Does your religion bring about flourishing?

I've just read an interesting book review in the Church Times. It's of Good and Bad Religion by Peter Vardy.* He is Vice Principal of Heythrop College, London, and lectures in Philosophy of Religion.

Under the headline “MOT for religions” Ronan Head in his review of the book summarises its point that we should judge the goodness of religion against Aristotle's notion of human flourishing and the virtues that characterise this alignment.

So good religions that promote flourishing also promote justice, freedom, and equality. To be responsible for their actions, humans must be free to choose them.

Bad religions are characterised by: forms of authority that stifle independent thought and promote unquestioning obedience; fundamentalist readings of their holy texts; and fear of science and technology.

Seems wise to me!

* SCM Press 2011 £12.99 978-0-334-04349-2

Remembrance Sunday Sermon

My sermon at today's service at St Bartholomew's Church in Corsham. PDF version attached.

SERMON

at St Bartholomew, Corsham, on Remembrance Sunday 14th November 2010

by Revd Richard Hovey

Readings 2 Kings 6:8-23 Matthew 8:5-13

[Opening  Prayer: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love, for Jesus’ sake. Amen]

Thank you for being here today for this important moment.

We come with a shared purpose. Yet we are drawn here by a range of experiences and emotions.

As we gather today we do not want to glorify war, yet in our love for God we do want to celebrate. We want to celebrate courage people’s willingness to put others’ needs before their own and the defence of liberty

There is a similar paradox in Jesus’ teaching. On the one hand he promises more “wars and rumours of wars.” On the other hand he commends peacemakers

We could hear that as being lined up for failure.

Or we could hear this apparent contradiction as a task, our mission from God. If there are wars, there need to be those who fight for peace. If there will be more wars, or even if there seems to be growing disharmony in civil and domestic relationships, then we need more peacemaking.

It is not a sign of failure, it is a call.

We have a shared purpose.

Have you heard about Joe?

The story is told of Joe going along to Sunday School as he does every week. As the teacher starts to ask a question, his hand shoots up and he shouts, “Jesus!”

“Joe,” she asks, “how did you know the answer before I’d even asked the question?”

The joke, or the assumption, is that in Church life whatever the question, the answer is Jesus!

After all, that’s why God became Jesus and lives among us: so that we can meet God and get to know him, to show that God is not an absent creator.

He involves himself in our daily lives;

Sometimes this is the place we are at, the answer is Jesus.

Sometimes we would like it to be true: it’s what we aspire to.

Sometimes it seems unreal in the midst of our experience.

It’s not easy being a believer. God didn’t say that in this life it would be. We might say that conflict is part of human nature. Jesus know wars will happen: he asks us to be peacemakers.

 

Sometimes in the midst of strife we want to blame God. “Where is God?” we easily say.

Others want to write “Does God exist?” They imagine that God neither created what we see nor is with us now.

It is good to address this distress to God.

It is important also to ask the right questions. (It’s what I help people do in my day job as spiritual director and as an executive coach.)

Those two question are all about what we think about God. A more important question is what God thinks about us.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the story about the soldier that we heard in the reading just now – the Centurion – has stood the test of time.

Jesus thought highly of him. He said, “Truly I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

What is it that impresses Jesus about him?

The soldier is obviously someone who believes in God. We might say that he easily believes in God as creator. He sees that the universe and the relationships within it are ordered and not random.

He says, “I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.” He sees around him structure and order and sees that authority relationships are cosmic and flow from God’s position as creator. Finally, and most importantly, he recognises who Jesus is, and he is willing to ask for his help.

Jesus commends his example, and it’s relevant for us too.

This Centurion is not a distant and irrelevant figure. He is close to us. He shares our experience of life and of conflict.

Maybe at times he was stationed just up the road, in Chippenham or Cirencester. If he’d lived just a few years later he could have been on Hadrian’s Wall defending our Roman country and Empire from warlike tribes!

God wants to be involved. Ask him! This is a good example for us to follow.

 

Another thing I notice about this Centurion is that, as he asks Jesus for help, he is grieving, We can relate to that.

However, and this amazes me, if I were going to go to these lengths to seek healing for someone I loved it would most likely be a close family member.

He is doing this for his servant who is on the point of death. This isn’t his only child we’re talking about. He’s going to these lengths for a subordinate, for a member of staff, or for a slave.

 

Our first reading, from the Old Testament, is also an example of asking God for help – this time in war.

The reading is about God rescuing the people of Israel from an attack by the army of the King of Aram (which is modern day Syria).

It’s an amazing story. (Miracles should be amazing!)

The eyes of the servant of Elisha the prophet are opened. So he sees the hills full of God’s protective presence in the shape of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.

I enjoy picturing this awesome angelic presence.

The result of God’s help is that no fighting takes place, and the humbled enemy return home.

 

In the Old Testament particularly, when people ask God for things face to face, or when they ask more remotely (which we call prayer) they often ask him to remember – to remember promises that he has made.

The Bible is full of God’s promises, and it’s good to connect with them. For God, remembering is not just something that happens in the mind. For God, remembering is about action, often about recreating something that has been lost. Most often people are pleading with him to remember his relationship with them, and how that should be about care and protection.

Today, we come together to remember. So a good question today, a good challenge to each of us is: “What will be the action that flows from our remembering? What will we do differently?”

This is not just about our own action. If God gives us a task, such as peacemaking, he doesn’t then retreat and leave us to get on with it. He wants to be involved, to help.

At times this seems to be a struggle. We don’t always see what God is doing. We are puzzled at why it is that we need to ask God, when the Bible says he knows what we need.

However that’s the way he’s set things up; those are the orders. We have to do the right job in the right way. Part of the right way to do our task, whatever it is, is to pray.

So we make a good move to meet together today to pray. Prayer is an action. It is a start to that involvement.

 This Old Testament victory took place about 3000 years ago

The Centurion experiences his servant’s healing about 2000 years ago.

God hasn’t changed.

More recently we know our personal experiences of God’s action in your life.

Seventy years ago – well, we remember the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this Autumn.

On the one hand we grieve the loss of many lives in war.

However also in 1940 French beaches were the scene of that evacuation of over 335,000 people from Dunkirk which was described in Parliament afterwards as a miracle in answer to the National Day of Prayer.

This was because Sir Winston Churchill and others expected only 30,000 to be saved, not 335,000.

It’s interesting, that mention of a National Day of Prayer. It’s not something they just to in the USA, or in Saudi Arabia.

When Sir Winston Churchill reported to the House of Commons on the 4th June 1940, after that answer to prayer when ten times as many people as expected had been rescued from French beaches, he finished with a tribute to the Royal Air Force. On this anniversary of the Battle of Britain I can think now of no better words to say in tribute to the courage and bravery of men and women of all our services – then and now. They seek to do the work they have been called to in the most dangerous situations.

Churchill speaks of the heroism of youth. This is an age where it is too easy to be cynical of youth instead of responsible, It is good to remember that very many of those people who risk their lives daily in the conflicts of today are young people.

Churchill’s words…

“May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?

There never had been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth.

The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into a prosaic past: not only distant but prosaic; but these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that When every morning brought a noble chance And every chance brought out a noble knight, deserve our gratitude,

as do all of the brave men who, in so many ways and on so many occasions, are ready, and continue ready, to give life and all for their native land.”

 

In all of this, the thing that is most awesome to me about God is that – having created all that we see – he doesn’t stand aloof.

He involves himself with and in the people he has made. This is what Jesus demonstrates, and what is unique about Jesus.

He is God with us, his creatures. He is with us in the joy of mountaintop experiences. He is with us in the mud and heartbreak of our trenches.

Let us remember. Let us act.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

When the Spirit…?

It seemed too hot today to be inside Lacock Church. I remember nostalgically a very outdoor church building that I enjoyed in Thailand some years ago, where birds flying in and out were very much part of the congregation. Perhaps that is good symbolism for today, when many churches (including Lacock) celebrate Pentecost – the coming of God's spirit.

We listened to a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, where Peter quotes the prophet Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

I found myself noticing the word all, and that the text does not say all Jews or all Christians, just all people. I'm sure the early Church was right to get excited at this kind of dramatic preview that took place in Jerusalem, and to gradually recognise the significance of it for their lives and ministry. I remember sharing that excitement in the early days of my own Christian faith particularly; however today I find myself hoping for the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy. What will it look like?! How will it feel?!

It seems to me the church teaching has sometimes been quite possessive of what happened at that event in Jerusalem around two thousand years ago. Today on this hot day the church just seemed too small an enclosure, separating us from the glory outside even as we remembered Jesus' presence with us, and the refreshing breeze was mainly (but not entirely) outdoors.

Quakers and Business

I sometimes wonder whether I am really a Quaker at heart. I like the way that they value, use, and are comfortable with silence. I like the way that they like to think things through rigorously and seek to live in a principled way. I like the way that they seek to make decisions by consensus and give those who disagree, but do not want to get in the way of a majority decision, the ability to “stand aside.”

So I read with interest a recent article, written in the light of the likely takeover of Cadbury in the UK, called “The Quaker Brand.”* Cadbury was one of a number of businesses set up by British Quakers in the 19th Century. The Quakers were keen to provide good working conditions for their staff, and a visit to their Bournville site in Birmingham is fascinating – and not just for the opportunity to eat lots of chocolate!

What interested me particularly in the article was that the reason that the Quakers became such good businessmen was because, being outside the Anglican Church, they were banned from universities (until the middle of the 19th centrury). This effectively excluded them from careers in law, science, or medicine – and of course their pacifism excluded service in the armed forces. There was also good networking within their religious community. These developments resonate with the Jew's dominance of financial activity in Europe in earlier centuries due to their exclusion. It is interesting to see the way in which the closing of doors to certain activity can shape whole communities in a way that brings benefit, although it can be (very) painful at the time.

I find it a scary thought that the focus of British intelligentsia on law, science, and medicine continues today to the detriment of creative industry. As I have sought to live out a vocation in the world of business for most of my working life, I also find it alarming that this establishment position was colluded with by the Anglican Church which in earlier centuries had a stranglehold on most of the education system. The Christian faith calls for a positive theology of work, but this perhaps explains why many (Church of England) churchgoers say that they find a complete absence during church worship of connection with, or affirmation of, their work.

Yes, maybe I am really a Quaker!

*The Week 30th January 2010

Is positive thinking helpful?

One of the challenges, in supporting people prayerfully in the church and otherwise, is knowing how much to encourage a positive attitude and how much to encourage people to be real about how they are feeling. Much of my work has been with families who are bereaved, and is informed by a knowledge of the Grief Process.* On the other hand, some people within Church circles seem to believe that there is a very close relationship between positive thinking and prayer. Indeed Jesus did say that whatever you ask for you should believe that you have received it and it will be yours.

I was interested and challenged by an extract in The Week of 16th January from Barbara Ehenreich's book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.

She speaks of the behaviour of those around her – and support groups in particular – to her breast cancer. She found that people were trying to make her collude with a “positive” culture that, because of its attitude that any problem is a gift, prevented honesty about feelings including anger and also prevented honest discussion about what was being done to prevent and treat the disease in the population as a whole.

I think a wise balance is needed. It is my experience in working with those suffering grief (which includes redundancy and serious illness as well as the death of a loved one) that long-term denial is not helpful and that people need to have time and space to be real about how they feel, and that finding good in the event – or adapting to it – is a good eventual outcome but takes time.

*Here's an overview of the grief process. There are alternative descriptions for the various stages.