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Onward Christian Soldiers?

Amongst the incredibly distressing scenes we have witnessed on the news of late about the war in Ukraine, I was particularly and strangely moved by the women in the city of Dnipro who were spending their time making home-made ‘Molotov Cocktails’ (petrol bombs) in order to protect their families from Putin’s ruthless troops. These were wives, mothers, daughters and sisters who were saying “We have to do something”, as the West is not coming to their aid.

As Christians we don’t like to see scenes like this no matter what the circumstances are as Jesus has taught us  that we should love our enemies, we should return good for evil, that vengeance is God’s alone and that the peacemakers are blessed. But these women and their family are currently in Hell- we just can’t imagine what they are going through as hundreds and almost certainly thousands of them are being shelled and crushed into submission, and our hearts go out to them.

Now the idea of people using force and violence even in self-defence has always been a difficult concept for us as Christians down the ages. Some Christians (especially Quakers) are pacifists and feel there are no situations where they can justify the use of force but many others (me included I have to say) feel that ‘righteous anger’ or ‘limited aggression’ is justified in order to bring about justice and to protect the weak. It is something that early Christians such as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas argued for where a) force is needed for a just cause because of some wrong that has occurred and b) that those using force have the right intent-that of promoting good and to prevent evil.

Jesus also teaches us about righteous anger in the story of the moneychangers in the temple (in all four gospels) where he uses his anger to expel them from the Temple using not just his words but by actual physical force -by overturning their tables, using a whip out of cords and throwing away their money in order to make his point that people were using God’s house as a ‘den of thieves’ and making it difficult for people to praise his Father there. The idea of God’s people justifiably using force is there in the Bible for example in the accounts of Abraham fighting the four kings (Genesis) and David using force to slay Goliath (Samuel). So in extremis it is justified.

Like so many other Christians we at St Mary’s have had Ukraine very much in our thoughts and prayers and we know how effective they can be. However, for many Ukrainians that support no matter how well appreciated may not be enough as they are in mortal terror now and they need active support (and force) from the West but that is not coming because of the fear of a nuclear war. That means people like the women of Dnipro are having to try and save their families themselves in the only way they feel they can – through what I think can be truly said is an example of ‘righteous anger’.

 

'After Life'

One of the many delights of the current No 1 show on Netflix-Ricky Gervais’ After Life (which I should warn is not for faint hearts), is its tale of how to deal with bad things, how to have hope and live a good life-or how to be a good person.

If you haven’t seen the show it centres around Tony (Ricky Gervais) a writer for a local free newspaper whose beloved wife dies. Not being able to deal with his loss, he contemplates suicide but then attempts to punish the world in some way by doing and saying whatever he likes. His friends and colleagues though do their best to give him hope and encourage him to rebuild his life and become a better person.

The show’s language is nothing if not spicy and as they used to say it is not for your maiden aunt, but despite that, the programme has some profound spiritual truths in it.

At one point a character in it says:

“People get so hung up on what it takes to be a good person. They spend hours on end trying to figure out what they can do to make the world a better place or how they can have a positive impact on humanity to make them feel good about themselves. And this is it: this is the be-all and end-all of what it takes to be a decent human being-do things for other people. Go out of your way to make other people’s lives a bit easier, however you can, with whatever is within your capability, and you will be a good person by definition”.

When Ricky Gervais wrote that piece of writing he was not far off the truth and of course it should immediately chime with Christians. We know that as a follower of Jesus they have a duty to serve each other – in 1 Peter 4:10 we are told “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God”. We show our love for people by serving them.

We are also required to encourage each other, to build and mould others to allow them to overcome the obstacles they face in their lives. This is also about giving them hope and faith that “they will overcome”.

There is a marvellous line in Deuteronomy 22:4 where it says “Thou shalt not see they brother’s ass or his fall down by the way and hid thyself from them: thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again”. In other words, the way we show our love for people is by serving them, sharing their life’s burdens, and making things just that bit better for them. That is a real definition of being a good person and honouring God.

'Belfast'

I recently saw the acclaimed and quite stunning film ‘Belfast’ and for those not familiar with it, it is made by Sir Kenneth Branagh and is a semi-autobiographical tale of his life being brought up in Northern Belfast in the late 1960s during ‘The Troubles’. It is so good partly because it is less about the terror atrocities that took place in Belfast but more a warmly nostalgic eulogy about that time when you are 9 or 10, having the time of your life, fancying the girl who sits behind you in school (even if she does follow another denomination)  and where your parents dance in the street to Van Morrison.

However, there is a scene in the film when the young Branagh goes to church and is terrified within an inch of his life by the fire and brimstone preaching of the local minister. He talks loudly and violently of the two routes in life you can follow-one is to the promised land whilst the other is Hell. Sadly, young Branagh could not remember which route was the one to follow and how you avoided the road to Hell. The point of the scene though was how damaging such preaching was to young minds then and now.

Previously it was the Christian way to convert and control people through the various ‘Great Awakenings’ in our history with the last one accepted as probably being in the 1960s- we have I suspect all witnessed or heard such preaching – the one where our sins are denounced, we are told about the imminent threat of hell awaiting us if we do not repent and the preacher will generally shout, yell and even pound the pulpit. The effect in the end is quite often we get taught the religion of Fear rather than of Love.

Compare that approach then with that of the Southern Baptist churches in the USA who crafted for themselves a God who was kindly, full of compassion and love for his creation, and it reaped great awards- which is way it is the 2nd biggest Christian denomination across the Atlantic.

We should be grateful that the fire and brimstone style of preaching has gone out of style to be replaced by something wiser, more encouraging, and frankly something that is more effective in bringing young minds to Christ.

Sing!

There is a recent tradition amongst my extended family which is to ask everyone to name their 3 favourite songs from a particular era or type of music. Not surprisingly, at this time of the year it is your favourite Christmas songs.

Now some of my friends have gone for the expected songs –‘ Last Christmas’ (1984) by Wham!, or ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ (1973) by Slade. Partly because I lived the music culture of the 70’s and 80’s I usually choose something like ‘ A Winter’s Tale’ (1983) by David Essex, ‘Step into Christmas’ (1973) by Elton John or The Pogues’ ‘Fairy tale of New York’ (1987). However, in recent years I have tended to favour the Sinead O’Connor version of the great Christian hymn ‘Silent Night’ which has the ability to cut you to the bone, to mentally slow you down, allowing you to meditate and commune with God.

As Christians, singing has always been important- indeed historically, it was identified as something that marked us out from other people. As far back as the 2nd century, the judge and governor Pliny the Younger commented about the Christians in Turkey saying:

“they would gather early in the morning and sing joyfully to one another, singing hymns to Christ as to a God”.

Of course, we are commanded to sing at various points of the Bible notably in James 5:13:

“Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms”

During Advent and running up to Christmas it is hymns that are at the forethought of our singing worship. I think ‘Silent Night’ speaks to me more than any other hymn as it captures through its lyrics and its slow mediative music, the upcoming event of the Baby Jesus being born (“Silent Night! Holy Night!, Shepherds quake at the sight!, Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!, Christ the Saviour is born!”)

The history of ‘Silent night’ is also very powerful- it came about through an Assistant Pastor at a church in Austria (Father Joseph Mohr) who took a six stanza poem that he had written to the church’s Choirmaster (Franz Xaver Gruber) for him to set music to it. The church organ was not working so they improvised with a guitar and a choir. That day was Christmas Eve 1818- it was first performed in that church (St Nicholas near Salzburg) later that day during Christmas Mass, and the rest they say is history.

So let us do as Psalm 100 commands us:

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” Serve the Lord with gladness”, come into his presence with singing!”

To listen to the Sinead O’Connor version, please click below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eq5FAbdkZg4