To those who are hurting this Christmastime, God draws alongside in the stillness of the night and the busyness of the day. God is all around us, whether we are aware of it or not; he is to be found even in the most unexpected of places. In the lowliness of the stable and in the face of rejection and uncertainty, his love shines brightly. We are never alone; never forsaken; never forgotten.
‘Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen’. (1 Timothy 1:17).
What kings and leaders of nations, philosophers and artists, founders of religions and teachers of morals have tried in vain to do—that now happens through a newborn child. Putting to shame the most powerful human efforts and accomplishments, a child is placed here at the midpoint of world history—a child born of human beings, a son given by God (Isa. 9:6). That is the mystery of the redemption of the world; everything past and everything future is encompassed here. The infinite mercy of the almighty God comes to us, descends to us in the form of a child, his Son. That this child is born for us, this son is given to us, that this human child and Son of God belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine—on this alone my life now depends. A child has our life in his hands…. How shall we deal with such a child? Have our hands, soiled with daily toil, become too hard and too proud to fold in prayer at the sight of this child? Has our head become too full of serious thoughts … that we cannot bow our head in humility at the wonder of this child? Can we not forget all our stress and struggles, our sense of importance, and for once worship the child, as did the shepherds and the wise men from the East, bowing before the divine child in the manger like children?
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. God Is In the Manger (Kindle Locations 676-693). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. This is an excerpt from Bonhoeffer’s sermon: The Government upon the Shoulders of the Child,” Christmas 1940.
You are the peace of all things calm
You are the place to hide from harm
You are the light that shines in dark
You are the heart’s eternal spark
You are the door that’s open wide
You are the guest who waits inside
You are the stranger at the door
You are the calling of the poor
You are my Lord and with me still
You are my love, keep me from ill
You are the light, the truth, the way
You are my Saviour this very day.
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I can’t do this alone.
In me there’s darkness,
But with you there’s light;
I’m lonely, but you don’t leave me;
I’m feeble in heart, but with you there’s help;
I’m restless, but with you there’s peace.
In me there’s bitterness, but with you there’s patience;
I don’t understand your ways,
But you know the way for me.
O Heavenly Father,
I praise and thank you
For rest in the night;
I praise and thank you for this new day;
I praise and thank you for all your goodness
and faithfulness throughout my life.
You have granted me many blessings;
Now let me also accept what’s hard from your hand.
You will lay on me no more than I can bear.
You make all things work together for good for your children.
Lord Jesus Christ,
You were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.
You know all man’s troubles;
You abide with me when all men fail me;
You remember and seek me;
It’s your will that I should know you and turn to you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow;
O Holy Spirit,
Give me faith that will protect me
from despair, from passions, and from vice;
Give me such love for God and men
as will blot out all hatred and bitterness;
Give me the hope that will deliver me
from fear and faint-heartedness.
Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, sometimes known as the ‘Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ and following on from Freud’s Psychoanalysis and Adler’s Individual Psychology, was formulated by the Psychiatrist and Neurologist Professor Viktor Frankl. As a meaning-centred psychotherapeutic approach, Logotherapy is both internationally acknowledged and empirically based.
Logotherapy has a wide-range of applications from the clinical to the pastoral and beyond. It is typically used in a clinical setting to deal with depression, anxiety, phobias and trauma. In the pastoral setting it is can assist those who are questioning or exploring the meaning of life, death, relationships, work or study. Moreover, Logotherapy can help to re-orientate individuals experiencing meaninglessness, boredom, emptiness, despair or fell frustrated in their quest to reach their full potential in their career.
This series of personal development workshops is open to anyone who is keen to apply Logotherapy in their own lives; no prior knowledge is requires nor assumed.
The seminar will cover an overview of the core tenets of Logotherapy ranging from its philosophical basis to the practical application in a range of settings.
We will explore personal identity and the link between the unconscious and the conscious in better understanding ourselves.
Of key importance will be exploring the role of meaning in life as a means of enhancing well-being, facilitating attitudinal change and fulfilling potential/setting direction in all aspects of life.
The tools explored during the workshops will enable participants to reflect on the application of meaning-based approaches in specific settings.
There will be time for refreshments, reflection and discussion.
A ‘Certificate of Completion’ will be awarded to those who are taking the course as part of their CPD.
Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie BSc., MSc., MDiv., PhD., GradCertTh, FRSA, Academic Associate in Logotherapy (Dublin), Diploma in Logotherapy & Existential Analysis (Dublin/Vienna).
Scott is an accredited Logotherapist and Existential Analyst, offering one-to-one therapy sessions and training at Mirabilis Health. Previous workshops run by Scott have included: dream analysis, spirituality and mental health, reflective practice and practical Logotherapy.
Price: £20.00 per person per session (£80 in total). Payments can be made by cash, credit/debit card or cheques written to: ‘Mirabilis Health’
Registration: In order to secure your place in this workshop please confirm your attendance in advance.
For further information and to register please contact: Cosmin Muresan (Training & Facilities Manager, Mirabilis Health), Tel: 02890 426918, Email: email@example.com
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.
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:
4 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.
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).
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’.
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’.
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.