Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie

Conjectures of an Eclectic Christian

I came across a shocking statistic the other day. It was part of an article published at the beginning of the year in ‘Psychology Today’ and was written by the US psychologist Ana Nogales. And the statistic is this: When a child becomes a legal adult, they will have seen 16,000 assassinations and 200,000 acts of violence on television’.

This statistic referred to the situation as it pertains in the USA. I could not find any equivalent figures for the UK, but I suspect it would not be all that different. As a society, we share that sense of desensitisation to violence with our brothers and sisters across the world; violence is all around us, whether it be in the virtual world of the computer game, or in the real world as it presents itself to us in our daily experiences.

The Calamity of War

Nowhere is our inner capacity for peace more obviously shattered when we look outwards and see the manifestations of war on our TV screens, or in our newsfeeds. Most of us though, if we stop for a moment and think about it, might slowly recognise an eerie sense of detachment from the consequences of that form of overt violence. Take modern warfare as an example: it is often depicted as a ‘hands off’ affair, where bombs and missiles can be directed precisely to their targets from a safe distance, avoiding what is often called ‘collateral damage’. But is that really the case? Unmanned drones circle overhead, instilling indiscriminate fear and uncertainty in civilians as well as terrorists; children as well as combatants.

War is diverse and violence manifests itself in many different ways. Today, there are brutal conflicts going on in 100’s of regions across our planet: war in Afganistan, the civil war in South Sudan, the war in Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Syrian civil war. These are just a snapshot of the reality that calls out to us in desperation.

In Northern Ireland, we all know from personal experience of living in a country that would have made that list not all that long ago, that violence leads to devastation and heartache.  There is still violence, albeit on a scale that rarely features prominently in the international media. We live with it, and its legacy. Sadly, research has indicated that the traumatic effects of violence can be transmitted from generation to generation (through epigenetics), and the social and psychological effects are well known. Violence is pervasive. This is not news to anyone who lives here in Northern Ireland.

The Wider Picture

Thomas Merton, the monk, poet and author, expanded the concept of violence, because it so much broader than we commonly acknowledge. We have a tendency to think of violence in the narrow sense of war, crime or some form of abuse; and that is of course a major part of the picture.  But what Merton was saying, by underscoring the more subtle forms of violence, was very insightful and is still strikingly relevant. Consider his observation:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” 

The roots of violence run deep and emerge in the most unexpected of places.

 What Does the Bible Say?

The question arises for those of us of faith: what does the Bible say about violence? Well, this is a hugely complex subject and would take many sermons to address, and even then, I could not tackle all the various nuances and intricacies that present themselves. But I will say this: being a Christian is not easy, and the topic of violence and non-violence is perhaps the most difficult ethical dilemma we face.  It is for each of us to open our hearts to these issues and to come to our own conclusion in the light of scripture and prayerful reflection.

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Let us start with this broad-brush statement: according to the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words, violence portrays ‘willful and sinful acts of aggression by people against people’. It goes on to say that, in the New Testament, the word “violent” represents ‘a disposition to inflict harm to gain one’s way’. Across the biblical narrative, the overarching motif/’take-home message’ is one of judgement for violence on one hand, and vindication for those who are peaceable on the other.

From our Old Testament reading today, the prophet Isaiah is depicted as looking to the future, whilst acknowledging the present moment, where violence was a manifestation of fallen humanity and a lack of vision. He writes of God:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

The importance of this verse cannot be overstated: in faithfully accepting and following God, righteousness reigns and violence will be no more; peace will be the norm. When we walk in the light, the darkness of violence and strife is overcome – it becomes irrelevant; the pathway that unfolds before us leads to a destination characterised by love and contentment, the very heart of God himself.

Paul’s letter to the Roman Church develops that Old Testament theme further: In Chapter 12, Verse 17 he writes: “Do not repay evil for evil”, not as a general guideline, but as a natural outworking of discipleship; Christians, in that sense, should be above the fray, able to step back and to follow the teachings of Jesus, not the will of our nature. Vengeance is simply not in our gift.

The apostle Paul urged Christians to “live at peace with everyone”, but he also added two caveats: 1) if it is possible to do so, (acknowledging that even when we desperately want to live in peace and harmony, sometimes violence is thrust upon us), and 2) we should always earnestly accept the responsibility for resolving conflict, and never instigate it.

Life as a Witness to Christ

Some would argue that Paul went too far with his caveats, failing to reflect fully Christ’s refusal to meet violence with violence. There are many examples in Christendom of those who have followed Jesus down that route on non-violence and have paid for it with their lives.

Take Dr. Martin Luther King Jr as an example: he preached, and lived, non-violent resistance and was killed in the most violent of ways. King’s ethic was built upon a solid foundation that stretched back to the Nazarene and his earthly ministry; he acknowledged that violence was futile and counterproductive. Non-violence was the alpha and omega of how he lived his life. In King’s own poetic and stirring words:

‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that’.


The light and love exemplified by Christ are too powerful to permit darkness and hate to hold sway; violence ultimately achieves not its stated end, but perverts the truth and fans the flames of hate and depersonalisation.

As another example, I often bring into my sermons the theologian, and Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Nazi Germany he had long been labelled as a ‘pacifist and an enemy of the state’. He was arrested for trying to save the lives of a number of Jews, and for his dissident activities. Bonhoeffer wrote this of his stance:

“It is the great mistake of a false Protestant ethic to assume that loving Christ can be the same as loving one’s native country, or friendship or profession, that the better righteousness and justitia civilis are the same. Jesus does not talk that way. What is Christian depends on the ‘extraordinary’. That is why Christians cannot conform to the world, because their concern is the perisson. What does the perisson, the extraordinary, consist of? It is the existence of those blessed in the Beatitudes, the life of the disciples. It is the shining light, the city on the hill. It is the way of self-denial, perfect love, perfect purity, perfect truthfulness, perfect nonviolence. Here is undivided love for one’s enemies, loving those who love no one and whom no one loves … It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who goes to the cross in suffering and obedience. It is the cross. What is unique in Christianity is the cross, which allows Christians to step beyond the world in order to receive victory over the world. The passio in the love of the crucified one – that is the ‘extraordinary’ mark of Christian existence.”

Bonhoeffer’s outlook was not borne of pragmatism; it was borne of principle and a clear understanding of Christology as exemplified in the Beatitudes. But it was not unwavering: the evil of the Nazi regime was horrific. Christians of all persuasions earnestly sought to tackle Nazism, but differed in their interpretation of scripture and how best to confront the barbarity that confronted them.

Each one of us will respond differently to those questions. If we have all the answers, then perhaps we need to think again? Tough questions rarely have straightforward answers, and that is part-and-parcel of a vibrant Christian faith, a faith that challenges our preconceptions and calls us again and again to revisit scripture and our preconceived ideas.

And so let us leave this sacred space with a simple prayer in our hearts: that we can, with God’s help, recognise the violence in our own lives, and commit to a journey of peace; a journey that never instigates violence, but instead constantly seeks to resolve conflict, however that may express itself.

May we never forget, again in the words of Thomas Merton, that: “violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us.” Christianity is disturbing, because it asks the questions we most want to avoid; it leads us away from the secular consensus and is expressed in ways the world considers foolish.

AMEN

This is a short reflection on human dignity in the light of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man:

In strident and uncompromising language, Jesus draws us in to the world of Lazarus, the beggar at the rich man’s gate. He lies there prostrate, drained of all energy. We can imagine him gazing into a different world, catching glimpses of an abstract opulence that was juxtaposed with his grinding poverty. Day-to-day, hour-to-hour, Lazarus was cognisant of the rich man, and his family’s reality -eating and drinking, manifestations of a comfortable life. This he did this while his own body was failing and in pain; there is, after all, only so much hunger and existential struggle a person can take.

Lazarus’ body was a pitiful sight: covered with painful sores, with no realistic hope of healing in such an emaciated state.  The longing to eat, even just the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, was overwhelming. Jesus then, depicted Lazarus as an image of a man who was neglected, unwanted and ignored; he was the epitome of the marginalized and dispossessed Jesus associated with. Lazarus was the archetypal ‘have-not’ surrounded by the ‘haves’ who ignored Jesus’ instruction: But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind’ (Luke 14:13).

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Jesus was also tapping in to a broader reality, namely our fear of ‘the other’, a person who appears to be cut off from mainstream society. Nobody wants to be a Lazarus, helpless and at the behest of others for sustenance. The imagery presented to us in the text makes it clear that Lazarus’ had a woeful and unenviable existence.

One of my favourite poets – Robert Burns, wrote a poem, or more accurately a song, in the late 1700’s he entitled: ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That’.  This poem expresses something of which Jesus’ followers would have been familiar; something that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus draws our attention to, and that is our inability sometimes to see past rank, title and status. We sometimes forget that seeing the person, as a person, is the most important thing, not their position in society or their wealth; the incontrovertible truth, articulated throughout the Bible, is that the beggar is just as worthy as the rich man. As the Psalmist wrote: For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139:13). When we are known so intimately by God, our worth is guaranteed and universal.

Anyway, here is the first verse of ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That’ – the words might at times be a bit hard to follow, but I am sure you’ll get the meaning behind it:

‘Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd (gold) for a’ that’.

Now, it was the general assumption in Jesus’ day, that the rich were rich for a reason – because they were blessed by God; they were a manifestation of the modern day ‘prosperity gospel’. And so that extant logic dictated that the rich were elected by God; conversely, the poor were is some way deficient sinners that deserved their poverty and societal marginalisation.

But the great thing about this parable, is that it turns this mode of thinking completely on its head. It was the rich man who was worthy of Divine punishment, and this shocked him to the core. Perplexed, one can envisage his thoughts racing, asking over and over: ‘why am I being punished? I have not done anything to merit such a fate’.

And therein lies the entire thrust of the parable. By doing absolutely nothing against a backdrop of widespread suffering and pain, the rich man stripped Lazarus of his humanity and worth in the eyes of God. His sin had nothing to do with the fact that he was materially wealthy; his sin was his indifference to, and contempt for, Lazarus and those he represented.

By treating Lazarus as a worthless commodity and an inconvenience, the rich man failed to establish a relationship with the very people that Jesus reached out to and spent time with – the broken, the dispossessed, the despised and the forgotten. He was, in the words of the Psalmist: ‘a man who has riches without understanding’ and is ‘like the beasts that perish’ (Psalm 49:20).

The author and preacher George Buttrick acknowledged this when he wrote of the parable: “The story offers no support to the glib assumption that [the rich man] would have fulfilled [his] duty had he dressed Lazarus’ sores and fed his hunger. True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. Ameliorations such as food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighbourliness”.

With that in mind, it is pertinent to ask: what is the message for us today?  I think that Martin Luther King got it spot on when he said this: “At the end of the twentieth century most of us will not have to repent of the great evils we have done, but of the apathy that has prevented us from doing anything at all.”

Today we live in a very affluent society.  We are blessed in the sense that we live in a rich country where resources are plentiful and life, for most of us, is relatively easy.  But in some ways, as a society, we are not all that different to the rich man in our parable.  Sometimes we erect subconscious barriers to shield ourselves from what is going on in the rest of the world, and even on our doorsteps; it is easier to look away than to stare into the abyss of suffering and pain.  Sometimes we are too busy dealing with the very real difficulties we encounter in our own lives to notice what is going on.  But we do it nonetheless.

The life of Lazarus is a call for us all to see life from the perspective of the marginalised.  It is our Christian duty never to be complacent, but to listen to the stories of oppression and poverty, and to act – to do whatever we can to make life better for those who have no voice.   In the words of H.E. Fosdick, in his beautiful hymn, ‘God of grace and God of glory’:

‘Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the search for thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore’.

 AMEN

Viktor Frankl, the founder of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy (Logotherapy & Existential Analysis), had remarkable insight into the relationship between dreams and what he termed ‘The Unconscious God’. His understanding, developed through empirical investigation, was that we all have a hidden relationship with a hidden God, and that dreams are one way in which we can make that dynamic conscious.

In his book, ‘The Unconscious God; Psychotherapy and Theology’, Frankl makes the following observations:

‘Genuine religiousness, for the sake of its own genuineness, hides from the public. That is why religious patients often do not want to deliver their intimate experiences (dreams) into the hands of people who would perhaps lack understanding and thus misinterpret them. Such patients may be afraid that a psychiatrist will try to ‘unmask’ their religiousness as ‘nothing but’ the manifestations of unconscious psychodynamics, of conflicts or complexes’.

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Frankl goes on to point out that occasionally, ‘flagrantly religious motifs’ appear ‘in dreams of people who are manifestly irreligious. because we have seen that there is not only repressed and unconscious libido (bodily needs, or Freud’s id), but also repressed and unconscious religio (spiritual needs).

So, our dreams are important, and in Franklian psychology they provide insight into our spiritual and religious lives, and when they are made conscious, can assist us in finding meaning in our lives and in any given set of circumstances.

This is the text of a sermon delivered at Cliftonville Moravian Church (www.cliftonvillemoravian.org) on 1st July 2018:

One of the recurring motifs in the biblical narrative is that of redemption.

There are three words for ‘redemption’ that we come across in the Bible. In the Old Testament Hebrew, there is one word, and two in the New Testament Greek. In the New International Bible Dictionary, the word ‘redemption’ is defined as ‘a metaphor used in both OT and NT to describe God’s merciful and costly action on behalf of his people (sinful human beings)’.

Redemption can be both collective, such as God redeeming Israel from Egypt, or individual as found in the powerful parable of the Prodigal Son, or the biography of Saul of Tarsus (who became the Apostle Paul).

Recently, I’ve been pondering the issue of redemption. Why? Well I’ve just finished reading a book entitled: ‘In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement’ by John Heminway. It’s a fascinating biography of a woman called Anne Spoerry (13 May 1918 – 2 February 1999), a French-born doctor. She came to be widely known because she spent most of her career in Kenya as a “flying doctor”; in-fact she was the first female flying doctor.

Spoerry’s contribution to health care was legendary. She cared for more than a million people; her impact on the people of East Africa was enormous. She was responsible for the mass vaccinations that took place along the Kenyan coast.  Indeed, the distinguished conservationist Richard Leakey said of Spoerry’s work: “She probably saved more lives than any other individual in east Africa – if not the whole continent.”

But Spoerry carried with her a dark secret that was only fully revealed after her death.

During the war, Spoerry was active in the French resistance, where she did some heroic work. She was imprisoned as a result.  It was that period of incarceration, or more specifically a part of it, that would leave an indelible mark on Spoerry’s character.

As a prisoner in Ravensbrück concentration camp, Spoerry used her skills as a trainee doctor to her advantage. Camp life was brutal and cruel; with medical training it was possible to avoid the very worst of those conditions.

Spoerry ended up in Block 10, which housed women diagnosed with tuberculosis alongside those branded as ‘lunatics’. During a 4-month period, she was heavily influenced by the Block Commander, another prisoner named Carmen Mory; that influence was dark and troubling.

After the war it was alleged that in Block 10, Spoerry had been involved in torture and involuntary euthanasia (lethal injections of air and barbiturates). Three trials took place – Spoerry was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but the stain on her character was never erased and many questions were never answered.

And so she moved to Africa, far away from the post-war maelstrom that would make life very difficult for her.

Dr LaPorz, who knew Spoerry in Ravensbrück, commented that ‘she went to Africa for redemption’. Perhaps that’s true? Maybe that’s exactly what Spoerry was seeking, either consciously or sub-consciously?  Africa, with it’s obvious need for highly trained medics who were willing to work long hours in difficult conditions for little recompense, was the ideal location for someone in her position.

Whatever her motivation, Spoerry did make a difference, as we’ve already established. But it’s impossible, and wrong, to argue that this erases the grave actions of the past.  Some might say though, that the abnormal environment of the concentration camp, where life was cheap and survival paramount, was the perfect breeding ground for acts of barbarism – where prisoner inflicted that which would otherwise be unconscionable, upon other prisoners.

I’m drawn here to the words of Dov Paisikowic, a Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz. He was forced to dispose of those bodies removed from the gas chambers; his experiences were horrific, and quite frankly, unimaginable. But he knew what it was like to live under the constant threat of death. He said this of his experiences, in the 1973 Documentary, ‘The World at War’:‘No one who hasn’t gone through these things can know what the will to live is. Every person, without exception is capable of doing the worst thing to live for just another minute’.

That’s such a sobering thought from a man who knew, through the vilest of experiences, something of human nature in extremis, where courage exists alongside weakness, hope alongside despair.

What do we say then, to the question of how much good is required to redeem the nihilistic and the ungodly? Well, the first point to make is that a mathematical equation, where good cancels out bad, is completely inappropriate.   Life is not that simple.

Yet we know from those words from Carlo Carretto I read at the beginning of the service, that we humans are ‘capable of high ideals and base enormities, the dwelling place of peace and a jungle of violence’. We are a mass of contradictions: people are not all bad or all good; all of us are sinners in need of redemption.

Was Ann Spoerry redeemed? As Christians we know that the gift of redemption is not ours to give away. It is not us who sit in judgement; it is God; redemption lies, not in human hands, but in God’s. And we ought to be thankful for that; judging is too heavy a burden for us to bare.

After all, it is God, not you or I, who knows the secrets of our hearts. It is God who sees us as we are, and not as we would like to be, or would like to be; it is God who penetrates the depth of our being and knows us intimately and comprehensively. This reality is expressed beautifully in 1 Samuel 16:7,

‘But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”’

And there are many specific passages that enhance our understanding of divine redemption, and make it clear that by returning to God, faithfully and with our hearts wide-open, we are redeemed. That is the only measure that makes sense in a complicated and fallen world; nothing we do in this life, except reaching out to God, earns us redemption.

Each one of us, not just Anne Spoerry, needs redemption, where the love of God is manifested and perfected and the transformation complete. In Isaiah 44:22, we hear the words of God: I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” And this is echoed in the New Testament, in Acts 3:19, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord”.

Human nature is complex and our behaviour at times, inexplicable. Sometimes the most extreme examples force us to confront our own inadequacies and contradictions.  These examples, like the story of Anne Spoerry, lead us to look beyond the earthly questions and to ask: ‘Where is God in all of this’?

Ultimately though, we come back again and again to the same conclusion – redemption, and all other existential questions, cannot be understood apart from God. As is written in Proverbs 3:6 – In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.

Let us do just that – acknowledge God, and to turn to him in prayer with the difficult questions that confront us, today, in the week ahead, and always.

AMEN

You can watch CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewing John Heminway, author of ‘In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement’ by clicking here:

https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2018/04/18/intv-amanpour-john-heminway-anne-spoerry-kenya.cnn

The psychiatrist Professor Viktor Frankl recounted in one of his many books an experience a student of his had whilst a patient in a psychiatric hospital.

It refers to a time when psychiatry was much less enlightened and sophisticated than it is today. Nonetheless, it is demonstrative of the fact that we can find meaning and a unique sense of purpose even in the most wretched of circumstances. In fact, such parlous conditions may accentuate and accelerate our search for meaning and bring it into sharper focus. That is after all the message of Frankl’s landmark autobiography of life in the concentration camps, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.

God is to be found as much in the despair as in the victories of life; hope is a cornerstone of faith and an understanding that there is meaning in suffering. One only needs to read Jeremiah 29:11 to understand that reality: “I alone know the plans I have for you,  plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.” 

I’ll leave you now with the words of Frankl’s student without further comment:

‘In the mental hospital, I was locked like an animal in a cage, no one came when I called begging to be taken to the bathroom, and I finally had to succumb to the inevitable.  Blessedly, I was given daily shock treatment, insulin shock, and sufficient drugs so that I lost most of the next several weeks…

But in the darkness I had acquired a sense of my own unique mission in the world.  I knew then, as I know now, that I must have been preserved for some reason – however small, it is something that only I can do, and it is vitally important that I do it.  And because in the darkest moment in my life, when I lay abandoned as an animal in a cage, when because of the forgetfulness induced by ECT I could not call out to Him, He was there.  In the solitary darkness of the “pit” where men had abandoned me, He was there.  When I did not know His Name, He was there; God was there’.

I came across an article recently that resonated with me. It was ‘Choosing to be free is to choose to believe in God’ by Canon Niall Ahern and published in ‘The Sligo Champion’ on 1st August 2012.

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The article is a wonderful reflection on the words of Kari Torjesen Malcolm a daughter of Missionary parents and latterly a Missionary herself.  She wrote very poignantly and painfully of her internment in a Chinese prisoner camp during the second world war and noted:

“God answered that prayer and spoke to me as I searched the bible for answers.  Gradually it dawned on me that there was just one thing that the enemy could not take from me.  They had bombed our home, killed my father, and put my mother, brothers and me into prison.  But the one thing they could not touch was my relationship with God.”…………. and when she realised this she wrote: “It was only then that I was able to pray the prayer that changed my life: ‘Lord, I am willing to stay in this prison for the rest of my life if only I may know you.’  At that moment I was free.”

The freedom to choose, no matter the circumstance, is a reality; the freedom to pursue a relationship with God is the ultimate expression of that reality. The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps’ (Proverbs 16:9).

Here is an excerpt from a short reflection delivered this morning at Cliftonville Moravian Church. You can listen to the entire audio file by clicking on the link below:

 

‘We come here every Sunday, to seek some form of healing.  And we do so, not necessarily to expect the miraculous, although we can never and should never rule that out.  The healing we seek may be physical, but it’s more probably emotional or spiritual.  We may receive healing though others – doctors, nurses, therapists, ministers or priests – but whatever healing we seek, whatever healing we receive, it is always under the providence of God.  God is in control.

God provides comfort for the weak and downtrodden; God provides respite from the relentless pace of modern life; God provides refuge for those who are cast down and weary, the forgotten and the marginalised. He is here for all of us. In his presence, there is always healing and transformation. We may not recognise it instantly, but it is there nonetheless; it may not come in ways we expect, but it comes nonetheless; it may not appear when we expect it, but it appears nonetheless.

And so with expectant hearts and open minds, we come here today, in the quiet and the simple beauty of this place….to receive Christ; not in the fanfare and noise, but in the peace and calm of our hearts.

Let us receive him in to our presence, now and always, and let us be healed.

AMEN’


Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé:

“When faced with age-old or brand-new divisions, is it not urgent today for Christians to be reconciled by love? And when Christ calls, who can refuse? How can we forget his words: “Be reconciled without delay.”? Do we have hearts large enough, imaginations open enough, love burning enough to enter upon that Gospel way: to live as people who are reconciled, without delaying a single day?”

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Christianity, whether lived out in the monastery, in the street or in the workplace, is a protest against the status quo and its injustices and violence. Here Thomas Merton makes this point cogently and passionately:

“It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world. By my monastic life and vows, I am saying no to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. My life, then, must be a protest against [those who invoke their faith in support of war, racial injustice and tyranny] also, and perhaps against these most of all… If I say no to all these secular forces, I also say yes to all that is good in the world and in humanity. I say yes to all that is beautiful in nature… I say yes to all the men and women who are my brothers and sisters in the world.” Thomas Merton.

Despite our differences and denominational affiliations, it is possible, and indeed essential, that we live together in unity of purpose and faith.  That said, this is no easy task.  Here is a reflection I offered today at Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, on this very topic.

You can listen to it here; the text is reproduced below:

Listening to the Apostle Paul: Achieving Unity Through Humility, Gentleness, Patience & Forbearance

This morning I want to briefly reflect on the first two verses of the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Every time I read Ephesians, I recall my own visit to this city on the Western Coast of Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey.  It’s a spectacular place to visit, steeped in history and architectural beauty.

From 52-54 AD, the Apostle Paul lived in Ephesus, working with the community there, building the Church and engaging in missionary activity.  Several years later, Paul wrote his epistle to the Ephesian Church whilst he was imprisoned in Rome.

Paul’s letter is replete with engaging language and imagery that is heartfelt; his affection and concern for those men and women of the Ephesian congregation is obvious.  His purpose was as pastoral as it was theological; as practical as it was ethereal. Paul’s letter spoke as much to the day-to-day concerns of the Ephesians as it does to us here today.

So, what was the purpose of Paul’s communication with this fledgling Christian Community? It’s true to say that he had a number of concerns, but the scholar A. Skevington Wood gets to the crux of the matter when he writes: In Ephesians Paul was able to demonstrate that this almost obsessive search for unity finds its ultimate goal only in Christ. It is he who represents the coordinating principle of all life. The ideal of world citizenship, cherished by the philosophers, is realized in the universal church. Human beings can be liberated from bondage to the principalities and powers that threaten their welfare only as they share the triumph Christ gained over them at the Cross.’

In Ephesians, it’s as if Paul is re-emphasizing the first verse of our Old Testament passage for today – Psalm 133: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ And so it is. But Paul was very much aware of the human frailties that get in the way of unity and undermine it, and in so doing, erode the witness upon which the Church was built.  Paul was a realist with a nuanced understanding of human nature and its capacity for conflict and disharmony; he was also very much aware of the positive aspects of human nature, namely the ability of people to transcend those conflicts and to work in harmony for the common good.

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 The Specifics

With that in mind, we might want to ask this question: ‘what is Paul saying specifically to the Ephesians, and also by extension to all of those who are called by Christ to constitute his church? 

Paul inclusive understanding of the concept of ‘calling’ encompasses all members of the Church family.  We tend use the word ‘call’ more exclusively – in relation to our Ministers being ‘called’ to a particular congregation.  But in reality, we are all ‘called’; each one of us has a ‘vocation’ to follow Christ to the best of our ability and in line with our God given talents.

Paul’s concept of unity was not that every Christian should be the same, but that we are all unified in Christ, despite our different perspectives, personalities and life experiences. But there are some common values that are essential when we consider the practicalities of our calling:  humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance.

We may possess all of those qualities, at least at some points in our lives. It’s more likely though that we struggle with all of them most, if not all, of the time. Our goal isn’t to reach perfection – that’s not possible – but it’s to be aware of where we fall-down and to try and remedy it, with God’s help. And we will fall down; but we will also get up and we will also try again.

When we can recognize our own short-comings, then we can be more forgiving and understanding of the short-comings of our fellow Christians.  And this too extends to the wider world in which we live, work and interact with each other.

The American Episcopal Priest and Author, Robert Capon, expressed this ‘calling’ in a way that I find quite instructive: ‘The Church is not in the world to teach sinners to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; the Church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business.’ I like that.

When we’re in the ‘forgiveness business’, we show compassion and empathy in action.  In the ‘forgiveness business’, we allow Paul’s four graces – humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance, to act in concert for the greater good. We recognize ourselves in the other and in-so-doing, we affirm their dignity….and our dignity in the process. It’s not possible to be dismissive or cruel when start from that basic premise. The author and researcher, Brené Brown brings this into focus when she writes: ‘There’s no courage in being cruel. People are easy to hate until you’re looking them in the eye. Then, if you’re in touch with your humanity, you will see their humanity’.

In Church circles we often face differences of opinion: some are minor, others are much more important and can have far-reaching consequences. These differences can precipitate schisms and lead to bitterness and enmity; just look at the history of the Church through the ages and that reality is all too evident. But let me suggest that there are also far more instances, not often making the headlines, of Christians coming together and fulfilling their calling in Christ. The Moravian Church, although far from perfect, exemplifies that spirit of co-operation – our Ecumenical outreach is significant in the Irish District, our Province and beyond. We see part of our mission in forming a bridge between the different expressions of the Christian faith and working together wherever and whenever that is possible.

Final Thought

In life, it’s impossible to avoid conflict; that’s an uncomfortable reality. But it’s not the absence of conflict that defines us, rather it’s how we deal with it in practice.  The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians has given us much to think about; his earthly experience and spiritual wisdom have coalesced to give us a pathway to follow as we make our faith journey, slowly and imperfectly.

Let us prayerfully approach this week ahead, and beyond, with humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

AMEN

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