Nov 102013
 

poppyIn remembering the dead,
we do not forget or forsake the living.

In remembering war,
we do not forget our search for peace.

In praying for peace,
we do not dishonour those who have given
their body, their mind, their life.

For we give thanks
for the love
which enables one
to give selflessly for another,
even unto death;
while at the same time,
we lament the necessity.

And in the grief we bear
for those who have lost
a limb, a mind, a life,
we hold fast
to the hope we have in God,
and in his Son, Jesus,
who gave his life,
so that we might understand something
of God’s love for us.

And so that we might seek
the gift of His Spirit
so that we will have the strength
to show love,
and mercy,
and forgiveness.

All of this we do,
as we remember
those who have served,
and who still serve.

We will remember.

Jul 112011
 

Dome on the RockWe were especially privileged on our trip to have with us some excellent guides and thanks to the scholarly contacts of one of them we had an invitation to visit the mosques which now sit atop the Temple mount in the old town in Jerusalem. The most famous is perhaps the Dome on the Rock with its stunning golden dome blazing in the sun. (Although, I suppose it might be more correctly named a shrine rather than a mosque.)

But this is just one of three significant mosques on this site. Another is the Aqsa Mosque, the main site for Friday prayers. This sits on the southern edge of the Temple area and above another mosque – Solomon’s Stables. The story is that when the Moslems gained control of the site they were so impressed by the Temple remains that they assumed Solomon must have had supernatural help to build. The ‘stables’ – a huge colonnaded (not sure if that’s the correct architectural description) area under the site – must have been where Solomon stabled the Djinns needed to move the massive blocks of stone. The irony being that the huge blocks were a legacy of Herod the Great, not Solomon.

The three mosques are not generally open to idle visitors. Nevertheless we were allowed access and were able to photograph what we wanted. In some respects Solomon’s Stables is the least impressive of the three – at least in the sense of ornamentation or fittings. But it is an absolutely enormous space (the photos – the ones of the space with the red and silver-striped carpet – simply don’t do it justice), stunning in its size. The Aqsa mosque is also an enormous space and has some beautiful features. It was fascinating to watch the birds wheel about inside, so large and airy it is. In the photo album, it’s the building with the red, chequered carpeting.

Sadly, the Dome on the Rock was undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishment so the area above ‘the Rock’ (believed to be, variously, the site of the Holy of Holies, or where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, or where Muhammad left the earth) was shrouded in scaffolding and panelling. There are some photos of the interior though showing some of the beautiful features.

But all of this can be looked up in a guide book or online and you’ll find a lot more information and better photos than I can ever provide here. The Haram is a beautiful place, with tree-shaded walks and beautiful architecture. It also houses a project which is restoring ancient manuscripts through very skilled and painstaking work. Groups sit around studying the Quran – and it was noted that there were many more study groups of women to be seen now.

But the place is at the heart of the disagreement between Jew and Arab. For each, the site is central to their faith (albeit not of the highest importance in Islam) and, as such, is crucial to their identity. Giving up the site would be like denying who you are. I think it’s this that Western culture doesn’t ‘get’. Listening to groups of US Jews being guided to the Western Wall, it was clear that so much of their personal identity is wrapped up in their national identity which, in turn, is wrapped up in their faith identity. And core to that is the holy site of the Temple. It is from there, that the sense of identity flows. One is left with the impression that without agreement on the Temple area there will never be agreement on any other aspect of the relationship. And it’s difficult to see how the issue of the Temple can ever be resolved.

For many Westerners, it’s just ‘a place’. Places have no true importance. Of course we have emotional attachments to places – just think of the hurt and anguish caused by a suggested union of two congregations here. But, ultimately, a place is just a place; a thing of bricks and mortar, of wood and tiles. Certainly for the (Western) Christian faith, a believer’s identity is not in a place, but in the person of Jesus.

But I wonder if we also miss a little something in our poor understanding of the Jewish or Muslim faith (and perhaps even the Christian faith). When we place our identity entirely in a person, we can overly personalise our faith. We forget that Jesus was not an individual, but a person of the Trinity, and so inherently part of a community. When our faith is too ‘personal’ we cease to be a part of a community and our ‘identity’ is diminished. Furthermore, that community has a place, both in the sense of its own place in wider society, but also a place where it can gather as a faith community. I think that when we know our ‘place’, within a faith community and within a wider community, then we can more fully serve and live our faith, for we understand its place in our life and in the life of those around us.

Sep 072010
 

As someone whose job is ‘words’ it should mean that I am more careful than many about how they are used and, indeed, which ones I use. I can get very picky about words – especially theological ones. I dislike ‘sloppy’ words which get one into a fankle when speaking of God. I dislike inaccurate words which are used incorrectly. Unfortunately, I am not immune from falling into the same pitfalls.

I recently wrote about the BBC programme, ‘A Church in Crisis?’. In that article I picked up on the issue of secularism, even suggesting that a fellow blogger had mistakenly promulgated a misconception. Peter very kindly replied to my article but his comment was caught by an over-zealous spam filter and didn’t appear until he questioned me about it. He questioned my interpretation of secularism and suggested that in its promotion of egalitarianism it serves a very useful function; undermining power structures (especially religious ones) and promoting individual control.

Peter’s usage is, I would suggest, more true to the root understanding of secularism – the separation of church and state. This is a part of the definition of secularism found on the Secular Society‘s website:

Secularism supports the individual against the pressure of the group and the individual conscience against the dogma of the group.

I can’t help but think that these are words which the church could easily get behind and endorse. And yet, here is the problem with words. They accumulate baggage that ends up creating division which isn’t present in the core definition. Or perhaps, one might say that words are twisted to mean whatever we need them to mean in our own context.

Secularism is one such. From a Christian perspective, it is often used almost pejoratively – the implicit threat it contains to the religious establishment turns it into something tainted. Yet, one cannot deny that it is a word which has been seized by many as a banner or slogan around which to rally in opposition to religion.

What’s the answer then? At worst, one falls into the post-modern malaise of having define one’s terms every time. It is, undoubtedly, necessary to separate the ‘word’ from the inherited baggage at times. Yet it is often the ‘baggage’ which gives a word its richness of meaning. The problem with words is that they’re all we have to explain things by. Yet, on the other hand, they’re not all we have to show Christianity by. We may be followers of the Word, but we are known as such by our actions.

Aug 252010
 

Last night, BBC Scotland aired a short documentary, A Church in Crisis?, about the Church of Scotland and its current circumstances. The broadcast date marks the anniversary of the Kirk’s creation following the Scottish Reformation. Peter has already blogged about the programme and notes that it offered a balanced view of the Kirk’s present state.

There was the “What’s the Kirk ever done for us?” bit; a reminder of the legacy of that early push for education and literacy which established Scotland as a leader in educational achievement. The Kirk’s social conscience was highlighted and its impact on today’s social care noted. Although that place is now filled more and more by local authority groups, the Kirk still has a significant presence in this area. It begs the question though, as a friend recently discussed with me, that perhaps the Kirk has achieved what it set out to do in this area –  show how social care ought to be done – and now it is time to invest the resources in other work of social inclusion and justice.

However, the outlining of the current state of the Kirk jangled a few nerves. It rightly highlighted falling membership, financial pressures and ministerial resources as areas causing concern. But it phrased them in a slightly disingenuous way I thought. Falling mambership cannot be disputed, but little was made of the changing social culture where ‘membership’, of anything, is increasingly becoming out-of-date. Loose affiliations and fluid loyalties are the characteristics of our present society. Any sort of ‘commitment’ has people running a mile. I’m not suggesting that the numbers attending church are in any way much rosier than they are, but membership numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

The financial situation was also misrepresented. A running deficit of just over £5m is not the same as being “nearly £6m in the red” as was reported. Again, I’m not suggesting this is an acceptable situation, but it ought tohave been reported accurately. Furthermore, little was made of the proposals to address that deficit.

Associated with that was the throwaway comment of “only four trainees have entered Scotland’s leading divinity school.” Now, while I would happily agree with that assessment of New College’s place in the ordering of things, to ignore the intake at the other institutions is irresponsible and misleading. New College has fallen foul of entrance quota restrictions in its associated University College. Those who have been unable to gain a place have deferred or have gone to one of the other institutions. A fairer report would have been to cite overall numbers in training.

But I want to highlight one final thing in the programme which went entirely unchallenged and has an insidious effect on how we, the Church, approach things. Peter fell into the same trap in his assessment as well. It is stated, without any qualification or justification, that we live in a secular society. I’m not convinced that this is true. I would, perhaps, have agreed ten or twenty years ago, but not today. Secularism is also fighting a losing battle as many more people begin to see the society of ten, twenty, thirty years ago as heading towards moral bankruptcy. In a similar way to post-war theologians, there is a reaction against the ‘me-centred’ doctrines of, in today’s case, the consumerist state. More people are now looking for ‘something else’ to help order their life. There has been, in recent years, an increase in ‘spirituality’ in our cultural mindset. The unfortunate thing is that the years of secularism have left many without the vocabulary or grounding of a Christian spirituality. Pic’n’mix religion has become the order of the day. This, I would suggest, is a very different challenge to the church. It’s one thing dealing with a society which is entirely indifferent to religion, quite another to deal with people who see all religions as their personal spiritual supermarket to pick and choose from as it suits them.

Without a doubt the Kirk has some hard times ahead but I would tend to agree with Ron Ferguson’s thoughts towards the end of the programme that a beleaguered church is not necessarily a bad thing.