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.