Saturday, 31 March 2012

Family meals, Passover and Palestine

I was interested to hear the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks’ contribution to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 Today last Friday. The focus of his reflection was on The Passover and he drew attention to it being a family occasion gathered around a meal, rather than simply a religious ceremony in synagogue. I warmed to what he said:
The Passover season is well and truly on us. We’re preparing our homes for the festival of freedom, with its special foods and elaborate rituals, one of the oldest religious rituals in the world, and one of Judaism’s most sacred moments. What’s special is that it’s observed not in the synagogue but at home, around the table, as a family. The starring part is always taken by the youngest child, and their role is to ask questions.
And if there’s one element of Judaism I’d love to share with everyone it’s this: If you want to survive and thrive as a people, a culture, a civilization, celebrate the family. Hold it sacred. Eat together. Tell the story of what most matters to you across the generations. Make children the most important people. Put them centre stage. Encourage them to ask questions, the more the better. That’s what Moses said thirty three centuries ago and Judaism is still here to tell the tale having survived some of the most brutal persecutions in human history, yet as a religious faith still young and full of energy…
And then I began to think of the many Palestinian Christian families who are unable to meet, celebrate and share together in the way the Chief Rabbi encourages. Palestinian Christians, along with other Palestinians, are inhibited by a security wall and security regulations which cut communities off from each other, divide families and friends and separate many Christians from their cathedrals and other holy sites. I would like to ask the Chief Rabbi how these people are being encouraged to celebrate as families and encouraged to thrive as a people, a culture and a civilization?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Real Hunger Games #Lentlink 9

The film The Hunger Games premiered a few days ago and looks to have been a box office hit having made the third highest opening weekend sales. The film, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, is set in a post apocalyptic world confronting issues of severe poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of war.

To coincide with the film Tearfund has launched The Real Hunger Games, focusing attention on the plight of the 1 billion people throughout the world facing poverty and hunger today. The Tearfund resources include details of its work, reflections on themes raised by the film and suggestions for campaigning for governments to take action.

Don’t just watch the film and forget about the issues, check out the Tearfund campaign and get involved. The Damaris Trust has also produced some resources to discuss some of the other issues raised by the film.
Lord God, we pray for everyone who is hungry today – whether they live thousands of miles away or in our local communities.
We pray urgently for food prices around the world to stabilise and fall, so that more countries do not fall into extreme hunger.
God we ask for wisdom for leaders and experts working to tackle hunger, and that they would be willing and able to make progress in identifying ways to combat food security and help communities adapt to changing weather patterns.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Open to death

Reflecting on a verse from tomorrow’s Gospel reading:
‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’
John 12:24
I remember a powerful account of what this might mean from David Ford’s book The Shape of Living. Ford writes:
Jesus taught and demonstrated  an alternative which above all centred on desiring God and the kingdom of God. The stakes were as high as could be, and he knew well that the ultimate stake is life itself. This meant facing death. p.39
etty hillesumFord goes on to quote a letter from the Dutch Jewish woman Etty Hillesum, who left some letters and a diary behind from the months before being sent to Auschwitz where she died. Hillesum focused on what really mattered in life in the face of death.
People here fritter their energy away on the thousand irksome details that grind us down every day; they lose themselves in detail and drown. That’s why they get driven off course and find existence pointless. The few big things that matter in life are what we have to keep in mind; the rest can be quietly abandoned. And you can find those few big things anywhere, you have t keep rediscovering them in yourself so that you can be renewed. And in spite of everything you always end up with the same conviction: life is good after all… And that’s what stays with me, even now, even when I’m about to be packed off to Poland with my whole family.
The conclusion Ford draws is that one of the deep secrets of Jesus’ vocation, demonstrated in the life of Hillesum, was that he had an unrepressed sense of death and Ford ends with this question:
How can we hope to shape our lives wisely if we have not faced up to death and are willing to risk it? Only that can give us realism, confidence and vibrancy to desire what really matters before God.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Prayer happens

Like many others I was shocked and saddened at the scenes from the Bolton v Spurs F.A. Cup match on Saturday afternoon as Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba received emergency medical attention for what appeared to be a heart attack. Fabrice was treated immediately by skilled professionals before being taken to a specialist hospital for further treatment. The footballer’s condition is still described as critically ill.

Some people have been surprised at the response from many players and football staff, football fans and members of the public who have expressed their concern for Fabrice and said that they are praying for his recovery. I guess part of the surprise is Fabrice-Muambathat many of those praying would not have necessarily described themselves as religious and yet they were praying. I’m not surprised. In my ministry I’ve met lots of people who at times when they have felt deep concern for another in need have turned to prayer. I’m not bothered either. God longs to hear our prayers and those of us who are committed Christians are often put to shame by the paucity of our prayers when compared with the prayers of others who wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as Christians.

A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins trumpeted the results of research which he argued showed that people weren’t as religious as they might claim. The full title of the survey was to find ‘the extent to which adults recorded as Christian in the 2011 UK Census (or who would have been recorded as Christian, if they had answered the question) believe, know about, practise and are influenced by Christianity, as well as their reasons for having described themselves as Christian in the Census’. Here’s a quote from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science press release:
UK residents who think of themselves as Christian show very low levels of Christian belief and practice, according to new research…
Indeed, many Christian practices, including regular reading of the Bible and prayer outside church services, appear to be unsupported amongst respondents self-identifying as Christian.
May I suggest another piece of research for Dawkins and his foundation. How about a survey of the extent to which people who wouldn’t describe themselves as Christian or religious, nevertheless participate in religious practices including prayer? I think the results may be quite telling if the responses to Fabrice Muamba’s medical condition are anything to go by.

Dawkins appeared in a debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury (yes, Rowan is still Archbishop until then end of the year) on the subject of the nature and origins of human beings. At one point late in the debate a member of the audience raised  a question  about the problem of suffering. Dawkins’ response was to say that ‘stuff happens’ in a rather fatalistic and resigned manner. My response would be to say that ‘prayer happens’ and it seems that many share that response.

Anyway, I thank God for the skill and dedication of all those who have been and still are involved in treating and caring for Fabrice Muamba and I, like many others, continue to pray for him and his family.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Thanks Rowan

downloadI’ve had the privilege of seeing the Archbishop of Canterbury in a variety of settings. After Lambeth ‘98 Rowan, still then Bishop of Monmouth, was invited to speak to the Chelmsford Diocese Clergy Synod and gave a magisterial summary of that contentious conference, teasing out the nuances and complexities in contrast to the headline grabbing bluster of others. It was no surprise when he was made Archbishop of Wales soon after and then Archbishop of Canterbury a couple of years after that. Rowan, as ABC, came to lead a session at Spring Harvest on God and Creation that ended with a bomb scare and evacuation from the building which prevented a Q & A session. In case anyone thought Rowan was running scared he came back and was interviewed at length during the Big Top evening celebration. A friend published a book, quite a short book and just one in a series, and he received a hand written letter from Rowan with some comments on the illustrations in the book!

I also greatly enjoyed working with Jane Williams as a colleague on the faculty at St Mellitus College. Jane hosted us all for a staff residential at their house next to Canterbury Cathedral and I was reminded that this was a family home as well as an official residence. At Spring Harvest Rowan was asked what we could pray for and he asked for prayers in particular for his children. Whenever I read some of the vile rubbish that has been all too frequently spouted about Rowan, it is his family I think of because they have born the cost of Rowan’s ministry alongside him. I try to imagine how I would have felt as a teenager reading or listening to some of the abuse hurled at Rowan and what I would think of such people and the faith which they espouse.

Today Rowan announced that he would be stepping down as Archbishop at the end of the year and sadly some have taken the opportunity to hurl further abuse at him. I’m not going to link to these articles because that would simply give them more of the attention they so desperately crave. I simply contrast Rowan’s graciousness, prayerfulness and Godliness with their vituperation.

Reading Rowan’s theology can sometimes be a challenge but always rewards close attention. In debate or discussion with opponents such as Richard Dawkins, or in conversation with the likes of John Humphrey’s, one senses the pastor heart longing to see these people come to know the God who loves them. Rowan’s poetry opens up another side to his faith in God and love of life.

There is one incident amidst all the international travels, conversations with world and faith leaders, debates over matters such as the Anglican Covenant and the Ordination of Women to the Episcopacy, that I want to remember about Rowan’s time as ABC.

A father sent Rowan, along with other Christians, a letter his six year old daughter Lulu had written to God. You can read the full account here but the letter simply said:
To God how did you get invented? From Lulu xo
Rowan sent a personal reply which reads as follows:
Dear Lulu,
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It's a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
'Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn't expected.
Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I'm really like.
But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!'
And then he'd send you lots of love and sign off.
I know he doesn't usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
+Archbishop Rowan

Monday, 5 March 2012

Nice One Rory

roryGreat to wake up to the news that Rory McIlroy is the world’s number one golfer after his win in Florida. It made up for Ireland blowing a golden opportunity to beat the French in the Six Nations rugby yesterday afternoon.

To celebrate here’s a song from another of Northern Ireland's great sons.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

A modest proposal

Like many people I was staggered to read a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics proposing After-birth Abortion or the killing of new born babies. This is the abstract summary of the paper:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
It’s a chilling read and yet I can’t help thinking that all the authors have done is take the ethics of abortion to a cold hard logical conclusion. And the conclusion is this:
If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.
Two considerations need to be added.
First, we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible, and we do not think that in fact more than a few days would be necessary for doctors to detect any abnormality in the child. In cases where the after-birth abortion were requested for non-medical reasons, we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.
Second, we do not claim that after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion. Abortions at an early stage are the best option, for both psychological and physical reasons. However, if a disease has not been detected during the pregnancy, if something went wrong during the delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford.
It is not surprising that the paper has drawn heavy criticism of the proposal, its authors, and of the JME for publishing the article. It is surprising that the editor of the JME should be shocked at the response to the paper. He defends publication and condemns the criticism, describing those attacking the paper as being engaged in a ‘witch hunt’. Julian Savulescu’s argument seems to be that it is justifiable to publish anything as long as it is presented as a reasoned argument:
However, the goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises. The authors provocatively argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn. Their capacities are relevantly similar. If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible. The authors proceed logically from premises which many people accept to a conclusion that many of those people would reject.
So here is another reasoned argument which I trust the JME will publish. It’s not new and I am grateful to Philip James for reminding me of it. Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal in 1729 arguing:
For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland
From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and
For Making Them Beneficial to The Public.
Here are some excerpts from Swift’s proposal to give you a flavour of his reasoning:
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.
I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Swift concludes:
I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.
Swift as we know was a satarist, the Journal of Medical Ethics by contrast is supposed to be a serious scientific journal.