It would be comical if it wasn’t so sad! The sight of a heavily sedated hippopotamus being herded along the streets of Tbilisi by a group of civilians in the wake of a major flood that has devastated the Georgian capital and smashed its city’s zoo, is extraordinary. Sadly thirteen people are known to have tragically lost their lives in the flooding, and the city’s police have subsequently come under intense scrutiny for appearing to cavalierly shoot the escaped animals rather than see them be recaptured. A wolf that was shot by police even though it had been safely sedated appears to undermine the official police reports that their only desire was to protect civilians. Between the flooding and police shootings, the zoo has lost over half its animals, with its owners begging that animals are only shot if there is direct evidence that they are a danger to people (like the white tiger which sadly killed a man). ‘Begi’, the Hippopotamus, having been safely returned to an elephant cage high above the flood waters appears to be one of the lucky ones.
This devastating loss of human and animal life, combined with all the mud, water and chaos, is reminiscent of the biblical story of Noah. Now, many will immediately dismiss this ‘fanciful story’ as myth and legend, treating it as either a lovely bedtime story for little children or as the inspiration for the latest fantasy movie. Most will not be aware that there are many other ‘flood story’ accounts (such as the Gilgamesh Epic) springing out of the Middle East which give credence to the possibility that an actual flood occurrence might be part of that region’s collective memory. Regardless of its cultural background, not many will consider the story as it actually is – as theology, considering what it might have to say to us about our human condition or the nature of God! The sombre beginning to the Noah story sets the scene; “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Genesis 6.11). The situation is far removed from the state of perfection found in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1 & 2). The mere fact that God was prepared to ‘wipe the slate clean’ with such a catastrophic flood and start again shows just how devastating it was to him that the earth should be so painfully wicked. It’s an extreme situation requiring an extreme response. God’s own holiness demanded that he acted, but his love and mercy required that he should also save the penitent. So, in steps Noah, a righteous man is given the task of building an Ark. But it’s not just his faith which is on display – it’s his obedience! Noah’s faith, trust and obedient actions lead him to produce the means by which a faithful remnant can be saved. The world is given a second chance through him. The hero of the Gilgamesh Epic closes the door upon his own boat, but in the story of Noah we are specifically told that it was God who ‘shut him in’, looking after, caring for and protecting Noah and his family. The seeds of salvation which ultimately come to fruition in the story of Jesus and his death upon the cross, are first sown for us here in the story of Noah.
Upon reflection, I’m not remotely saying that the situation in Georgia is a result of the people’s sin, but sometimes when we look at the state of the world and see how violent it can be at times – it’s not only ‘Begi’ the hippo who’s left utterly bewildered. But in the fight against wickedness, violence and corruption, we like God need to be prepared to see sin for the dreadful evil that it truly is, trusting that with God’s help the loving and faithful actions of a few can make all the difference.
‘But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Genesis 8.1
I DON’T THINK WE’VE EVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT! The sight of so many poor people stranded on rickety boats, without food and water bobbing about on the Mediterranean Sea, desperate for help and longing to get to shore, is heartbreaking. Every boat seems to contain a heart wrenching story of brutal behaviour and callous mistreatment. Some people have been murdered for scraps of food, others have been thrown overboard due to religious intolerance, others have simply died from sickness and malnutrition and all have been exploited by people smugglers and cast adrift to meet an uncertain fate. The authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and those countries closest to the crisis are pleading for international help to cope with so many refugees. Apart from the numbers it’s a complex and uncomfortable problem for underneath the obvious and overwhelming humanitarian need there is also a concern that the boats might contain a ‘Trojan horse’- Islamic extremists intent on getting to Europe with a more sinister intent.
Whatever the potential dangers might be, in the first instance we always need to give people the ‘benefit of the doubt’, treating them compassionately as individuals, for the vast majority of these people are genuine refugees fleeing the violence of war torn conflicts in Lybia and Syria. Not many people (men, women and children) would undertake such a desperate and dangerous journey unless they were completely and utterly afraid. We always need to remember and try to understand what it is they are fleeing from! Sometimes in our minds we try to make a distinction between those who are genuine refugees fearful for their lives and those who are economic migrants simply travelling in search of a better life, but in reality it isn’t always quite so easy to make such a distinction. Even if you weren’t in danger of physical harm, if all the structures you knew and relied upon had been bombed out of existence so that you couldn’t even feed yourself or your family, which one of us wouldn’t try to start again elsewhere? I’m not saying that governments shouldn’t have criteria or controls, but simply pointing out that sometimes these distinctions aren’t always easy to maintain.
The Christian view point has always been that life is sacred, for we are all made in the ‘image of God’ and the Bible teaches us that we should not only love God with all of our heart, but ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 22.29). Indeed Jesus reminds us in one of his parables that when we are generous in our care and concern of others, it’s almost as if we did it for him, blessing those who do so and judging those who don’t.
The situation may be vast and complex but we mustn’t allow ourselves to let fear and mistrust get in the way of our nation doing the right thing. Undoubtedly, nations must work together to challenge the root causes of such desperation (war, poverty and exploitation) but we must also encourage them to do their very best to provide immediate food, medicine and sanctuary to those in need. We demean ourselves if we turn a blind eye to such human want and suffering and it would be immoral if we were to simply let people – drift!
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25.40
ALL RIGHT I CONFESS – I DON’T KNOW WHO TO VOTE FOR!
And the truth is I suspect that I’m not alone! Like most people the present ‘coalition government’ has done some things that I completely agree with whilst others have brought me to utter despair. Indeed, there have been many times when I have felt completely disenfranchised by the current stream of politicians without any one single party capable of fairly representing me or my views. The possibility of another ‘hung parliament’ leading to yet another coalition has made things even more difficult with traditional labels no longer seeming relevant: now the Conservatives are the party of the ‘working people’ and Labour are anxious to show that they can be fiscally trusted with the economy. The political permeations are vast with the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens and Scottish National Party all vying for our votes – but who has the right ideas and who can be trusted? After all, we all ‘know’, don’t we, that politicians are famous for saying one thing and doing another so why should we bother – and how is it all going to be paid for anyway? Perhaps we should all follow the Russell Brand style of doing things by simply withholding our vote and using our lack of engagement as a silent weapon of protest against the political establishment and elitist system until they see sense. Unfortunately not voting, in my opinion, far from being ‘radical and edgy’ simply translates into an abdication of rights and responsibility and becomes a lame excuse for apathy! How can we possibly influence things for the better if we can’t be bothered to engage with the process? Democracy doesn’t always achieve for us the things that we hope for as individuals, but for us as a society it’s a hard won freedom that we should each cherish, respect and observe.
The problem is of course that we don’t live in a perfect society and neither do our political parties, therefore each one is made up of a mixture of things we like and dislike, good and bad (or good and not so good) and things that we can better identify with or not. Therefore instead of absenting ourselves from the process we need to make even stronger efforts to engage with it and understand things until we come to a decision. This isn’t always easy and for many is a bit of a struggle. Appreciating that there will never be a perfect fit in any human institution, I will vote for the party that sits most comfortably with my Christian faith and looks as if it will enhance our society in the most fair, just and compassionate way – just as you will vote according to your principles and what matters most to you. Perhaps, like me at the time of writing, you don’t know which way to vote, but there is one thing upon which I hope we can all agree and that is that ‘not voting’ is not an option!
“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6.8
REGISTER TO VOTE ON THE LINK BELOW
Josh McDowell, a Christian minister and author once spoke to a student saying:
“If I prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was raised from the dead and is the Son of God, will you consider Him?”
The immediate and emphatic reply was “No!”1
Why are so many people so dismissive even before they’ve given Christianity a chance? Is it because they don’t know the Gospel story or because they can’t accept it to be true? In many ways perhaps both of these are true, because it is increasingly clear that fewer and fewer people have any sort of religious background or contact with a church. Put simply, their parents didn’t go to church, so neither do they! Others dismiss religion as being the by-product of a by-gone age hardly credible for today’s modern thinkers, and recent books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens reinforce this negative stereotype. Yet the main reason why some people tend to dismiss Christianity ‘out of hand’ is, ironically, not because it’s ‘proven’ to be false but because it might actually be true and if it is true then it’s a challenge! Books such as the The Dawkins Delusion (Alistair McGrath) and Evidence that Demands a Verdict (John McDowell) have easily shown just how misguided and superficial these popular works by Dawkins and Hitchens are and yet if Jesus really did rise from the grave as at least 500 biblical eye-witnesses maintain (1 Corinthians 15.6) then Jesus has to be the ‘Son of God’ and his resurrection proves that all he ever said and did was true! If this is so, then it has to be the most profound piece of news that this world has ever known and requires a response – a response that requires each one of us to reconsider, take stock of our lives and reassess who we are before God, the world and each other; a response which many will find profoundly disturbing and uncomfortable as it shakes up their cosy world view, which is precisely why so many people tend to dismiss the Gospel story out of hand, not because it isn’t true, but because it suits us.
Today’s media tends to give us instant eye-witness access to the incredibly significant events (both good and bad) which shape our modern world and we seldom doubt the testimony of those who were actually present. Why then, are we so ready to dismiss the eye-witness accounts of those who saw the resurrection, just because they lived in an age prior to the internet?
I would therefore like to invite each person to honestly consider and reflect upon their own attitude towards Christ and their understanding of the Easter story, and to genuinely ask themselves if they have given the Gospel (meaning good news) a fair and open hearing. It is my hope that many will discover a new sense of peace and perspective as they do so.
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news and said: “I have seen the Lord!” John 20.18
1 McDowell, Josh: Evidence for Christianity. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006, S. 14
“It’s an extremely romantic movie,” says Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director of Fifty Shades of Grey, “and at the heart of it, it is a love story,” she told reporters. “I think we got the balance right.” What then could be better than having the film premièred just in time for Valentine’s Day on one of the most romantic weekends of the year? There can be no doubt that the novel has been an extraordinary hit with millions of fans across the world, particularly women, and no doubt many will want to see the film out of curiosity and intrigue, regarding it at worst as simply a poor story and at best as a piece of ‘harmless titillation’ but putting aside the fact that the film is a fictional story between consenting adults, and a stereotypical perception of the church as being ‘anti-sex’. Is this film romantic? Well, even on its own premise it’s hard to consider it so, for Christian Grey (an extremely rich, powerful and good-looking businessman) makes it clear to Anastaia (an innocent and naive young girl) that what transpires between them will be a purely sexual and not remotely romantic encounter. The subsequent series of assignations may be considered by some as an adventurous ‘voyage of discovery’, but it can hardly be called ‘loving’ as Taylor Johnson suggests.
It’s interesting to note that even among secularists it’s not so much the sexual activity that is being called into question but the nature of the relationship between the two central characters. For instance, is it true that sex is completely for pleasure and that all thought of love and romance should be stripped from it? The majority of people are usually unable to give themselves to another without it being considered as a very significant moment. They don’t want their bodies to be treated lightly or casually which is why in common parlance we call it ‘lovemaking’. Secondly Christian Grey may want his women to sign contracts which prevent them from speaking out about what’s happened to them, as if it’s all ‘done and dusted’ and ‘swept under the table’ but most people carry these experiences with them into the future and cannot pretend that they don’t have any bearing upon them, shaping who or what they are! Besides, with regard to sexual encounters, too many women have been made to suffer in silence as it is! Finally, if Christian Grey wasn’t rich, powerful and good looking, we might see the story for what it is – a story about one individual abusing power, manipulating events and controlling the life of another for their own sexual gratification.
The film is a well advertised, slickly marketed, glossy ‘Hollywood’ production and will no doubt do very well at the box-office and make it’s producers a lot of money, but the danger and perhaps the seduction of a film like this is, that it makes one feel that what’s depicted is what every ‘red-blooded man’ should aspire to and what every sexy, erotic woman should be willing to provide. It suggests that violent, manipulative, non-romantic sexual encounters between consenting adults are ‘normal’ and can be brought out into the open as just another perfectly valid lifestyle choice. However, once we have put the story and the ‘entertainment’ to one side along with all the ice-cream and pop-corn, I’m not sure that many people will feel totally comfortable with this as a concept. The film may be entitled ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ but upon reflection it’s amazing how the issues tend to become increasingly black and white.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine” Song of Solomon 1.2
The recent attacks in France by Islamic extremists killing 17 people (12 at the publishing office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, 4 at a Jewish Supermarket and a police woman) have shocked the world, and have quite rightly been roundly condemned by world leaders and all those who believe in civil liberties and free speech. The very real sense of being attacked, hurt and terrorised by extremist elements has consequently galvanised the people of France to boldly stand up for their French way of life and the values they believe in. This was abundantly demonstrated by the huge crowds that came out in unity upon the streets the following weekend, many holding aloft a journalist’s pencil as a symbol of their way of life and freedom of expression. They also expressed their solidarity with the publisher by loudly proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) – because as they perceived the paper to be representative of the French people, they quite naturally wished to identify themselves with it. This sense of solidarity was heightened when the next edition of Charlie Hebdo (called ‘the survivors edition’) saw a print run of 5 million copies (far in excess of the usual 60,000) sold out within hours. However, since this issue depicted a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad upon its cover it wasn’t without controversy! Was it wise to offend Muslims when such previously drawn cartoons were said to be the provocation for such a deadly and vicious attack? Shouldn’t the French show some form of moderation or restraint given the circumstances or would it have been seen as capitulating to outside forces and giving a propaganda victory to the extremists? All of these are valid questions and no doubt people will ponder them for years to come.
Strangely, whereas today many Muslims tend to see the drawing of the Prophet Muhammad as an attack upon their religious faith and culture, historically, this wasn’t so – indeed some religious paintings of the prophet were actually revered in the past. However today, it seems that the physical ‘drawing’ of the prophet is so contentious that it overshadows the message the cartoon is trying to convey. Yet, if Islam is really a peaceful religion as many moderate Muslims would like to maintain – is it really such a bad thing to see the prophet crying over the violence carried out in his name?
Ironically, the Christian perspective is very different! Imagine that the cartoon depicted Jesus with a placard saying ‘Je suis Charlie’. Would Christians get upset or see it as an attack upon their religion? Not a bit! For the Christian understands that each and every person is made in ‘the image of God’ and that we are therefore very special to him. When God steps into the world in the person of Jesus he literally takes upon himself our flesh, our likeness, our humanity. This is crucially important for us to understand – because when Jesus died upon the cross, he did so for us, he carried our sin and represented us upon the cross. He took upon his own shoulders and bore in his own body the most extreme and violent torment possible, compounded by the fact that carrying the sins of the world inevitably cuts him off from his loving but Holy Father. So to see a cartoon where a weeping Jesus cries for the sins of the world, and yet so boldly identifies himself with it (“Je suis Charlie”, “Je suis Mary”, “Je suis Peter”) underneath a banner that proclaims “All is forgiven!” in my view pretty neatly sums up the Christian faith! Christ identifies with us so much that he is prepared not only to represent us but to stand in for us upon the cross. The only thing that remains is for us to claim the forgiveness that he offers, and ask ourselves the question: are we prepared to do so, and are we prepared to identify ourselves with him?
“I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” Acts 13.38
On Christmas morning small children (and perhaps some not so small) will be waking up early to see what Father Christmas has brought them. Squeals of laughter and joy will ring around the house as they drag bleary eyed parents out of bed to watch them unwrap their presents. There is nothing quite like the sense of wonder, joy and eager anticipation of a small child on Christmas morning. Parents too (once awake), begin to enjoy the festivities, as they relax with family and friends throughout the day, celebrating with the traditional slices of turkey, Christmas pudding and cake. Perhaps this little introduction seems a little ‘rose-tinted’ and ‘sugar coated’ conveniently turning a blind eye to the sadness that some feel at Christmas and over-looking much of the world’s present suffering, but then, our society often promotes Christmas somewhat nostalgically as a ‘time-out’ – a time to escape the bleakness of the present, and to affectionately remember past joys combined with dreams of a better future. Perhaps the greatest examples of this, this Christmas, have been the television commercials for John Lewis and Sainsbury’s. The first encourages us to celebrate the innocence of childhood and cherish the wonderful imagination of a small boy. The second most poignantly encourages us to reflect upon the essential goodness of the human spirit, which overcomes adversity and even war as epitomised in the ‘Christmas Day truce’ of soldiers during the First World War. Not only do these commercials convey a sense of nostalgia, they use ‘Christmas’ to help lift our spirits and encourage us to think positively about who we are, our place in the world and what sort of world and values we aspire to (hopefully celebrated and endorsed by a suitable purchase from their respective stores).
Many no doubt, will treat ‘Christmas in Church’ nostalgically too – as simply another aspect of the traditional Christmas designed to lift our spirits and promote the concept of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’. They would be surprised then to discover that it’s perfectly possible to celebrate Christmas without really understanding it. The Bible is perfectly clear about this; “the light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it”(John 1.4). Christmas is about “the true light” stepping into the world, but the “world did not receive him” (John 1.11). The Christian knows that Christmas isn’t simply about little boys and girls being ‘good’, it’s about putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ who died precisely because none of us could ever be quite good enough. Yes the world can be very dark at times. How strange then, that so many should perhaps turn their backs on the one who is able to transform its nature and fill it with light and life! If we really want to be able to celebrate Christmas, then we need to look past all the sugar coated nostalgia and tinsel and start to really unwrap the true meaning of Christmas as found in the person of Jesus Christ. That will make those presents a real joy and a morning worth getting up for! Wake up! It’s Christmas!
“To all those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1.12
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It is with profound irony that scholars can refer to Iraq as being part of the world known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’ because it is clear that nothing remotely civilised is coming from that part of the world today. The appalling barbarism that hails from the region in the name of Islam and the hope of setting up a “caliphate” (Islamic state) is truly shocking and no ‘civilised’ society should condone it. The plight of the Yazidi community stranded upon Mt Sinjar and the fall of Qaraqosh (the largest community of Christians in Iraq), each fleeing from the threat of imminent slaughter unless they convert to Islam, has shocked the world. The promise that “anyone who kills a Christian will go straight to heaven” (Archbishop Toma Dawod quoted in The Guardian) has not only appalled many but led to speculation that this might even be the end of Christianity in Iraq. This, combined with the countless stories of men, women and children being executed, while others, women especially, are kidnapped, stolen and sold into slavery has left the world stunned – and embarrassed the many devout moderate Muslims who can’t equate what they see on the ground with their religious faith. It has to say something about the extreme level of violence when even Al-Qaeda feels compelled to disown the ‘Islamic State’ formally known as ISIS.
Appreciating all of the sensitivities relating to the recent history of the Iraq war and western reluctance to once again ‘put boots on the ground’, something has to be done. Humanitarian relief drops have been useful; American air-strikes have been pivotal, but it could be argued that it was Kurdish forces on the ground who ultimately prevented a Yazidi genocide – but for how long? If one accepts the premise that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the withdrawal of Western forces left a power vacuum which was exploited by the extremists, then only a stable government acceptable to all sides has any chance of pushing the Islamic State back and securing a lasting peace for Iraq as a whole. Unfortunately, it may already be too late for that and the Kurds especially may favour the breakup of Iraq and the establishment of their own autonomous region.
However, the idea that people can be compelled by force to change their religion is a false one – because anything that is done by force only serves to breed resentment and alienates one from the very philosophy being espoused. If one has to be forced into adopting a particular faith or religion then you have already lost the argument and with it the moral high ground. Certainly, in the case of the ‘Islamic State’, one can’t help but feel that the true motivator is not the spreading of personal conviction but the gaining of mass control; it’s not the building of faith that matters but the spreading of fear. It’s the gaining of absolute power which we see before us and as we already know from the old adage, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. This philosophy is completely at odds with Christianity, which speaks of each person being made in the ‘image of God’ and loved by him. A God in fact, who loved the world so much that he was prepared to die for it in the person of Jesus. Therefore, life is sacred and not something to be easily dispensed with or cut down at a stroke. Even by Islamic standards the faith pedalled by the extremists is a corruption and a lie, whereas Jesus had described his teaching as the truth, not a truth that would bring hurt, heartache or pain, but a truth that would set people free (John 8.32). It was a truth that brought love, joy, grace, hope and peace into the world – doesn’t that sound civilised to you?
‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ John 10.10