Into the Unknown

When I was first diagnosed with cancer and told it had spread significantly, I shared a little private anguish with my old friend, Bro Duncan PBGV. I told him my plans had been scuppered and I felt somehow ‘cheated’. But he just looked at me with those wise old eyes of his, and something about them brought me to my senses. We are never cheated by life. Our plans are exactly that: an attempt, a desire, to achieve something in the future, nothing more. They have no separate or real existence apart from our dreams. We may be reluctant to admit it, but our desire to control the future is illusory. We step daily into the unknown. To a dog, the unknown is a place to be explored with enthusiasm and delight, whereas to human beings it can be a source of confusion and distress.

In Advent we step out into the unknown in a new way. We are being called to prepare a place for the Lord in our hearts and that means being prepared to be turned upside down and inside out. I say ‘prepared to be,’ because most of us are spared such dramatic twists and turns. The majority of us seem to get by with just a little rust being scraped off here and there. That can be painful, of course, but it is hardly earth-shattering. Throughout Advent we shall constantly be reminded that this journey into the unknown is not made alone:

the glory of the Lord
will be a canopy and a tent
to give shade by day from the heat,
refuge and shelter from the storm and the rain. (Is. 4.6)

As the Israelites discovered in the desert, and as those in Aleppo and Mosul know only too well today, the protection of the Lord does not mean that we shall be immune from sorrow and distress. God never promised us ease or material success or any of the things we tend to prize. He promised us something much better: a Saviour, and eternal life.

A prayer intention for today: let us pray for the people of Syria and Iraq and for the thousands of refugees and migrants living in refugee camps or temporary shelters, especially those vulnerable to bombing and military attacks.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Destruction of Christianity in the Middle East

It is one of those beautiful Sunday mornings England seems to do so well: sunlight streams across wet grass and the air is filled with the busy chatter of sparrows and the sweet, milky smell of the calves across the way. In hundreds of churches people will be gathering, as we ourselves will gather, to sing the praises of God, ask his intercession and celebrate his sacraments. It is a world away from the horrors of war and exile; but war and exile is precisely what many people are experiencing. There are over 50 million refugees in the world today, and yesterday their number was increased as Christians fled Mosul, Iraq, and those who could, fled northern Gaza.

I find it heartbreaking that we as a nation are standing by as the ancient heartlands of Christianity are ripped apart and destroyed. Whatever may be happening elsewhere in the world, Christians in the Middle East are disappearing fast. It will not be long before the only ones to be found in Syria and Iraq, for example, will be foreign visitors. That matters, and I, for one, am appalled that the British Foreign Office, to the best of my knowledge, has STILL said nothing — although it has said a great deal about Russia and Ukraine in the past 72 hours.

Why should we be concerned? The first reason is that we are talking about human beings who have a right to life and liberty being driven from their homes by the ISIS campaign of terror and by other militants who want to see Christianity destroyed. That is indefensible. The second reason is more complex. The destruction of Christian holy places, the desecration of ancient sites, the profanation of holy things, bites into the soul of every Christian in ways we do not always admit. We are not all spirit: we are flesh and blood, and we need signs and symbols to help us along. People come to the monastery here because they know they will find enfleshed, so to say, a way of prayer and seeking God that has centuries of lived experience behind it. The Christians of the Middle East enable us, through their very presence in the ancient holy places, to draw close to the sources of our belief and practice. They have given life to the Churches of the West, but now they themselves face death.

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to ask again a question I have often posed. If one man’s death diminishes us, how much more that of a whole people?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Christians of Mosul

It is sometimes forgotten that there were Christians in what we now call Iraq long before there were Muslims. By noon today, however, it is expected that there will be none left in the city of Mosul, where Isis has faced them with a deadly ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a tax or die. See this BBC news report for background.

This item of news didn’t make the front page of today’s BBC web-site (it is buried deep inside), yet it represents a sickening attempt to violate the consciences of thousands of people and the very real possibility of mass murder. It highlights the difficulty we in the West have in dealing with the religious dimension of conflicts in the Middle East. Part of the problem is that many of us no longer take religion seriously enough to consider how it motivates people and are woefully ignorant both of its teachings and its history. Most of us can’t get inside the mentality of Isis and its particular understanding of Islam so tend to dismiss the kind of ultimatum posed to the Christians of Mosul as mere posturing. We believe in freedom of religion, we say, by which we mean the freedom to worship according to our own beliefs. There are a few limitations on such religious freedom. Human sacrifice, for example, is not permissible, but by and large, we follow the principle of ‘live and let live’. If you want to follow some cranky religion, you do so; just don’t expect me to follow suit. That is not how a member of Isis would see things. It is not how things are in Saudi Arabia. So what do we in the West do?

We know perfectly well that at an international level what ‘we’ do is determined by our respective governments and the political and economic interests of the moment. That is not always as cynical a proposition as it may sound (think energy supplies and European winters). What we do at a personal level, however, is just as important. We have to pray, and we have to protest. We simply cannot stand by mute and uncomplaining when our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq are being chased from their homes and threatened with death. Or can we?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail