Saturday, December 03, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 7: 3rd December

St Bartholomew's Hospital London

My reflection for each day in Advent celebrates examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

One of the Scripture texts set for today highlights the centrality of healing at the foundation of the Christian hope and vision for the world.

"Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness." Matthew 9:35

It is striking in this text to see the words "all" and "every"; reflecting the universality of concern which is at the core of the love of neighbour in the Christian vision. No community is to be excluded from access to peace and justice; no condition or illness is to be regarded as beyond the reach of healing and care. 

The impetus within the Christian faith and community towards healing and care found expression in the growth of European civilization through the establishment of hospitals and homes for the poor and vulnerable. Many of the great hospitals today for example can trace their origins back to a religious foundation; in some cases, eg St Bartholomew's in London, over 800 years. 

Today that motivation to bring healing and care to all those in pain and distress in every condition is shared across many spiritual and secular traditions and has been embedded in our society in large-scale organisations such as the NHS , the hospitals and health centres across the country, staffed by professionals who have dedicated years of study and training to employ the best knowledge and resources to the task.  In an advanced welfare economy like ours the numbers of people and the amount of resources engaged in heathcare in all its aspects is almost beyond any one person's capacity to comprehend. Instead, it is in those caring one-to-one encounters between the patient and the healer when the signs are revealed which give hope that there is a kingdom where love holds sway.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent. Day 6: 2nd December

In today's short reflection I simply juxtapose a piece from the sayings of Jesus about God's kingdom and the story of the development of one of the largest philanthropic welfare organisations in the world, the Edhi Foundation of Pakistan

"‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ Matthew 13:31-32

Daily reflections for Advent Day 5: 1st December

This Advent daily reflection for 1st December is published a day late because yesterday I spent 9 hours on the road travelling to Yorkshire and back to meet our three-day-old grandson , who is a beautiful boy; as indeed is his two- and-a-half- year old brother. The journey was definitively worth it of course!

1st December is many things. For meteorologists it is the first day of the winter season. It is popularly seen as the beginning of the Christmas festivities. For consistency, Advent calendars start on this date. And it is World AIDS Day. I've chosen instead to notice one of the major item of news in Britain on 1st December this year.. It is the call by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, NICE, to local government to do more to reduce air pollution, which is linked to more than 25,000 deaths a year in England and Wales. This news reminded me of the huge corporate scandal about this time last year when  it was  revealed Volkswagen had cheated emissions tests for many of their vehicles especially in the United States, allowing diesel engines to discharge nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed. 

One of the Bible readings set by the Church of England for 1st December  (Matthew 7: 24 -27) contains a parable of Jesus, popular with children in churches where it is captured in a fun action song known as "The Wide Man built his house upon the rock". He is compared with the foolish man who built his house upon the sand.  I could make a link with environmental protection issues in this story since it is the rain and flooding which reveals the foolishness of the builder upon sand when his house is destroyed. But the spiritual message to which Matthew's text links this story is the more general one, contained within these words which preface the story: 

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock." Matthew 7: 24

The words in question are in fact the golden rule which appears in some form in the teachings of many of the world's faiths and spiritual teachers:

"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." Matthew 7:12

The story of the wise and foolish builders is an illustration of the final consequence , which is disaster, of ignoring the gap between what is said and what is done, the discrepancy between saying the right thing and doing it; between looking good and doing good. It is part of the Christian hope at Advent that the coming of God's kingdom of love, peace and justice does involve the unmasking of this gap and its closing - that practice, especially action impacting on others,  will be brought into line with values. It is the burden of much of the writings of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; the work of the prophetic figures such as Isaiah, and Jesus in his role as a prophet, to call out that gap and to "speak truth to power". 

The image I've chosen today is a portrait of Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), the Danish philosopher. From a position of sympathy towards the faith he challenged Christians and churches over complacency and accommodation to self-seeking values; and in particular, over the gap between the corporate power of the church and actual Christian practice. He stressed the importance of personal responsibility and accountability. He observed that almost all of us prefer the idea of love to the reality of it. We prefer to choose to whom we shall show love and care - our family, friends  those like us and those we like -  rather than be under the obligation to treat every person equally in respect of care and consideration. Without this tendency there would be no room for a gap to open between the ideal of love of neighbour and its practice. 

Today there are many organisations in civil society - some with explicit reference to Christian values - which exist to hold governments and corporate bodies, to account by shining a light on the gap between stated values and actual practice. Often this is done by careful scientific research to highlight the facts of the case. This was the situation in the VW scandal. It was work by scientists commissioned by the International Council on Green Transportation which revealed the discrepancies in emissions. 

Increasingly shareholders are pressing corporations to close the gap between values and practice. One of the oldest and most effective shareholder advocacy bodies is the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in the USA. It enables shareholders to call "the world's most powerful companies to address their impacts on the world's most vulnerable communities." Rooted in faith bodies who are concerned to ensure ethical investment, today ICCR's membership has grown to include many other shareholders and institutional investors who recognise the ethical dimension to financial decisions.  There is a  similar organisation in the United Kingdom, the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR), which I served as a board member and chair for a few years in the 1990's. ECCR " undertakes research, advocacy and dialogue to encourage companies to meet the highest standards of corporate responsibility and transparency". Less well-known and more difficult to portray, nonetheless bodies like ICCR and ECCR are further examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 4: 30th November. St Andrew's Day.

My reflection for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

Today the Christian Church celebrates Saint Andrew. Best known in the British Isles as patron saint of Scotland, Andrew, the Galilean fisherman, is identified in gospel accounts as the first follower of Jesus Christ; the brother of Saint Peter, and the one who brought Peter to meet Christ, according to the gospel of John. Andrew is regarded by Christians as the first example of an evangelist, because he went to share the good news with others when he came to believe that Jesus was the Chosen One sent by God to save the world. 

As well as the stories about Andrew in the four gospels the Church also provides a text from the prophet Isaiah to be read on St Andrew's Day which contains the following verse:

How beautiful upon the mountains
  are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
  who announces salvation,
  who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’  Is. 52:7

This verse has become well-known in many Christian churches after it was included in a worship song which was particularly popular in the last quarter of the 20th century. The verse has its origins in a long ago time in which news of distant events , such as battle victories or the fall of enemy kings, was transmitted by messengers running between the cities of the ancient world across deserts, plain and mountains. 

In a world of global communication there is no shortage of bad news. Even what is regarded with ecstatic joy as good news by some, is received as devastatingly bad news by others, as illustrated in the recent election of Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States. Instances of news which is good for everyone are known to be rare. So claims for such examples of universally good news are, not unreasonably, received by many people with caution, or even outrightly rejected. Hidden agendas, ulterior motives and dissimulation are suspected.

 Christian preachers and evangelists are especially prone to be regarded with this kind of suspicion.  What has been described as the "long institutional nightmare" (John Kent, 1987) of the Church,  the abuse of the good news of Christ for the purposes of political and psychological power, overshadows Christian preaching and interferes with how it is received.

And yet there are examples though history of Christian evangelists, announcers of good news, who,whilst unequivocally located within a Christian vision of the world, have been able to be heard and to deliver a message of good news for everyone which has inspired hope and motivated action by many; producing a profound and universally acknowledged change for good in the world. In this way they have witnessed to the truth and proximity of God's kingdom of love, peace and justice.

Amongst the living examples of such a true heir to Saint Andrew is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu, now in his mid-eighties, has been a fearless voice of the voiceless and unstinting in his advocacy of compassion, non-violence, and justice for the oppressed. He has not always been popular, especially among those who benefit from an oppressive status quo.  Yet the universally good news of Tutu's message has caused him to be showered with hundreds of honours by both secular and religious bodies. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, being cited for his ""role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa". He received the Templeton Prize for Religion in 2013 for " "his life-long work in advancing spiritual principles such as love and forgiveness". Last year he was made a Companion of Honour by HM the Queen.

In 2006 on the occasion of Tutu's 75th birthday the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev'd Samual Kobia, wrote in his letter of congratulations to Tutu:

 “You have challenged and pushed us never to adjust to the powers that are, but always to discern the signs of God's coming kingdom and to act accordingly…Through your work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, you gave this fractured and broken world a model for overcoming the wounds of past evils and for creating space for healing and reconciliation.”

Thank God for Desmond Tutu, a true bringer of good news for all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 4: 29th November

The Peaceable Kingdom - Edward Hicks
My reflection for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

Sunrise this morning was the first dawn in the life of our fourth grandson, Zachary, who was born last night. It occurs to me that with every child born the world is a new creation. There is so much in the world that is wrong and needs healing and putting right. It's quite common to hear anxiety expressed about bringing children into such a world. Yet there is an alternative view, inspired by Christian hope. Every new life is a sign of hope. In each human life there is the potential for a different world to begin to come into being; a world where love not hate holds sway.  

One of the readings from the Bible set for today includes these well-known verses from the prophet Isaiah:

"The wolf shall live with the lamb,
  the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
  and a little child shall lead them." Is. 11:6

The prophet paints a picture of a world so full of peace and unity that a child could be in charge and no harm would come to her. The child emerges in the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ as a special focus of divine grace.

"Whoever welcomes this child in my name, welcomes me.." Luke 9: 48.

Christian communities through history have by no means been consistent in the value and protection they have afforded to children; nor in their commitment to the social peace and justice which provides for a world in which a child, or any of the childlike virtues, may flourish. Yet there has been a golden thread in Christian practice and teaching, never entirely lost sight of, running all the way back to Jesus himself, which values and uplifts the child. This seam of concern for children has had its most common expression historically in the efforts to educate children rather than simply train them to carry out the functions of their parents before them. 

Many of the charities and agencies which exist to support and protect vulnerable children today have their roots in the churches or were founded by compassionate visionaries motivated by their Christian faith.

Some have lost direct connection with active Christian communities. One charity which continues to rely on both spiritual and financial support from the network of Anglican churches in England and Wales is The Children's Society. 

This charity was founded in the nineteenth century by Edward Rudolf, a Sunday School teacher who engaged the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to set up children's homes for orphaned and neglected children, as a better alternative than workhouses and large orphanages. Today The Children's Society's work focuses on both intervention to change the lives of vulnerable children in their communities; and also on campaigning for justice and changes in policies and attitudes to improve the lives of all children and young people.

 In a master stroke of marketing some 40 years ago The Children's Society introduced to the Church of England the Christingle - a tradition brought from continental Europe in the 18th century and previously confined to the Moravian Church. Now almost every Anglican church in England and Wales, and many primary schools, hold special Christingle services at or around Christmas. An orange is decorated and topped by a candle as a symbol of Christ the light of the world; and the events raise both awareness and money for the work of The Children's Society.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Daily reflections for Advent 2016. Day 2: 28th November

Reflection for Advent 2016. Day 2 : 28th November 2016
from Canon David Hodgson, Rector of All Saints Wokingham

My reflection for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples are set within a reflection on a piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading daily.

In one of the Scriptures given to be read today the prophet Isaiah praises God for deliverance from oppression in these verses:

"For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat."
 Isaiah 25: 4

Poets and songsters protesting poverty and oppression continue to fasten on the image of torrential rain as a metaphor for the overwhelming and incapacitating impact of enforced poverty on people's lives. There's Bob Dylan's 1960's classic "It's a Hard rain's gonna fall" and there's this year's new album from Kate Tempest "Let Them Eat Chaos"  which depicts the crisis overtaking the isolated lives of seven residents of a south London street, all of them awake and disoriented at 4.18am.

Poverty and a growing gap in life opportunities between the poorest and the wealthiest has become a shameful blight on some of the most economically advanced societies in the world. The United Kingdom ranks among the worst of the developed economies for income inequality. Welfare and social security systems have been disfigured and become a punitive shock therapy forcing the most vulnerable into an illusory and  unsustainable self-sufficiency. Millions of working people, let alone those dependent on inadequate and capriciously-administered "welfare" benefits, are being forced to seek the help of charities to make ends meet. 

Faced with neighbours and people down their street reduced to the crisis point of making the impossible choice between heating or eating; volunteers in thousands of communities across the UK have come together to set up food banks. These are staffed often by people who may never have done anything like this in their lives before; out of compassion and simple decency acting to feed people. Food banks in modern Britain are a sign of the failure of economic policy in the last 20 years. Yet they are a refuge to the needy in their distress; a shelter from the economic storm. They are also a sign that God's kingdom of love and justice is always near. 

The food bank in Wokingham, the town where I serve as an Anglican priest,  is sustained by the voluntary work and the generous donations of many people of all faiths and none. Yet it was an initiated with skill and in hope by founders motivated by a compassion rooted in their Christian faith and supported by an alliance of the local Christian churches.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own)

Daily Reflections for Advent 2016. Day 1: 27th November

Today is the first day of the Christian season of Advent. This is a time when the mode of prayer and reflection in the Christian Church is one of hopeful longing. We are looking forward to the fulfilment of God's promised kingdom of peace and justice, when love will hold sway in the world. Advent brings focus to the quintessential Christian prayer "Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven". 

Christian hope in Advent springs up from the  tension between, on the one hand our confidence in the unassailable victory of love, completed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ , and on the other hand , the sorrow and pain of a world which is not yet transformed into God's kingdom. This hope-filled tension moves Christian action to change the world for the better, to shine light into dark places, to work for justice, and to love those who suffer. Christian prayer and effort to bring God's kingdom nearer is not driven by fear of the consequences of failure, but inspired by joyful confidence that love endures and will always be the last word.

My blog for each day in Advent will celebrate examples of action in the world inspired by hope and the desire to bring closer God's kingdom of love, peace and justice. These examples will be set within a reflection on a verse from the piece of Scripture the Church provides for reading that day. 

Today, in a reading from the prophet Isaiah we find these well-known words:

" 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." (Isaiah 2: 4b)

Hope that the nations of the world may learn to forswear war is perhaps as old as war itself. Today there are many hope-filled examples of people and organisations committed to finding ways to help us learn how to make peace and transform conflict. One of these I came upon by accident earlier this year whilst visiting Sweden. On holiday in the southern part of the country Lorraine and I spotted a road sign to Hammarskjold's Backakra. We were delighted to discover what had been the farm of Dag Hammarskjold,  former Secretary -General of the United Nations. Set in 30 hectare of open fields by the Baltic coast the house at Backakra has been used as a museum and a retreat. The tranquil grounds include a meditation area which has at its centre a stone inscribed with the word PAX - peace.

In 2016 plans were announced by  the estate's owners, the Dag Hammarskjold Backakra Foundation, to renovate the house and turn it into a modern conference centre dedicated to research in peace, conflict and human rights, in the spirit of Dag Hammarskold. Hammarskjold has been described as the best Secretary General the United Nations has had to date  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace posthumously following his mysterious death in a plane crash over the Congo on his way to cease-fire negotiations. There is sufficient evidence for some to believe that the plane was shot down by persons still unknown,  to murder Hammarskjold before his intervention could damage certain vested interests in the ongoing conflict. 

Hammarskjold's journal of his musings and aphorisms, Markings,  was published in 1963 two years after his death; with a preface by his friend the poet W.H. Auden. In the preface Auden quotes a statement of Hammarskjold which characterises his spirituality:

 "In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." 

Another of Hammarskjold's sayings has taken flight well beyond its author and is found quoted in many different texts and prayers;

 " For all that has been,Thank you. For all that is to come,Yes!"

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Creation Time Day 33

Rivers have shaped the landscape of the earth, carving out valleys and creating floodplains and deltas. They exercise huge influence on human development. Rivers have provided water and fertile soil to support large concentrations of population. They have acted as vital transport channels for the expansion of human settlement into continental interiors and for the movement of people and goods for trade. 

In more recent human history the energy of rivers has been harnessed first to drive flour grinding mills and today to generate electricity. This has involved controversial schemes of dams and channel diversions in several area of the world.

Rivers are vital in the hydrological cycle which ensures the drainage of water from the land back into the sea becoming available once again to fall as rain.

This photograph depicts the Orange River near Upington in South Africa. At 1400 miles it is the longest river in South Africa flowing from east to west into the Atlantic Ocean, passing through the arid regions on the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert. Although Upington is the only major settlement through which it flows the river is important to the South African economy for hydroelectricity and irrigation.

As well as their material and economic benefits rivers provide a rich stimulus to the human imagination. Rivers are a symbolic resource for reflection on the paradox in human experience of the co-existence of endless change and constant presence; provoking thought on time and mortality. 

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Heraclitus

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Creation Time Day 32

No celebration of the creation would be complete without paying homage to the glory of green. Large swathes of the landmass of the Earth appear green because of its vegetation cover. The colour green has come to symbolise nature and the natural in human culture. There is plenty of anecdotal, and some scientific, evidence that spending time with, or even having regular sight of, plants or woodland environments can relieve stress. Green is good.

There remains some mystery nonetheless about why plants are green. Yes it is because plant tissue is full of the green pigment chlorophyll. The presence of chlorophyll is vital for photosynthesis which is the process whereby plants absorb energy from sunlight. Chlorophyll absorbs light in the red and blue sections of the spectrum but it reflects green; making plants appear green to the human eye.

The question which I understand has yet to be answered fully to the satisfaction of all scientists is why plants evolved with chlorophyll predominant, since it does not absorb a significant section of the light spectrum, namely the green. Why would plants not maximise absorption of the full range of light from which to convert to energy? There are several theories still under discussion.

If another pigment which absorbed the full  light spectrum had evolved in plants all that is now green would appear black to the human eye. Who knows what that would have done to the evolution of vision in humans and other creatures. 

Mystery or not, green is worth celebrating: a gift in creation which calms the human spirit.

"Our response to the world is essentially one of wonder, of confronting the mysterious with a sense, not of being small, or insignificant, but of being part of a rich and complex narrative." John Burnside, poet (1955 - )