Friday, 29 April 2016

No Hell Below Us?

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

This song written by John Lennon was originally released as an LP by the same name (Imagine) and according to the Guinness World Record British Hits Single Book it's the Second Best Single of all time and it's also been sung and recorded by dozens of other artists like, Joan Baez, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Elton John. I can hear you thinking if 'Imagine' was the second best British single of all time, what was the first? (Can you guess?). It was Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Anyway, the song Imagine was apparently inspired by one of Yoko Ono's poems in which the reader is invited to "Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in." The other inspiration for the song came from a Christian prayer book. John Lennon said that, "The concept of positive prayer ... If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing—then it can be true . . ."

This song has inspired millions of listeners, whilst others will have dismissed the song as being hopelessly utopian, a dreamer's song as in the lyrics, 'you  may say that I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one'. It is of course a gentle subversive song because it appears to turn the values of the world upside down, a world with only people, a world without all that nationalistic flag waving, a world without war, a world of peace and a world without possessions, perhaps a world of common ownership without the excesses of power and wealth. The song sounds like it could have almost come from the lips of Jesus and maybe it could have. This morning / afternoon I would like to discuss the idea of heaven and hell and the role of religion. These are concepts of course that John Lennon deals with in his song and they are concepts which Jesus appears to address in his teachings, and in his parables. I think that the simplistic response we often hear in regard to the presence of religion in the world is that religion is the cause of all wars. There is also  this idea of heaven and hell and I refer particularly to the idea of hell, and that the supposed existence of hell, and suffering in eternity is a threat, a  tool of fear, a tool of control used by the church.

To be clear, what I am preaching on today will come down to this question - does hell exist? And I'm going to be very unambiguous  on this question, and I'm going to tell you in my usual diplomatic way that yes, hell does exist! John Lennon's song invites us to imagine that there is no heaven or hell and 'only people living for today' In this case I might say 'define your terms John', because the phrase  'only people living for today' is ambiguous because it can seem to have nihilistic and dismissive overtones but I'm sure it wasn't meant like that. Alternatively, it can mean that 'only people living for today' is that we should live our lives in the present moment, live our lives in the now which in a sense is to live in a grounded realistic way in which we are in touch with the depths of our own being and there is of  course a spiritual dimension to this, for in this way of being we may gain a sense of  peace and unity in our own lives and the world in  which we are part of.

Recently I became embroiled in a little debate concerning this same question, of hell or if you like, of No hell below us - Above us only sky. It happened that I saw a post on a Methodist Facebook page and this page showed a video clip of  John Shelby Spong who is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church and a renowned liberal Christian. This film clip seemed to have been posted, to promote him and to support what he was saying. But I was taken aback a little to hear this retired bishop basically claim that hell is an invention of the Church that they use to induce feelings of guilt in order to control peoples behaviour, he said that religion is in the guilt producing control business. He went on to say that, "If you have heaven as a place where you are rewarded for your goodness and hell is a place where you are rewarded for your evil then you have control of the population and so they create this fiery place which has literally scared the hell out of a lot of people throughout Christian history".

I mean, it's not that I don't believe that the threat of eternal suffering in the afterlife, in hell, has been used by the church as a form of control, of course it has but so have a lot of other church doctrines too, including of course the doctrine, the dogma of the Trinity. No, why I was taken aback was the assertion that somehow, that the concept of hell was actually created by the church. But the fact remains, as we have already heard (this morning), that  Jesus himself in the Gospel of Matthew, referred to eternal punishment in his Parable of the Final Judgement. And no doubt you will recall the story of Dives and Lazarus we heard a couple of weeks ago, in another parable from the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus tells how Dives suffers torment in the afterlife as a punishment for his thoughtless selfishness. Well, in the course of this short debate I was told that  all this is wrong and that hell doesn't really exist in the Bible, that the translation is all wrong and its just the rotten power hungry church that just wants to frighten and control people by fear.

When I was a kid, I mean about 10 years old, I was given a leaflet by a certain Christian who was handing them out on the street. I have to tell you that when I read this leaflet it literally scared the hell out of me too; at the time. This leaflet described in graphic detail the horrors and the torment that would be waiting for me should I continue to live a sinful life. It scared me for a time and then the fear wore off. One day I had this leaflet with me and I clearly remember standing at a market stall with my mum in Ashton. I'll tell you what I did with it, I folded it up nice and neatly and I dropped it into a woman's shopping bag when she wasn't looking and then secretly hoped she'd  find it and read it when she got home and that it would scare her as much as it scared me. We are often taught fear as children, strangers that shouldn't be trusted, canals with whirl pools that can drag you down to the bottom, another one at the time was the unpredictable behaviour of Alsatian dogs that can kill a grown man and then when I was 14 I read Bram Stoker's Dracula that definitely gave me a few sleepless nights! And it's not as if we need to go to church or read the Bible to be given scare stories, you only need to see the on line media, or Facebook or pick up a copy of  the Manchester Evening News to read frightening stories, scare stories of 'internet trolls' and 'stalkers' and drug crazed maniacs, they're all out there waiting to get you. I mean why pick on the Church as if its been the only organisation responsible for spreading stories to frighten people?

And so I return to something I said earlier and its quite simply this and it may be unfashionable in such enlightened times to say this but hell does exist. Of course its not some underground Hades that is all fire and sulphur but it nevertheless exists and I think we can understand the prevalence of hell when we really consider the mission of Jesus because the whole point of Jesus' ministry was to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to point to it. Jesus who came into a world of darkness to bring to bring light, to bring enlightenment, to bring the power of truth. Howsoever, our Bibles may be translated his message and teachings shine through and can be received. And in the teachings of Jesus, we don't find complicated theological discourse in fact rather the opposite. His lessons are short and direct and simple, so on the question of the Kingdom of God, you might say the Kingdom of Heaven, he tells us directly, he tells us in straight forward terms that the Kingdom of God is not out there, rather its within. Not only that - we can glimpse it right here and now. As he said, "the Kingdom of God is at hand"  That being the case, Hell too is in the same place. We have a choice between good and bad, love and hate, or heaven and hell. My friends, we make our own heaven and our own hell. And talking about 'friends ' the, simple truth is that in making that choice for heaven or hell we have another choice, we can decide to be our own best friend or our own worst enemy which is it to be? In the times of our  greatest difficulties we could just ask ourselves one simple question and that is, "What would a best friend say to me right now?"

I know it seems easy to say these things, they sound like platitudes, clich├ęs that easily roll off  the tongue but Christianity didn't become a great religion because the teachings of Christ were, superficial, platitudinous, or  wrong. No! Christianity became a great religion because the teachings of Christ were and are absolutely right and perfect and are so even for our modern times. I'll give you an example. Currently one of the best books concerning personal well being, which by the way includes a free CD of guided meditations, is Mindfulness for Health by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Pennman. This won the British Medical Association's First Prize in 2014 for popular medicine so be in no doubt this is cutting edge stuff. In his foreword to this publication Mark Williams says, "But Vidyamala and Danny don't just give a clear and up to date scientific explanation of how this happens; they also provide a step-by step guide to help you through your suffering. The meditations and the essential message of this book is that we as a species, as a people have grown up and evolved to see threats and to feel fear and other negative stimuli, as a form of self protection for our own self survival.  But this, in effect, our own negativity bias is the fundamental cause of our suffering. Our task in life is to work to rebalance this bias and the rebalancing through the meditations  can according to Burch and Pennman help us to 'see more clearly, act more effectively and be less distracted by day to day life. It will also create a sense of open hearted calm; the warm  and tingling love of life that you probably experienced when you were far younger.'

The accusation against the Church is that Jesus said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." And that somehow this is a way for the Church to control people by making them child like and naive. It's been argued that people should ignore these words of Jesus and grow up instead. But the problem is that we have all grown up in the ways of the world. It's not growing up that is the problem but perhaps a need to wake up to the suffering in the world, the personal suffering that we can create for ourselves. Hell of course, does exist. Some one once asked, "If you can't be happy in this life, how can you expect to be happy in the next? And to some extent, you know, I think its a fair point. In the afterlife, I'd hate to become a miserable earth bound spirit wandering around scaring people, moaning and clanking chains! Let our faith and the teachings of Christ be a message of joy and personal liberation. Let me close with this well known prayer from an unknown author:

Give us the spirit of the child.
Give us the child who lives within – the child who trusts, the child who imagines, the child who sings, the child who receives without reservation, the child who gives without judgement.
Give us a child’s eyes, that we may receive the beauty and freshness of this day like a sunrise. Give us a child’s ears, that we may hear the music of mythical times.
Give us a child’s heart, that we may be filled with wonder and delight.
Give us a child’s faith, that we may be cured of our cynicism.
Give us the spirit of the child, who is not afraid to need, who is not afraid to love. Amen

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Responding to Evil with Good

Last Sunday, October 4th, at Unitarian Chapel Oldham we read from St Paul's letter to the Romans, Chapter, 12 below is the King James Version but we read from the New Living Translation. Anyway, this reading which puts down the foundation of the Christian faith resonates with Jesus' 'Sermon on the Mount'. It lays down a radical challenge to the followers of Christ. There is so much in this chapter alone to consider. 

For the sake of simplicity on that very question of returning good for evil we turned to watching this YouTube video clip: Buddha Sayings - How to Respond to Evil with Good

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:
So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith;
Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching;
Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.
Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;
Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;
Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;
Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.
Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Telling the Truth is a Revolutionary Act

I think one of the essential things we should emphasise to children is the importance of telling the truth. The Buddha is supposed to have said that there are three things that cannot be permanently hidden, the Sun, the Moon and the truth. I think that this is one of those undeniable facts of life, the sort of fact that we might ignore at our peril like the old adage that the only inevitability is death and taxes. How important it is to tell the truth and to try to live with integrity. It is so important not only for us as individuals, at the individual level but it is important in every field of human activity, in all organs of government and in every institution of business, religion and charity and political activity. Without the perception of truthfulness and integrity individuals lose respect and organisations become damaged and can ultimately die. We place such an importance on telling the truth and yet how often do we see the failure of truth, the betrayal of trust, financial shenanigans, the cover-ups that go right to the top of the political system even aided and abetted by Prime Minister's as official records years after the events reveal and are made public. We have to ask as we should where the moral compass is and what is driving this dishonesty, we have to ask the pertinent question - why? And in whose interest this level of corruption is working?

We tell children always to tell the truth but somehow, I can't help thinking that this child like quality we try to encourage is not really in the more sophisticated world of the adult the touchstone for all our relationships. As we get older it seems that we are expected to accept that with a nod and wink we can subvert a promise or a contract because that's the real world that we live in. And besides, it’s what everybody is doing or going along with and so we tell ourselves that at some level that it's OK to turn a blind eye to a certain level of dishonesty.

I can't help but think that story of The Emperor's New Clothes should not remain in the primary school but should be elevated to the level of a religious parable and so we can say that the Kingdom of Heaven can be likened to the child who declared the Emperor to be naked. Indeed, in the story, the unexpected emergence of such compelling and innocent honesty became in fact a catalyst for a re-wakening in the consciousness of the people, the government and the Emperor. Such honesty deflated the tyranny of ego and prepared the way for humility and awareness. If the Kingdom of Heaven is to come to earth, this kingdom which is 'righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' then it must be based on truth.

In the Gospel of Matthew (21) we can recall the story of Jesus who overthrew the money changers in the Temple but in the violence of this scene we overlook the children who were crying their support, "Hosanna to the son of David" they shouted and cheered. And when chief priests and the scribes saw and heard this they rebuked Jesus who in response reminded them of the Scriptures (Psalm 8) "Did you never read, 'Out of the mouths of babes of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.' Here Jesus had committed a revolutionary act by overturning the moneychangers tables; he had struck at the heart of economic injustice, for he said that the house of prayer had become a den of robbers. The writer George Orwell once said that "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act." This revolutionary act, as we know led to Jesus' crucifixion but as someone once observed, you can kill the revolutionary but you can't kill the revolution.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Be in One Mind

We are constantly invited, in this world to embark on so many projects; so much can be demanded of us at times that it feels that we don't know which way to turn that in the end we begin to suffer from a number of problems, poor concentration, failure, fatigue, and a sense of inadequacy. We might be begin to see that where others have success, we don't and so we begin to feel overwhelmed by all the world has to offer and unable to cope, we might feel that we cannot cope or that in some way we are not good enough or clever enough, or have enough staying power, enough strength to see something through to the end.

One of the key factors in all of this is to be able to focus the mind to know what it is that we really want. There in the synoptic gospels is the story where after crossing the Sea of Galilee Jesus comes to the country of the Ger'asenes and there he is confronted by a man who is completely insane, so much so that by night and day he lived amongst the tombs, cutting and bruising himself with stones. He was said to be possessed by demons. When Jesus asked him what his name was he said his name was Legion, because he was 'possessed by many'. In other words, the man's true self was overcome by many other aspects of his mind all going and pulling in different directions so that he himself was not whole, his true self was divided and confused. This was the cause of the man's anguish. In the story Jesus heals the man, he performs a miracle by driving out the demons and sending them into a herd of pigs who consequently go mad themselves by rushing down a steep bank and drowning in the sea. We might recall that Jesus also said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, neither can a house divided against itself stand. In other words there must be a unity of purpose, at every level in order to succeed and to have coherence and to be whole.

In the Gospel of Matthew we hear the words of Jesus again on the same question when he says that the lamp of the body is the eye and if we keep this eye single, or in other words bear this in mind at all times, then we shall remain full of light, the whole body shall be full of light. When he says the lamp of the body is the eye, he means the mind or the minds eye. In other words if we only allow things of light and goodness to occupy our minds we will find that we will not so much dwell in the darkness of confusion but in the light of single-mindedness, we will not so much be easily overcome by conflicting and unhealthy desires or live in pain and distress as did the man from the Gera'senes but rather we will enjoy more clarity of thought and have a real sense of purpose. We do not forget that in this Lenten period that the trials that Jesus faced in the wilderness were testing trials of choice and this trial confirmed his turn from the world to the spiritual life. Jesus is of course the ultimate exemplar the way, the truth and the life.

On our journey through life, in our struggles we have to even sustain the sustaining power of faith itself. As a building must be constantly maintained so we have to maintain our own spiritual well being, we have to be alert to the unwelcome thoughts and impulses that can surreptitiously take over and lead us into darkness or into the despair that robs us of our joy and our belief in ourselves and God. We need to encourage ourselves and each other. We are always assailed by the difficulties and hardships of life and no more is this recognised in than in the book of Psalms. Here we can hear the voice of Israel, the very human outpourings of grief, of yearning, and anger but emphasis is always on faith and redemption as the faithful believer struggles and is consoled:

Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping.
The Lord hath heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger

Swaddling clothes or bands of cloth were in fact part of the age old practice of swaddling, binding the infant in cloth, it prevented some freedom of movement but it was designed to keep the child warm and to encourage the formation of straight bones, bones without deformity. That is how those who came to visit the baby on the night of his birth would find the child, this child lying in a manger and a manger is basically a feeding trough for farm animals it would be full of hay or straw and there amongst it all lay the Christ Child. Those who visited him we are told fell down and worshipped him.

In the words of William Ellery Channing: “Jesus by his birth was truly a human being; and in this we should rejoice. He was flesh of our flesh. He had our wants and desires, our hunger and thirst, our sensations of pleasure and pain, our natural passions.” And yet the few but significant visitors to the scene of the nativity in Bethlehem that night fell down and worshipped him. Why should this be? A poor couple in a cold stable, really only fit for animals, are there and the woman has just given birth to her first-born child. It’s a far cry from some salubrious hotel or even an NHS hospital and yet something, not merely something significant, but something earth shattering is depicted here amongst the poverty and the vulnerability of it all.

The truth is that it’s not in spite of the explicit poverty of the nativity scene that this event is profoundly important but rather because of it. Because if we look at the preceding text from Luke we can read: “And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. This then is the signifier. This child, the prophet, priest and king comes in poverty, he is lying in a manger, he does not “come to us in a pre-existent glory he does not descend from Heaven in the array of an archangel as Channing would have it but rather the significance of it all, he says is:

"It is a matter of joy that our Deliverer was clothed with humanity. For this has brought him near us, and established a bond of sympathy which is inestimably precious."

To the worldly and the cynical the power and the glory does not reside with the poor and the humble but amongst the trappings of wealth, fame, palatial residences and martial power. A baby in a cowshed does not fit the criterion for kingship and so the world moves on. And so at this special time of the year we are left with that that image, that memory of mother and child that image that speaks to us of our own humanity. It’s an image that leads us on past the arrogance and indifference of the world into the power of divine love where we may follow our true destiny exemplified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Prophet

In the Old Testament those courageous people who voiced unwelcome truths were known as prophets and probably the most famous of these prophets was Jeremiah. Chosen by God to become his prophet to the Kingdom of Judah in the 7th Century BC, Jeremiah was a priest from Anathoth a small town some three miles from Jerusalem. Jeremiah served God for forty years. He complained to God that he didn't want to become a prophet but God answered, "If I tell you to go and speak to someone then go!" Jeremiah suffered for the work he did, being a lone voice, pointing out the hard truths, the truths that nobody wanted to hear the failure of the people of Judah to live by the laws of Moses, the failure to take care of the stranger in their midst, the failure to provide for the poor and needy, the failure to administer justice and to prevent the illegal killings of innocent people. Jeremiah warned that calamity would overcome Judah and that God's punishment would result in the conquest of their nation and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

 He suffered greatly for his efforts being ostracised by his family, beaten and even imprisoned. It was a life of hardship and obeying God in speaking against the political expediencies, the zeitgeist of the time. His isolation was compounded by the injunction that he should not marry or father children and that he should refrain from all social events this included parties and funerals. Jeremiah railed against idolatry which was rife, this idolatry included the worship of the female deity Asherah and involved ritual prostitution, divination, and fortune telling. There also the worship of Baal the male fertility God that involved the sacrifice of children. Indeed, God had Jeremiah say that there were "more altars for Baal than there are streets in Jerusalem." But all their combined pagan worship would not prevent the coming destruction. Jeremiah's life is one of unremitting hardship he could do no other than to preach God's word he said that God's message "burns in my heart and bones, therefore I cannot remain silent."

Even when he is imprisoned and brought before King Zedekiah, Jeremiah has the audacity to suggest that the prophets who had lied to the king should have been locked up and not him. In a private meeting Jeremiah warns the king that he should seek the surrender terms with the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar since defeat is imminent. However the Zedekiah insists that he is afraid to do this because of the Jews who have sided with the Babylonians. Unable to accept the truth of the situation and to trust Jeremiah the inevitable happens and there is no happy ending.

When Jeremiah was first called, God had promised him the strength to endure:

For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land. (Jer 1:18)

Some times we too need to 'tough it out' Like Jeremiah we need at times not only to be told the hard truth but to speak it, and to live it and so our prayer should be not for the easy life but for the strength and courage to live with integrity always.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Harvest

Jesus asked us, "Can all your worries add a single minute to your life?" Here we are being asked to look beyond the material conditions of our lives to see the impermanence of it all and the references to nature to the birds the flowers of the field and the animals therefore hold for us an immutable truth. Like the seasons, they come into and go out of life and existence as a matter of course. They are all part of the great cosmic plan the rhythms and cycles of life that actually we are all part of. And the truth is that we live lives of very limited control, no matter how much we worry we cannot add another extra minute to our lives. Spiritually, we are exhorted to live a life of acceptance, to live in the present moment, the only reality and to go with it. All will be well in this simple faith as Jesus points to the wild flowers; God's divine providence expressed in nature. "Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow. They neither weave nor spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these."

Each year we celebrate the harvest the provision of food by farmers and fishermen. And I love those words from the old hymn by Henry Alford, 'Come ye thankful people come. Raise the song of harvest home! I love the tune and the joy that it encapsulates and the recognition of gratitude and the sense of security from hunger that it exudes, and the suggested earthiness of it all that describes our common humanity our need for food.

There in this Christian tradition is that recognition that for all our spiritual aspiration we need our daily bread and such is the power of that recognition that in the prayer of Jesus, The Lord's Prayer, the perfect prayer, that prayer of petition we say 'give us this day our daily bread' not give me, but give us our daily bread amongst other things this prayer gives recognition of the family of man, the family of humanity and our dependence on each other and our dependence upon  that divine providence. But of course we are asked to recognise the ascension or the priority of the spirit over the flesh when Jesus says that we cannot live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So like the birds of the air who are fed by the heavenly Father he tells us that God knows we need food and shelter he tells us that these worries about where its all going to come from dominate the minds of people without faith. He said, "Your heavenly Father already knows all your need but seek ye first the Kingdom of God and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need". And St Paul in his letter to the Romans said that "the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."