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He's ain't heavy, he's my brother

For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?, and when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”

And the King will answer them “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” “

I thought about that passage from Matthew 25:40 when, the other day, I was listening to the 1960s/1970s rock/pop group The Hollies’ version of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, also made famous by Neil Diamond. The song was co-written by American lyricist Bob Russell whilst he was dying from cancer and it sums up our responsibility to our fellow man and woman.

Its history is interesting as it is believed that the song came about as a result of a story told in ‘The Parables of Jesus’, written by a previous Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, who witnessed a little girl carrying a baby almost as big as she was, who said to him “He’s na heavy. He’s mi brither” and in time it became “He’s no heavy, he’s my brother”.

The Hollies’ version (a certain Reg Dwight- now Elton John played piano on it for the princely sum of £12) is I think the most poignant and spiritual and the words express it all:

The Road is long, with many a winding turn that leads us to (who knows) where, who knows where?

But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him-yeah, He ain’t heavy-he’s my brother”.

At the moment of course we must all be feeling that we are still on a winding road and we truly don’t know where it will end but by trusting in God we knew we will come through it. So many people have risen to the challenge to “carry” people though these troubled times – whether it is helping out with the Food Cupboard or checking that neighbours and loved ones are OK, and that is in many ways not just our duty but it can also be a privilege.

So along we go, his welfare is my concern, no burden is he to bear, we’ll get there,

But I know he would not encumber me, he ain’t heavy-he’s my brother,

If I’m leaving at all, if I’m leaving with sadness, that everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness of love for one another”

Here this reminds us of what Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ was told by his late partner Jacob Marley: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business”.

We should realise that God put us here to help, heal and love people on their road in life, and why not share that journey and lighten their burden with them?

Below is the best version of the song and some very moving and suitable images:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_xzD8Pn4nM

To be a (tough) Christian

 

 A common comment I can get from my secular friends is about how ‘soft’ they think Christians are. Quite often they, and the wider media, can describe us as ‘bleeding hearts’, as people who get taken in too easily, who are too trusting and who are easily taken advantage of.

Now, there is some kernel of truth in some of that as so many of the Church’s safeguarding abuses have come about from being too trusting of certain individuals and thinking the best, rather than the worst, of them. However, the stereotype of Christians is often undeserved, and some of the strongest people have been and are Christians.

Take the original ‘Man in Black’ -the late Country singer and actor Johnny Cash. Now he was no ‘softie’. He lived through the Depression, helped dig the grave of his beloved brother at the tender age of just 12, was infamous for smashing up hotel rooms, involved in numerous car crashes whilst on drugs and was arrested no less than 7 times. He became a Christian as a boy but saw himself as the ultimate ‘sinner’ who was not faithful to God, but God was to him. With his life spiralling out of control and unable to address his drug addiction, he retreated to a cave in Tennessee to die, but whilst there he recalled the God and faith of his childhood, was granted an epiphany, and was re-born.

Johnny Cash got it right when he later said :

“Being a Christian isn’t for sissies. It takes a real person to live for God, a lot more person than to live for the devil, you know? If you really want to live right these days, you gotta be tough”

Another tough living individual is ‘Alice Cooper’ (real name Vincent Furnier) one of the ultimate heavy rockers whose glam rock anthem ‘School’s Out’ (1972) was banned by the BBC but is still selling copies today. Remember that this is the same ‘Alice Cooper’ who gained worldwide infamy for his onstage antics and his ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ series of gigs . But the real Alice Cooper knows just how important being a Christian is.

He talks openly about being saved twice by God, the first when he survived a serious operation and the second when he realised his life was failing badly. He was drinking with the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon who all died in their 20s or 30s and knew he was on that same path of destruction. He returned to his boyhood faith and rededicated his life to Jesus.

Alice Cooper also questions how Christians are seen and sees no conflict between being a follower of Jesus and being an entertainer:

“Being a Christian is something you just progress in. You learn. You go to your Bible studies and you pray. There’s nothing in Christianity that says I can’t be a rock star. People have a very warped view of Christianity. They think it’s all very precise and we never do wrong, that we’re praying all day and that we are all right-wing. It has nothing to do with that”.

He sums it up well when he says:

“Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.”

Now this does not mean that you all have to find a hard mean streak in order to live your faith, but it does show that by being a Christian we are choosing a hard and an unfashionable road to go down, where there will be challenges that we will need to overcome, and we may be ridiculed or mocked for what we believe in. In Luke 14:27 Jesus teaches us about that cost:

“And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple”

As both Johnny Cash and Alice Cooper would testify that is the toughest gig of all, but as true disciples remember this, we know the love God has for us and that truth allows us to love others which is what it is all about.

"Can we have meaning without God?"

 

I came across a really interesting and thought provoking conversation when the stage illusionist Derren Brown (think a cooler Paul McKenna) and the Rev Richard Coles (Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Finedon- and still the only clergyman to have had a No 1 hit (Don’t Leave Me This Way) in 1986) met a while ago, as part of Premier Radio’s ‘The Big Conversation’.

They were discussing whether we can have meaning in our life without God. Derren Brown is interesting in that in his shows and his recent books, he has tried to show how people can be duped by religious charlatans in believing that some extreme acts of healing and miracles are real and expose how some church leaders (mostly in America) promote what is known as ‘The Gospel  of Prosperity’ (i.e. to celebrate and almost worship great riches).

That changed though when he listened to Richard Coles who eloquently talked about how the Resurrection is “the irreducible fact of Christianity”, and that his own personal experience of the Resurrection has defined him and his faith. Derren Brown could not deny that experience as it was a real and vivid one for Richard Coles.

Quite often critics of Christianity, and indeed religion has a whole, will use intellectual and historical arguments to try and demonstrate that Christianity is not real, that events that we have grown up to believe though the Bible probably did not take place and therefore our faith must be false.

The problem with that approach is that an individual’s Christian faith is not something that you can easily prove or disprove through historical or intellectual analysis. We all come to faith differently -some will, I’m sure, intellectually accept what they have learnt but equally large numbers of Christians have very personal and deep spiritual experiences which trump any arguments that say a Derren Brown or a Richard Dawkins can succinctly make.

In the conversation, Derren Brown talked about his own experiences when he had been a Christian in Croydon as part of a very charismatic church, but experiences like him being sent on a ‘gay conversion’ course (which, as you might expect, failed) did not help him and ultimately, when he tried to find historical proof of the Resurrection to convince himself , he lost his faith.

He talked about how different he was after stopping believing in Christ, that he became quite depressed and a realisation hit him that rather than him understanding that no matter how down he gets there is a God who loves him, that in the future “it is down to me”.  For a number of people, they lose their faith when they question and doubt the evidence of Christianity, but I find it is at those times that God often intervenes and gives them an experience that shows how real the sacrifice of his Son was.

Richard Coles made a very telling point in the conversation that whilst following Christianity may not make you ‘happy’, he has personally found it to be “the path of ultimate meaning”- and that surely must be more important than trying to find happiness.

I think that once you have meaning in your life, you become fulfilled and you get contentment, something different from being ‘happy’. The mistake a lot of people can make is chasing happiness by making a lot of money, by having a very large and expensive house or car, by having a successful career, or having glamourous partners. Ultimately of course, all those things are meaningless (and I choose that word carefully) if you are not content in your soul.

God can give our life meaning, but we need to find time and space to truly listen to his voice, and then wonders can be performed!

"Sometime the hating has to stop"

 

I think forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things we as Christians are called to do- it tends to be easier to forgive those who are our friends and who have let us down or done something against us. To forgive an ‘enemy’ or someone who had really damaged or hurt you or your family is a much tougher ask. However, Jesus does not give us a choice in the matter. We have to forgive- life is too short for grudges or hatred: there is enough of that already.

One person who showed how important it is to “forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:9-13) was someone who did not regard himself as a hero but undoubtedly was one. His name was Eric Lomax. He is perhaps best known for his outstanding autobiography The Railway Man (1995), which was later turned into a profoundly moving film of the same name made in 2013, starring Colin Firth as Eric and Nicole Kidman as his hugely supportive wife Patty.

Eric Lomax was someone who had an incurable interest in railways and train timetables, but things become incredibly real for him when he joined the Royal Corps of Signals with whom he was captured by the Japanese Army following the surrender of Singapore in 1942. There he, like so many others, were ordered to undertake a forced march to Changi Prison and had to work on the infamous Burma Railway- where around 100,000 allied prisoners died.

Whilst working on part of the railway he suffered horrendously  at the hands of the Japanese Army’s Military Police, where he was brutally beaten, waterboarded, abused and more, before the end of the war came in 1945.

After the war like so many veterans he could not settle, and he had intense, emotional feelings and mental flashbacks about how he was treated that really crippled him as a person, and which he kept to himself. In particular he disliked the Japanese people who had beaten, interrogated, and tortured him:

“I wanted to do violence to them, thinking quite specifically of how I would like to revenge myself on the goon squad and the hateful little interrogator…I wished to drown him, cage him, to beat him to see how he liked it”

That interrogator’s name was Takashi Nagase. Over the intervening years he like Eric Lomax, had suffered since the war’s end. He would have recurring nightmares of how he had treated Eric and his role in that and other crimes. He tried to atone for what he had done by funding the creation of a Temple of Peace at the River Kwai Bridge. He also wrote a book about his feelings including recounting a spiritual experience he had  in the allied war cemetery there where he felt :

“This is it. You have been pardoned

When Eric and his wife Patty heard read this, she said her reaction was:

“I was so angry really. I just wanted to fire a gun at him”

She could not understand how Nagase could have felt pardoned without being forgiven by the person he had harmed -her husband. She wrote to Takashi Nagase asking if he would be prepared to meet Eric . His reply totally disarmed her, and she said that “her anger drained away, and in its place came a welling of compassion” for both Nagase and her husband. Eric himself, said that at that point “I lost whatever hard armour I had wrapped around me…and Forgiveness became a real possibility”.

Eventually, in 1995,  they arranged to visit Mr Nagase in Thailand and then Japan where his first words to Eric were:

“I am very, very sorry” & “50 years is a long time, but for me it is a time of suffering”.

Eric realised that he had to give Takashi Nagase the forgiveness needed and later on their trip in a private meeting with him he told him:

The war had been over for almost 50 years, that I had suffered much, and that I knew that although he too had suffered throughout this time…..that while I could not forget what happened, I assured him of my total forgiveness”.

The two of them were said to be overcome with emotion and became great friends until Nagase died in 2011. Eric Lomax died the next year, but he did live to see the making of the film based on his remarkable life.

. On the headstone of Eric Lomax’s grave is the following :

“Sometime the hating has to stop”

You can learn more about Eric and see the moment he and Takashi met again below

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJbA4jpRvzA