Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sanctity of life and Euthanasia

My older students and I are looking at Christian Ethics. (Interesting as I am the only "out" Christian in the class.) Euthanasia is a topic they will be examined on and it is a gift to a teacher who, like me, has thoughtful and capable students.
Euthanasia is, of course, currently illegal here but my students know of the laws in Oregon and that one could travel to Switzerland or the Netherlands for assisted suicide. It is also well known that much assisted suicide takes place in Britain, often with medical intervention, and the courts are inevitably hugely sympathetic to the awful moral choices people have been given by their loved ones and the tragic and painful stories of suffering and love. My students are happy to discuss the religious ethics but we inevitably wander into the philosophy of whether a secular nation should be bound by religious ethics and whether a nation which allows euthanasia is more rather than less compassionate and therefore more moral as a result.

That could be an exam question on its own. Discuss.

Pope Paul VI: "Morally this is a crime which can not become legal by any means."

Methodist Conference: "The argument for euthanasia will be answered if better methods of caring for the dying are developed."

The Salvation Army: "No one has the right to bring about death by their own decision, whether by suicide or voluntary euthanasia. The grace of God sustains the heart and mind to the end."

So the churches are generally conservative about the issue, or would it be more accurate to say reactive? After all when, in the great moral debates that have left it on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of morality, has the church been proactive?

Here is the gist of Christian thinking:
  • The Sanctity of life: only God has the authority and right to determine life and death issues.
  • God's plan for an individual may involve suffering.
  • It is more compassionate to care for the dying than hasten death.
  • Euthanasia goes against the Ten Commandments.
  • There is a wealth of difference between brain death, where a life support machine may be turned off, and a condition which may be treated effectively by medication.

Alternatively other Christians are increasingly arguing:

  • God wants people to have quality of life. "I came that you may have life and have it in abundance" isn't just soul talk.
  • God is love: stopping suffering is a loving thing to do. Euthanasia could, indeed, bring glory to God.
  • People have a right to use their God-given Free Will.
  • The Christian ethics we apply today predate our understanding of terminal illness and progressive degenerative diseases.

My students posed three questions:

  1. Would you want the option of a euthanisia - good death - if you had reached the point of no longer wanting to cope?
  2. Would you be able to support a loved one in their request for euthanasia when you knew they were serious and had passed the point of coping with terminal illness?
  3. In either case would you be able to face God and what would you say?

Interestingly, of course, no. 3 leads on to another philosophical/theological conversation on the nature of God and our personal understanding of how that God deals with us.

I think my answers would be:

  1. Yes
  2. Possibly
  3. Yes. I was trying to reflect your love.
All of this is academic until we are faced ourselves with that moral choice. God forbid that we ever are, but I would love to hear first-hand experiences.

The celebrated case here is of Diane Pretty who in 2001 went to the High Court for a judicial review of the law on euthanasia. She was 43 and in the later stages of Motor Neurone Disease. She wanted to be able to choose the time of her inevitable death and was at that stage mentally alert but immobile in a wheelchair. She wanted the court to guarantee that they would not prosecute her husband if he helped her to die.

Diane died of natural causes in 2002 before a judgement was made and therefore, not for the first time, allowing the legal system to avoid making a decision. Until the next time.

I would welcome comments. I would not welcome, however, a trite trotting out of well rehearsed Biblical arguments. We are beyond that. The Bible says "Whatever" (that's that then) won't do.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Keeping in

People have been getting fired left right and job-centre in the last couple of weeks. Not that doorwork has ever been a stable source of employment but I think the quiet of January may be the reason.

What does a manager do when they've got no-one in the club. They can't just hide in the office all month. Well they can but they tend to watch the cctv all night. This leads to small things getting up their noses. Then they fly out of the office in a cabin fever rage and start coming out with all sorts of excuses to get rid of doorstaff. The easy way to stay in the job is not to be the tallest fir-tree and of course to do your bloody job. That's not too tricky but that's why so many of the lads have been collecting their final payslips this month. Not me I'm glad to say. I don't think I'm indispensable, I'm competent and as such I'm hard to replace.

Holocaust Memorial Day

I reproduce this article from The Guardian, Saturday January 26, 2008 The Guardian

It is relatively straightforward to believe in a benevolent god when things are going our way. It is more difficult when circumstances turn against us, but then maybe that is when some of us turn to our god in search of help. But it seems to me almost impossible to believe in any form of god when your family are held in a church without food or water for three days, then crammed into trucks and driven to a clearing in the woods, murdered and buried in a mangled heap.

And yet, on occasion, Arek goes to synagogue to pray. He was lucky. He escaped the church, survived the Lodz ghetto, then Auschwitz, and finally visited the mass grave in which his family lie 55 years on.
Holocaust Memorial Day this year has the theme Imagine! Remember, Reflect, React. The call is for us to use our imagination, to put ourselves in the shoes of the Jews and the numerous other groups persecuted by the Nazis, as well as the many groups who have suffered genocide since. It is difficult to do so.
Can you imagine losing 80 members of your family? Can you imagine seeing them dragged away in front of your eyes knowing it is for ever? Can you imagine being 12 years old and living alone, faced by the Nazis? Can you imagine the hunger, the disease, the agonising choices of life and death every hour of every day? Can you really imagine arriving at Auschwitz with 102 children from the orphanage and being the only one still alive two hours later? Can you imagine watching a trainload of people walk in and never seeing anyone walk out? Can you imagine not having a single detective ask you a single question in order to track down the murderers of your entire family? How do you imagine that?
Maybe that is the whole point. The Holocaust is beyond our imagination on one level, and yet it was so ordinary. The mass murder of 6,000,000 Jews and the persecution and killing of a further 5,000,000 people was made up of hundreds of thousands of choices and actions, which in many ways were very ordinary. It is precisely that which we need to fear and heed. The call to remember, to reflect and to react is to empower us to think about the Holocaust in a new and more challenging way.

Remembrance is important, because the people who became the victims of the Nazis were not only killed, but all trace of them was removed. Remembrance reminds us that their lives as individuals were important. Not one member of Arek's family has a headstone. If you do not have a name, who are you?

Reflection gives us time to work it out, to think it through, to wonder, to question, to challenge ourselves. The reflection is not a pause for meditation, but a personal challenge. Given similar circumstances, regardless of background, what would we have done? In the community today, how do we make an impact? Do we stand up and speak out, or are we complicit through our silence?

The reaction is knowing what to do. If the people of Weimar Germany had fundamental respect for the "other", they would not have voted for the Nazis. If, as happened, the Nazis got their mandate, what could the people have done if they had opposed Hitler's antisemitism? Refused to load the trains, or pull the trigger? We will never know. That was not their reaction.

Arek stands in the synagogue. He is having the barmitzvah he missed 60 years ago. As he reads the scroll I wonder where he gets the strength to believe. He looks up and winks at me sitting in the pews. I guess correctly that he is reading the Torah, not because he has re-found his faith in his God, but because he has regained just enough faith in humanity.

To remember, reflect and react does not change history; it does not change the world; and it does not change the divine. It changes us.

· Stephen Smith is chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Sir, are you a priest?

What is it with teenagers?

I have decided, rightly, or wrongly, not to explain the whole training issue to my students. It just seemed an unnecessary complication. Instead I planted the idea that I am a priest in the minds of a couple of the most likely to gossip and sat back and waited. Sure enough, I have been receiving a steady stream of enquiries. Some youngsters said they always believed that I was a vicar. Interesting. Is this my innate holiness and spirituality or simply the fact that I teach Religious Studies? I suspect the latter.

Others have asked:
So are you a Christian, then?

Are you religious?

Do you go to church?

Do you believe in God?

I have worked with teenagers for twenty-five years. I ask again: what is it with teenagers?

I blame their Religious Studies teacher.

Do you know the Bible Sir?

A bit more than Dan Brown.


Bring on the albino attack monks.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Inspector Pronounces...

We are a satisfactory and improving school with many good features.

Thats that then for another three years.

If OFSTED stands for The Office for Standards in Education, what would an Ecclesiastical inspection team be called?

I suggest OFPEW:The Office for the Promotion of Exciting Worship. Or OFPRAY: The Office for Piety, Repentance and Agape Yearnings.

Any other ideas?

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Inspector Calls and Updates

Today is Monday. That should be enough on its own, but no: we have, in the North of England, severe weather warnings and the worst weather on record since last time - November. I drove to the Knowledge College in the dark through the driving rain and could not park closer than Central Bradford because the car parks were full of cars belonging to staff usually still in bed at this point.

Today is the first day of our OFSTED Inspection (the Office for Standards in Education). We get two days notice of an inspection. I was so burdened by the stuff I was carrying I actually walked across the car park in italics. As my resources box broke and scattered a set of Yr 10 exercise books around the car park to soak up water like blotting paper, I cursed those who are so stressed and panicked by the process that they were here at the crack of dawn and possibly over the weekend. What can you possibly achieve at this stage? If you haven't got it right by now, there is no hope for you.

The management team are in a panic: "Do you have any free periods today? I need you." I don't think so. I have my normal set of Monday things to do. Half the staff have faces like slapped arses and the others are very loud and falsely blase. The usual suspect has rung in sick. The inspection team are all white, male and middle aged. As one of my colleagues commented: "They could at least have thrown in a lesbian."
My dear colleague, near to tears because she couldn't find a set of exercise books:
"What will I do if they come in?"
"Er...use A4 file paper."
"But what will they think of me?"
"You are four years away from retirement. Really, why should you care?"
My first lesson of the day: 26 pupils almost all with statements of special educational needs (largely for behaviour), 1 Autistic, 1 Elective Mute, 1 Dyslexic and 1 Deaf. We are looking at Christian and Buddhist attitudes to suffering. I am explaining to them that the very fact that I have them on my timetable at all illustrates the Buddhist principle of Karma. They don't get it.
Guess who came calling?
Can I take that retirement now please?
I got my feedback: I maintain a safe and friendly classroom environment where the children make progress and remain on task. I immediately confront any low-level disruption and keep the pupils focused. Pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil relationships are good and there is a nice and purposeful atmosphere. I stretch the pupils with sophisticated questioning skills. I make effoerts to address their special needs.
I wonder where he left his guide dog.
A former colleague wonders whether the school is going for a new category of inspection judgement: Shite with some mediocre features.
Sour Grapes.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


You need an awful lot of patience to do this job. You need to be patient with other team members, managers, bar staff and external bodies like the police and ambulance service but this isn't usually too bad. They've all got jobs to do and they all get them done in a fashion.

The big need for patience is the punters. When you've asked them to do something don't expect them to hop to it. They won't understand what you've asked of them. They won't understand why you've asked it of them. They won't immediately recognise what they need to do to satisfy your request. Then they'll have a long time thinking whether or not to do as you ask. Then if they do decide to do as you ask, they often do when I ask, they'll take a while to figure out what they have to do to satisfy your request. This can take some serious time. You need patience, and even more patience. If you don't have enough patience you'll end up wrapping a punters arms up their backs and making an enemy you needn't have. Too little patience and this job becomes a battle every night.

If I'm on the door, I'll be patient, but the longer I'm patient waiting for a person to get the message the nastier the message gets. If you stretch my patience too far I won't hesitate to make your night a mess. Well I'm not really that nice when you've shown me the disrespect to try my patience to its end.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

RIP Vera Duckworth

This has been flagged up on British T.V. for months. The Elder Statesman of British T.V. soaps, Coronation Street, set in Wetherfield, a mythical area somewhere in Manchester, has lost one of its best loved characters, Vera Duckworth, in a piece of television which should earn it a basketful of awards for writing and acting. I was deeply moved. This is a lesson that soapland doesn't have to be a byword for rubbish. Coronation Street has kept faith with the public for over forty years largely because of its gentle humour, humanity and excellent writing. Who says soap actors can't act? Bill Tarmy deserves an OSCAR: The grief was palpable.

A queen of Corrie bows out
Nancy Banks-Smith
The Guardian,
Saturday January 19 2008

"Don't tell us how she goes!" said the obituary writers, who of all people you might suppose would be eager to know. Well, Vera Duckworth (played by Elizabeth Dawn) died last night and you don't have to believe it if you don't want to.

Coronation Street's brass brand, that mellow bellow that calls the nation back to the living room, has seldom sounded more appropriate. Vera has been in the street since 1974. Husband Jack joined her five years later but as far as we are concerned they have been married for 50 years. Only the Queen - a distant relative, according to Vera - has been married longer. Most people in the street aren't married at all or are married to a murderer or married incessantly. The Duckworths were different. "We'll be as happy as Jack and Vera," Tyrone, their lodger, promised Molly, his intended. That's a joke and, at the same time, the truth. "Fifty years and never a cross word?" a paramedic asked Jack last night. "Nothing but, son," he replied.

Jack and Vera were written as a stock comedy couple but, with time, you came to look at them with something like astonished envy. They bickered incessantly but it worked for them like the blades of a pair of scissors. He liked a pint, a bet and kept pigeons. She called No 9 Coronation Street The Old Rectory, dealt the cladding industry a mortal blow by stone cladding the front and dreamed for years of retiring to a nice little bungalow in Blackpool.

Jack (Bill Tarmey) is a bit of a bar-room baritone. When I was a child, I would stand on the stairs of my parents' Lancashire pub and listen to those hoarse, sweet, soaring Irish tenors promising to take Eileen home again to where her heart would feel no pain. Last night, with his fingers entwined in Vera's cold hand, Jack sang to her as though he had truly taken her to her land of heart's desire, Blackpool. "Oh, my lass! My lovely lass! You're all right now. That's us. Allus was ... Nothing to mar our joy. There will be such wonderful things to do. I will say such wonderful things to you. If you were the only girl in the world. And I were ..." Then his voice failed him.

He brushed her hair ("Pretty as a picture"); put on her bedroom slippers ("There you go, Cinderella"); laid his coat over her ("I don't like her cold. She hates it cold"); and, holding the world at bay for a few minutes, told no one else.

The first caller was a pigeon. "She always made out she didn't like them," said Jack. "It was the mess. I knew she used to sneak out to talk to them. I used to pretend I didn't know." And he gave the pigeon a message to carry. It was something he had never said directly to Vera: "Oh, you are beautiful! You are a pretty one! I love you."

In the closing credits of Coronation Street you see a couple of pigeons fluttering about on the cobbles. Always together. As near as dammit a pair of turtle doves.

Nancy Banks-Smith is a television critic for the Guardian. She is a very witty writer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

College Prayers for Jan 16th

It is my turn to lead prayers at college before lectures start. As I am the first of the first years to undertake this task I will not go for the revolutionary or try to be clever but follow the tried and tested pattern of seeing which saints give a good role model to follow.

16th Jan: Good choice. (Not) Who could forget St. Fursey of Ireland? Who indeed? Or Honoratus of Arles? Yes, smiles of recognition there too I see. How about Pope Marcellus 1st (also known from today as Pope Marcellus the unutterablty Dull)? So I opted for St. Berard of Carbio, largely because, and I am now perfectly serious, his mission showed the interface between the inspired and the reckless.

Berard was received into the Franciscan Order in 1213. He was well versed in Arabic, an eloquent preacher, and was chosen by Francis, together with two other priests, Peter and Otho, and two lay brothers to evangelize the "infidels of the East". In 1219, Saint Francis believed that the time had then come for the religious of his order to extend their apostolic labours beyond the Italian peninsula and Northern Europe; and, choosing for himself and twelve other religious the greater part of Syria and Egypt, he allotted to Berard and his companions the mission to Morocco.

The five missionaries set sail from Italy, and after spending some time in Spain and Portugal, they arrived in the Kingdom of Morocco. Despite the fact that the only one of the five who knew any Arabic was Berard, their open preaching of the Gospel there and their bold denunciation of Islam soon caused them to be viewd as insane. However, when it became apparent that they would neither go away nor stop preaching, they were apprehended and cast into prison. Having vainly endeavored to persuade them to abandon their Catholic faith, the Moorish king, in a fit of rage, opened their heads with his scimitar, and thus they became the first martyrs of the Franciscan Order.

Lord it is easy to poke fun at those who answered your call in another age where the historical overview can allow for glib judgements, but we commend to you those who undertake your call regardless of personal safety and who count service of you above their own lives.

Near the start of this new year, where some ill-thought through resolutions have already had the time to flounder, let us resolve to be more like your servant Berard in taking risks for you in an environment hostile to your message. May we be more reckless for you.

(And no, William. I didn't make him up).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Residential weekend, the art of preaching and the example of a national treasure

I went to the Wakefield Police College this weekend for a residential for Vicar School. All the students from all year groups from all three centres. It was busy!

We were fed as if we were fit young men in our twenties who needed a million calories a day, and of course it seemed churlish not to go to the bar.

"What are you lot here for, then?"

"What's your hunch?"

"Well until I realised how many women were in your group, I thought you were a reunion of senior police. Or are they your wives?"

"No, actually, we're trainee priests."

"No, seriously. What are you here for?"

I wonder which of my friends he thought was my wife. Tough call, they're all fab!

(Please excuse the self indulgence of the photo, by the way, but I happened to have my sonic screwdriver about my person, so when I saw the Tardis.........I WAS Dr. Who!!!!) Do you know that it is about thirty years since Dr. Who had a male assisitant? Well, I'M AVAILABLE! I may not be as pretty as Billie or Kylie, but I think I can give Catherine Tate a run for her money.

My year group was concentrating on the art of preaching this time and we looked at the history of preaching which was far more interesting than one might imagine as we identified preaching styles and noted preachers down the ages. No - honestly, it was.
I have to say, I wouldn't have liked Zwingli or Calvin, and probably not Luther either. Still, for all their faults they were men of their age and if they express some unpleasant social and cultural attitudes we mustn't demonise them that in their revolutionary contribution to Christianity they did not change the world 100%. No, they had to leave some things for us.

The highlight for me, apart from the fellowship, was the wonderful session on story-telling. Wow!!! How to take a Bible story and turn it into something memorable: I can't wait.


I have to preach from the Epistle in this cycle and I have James 5.7-10 to contend with next. Not much scope for a story there, then.

And finally today. Very ecumenical: there I was, a Lutheran in an Anglican church using the Methodist Covenant sevice.


Oh and by the way, Alan Bennett (a British National Treasure) was a great help in the preaching workshop.

Just one final thing: can anyone tell me what paraenesis means? I'll be your friend for life.

Alan Bennett - Take a pew


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A little matter of Islamophobia

I have been following a wide ranging discussion on Islamophobia on another blogsite. It has sometimes been a painful discussion and there have been accusations of racism. There have also been flounces, defensiveness, teddy-out-of-the-pram sulks, some soul-searching and a lot of bravery and honesty. Some folk have made themselves quite vulnerable in the debate, but above all I believe the original post and the comments string come from good intentions and everyone remained with their integrity intact, even if having to agree to differ.

This is a difficult topic and one which can so easily slip into racism, particularly if discussed by those with little knowledge or understanding of the issues. There is innate prejudice in modern society together with stereotyping and scapegoating, often from the basis of misinformation and ignorance which much of our right-wing press has been allowed to peddle as fact. We should not be surprised that Britain's Muslim community feel embattled when, without little protest from the liberal elite, or anyone with a modicum of common sense, so much vitriolic rubbish has been offered as informed truth. All assylum seekers are given mobile phones by the government according to the British National Party. It is not true, but people are willing to believe without proper consideration. After all no-one likes the idea of someone getting something for nothing, and if they're foreign and Asian too, well.....

Misinformed resentment.

Lets not let factual inaccuracy get in the way of good piece of hate-journalism.

We need to be clear that if the British public was given its way over the issue of ethnic minorities and immigration we would have forced repatriation and even concentration camps. This is a public, by the way, which largely believes that the terms "refugee" and "assylum seeker" mean either terrorist or illegal immigrant. Either way "they" are out to do us down and should be sent home. I believe the above to be a fair and accurate assessment on the basis of my long experience as a teacher of both Citizenship and Religious Studies.

It is hard to be an Asian in Britain today. My Sikh friends are routinely racially abused and called Paki - a total misnomer as their ancestors came from India, but it doesn't matter because "they are all the same. All Asians are Muslims and they are all terrorists" as one pupil told me this week.

My school is on the edge of Bradford, a run down deprived city with a large Asian community. My school pupil-profile is 97% white.

I have a number of Muslim and Sikh colleagues and I am privileged to know them and count them as friends. Some are religious and some are not. One is an avowed Athiest. All are good decent people. There is not a potential terrorist or religious extremist amongst them. What there is is wit, humour, humility, kindness and a generosity of spirit so sadly lacking in many of their pupils and their pupils' parents. One gentle young woman has just returned from the Hajj and her face is radiant with the spirituality of the experience.

Apparently I should be afraid of her.

O God, you created all people in your image. We thank you for the astonishing diversity of races and cultures in this world.

We acknowledge before you, Lord, our disproportionate fear of terrorism and the incipient eddies of Isamaphobia in our society. We nevertheless lift before you our security and intelligence gathering services as they seek to protect us from those who would do us harm and we ask that your guidance, discernment and inspiration be with them as they filter the intelligence and assess the risks.

Your son commanded us, O Lord to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Help us in our dealings with our Muslim neighbours and colleagues, we pray, to extend the spirit of friendship and empathy so that in countless small ways the mutual barriers of mistrust, fear and paranoia that so often exist between us may be broken down by the simple warmth of everyday human contact and the fostering of friendships. May we, as Christians, strive to understand the deep mistrust and resentments that British foreign policy has engendered in the Muslim community here and, in expressing that sensitivity and perception, make hatred harder to sustain. At the same time we ask that your Holy Spirit would blow through the House of Islam and inspire those who read your Holy Koran and those who instruct in it to recognise within it, its teaching on the sanctity of human life and respect for civilians. We look forward to the day when those who acknowledge your Son as Lord and Saviour and those who do not can talk with mutual respect and understanding and that through doing so those who follow the Prophet, (peace be upon him), might come to know Jesus better.

Show us your presence in those who differ from us until our knowledge of your love for us may be made perfect in our love for all your children.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60.1-6
Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14
Eph 3.1-12
Mat 2.1-12

It may, or may not come as a surprise to you that today is the Feast of the Epiphany, but you may be a bit vague about what that represents. Well there are a couple of visual clues around the room and I’ll come back to those later.

In many British churches the feast of the Epiphany itself is hardly celebrated at all. In fact, Epiphany is perhaps the only great festival day of the church year that is observed more in neglect than in celebration. It is an important holiday in many other countries but Epiphany has simply never caught on in mainstream British culture, having been eclipsed by Christmas itself. Today is the day many continental Christians open their gifts. Why? In memory of the gifts offered by the Magi. Personally, I think today is the right time to open our presents for that reason. I have failed to convince my family of that. My mother, for instance, will tear into her presents one second into Christmas day if we haven’t already sedated her with sufficient gin and sent her to bed.

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light which is symbolised by the star of Bethlehem which most of here have put well behind us with the Christmas decorations we have already taken down. Our minds are now firmly on the New Year ahead and we have moved on from stars and cribs and shepherds and indeed wise men because we in Britain tend to lump them all in together as part of Christmas.

In fact the Greek Orthodox Church has called this season “the season of lights.” It is no coincidence that our Old Testament lesson begins: Arise shine for your light has come. In the Eastern Church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. We are entering into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. No matter that wise men and women of today try to explain it away or talk of the importance of religious myth. It doesn’t matter that literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm; the wonder of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling again the thrill that ran through us when the story first entered our consciousness? You can imagine Matthew telling his first listeners: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…" and then going on to tell them about the Eastern kings, dressed in many-coloured robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem and the odd and seemingly inappropriate gifts - these remain in our consciousness.

So lets bring our Magi to that stable now. If you happen to be sitting next to an exotic King, please escort him to the front. And while that’s happening I’ll tell you the feminist commentary on the Epiphany story:

Do you know what would have happened if there had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise MEN? The three wise women would have:
• asked for directions,
• therefore arrived on time,
• helped deliver the baby,
• cleaned the stable,
• made a casserole,
• and given practical gifts or possibly bought a goat for Africa.

Anyway, this unlikely trio comes seemingly out of nowhere, looking for the one who is born King of the Jews, appearing only once, in the story of Jesus’ birth. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God the grown Jesus would proclaim - peace on earth, mercy to the poor and good will to all people. (All people, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians.)

Then the Magi disappear from Scripture as suddenly as they first appeared. But the point of their journey remains forever important. They are the first to understand what others could not see: that Jesus “has been born king of the Jews.” For the ancient Church, this “epiphany” or acknowledgement of the Christ was worth celebrating. It still is, but sadly we don’t really celebrate it here. It is, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, the eternal purpose which God, has realised in Christ Jesus, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. But Paul takes it a stage further by reminding us that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but of the Gentiles also – you and I. The Magi are Gentiles - they are described as coming from the East and there is a hint of that in today’s psalm - but the symbolism and significance of this is often overlooked. Just picture in your mind for a moment your own image of the Magi; look at our Magi now. Some combination of Black, White, Asian or Oriental in the way they are represented? Certainly not Jewish, which is the point, and which ties in to our Epistle for today: the Magi reveal what St. Paul is stressing – the universality of Jesus, a baby born to die for Jew and Gentile alike.

Even as the Magi move on leaving Jesus to his mission on earth, we know that there is work to be done. There is a Gospel to be proclaimed. Epiphany experienced becomes Gospel lived. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians of this when he tells them that they, and we, are to make all men see what is the plan of God’s mystery. We are called to seek and serve Christ in those we meet, loving our neighbours as ourselves in order to make the Lord clear and real and known in our world today.

Christ dwells with us today, is still there to be seen and discovered by those who, like the Magi, are willing to journey far from the commonplace in their quest for understanding and knowledge. What does that mean in practice? Every time I preach I say much the same thing at some point during the sermon: to stop this being just a lovely story we have to make it real for us today, 2008 and look for the applications. Like the Wise Ones from the East, we must be willing to leave the comfort of the familiar, of our preconceptions and prejudices. We must be willing to look for the Christ in places others refuse to enter, whether it be the asylum-seekers shelter, the soup-kitchen for the homeless, the drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit, the psychiatric ward …….or the stable.

The Magi brought gifts - gold for Kingship, frankincense for Jesus’ priestly divinity, and myrrh for suffering humanity: gifts in a juxtaposition of the Gift of God to humanity in the Christ-child. As with any gift this is not a gift that we have to accept. We can receive but not accept. I am sure many of you here can picture the less than enthusiastic face of someone who didn’t welcome your gift to them this year and we know that there are people out there who are unenthusiastic about this gift from God. The Incarnation remains for many an unopened present or maybe a present put away for a future occasion which never comes. "Yes, I can see this is important, but I'm a bit busy right now."

What are we to make of this Epiphany for ourselves today? For one thing, it is a sobering reminders that Jesus is more than simply our brother, more than a friend we can turn to when we are seeking a listening ear, more even than a prophet, helpful as those ways of relating are. Christ is God made present in our day and age. His divinity spills over into our earthly realm. As we subsequently read on of Jesus’ journeys throughout Galilee and beyond, as we listen attentively to his stories and parables, we are from time to time reminded emphatically of where all this is coming from and where it leads.

So what is our response to that precious gift? What do we bring in return? What is our gold, frankincense or myrrh? Well, perhaps we must bring the gift of ourselves as we encounter Christ alive and present in the elderly, children, the disabled, the homeless, the alcoholic, the drug abuser and all the vulnerable, defenceless or damaged people of our world - and the smart-arse who has received it in his head but not accepted it in his heart: him too. When I preached here on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, I told you who my problem people are and I challenged you then to think who your problem people are and several of you told me during coffee. It’s the same message again here, isn’t it? As St. Paul tells the Ephesians I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of God’s power. The message of Paul is clear: we are servants of this gospel – we serve those we encounter whoever they are, not just the nice ones.

Christ is also manifest today in the bread and wine of Communion, which we struggle in faith to recognize as his body and blood. Christ is there when we turn to him in confident prayer and in those times when we find ourselves without words and on the point of despair. He is with us in the quiet of our hearts and in the throb and cacophony of our cities. But Christ is not ours to hold or keep.

Paradoxically, he allows us from time to time to experience his absence precisely so that we, his disciples, may learn the importance of bringing his presence to others. That is the Epiphany challenge and the challenge St. Paul gave to the Ephesians as he reminded them of their mission to the Gentiles. We now become in our lives the epiphany of Christ’s presence in our world.

We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale. A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest. He had adventure after adventure along the way: the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; he had to become a refugee; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marvelled at his words; he undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations. Finally, a close friend betrayed him; he was given a mock trial, and executed. But then the greatest marvel of all happened. He outwitted even death itself. He returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and his entire household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.

We don’t see it as a tall tale, but The Bible's story is our story too. Each of us is the Father's beloved daughter or son; he loves us and he has sent us out to have marvellous adventures and accomplish great tasks: to love our enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, hungry, and homeless. And at the end of our quests we will have such stories to tell. A bit like Matthew and Paul: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…"

Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ. The divine has become clear and real in our midst. I’ll leave the last word to Isaiah: Arise, shine for your light has come.

Friday, January 4, 2008

So, Mr. Troll, instead of whining on about sexuality, try some real Christian witness

Four members of the Catholic Worker movement were arrested at 9am on Friday December 28th, during a non-violent peace witness at Northwood Joint Forces Military HQ in Hertfordshire, England. Northwood is the headquarters for all British forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Northwood facility has 2,000 employees and is presently undergoing a major expansion, upgrading and refit. The Catholic Worker maintains a weekly peace vigil at the base and has been involved in nonviolent resistance at the base since 2001. December 28th is the "Feast of the Holy Innocents" in the Catholic tradition - it recalls King Herod's slaying of the children in order to maintain power and extinguish Christ.

Scott Albrecht, Sr Susan Clarkson and Fr Martin Newell, poured red paint representing the blood of the victims of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,onto the "Northwood Headquarters" sign at the main entrance to the base. They then knelt down and prayed. They displayed placards saying "War shall cease all over the Earth… Psalm 46" and "We all have blood on our hands."

Meanwhile, three other Catholic Workers kept vigil on the opposite footpath reading out the names of Iraqi, Afghani, and British military victims of the war on terror. They held placards with the words "Northwood HQ, calling the shots in Iraq and Afghanistan from leafy suburbia!", "We mourn Pte. Gordon Gentle, aged 19, killed by bombing in Iraq" and "We mourn Roza Khan, aged 13, killed by Nato gunfire in Afghanistan". Police arrived immediately and arrested the three on charges of criminal damage.

Maria Albrecht was also arrested at the scene and her camera was confiscated by police. The four were taken to Watford Police Station, where they remain at the time of writing.

Three other Catholic Workers maintained vigil opposite the entrance gates - reading the names of the dead and singing the response "We remember you!"

The Catholic Worker Farm van was later stopped by police impounded. The support group, now on foot,was kept under surveillance for the next couple of hours.

The three read a statement which said: "We come here today on the Feast of the Holy Innocents,when the Christian churches commemorate the day when Herod ordered the killing of small children in his attempt to kill the child Jesus, to pray, to remember, to resist and to repent. We pray for all the dead of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, civilian and military but especially for the innocent. We pray that our hearts may be strengthened with the faith to embrace nonviolence as a means of resolving conflicts.

We remember those who have had their lives devastated by war. War does not work; it kills the innocent and destroys our earth. We resist the war making machine of the government of this country by coming to this military headquarters and transforming the signs outside. We use signs and symbols to reveal the bloodshed of war and our hope that the message of nonviolence which Jesus gave us in the Gospels, and for which he gave his life, will be for the healing of the nations.

We repent for our complicity in the deaths of the innocent by too often allowing our fear to keep us silent. We pray that our hearts may be disarmed and invite our brothers and sisters in the military to allow their hearts to be disarmed also. We encourage them to refuse to fight and kill".

*Maria Albrecht, mother of four & teacher, lives at the Catholic Worker Farm near Rickmansworth. *Scott Albrecht (45), father of four and former United States Air Forces, lives at the Catholic Worker Farm near Rickmansworth. The Farem offers
hospitality to refugees from Congo & Nigeria. *Sr. Susan Clarkson sc (56) lives at St Josephs Catholic Worker House, Oxford offering hospitality to refugees from Iran & Sierra Leone. *Fr Martin Newell cp (40) lives at Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Hackney, London. The house runs a soup kitchen and cafe for the marginalised and offers hospitality to refugees from NIgeria,Ethiopia, Algeria, and Iran.

DONATIONS: In terms of finances we are £250 down on retrieving the vehicle etc. Consider a donation to
"London Catholic Worker" 16 De Beauvoir, De Beauvoir Town, London N1 5SU

Ciaron O’Reilly (+44) 07950 290 857

Now this is more like it!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

I don't understand the Land of Troll

Below is a rant recently left at Mad Priest's site and completely off topic. Mad Priest has a prohibition on "feeding Trolls" so I am not allowed to leave a comment on his site but I felt I wanted to comment here. (Mad Priest won't know as he doesn't visit.)

A friend of mine once shared with me that he watched his father commit suicide when he was 15. Since then he has engaged in hundreds of acts with other men and is currently in a "monogamous relationship." Perhaps he is seeking the love of the father he never got. Another young man I know suffered seizures, and increasing paralysis, and died earlier this year from AIDS which he contracted from earlier involvement in homosexual sin. Two friends I know have parents that left their families for another "same sex" partner. Their families have been torn asunder. Behind the glitzy glamour of Hollywood are real people with real sin which has real consequences. Who will speak the truth to these people, to these families?

Now regular browsers of this blog will be familiar with my stance on the issue of human sexuality. If not, look at my first couple of blogs in the archive. I am not inviting yet another round of the vitriolic debate on the topic here. It strikes me that only face to face conversations with people we know and respect stand any chance of not being a dialogue of the deaf. There are Biblical quotes both ways - a point which conservatives seem unwilling to accept - and there is a worked theology on human sexuality from a liberal perspective. (Again see archive.)

What I don't understand from Mad Priest's visitor is whether or not he recognises the selective use of information and the way he quotes such information as if there could only be one conclusion. As M.P. concludes "I think you can get HIV by talking bollocks about it."

So, can someone help me here? Are the millions of people in Africa who are HIV positive gay then? If not, is the claim that they are heterosexual merely gay propaganda? Does God care more about heterosexual victims of HIV than he does about gay ones?

Suerly the point is about inappropriate sexual behaviour per se? If my sexuality is as fallen as the next person's isn't God as angry with me as the next person regardless of who is straight and who is gay? If I cheat on my wife with another woman, don't use a condom and become infected, how is that different to a gay man doing something similar? If God does not approve of sexual promiscuity, he doesn't approve of it in any form, surely? I firmly believe that it is humans who have a sliding scale of judgement on sexual matters, not God.

I have a lot to do with vulnerable people in my secular employment. It is my observation that people get screwed up by a great many things and the manifestation of that in terms of sexuality covers the whole spectrum. As Mimi comments, its not just homosexuality which tears families apart.

I do not understand the mindset of Trolldom.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Well I thought I'd install this today. It appears I have had nine whole visitors, all from the U.K. which is rather odd as hardly anyone from the U.K. ever leaves a comment. Not even Mad Priest!

N.B. None of them is me as I have excluded myself. What a shame the preceding 1,316 didn't get a mention. I had hoped it would be retrospective. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see who is reading and from where.

I suspect there is a difference between the maths for who looks at the site (Neo-Counter) and who looks at the profile (Blogger).

Anyway: welcome to my totally unexpected Greek visitor.

I'm still interested in inspiration for meaningful New Year's Resolutions on the post below.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The vexed question of New Year's resolutions

I have tended to avoid making resolutions. This is partly because I haven't really given them enough thought in the past and they have come out a bit like Lenten sacrifices (no real hardship), and partly because it is hard to keep up the self discipline over something essentially superficial: if it matters that little, why bother?

O.K. I don't smoke, I eat sensibly and I am not overweight. I am a social drinker and do not have any (more than the standard) repressed sexual urges. I don't stick needles in my arms, snort other illegal substences or seduce members of my congregation. I don't plagarise my college work.

I tried negative resolutions for a while. My 2004 "Be less tolerant of vegetarians" resolution was particularly effective and is still on-going. (You know, you invite them round and go to some considerable thought and effort to be sensitive to their needs and ethics and provide something appropriately vegetarian, and then on the return match, do they do the same for you? Fat chance! It's still nut-cutlets all the way and not a pork chop in sight!) My 2005 resolution "Don't put up with tossers: you don't have to be nice if you don't want to" was also a roaring success. Sadly that one may need re-evaluating now that I am in training. (I wonder for how much longer I can claim intolerance as my spiritual gift?)

I have a problem this year as I fear I am now deemed by all and sundry to be Holy and therefore also deemed, presumably, either not in need of self-improvement at all or in need of an awful lot of it. Watch this space. What I do know is that if I do share a resolution it will go under the microscope of my friends' opinions and therefore must be meaningful. I want to avoid the overly pious and so will not be declaiming to all my determination to improve my prayer life or any other such finger-down-the-throat ideas.

I thought I might swear a lot more this year. Or perhaps I could speak in tongues. (Much the same in my opinion)


Hmm, not very daring.

Would anyone like to make a suggestion?

A Happy New Year to all!!!