery of the Higgs boson is of crucial importance.

What then of the theological importance of the so-called ‘God particle’?  The first thing to say is that this moniker is widely disliked in the scientific community.  Notwithstanding the fact that the Higgs bosun essentially generates the masses of all the other fundamental particles that we know of in the universe, there are still many unanswered questions that require both explanation and experimentation.  Take the relationship between quantum chromodynamics and quantum gravity as one such example, and also of course the vexed question of the ultimate origin of the universe.

Physics can explain much of what we observe in the physical universe, but that does not rule out the existence of God.  There are some questions that science can never answer and that is where theology comes in to the picture. Faith and reason can, and do exist in perfect harmony; the combination of science and faith is a powerful combination that offers much in the way of an holistic worldview.