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."

Wednesday 24 September 2014

This is the Day the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it.

Perhaps I do like a good old whinge now and again but now and again as good as I think I am at this particular pastime I am put to shame by an expert, an expert I occasionally meet when I'm out for a walk or just doing the shopping. I was in supermarket the other day when I met this expert - I've known him for years. I mean he is a miserable so-and-so. Anyway he was just leaving the check-out as I was heading towards the automated check out. "How are you Nick?" I called out to him and he looked at me in his characteristic world weary way and replied. "Well I'm still breathing which is about as much as I can hope for."  "I think you can hope for a bit more than that!" I called after him as he plodded out of the building under his own exquisite cloud of despondency. I recalled as I watched him leave, that I had rarely if ever had a joyful conversation with Nick. But in one short sentence, that morning in the supermarket he had excelled himself in his capacity for gloom and doom; taking self-pitying pessimism to new heights. At such times I am wont to remember that quote attributed to J. Robert Oppenheimer which goes, "The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true."

One of the things, I feel, about pessimism and negativity is that it gets everywhere, whether it's simply an underlying doubt or the party pooper that rains on your parade, marring even the happiest occasion. And if miserable-ism can find an 'in' into your life it will; especially if you let it. I reckon that's what we have with this book in the Old Testament, the book of Ecclesiastes which begins with these words "Vanity of vanities sayeth the preacher all is vanity" and then it proceeds to tell us that there is "nothing new under the sun" - "Is there anything of which it may be said, See, this is new”? The writer tells us that everything is a repeat performance of the last event, that we are merely the actors who must go along with a predetermined  script  and that we will die sooner or later and it matters not whether we are virtuous and live our lives with integrity or not. We all inevitably meet our deaths sooner or later. It's a grim outlook, the book is not entirely joyless for it does exhort us in the absence of anything beyond the material facts of our existence, to get on with it, make the best of it and enjoy it. Ecclesiastes makes the point though, that all of life is meaningless and denies the existence of any kind of divine justice. I think that the book would probably never have got into the Bible if the scholars of the time had realised that the author was not Solomon the Jewish King and realised that this book was probably written in around 200 BC and not around 935 BC late in Solomon's life. So rather by error than anything else Ecclesiastes managed to slip into the canon, into the Old Testament.

Like my friend Nick, this book is grumpy and cynical. Maybe, on the other hand perhaps we could say that Ecclesiastes negativity is a useful counter to the starry eyed optimism of Jewish and Christian believers, who are of course believers in the providence of God. And sometimes we are apt to agree with this view that there is nothing new under the sun.

The alternative reality is that God does make everything new; each moment actually does come to us as new as does each day and each century that has passed since the book of Ecclesiastes was written have been unique. This drab ink-sketch presenting a hopeless commentary on life offers very little in terms of spiritual sustenance and so I would rather reflect on the words of Goethe who said, “All theory is grey, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.”

This life we have been given can be viewed though the filter of any lens that we choose. So why should we settle for two dimensional black and white when we can have the full glory of it all in three dimensional Technicolor. We know that bad things can and do happen in this life nobody can live free of pain and loss but we know that virtue does have its rewards for example, through abstinence from alcohol and drugs and by exercising integrity in personal relationships and our business affairs. Last week I visited an old friend two days before he died, he talked about his death and how his life's energy would returning to the source from whence it came. A couple of days ago I was looking through some old papers and found some notes written by another friend, the Rev. David Monk. David was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease and in acceptance of his condition wrote these words.

"It is important to go with the impermanence of our mortal structure - every body dies physically. Buddha stated that the first condition of existence as impermanence and I love one of his quotes: "The person who can embrace the temporality of his existence is as free as a bird in the sky"

Months later just before he died he reprinted these words from Indian Scripture;

"As rivers flowing into the ocean find their final peace and their name and form disappear, even so, the wise become free from name and form and enter into the radiance of the Supreme Spirit."

The realisation of the impermanence of life is what should give us the urgency to live it to the full, to strive to be happy, to live for others as much as for ourselves and to understand the power of love who is God, the divine presence that is at the heart of all there is. Therefore we should say that, "This is the day the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it." Let us not walk around supermarkets bemoaning our existence, let us not ungraciously complain by saying that there is nothing new under the sun, let us lift the veil of despondency and see the cosmic dance of life and join in, let us praise God all the days of our lives and in all our ways let us acknowledge him.

Thursday 21 August 2014

He Who Lives by the Sword

The real dynamic in war and conflict comes from ambitious politicians, big business, the arms manufacturers, newspaper proprietors, and national leaders all seeking their own personal self-advancement and aggrandisement; they are all involved. And if you don’t' believe me then perhaps we ought to remember that  apart from the millions of ordinary people in Britain and America who got out on the anti-war demonstrations eleven years ago where was there at any significant level, a responsible  leadership opposition to the illegal war that was waged on Iraq by Britain and America in 2003? This was a war that exposed the naked opportunism of our leaders, as well as their incompetence. This was a war that has set in train misery on an unimaginable scale, a war in which today remains unresolved and has to date taken 193,000 lives as an absolute minimum whilst Isis militants now look poised to conquer the region and now call on Iraqi Christians to convert to Islam or be executed. The combined cost to Britain of the wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan is reckoned to be around £20 billion.

After the First World War, in 1919 a wood-and-plaster cenotaph was erected in London for the Allied Victory Parade. A more permanent structure now stands there. But very year since 1919, there has been a parade and a ceremony in remembrance. It’s been said that if in 1919 all Britain’ first world war dead, were to march past that cenotaph four abreast, the parade would last for seven days. The size of this march past would number 994,138 rising to 1,225,914 if we included service personnel from other parts of the British Empire. Not included in this calculation are the British military wounded who would have numbered another 1,663,435. The total number of deaths in World War 1 is estimated at around 16 million, but this would be more than doubled in the Second World War when around 37 million adults and children would lose their lives.

And so we reflect on the cost of human life in war situations and when we are brought close to the reality of it all we must surely be overwhelmed by the insanity of what we has human beings are putting ourselves through and what the inestimable price in terms of sheer pain and misery must be. Through war we are really creating a hell on earth.

And so we recall that in the Garden of Gethsemane a time of great danger and at the cost to his own life, Jesus told his protector to put away the sword for as he said, "those who live by the sword shall die by the sword". This as ever is the choice facing the world today.

Thursday 17 July 2014

I Am the Way the Truth and the Life

We often reflect on the need for purpose in life on how we may find joy and fulfilment in the service of others, indeed on how in reality it is this serving, serving God, serving the world and serving others is actually a prerequisite to the truly successful life. We look at nature the interconnection of life and our mutual dependence on the world and on each other. Even the trees, for example, serve the world and when they cease to do that they die. And of course the motor car at the end of its life is scrapped recycled and often eventually reappears as another product to serve humanity. So perhaps we are looking in the wrong place for clue to the meaning of it all through dismantling and reducing things to their component parts, we can no more understand the reason for the trees existence by sawing it in half than we can understand the meaning of life from the Hadron Collider. I am not however dismissing the significance of scientific investigation which is quite another thing.

Here we are really concerned with the things that matter to us, the religious, the metaphysical, the spiritual, not in reducing things down to nothing so that they can be explained away by intellectual arrogance but rather through an approach that can give us inspiration, spiritual solace and the courage and strength that brings us into harmony with God, with the creative spirit of the Universe.  A woman who once came to our chapel was disappointed to be told by a visiting minister that he did not believe in the after-life. We certainly have no proof that there is survival beyond the grave. When somebody dies, what are we left with? A few photographs, a few letters, some of their personal effects and the dust of their previous existence blowing through an empty room, I once heard a story, a true story I am led to believe, of a devout and holy man who in the closing years of his life lost all power of memory and had physically deteriorated to the point where he required full time nursing. Yet such was the power of his spirit that he gave inspiration and transformed the lives of others until his death.

The religious life demands a leap of faith; trust in the present moment that all will be well, 'blessed are those who believe and have not seen' says Jesus but scientific inquiry wants to put its fingers in the holes of the wound; or put another way, simply to peel back the existing layers and to discover what lies behind the previous layer but what do we ever find? More layers like a continuing game of pass the parcel. Sometimes this searching is presented in the publication of yet another historically researched book or a biography on the past life of a prominent or exceptional person but in the end it always comes down to the same thing; opinion.

We are left then, always to make up our own minds to even create our own reality because the truth is not always apparent, all our searching and looking, our weighing up of the evidence will always be inconclusive and unsatisfactory because there will always be new evidence or new doubts that come along, like new theories of who this Jesus was or wasn't what he looked like and what his exact age was when he died: whether indeed he existed at all. 

We are certain of his existence, in this sense, not because of any scientific truth but because the words attributed to Jesus find a resonance within the depths of our own being. The deep spiritual words found in the gospel of John are interpreted to speak to each of us, for there is a real power in these words, "I am the way the truth and the life" You cannot enter this life without following the example of Jesus, Jesus personifies that self-giving love, which is the love of God and we are promised that by taking this road we can achieve much as Jesus said, "I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father." If the language is difficult to grasp the meaning is clear, that the way, the truth and the life is a road open to anyone. The one great truth is the love that is the source of all things and to know that love and to live in that love is to live spiritually, and in this sense without doubt, to live faithfully and truly. "I am the way the truth and the life." 

Tuesday 17 June 2014

"I and the Father are one."

At the heart of the cyclone tearing the sky
And flinging the clouds and the towers by
Is a place of central calm:
So here in the roar of mortal things,
I have a place where my spirit sings,
In the hollow of God’s Palm.
— Edwin Markham.

 Edwin Markham in this single stanza rephrases the words of Jesus of Nazareth who was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God will arrive to which he replied, "Neither say lo here! Or lo there! for behold the Kingdom of God is within you! When we look at the life of Jesus through any of the four gospels the emphasis is always placed on the inner life on His connection with God, and prayer. In the gospel of Matthew we can read: "Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there." (Matthew 14:22-2) And in the gospel of Luke: "But the news about him spread even more, and large crowds were gathering together to hear him and to be healed of their illnesses. Yet Jesus himself frequently withdrew to the wilderness and prayed."

Real prayer is communion with God, contemplative prayer, non-discursive prayer, meditation - all genuine seeking leads to the one road and the one destination. Ralph Waldo Trine wrote: "This Spirit of Infinite Life and Power that is behind all is what I call God. I care not what term you may use, be it Kindly Light, Providence, or the Over Soul, Omnipotence, or whatever term may be more convenient. I care not what the term may be as long as agreed in regard to the great central fact itself." 

This one essential point, this central fact is the basis of all religion the etymology or the root meaning of the word 'religion' is to reconnect to God or to bind to God. The goal in life as the founder of Transcendental Meditation the  Maharishi Mahesh Yoga would have it is to attain enlightenment or to put it another way the object of the spiritual life is to achieve union with God. This is why Jesus who had achieved this exalted state could say, "I am not alone, because the Father is with me."(John 16:32) or "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) we are all offered this great gift.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Homeward Bound

We are as the old hymn goes 'dwellers all in time and space' this time and space is our life, a world which is literally moving under our feet, so to speak and we are on a journey, a journey of life that has a beginning and an end. In the spring time there is this explosion of new life and we don't have to go far to see it the greening of the trees, spring flowers forcing their way through the dormant soil amidst the increasing warmth and light of the season. In new life there is a sense of innocence of confidence and purpose all of it at the brink of a new journey; outward bound. And yet there is this allure this gravitational pull almost; in the message of being homeward bound. 

I think the hymnodist, Isaac Watts give expression to this yearning when he writes: 'Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all who breathe away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; be thou our guide while life shall last, and our eternal home." Psalm 23 begins with the words, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . ." and it closes with, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever." I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This dwelling in the house of the Lord is not a dwelling in a church or a temple it's not even a place. Rather it's an attitude and a relationship with God. It's part of the human condition to want and there are always things we think we need and want but not to be in want is contentment to live in acceptance and take if you like, a more philosophical view of life. Our dwelling in the house of the Lord is to enter into this contentment and into a filial relationship with that power that is infinitely greater than we are.

 A child lives in it its parent's house and has no worries because the child knows it is not in control and that the ways of adults are not particularly clear to them; to children. A child lives in acceptance more often than not and is not subject to the pressures and external stresses of providing and surviving and worrying about things as an adult is. I don't think that the practice of faith or religion is actually a 'cop out', an abrogation of our responsibility to face up to life but rather it is that faith can allows us to be honest and to recognise our frailty within the impermanent and uncertainties of life. 

In one mode of transport, flying, perhaps more than any other, we are brought face to face with our own vulnerability, we get on that aeroplane as passengers and we are like the child, totally dependent on the crew of the aircraft, the weather conditions and it air-worthiness. Sadly, tragically, as we know, this weekend as the Reuters news agency reported: "A Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew went missing off the Vietnamese coast on Saturday as it flew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and was presumed to have crashed. There were no reports of bad weather and no sign why the Boeing 777-200ER, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent engines, would have vanished from radar screens about an hour after take-off."

How can we deal with these awful realities except through acceptance? Our homecoming is to dwell in the house of the Lord, our homecoming is our acceptance of all those things we cannot change, our homecoming is the death of ego and the acquisition of that peace that passes all understanding, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me." Our homecoming, when we have done all we can, is simply to let go and just be, to dwell in the house of the Lord.

Monday 3 February 2014

Van Gogh: A Prophet of Light

Have a look at this picture, I'm sure you will recognise it, it's Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' painted in 1898. I've always loved this picture. The first time I ever remember seeing it, I must have been eight or nine years old. We were allowed to paint and draw at school on Tuesday afternoons, something I always looked forward to. We weren't jut allowed to draw and paint we were allowed also on occasion, to model with cardboard boxes and be creative. I don't think most parents see may see it in that light when their children arrive home with their creations of recycled junk. But no matter, art is about imagination and what cannot be denied is the power of imagination. I happen to think that imagination is one of our greatest faculties and in children it needs to be encouraged. In any case, where would humanity be without imagination to fire its inspiration and to lead us on to achievements that cynics had previously have either dismissed as pointless fantasy and time wasting? Where would we be without artists and dreamers?

As I was saying, our teacher had put a print of Van  Gogh's Starry Night on the wall and explained to us that those dramatic Catherine wheels in the night sky of  that  picture  were  really stars. She explained that this painting was an example of alternative way to see, to draw and paint and therefore depict meaning outside of the conventional ideas of what a picture should look like. Her words made a lasting impression on me, it was too me a small but significant moment in opening my mind to ideas in art that went beyond the merely conventional. Looking back, it was a revelation to me since there were no pictures on the walls inside the council house where I lived as child, let alone a Vincent Van Gogh print!

I have to say that in spite of this early teaching experience I have lived my life knowing little about art. It's true that I have made the occasional visit to local and national art galleries and seen the occasional art programme on television. But on the whole I remain largely ignorant about art and the work of the great artists, which I have to admit, is nothing to boast about at all. However, as a ministry student at Luther King House in Manchester, I was, as it were, called back into the classroom. And there I had to encounter what was termed 'Art in Theological Reflection', Art in 'Encountering and Responding to Christ', and there was even a module titled: 'When Artists, Scientists and Theologians Meet'. In theology it seems, I cannot escape the world of art and there amongst all the great artists I rediscovered albeit, much later in life, my old friend Vincent Van Gogh and his Starry Night - courtesy of a college power point projector.

The teacher on this occasion was a Baptist minister, the Reverend Dr Richard Kidd who is also the co-author of:  God and the Art of Seeing - Visual Resources for a Journey of Faith. Commenting on Vincent's Starry Night He wrote these words "Let us look at it closely, it is utterly 'Van Gogh'; all, that is but for one thing, the darkness; But he writes in the same paragraph, "Its claim to total 'Van Goghness' is fully justified however by the peculiar illumination of this night; even from the darkness an unparalleled radiance beams from this painting." I think, if you like this picture, this is indeed what draws us, the colour in the night sky, the dynamic swirling motion  of the paintwork,  and the sheer energy of light that explodes and is born out of the darkness

As a young man Van Gogh wanted to enter the church. He was initially encouraged in this ambition whilst working in England in 1876. At this time a Methodist minister, the Rev Slade Jones whom he was also lodging with, employed him and also gave him the opportunity to preach at his church. The theme for the sermon was taken from Psalm 119: 19 "I am a stranger on the earth, hide not thy commandments from me." The writer, Albert Lubin said "The sermon shows Vincent freely accepting the existence of grief, loneliness, and death, but through the vehicle of religious faith he is able to glorify them as a prerequisite for joy, acceptance and immortality."Catalysed by suffering, sorrow leads to joy, loneliness to togetherness, death to rebirth, darkness to light, and earth to heaven."

Vincent's sermon given at the Wesleyan Methodist Church Richmond on Sunday 29 October 1876 ended with a description of a painting: God Speed by George Henry Broughton (1870) Inspired by Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, Vincent recalled the picture's distant mountains, and then spoke of the distant mountains that pilgrims must arduously travel in faith. In a letter to his brother he describes this first preaching experience in the pulpit as 'emerging from a dark cave underground'. He feels as though he is emerging into the 'friendly daylight' and so, describing his first experience as a preacher, it is images of light to which he intuitively turned." Enthused and inspired he wrote "It is a delightful thought that in the future wherever I go, I shall preach the Gospel."  As we know, Van Gogh became the extraordinary lightening conductor through which his own inner turmoil would lead to a metamorphosis in which his Christian faith, and later his paintings brilliantly dreamed out on canvas would bring fame and immortalise him in the world of art.

However, Van Gogh's attempts to enter the Church were ultimately unsuccessful. He failed to pass the entrance exams for the Faculty of Theology in Amsterdam.  He  then  entered  an evangelical  school in Brussels only to be rejected after working as  a lay  preacher  amongst  the  miners  in  Belgium.  In  August 1879, he was rejected by the church, which criticised him for his 'excessive  commitment'  Whatever  Van  Gogh's'  personal  short comings, his ascetic life style as a 'lay evangelist'  and dedication  to  his  ministry,  to  the  peasant  miners,  his  praying with them and dressing their wounds cannot be denied. This was Van Gogh's testament to following the life of Christ. But in the end without the support of the Church his self-appointed missionary life could not be sustained. Moreover his own health could not withstand his own obstinacy and his self-induced privations.

Vincent Van Gogh was twenty-seven years old when he finally abandoned his attempts to become a pastor and set his sights on becoming an artist instead. But I would argue that he would never give up on his faith. For example, in 1888 he described Christ, the life of Christ by writing, "He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in the living flesh. It has been said by many commentators, 'the majority even' have argued that the end of Vincent's evangelistic career was also the end of his Christianity and even the end of his belief in God. The reality is more that whilst Vincent like most people who  may have break with organised religion and its attendant hypocrisies still retain their faith and  there attachments to the Bible and hold on to that concept of the Christ figure. In a letter to his brother, Theo in 1884 he wrote, "Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its Founder was sublime"

There are critics who have dismissed Vincent's religion and art as a coping mechanism for a troubled mind and we know that Vincent   was a troubled man; we know   about his personal circumstances his bouts of melancholy his depressions, his self­ admitted insanity, the story of his cutting off of a large part of his ear with   a razor.  All of  this  point  to  a  life  of  mental suffering,  deep  feelings of   rejection,   unrequited   love,   and loneliness would (again) lead to self mutilation and death by suicide in 1890. However, the specific details of Van Gogh's illnesses are complex. Could it not be suggested that in large part, albeit at an extreme, his sufferings are representative of the universal human condition? We are all familiar with existential angst. Perhaps we should learn to recognise our own shadow side as an integral universal component. And whilst we may long for, and worship the light, we may learn that we simply cannot consign the darkness to irrelevance. Van Gogh seemed to know that darkness and suffering is the soil, the potential, out of which may spring light, life and love. Light and darkness is not a duality but a symbiotic whole in a dialectical relationship. And I find it helpful to see the twin themes of religion and art as the medium through which Vincent's own God-realisation could be expressed, a working through of the Holy Spirit leading him to artistic completeness. A prophet of light who bequeathed paintings that will be gazed at forever in awe and wonder

Saturday 11 January 2014

A New Year Reflection 2014

When we see a newborn baby we see how fragile human life is. We see the infant and hear the infant breathing and we can hear her feeble cries. Although the child has been born and although she  is in our world it seems that in those early days there is that struggle for life as though the child has not yet fully crossed that bridge from eternity into existence. We see as the days of its life pass from weeks into months how that child takes on form, weight and flesh and how she grows. How in a relatively short time she sits up and begins to take notice and not only can she can make her presence known by demanding comfort and food but how too she smiles and brings pleasure to all those around her. Then there she is it seems in no time crawling and then beginning her first faltering steps falling and then rising again with the determination that is the essential human spirit, the determination to succeed, to live and to participate in this strange new world that is so full of wonder of surprise and curiosity. The child at this stage lives in the present moment; there are no doubts or fears to assail her for she lives in the now, driven on by the impetus of life to take her place in that

In this New Year we are given a gift, if we choose to see it like this, a New Year, a blank page to write and act upon, new days to savour and perhaps new ways of dealing with old problems. Surely there is potential enough in the coming unfolding days and changing seasons to make this coming year different in so many ways? One of the great themes of the religious life is to give thanks for the privilege of life but perhaps the greatest way to honour God, the greatest way to acknowledge the privilege of living, the days of our life is to live them more fully, to be awake to the presence of God in the world and to be awake to our obligations to each other.

And so we return once again to that subject, the birth of a child, the hopes for its future, its needs to be loved and protected and its eagerness to discover the world; to play and to learn and eventually in the passing of years to take its rightful place as an independent and fully functioning person to fit into society, into the local community and the wider family of humanity. At the beginning of life, there is no definite blueprint or a certain road map for any child, for the child will be he or she that it wants to be, there is no certainty, we might guess at the future but every child like every moment is unique; every child, every person.

We cannot know the future as we look at the prospect of a New Year as it stands before us. But we should accept it as a great blessing not with foreboding or a jaded sense of repetition because it is not that it, it is not the repetition of another year but the continuation of life in its unfolding drama on a cosmic scale, where all the men and women are actors playing different parts at different times, we are co-creators with God you could say in our brief lives. So let us live now with a sense of excitement of pleasure in the lengthening days and the joys that the remaining winter months will bring, and let us live in the anticipation of spring and all that will follow in its wake. And let us remember these words from the poem, The Gate of the Year by Minnie Louise Haskins:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”