Past Spirit Sightings (The Archives)
From Fraser Macnaughton
Where politicians have singularly failed, runners of the world have triumphed. For the first time ever, North Korea opened up the streets of its capital to runner-tourists for the annual Pyongyang marathon, undoubtedly one of the most exotic feathers in any runner’s cap.
No one is under any illusions that the opening of the race to recreational runners is in keeping with the North’s ongoing, but sometimes sporadic, effort to earn cash revenue by boosting tourism, usually with well-orchestrated group tours to major arts performances or attractions the North wants to show off.
“I think a lot of the attraction is the ‘Pyongyang’ part rather than the ‘marathon’ part,” said Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based agent for the Koryo Tours travel agency. “A lot of the people went along to take part were interested in simply doing something a bit unusual, something that would cause a bit of cognitive dissonance in friends of theirs when they tell them they ran a marathon in North Korea.”
Cockerell said nearly 200 foreigners signed up for the event, with most having joined packaged group tours to see the sights while they are in Pyongyang.
In the past, the main race has been restricted to a select group of elite runners. Recreational jogging isn’t a part of ordinary North Korean life, but past events have included races for local students and junior runners.
Officials said runners from 27 countries took part this year, including 225 amateurs. Though the race has long featured elite athletes from around the world, the organizers decided to make it easier for fun-runners to join in by requiring only that the course be completed in four hours – so the roads could be reopened – and by also holding a half marathon and a 10 km run. “The marathon has traditionally been open only to professional runners with 2:27 male and 2:38 female cut-off times, making it impossible for even the best recreational runner to participate,” said Andrea Lee, head of Uri Tours, an American company offering tours to North Korea. It brought 20 runners, most of them American. “Generally, the country has become more friendly for tourism,” she said. “This change in policy is in line with what we’ve seen to be the tourism administration’s willingness to explore different tour programs and other avenues to attract tourism.”
Explore… John 20:19–31
The peace of Christ, like the love of God, moves in mysterious ways. Often not our ways. May we be open to the realm of possibilities that Christ’s peace may infuse into our community and our world. Amen
From Fraser Macnaughton
A same-sex couple have married in what is believed to be the UK’s first gay wedding held in a church.
Jan Tipper and Barb Burden tied the knot recently at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Bournemouth, Dorset, England. The law allowed same-sex couples to marry since March 29, but this was the first ceremony to be conducted in a religious building, the MCC says.
Reverend Dwayne Morgan, who officiated at the ceremony, said the church had taken pride in “celebrating diversity” on the “historic day,” Ms Burden and Ms Tipper, who have attended MCC for 15 years, said they were surprised to discover their wedding was a first.
“To get married in our church was very significant to us,” Ms Tipper said. “Even though we’ve been together for almost 19 years, it didn’t feel right for us to have just a blessing or even a civil partnership. We’ve hoped for years for the opportunity to legally marry and once it became possible we knew it was time for us to tie the knot and to do it before God in our church with our friends and family.”
MCC was established in Bournemouth in 1979 and is associated with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, which has churches in more than 40 countries. Rev Morgan said, “We have been offering wedding services for same-sex couples for many years in our church because we believe that God blesses the love of two people no matter what their gender. But to finally have the Government fully recognise their love by giving them complete legal status as a married couple is a blessing for everyone.
We are extremely pleased that the Government didn’t just listen to those churches that wanted to completely block same-sex couples from the right to have their marriage consecrated in their place of worship, but heard the voices of the minority of people of faith who believe that God doesn’t discriminate. We are grateful to all those who have struggled for the rights of gay people for so many years that has led us to this historic day.”
Rev Morgan added that the change in the law to allow gay marriage meant the Government had “finally caught up with us.”
The good news of the Risen Christ is about love, about inclusion, about being open hearted and wide armed. That must include those with whom we do not agree. May reconciliation also be at the heart of our faith Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
Just weeks ago, an Egyptian judge condemned 529 people to execution. Accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned Islamist group that ruled Egypt until nine months ago, the condemned are charged with attacking a police station and killing an officer. The attack occurred in the wake of the military coup that forced former president Mohamed Morsi from power. At the same time, riot police violently dispersed a large group of Morsi supporters, killing an estimated 900 people and sparking further violence across the nation.
Only three months ago, on the third anniversary of the January 25, 2011, revolution that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, millions of Egyptians were in the streets carrying Egyptian flags and pictures of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, now considered by many to be their hero for siding with those who sought to overthrow the Muslim government last June. So it is that, now, many who chanted “down to the military” and who risked their lives three years ago to bring about Mubarak’s removal from power, are supporting that same military, to the extent that Gen. el-Sisi is expected to win the upcoming presidential election by an overwhelming majority.
While the verdict against the 529 is not expected to hold, it nevertheless demonstrates how far things have come since the high hopes that followed the 2011 revolution, termed the Arab Spring, and the election of Mohamed Morsi in 2012. In the name of security, not only are members of the Brotherhood targeted, but non-Islamist youth activists and journalists as well. Special courts accelerate trials for “suspected terrorists” and peaceful demonstrators, and there seems no end to the violent suppression of dissent from any quarter.
Explore Matthew 21:1–11 and Matthew 26:14 — 27:66…
Put yourself in the midst of the events of these passages, without reference to Easter.
God of love and mercy, we pray for steadfastness in the face of challenging times and circumstances. May we have the courage to speak truth to power that seeks personal gain or the welfare of the few over the many. May the witness of your son encourage and sustain us. Amen.
From Paul Turley
People around the world have this week marked Newroz, the traditional celebration of Iranian/Kurdish New Year. But for many in the Kurdish population the celebration is bittersweet.
“In some ways, we are happy and in some we are not,” this from a young Kurdish man, a refugee from Syria, in Lebanon because of the fighting in Syria. “You don’t understand how the other Syrians treat us.”
Many Syrian Kurds who have fled Syria have gone to the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq, established, initially in 1970 but only truly implemented in 2005, following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
However, even in this region, the dream of resurrection of true Kurdish autonomy and, for many, the dream of a truly independent Kurdish nation is still a long way from reality. In 2007, in what is the second deadliest act of terrorism in history, following only behind the September 11 attacks in the United States, four coordinated suicide car bombs killed 796 and wounded 1,562 people, mostly Yazidi people living near Mosul. According to Al Jazeera, tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds currently seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan are subjected to racism and exploitation at every turn from other Kurds who make their home in the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
As Kurds look to a new year following Newroz, during which many jumped over fires thereby symbolically leaving in the yellow of the fire the pain and suffering of the previous year and taking on the red strength of the fire for the new year to come, they and we can hope for peace, security, and a welcome for all.
Explore... John 11:1–45
God, the wait for history to turn, for freedom and resurrection to come, is sometimes a very long, long one. Often we don’t understand why, and we easily loose hope. We pray for ourselves and for all those around the world who long for freedom and peace, that our hope in you will remain strong. Amen.
From Paul Turley
There are none so blind as those who will not see.
This old proverb that, according to dictionaries, goes back to at least the 16th century, and that seems to echo the ancient text of Jeremiah in the Jewish scriptures (Jeremiah 5:21), is, sadly, always relevant and pertinent. And never more so than in the escalating crisis in the Ukraine.
As of this writing, in a referendum in the Crimea peninsula, which reported an 80% turn out of citizens, 93% backed the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Is this a free and fair indication of the desires of the people of the peninsula? Can any poll be said to be free and fair when the invading forces of a foreign nation surround a nation’s military bases, as is the case here when Russian troops have barricaded Ukrainian army units and have restricted the movements of the Ukrainian navy?
Even if we can assume that something less than 80% of the Crimean population want to break with the Ukraine and join with Russia, what of the other more than 20%? Out of a population of around two million people, we are talking about the fate of perhaps half a million people.
Many news outlets report that large numbers of the Tarter population of the Crimea boycotted the referendum and have no desire at all to re-engage with Russia. Local Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov illustrates their position with a grim joke about a hungry dog crossing Ukraine-Russia border: “There’s no food in Ukraine,” the dog tells the border guards, who wonder why it is fleeing Ukraine. A few days later, the dog makes a hasty return. “There’s no food in Russia either,” it tells the border guards. “And on top of that, barking is forbidden.”
In a world littered with ethnic and religious groups who have been frozen out of true participation and whose rights and wishes have been ignored, adding another abused group to that long and sad list not only indicates that decision-makers are blind to the suffering of individuals, but blind to history. Willful blindness means suffering now and painful struggle long into the future.
Explore... John 9:1–41
God, we know a lot about hindsight and we know a lot about blindness, what we need most of all is knowledge and wisdom about how to see, how to see clearly, how to see far and how not to blink. Help us we pray. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
All of us long to be known for who we really are, by someone who does not judge us but who draws from us our best selves. For many of the world’s refugees, being “known” may be a matter of life and death, as the work of Barbara Harrell-Bond dramatically illustrates. A native of South Dakota, Harrell-Bond’s life journey has taken her to college in Kentucky; to Los Angeles with her clergy husband; to Hungarian refugee work through the National Council of Churches; and to England, where she enrolled in the social anthropology program at the University of Oxford and went on to earn a PhD. She did research in Sierra Leone and throughout West Africa, specializing in family and administrative law. She established a Refugee Law Project in Uganda and a legal assistance program in Cairo. In 2009, she founded the Fahamu Refugee Programme, with the ambitious goal of serving as a global clearinghouse of information for lawyers and advocates working across borders and cultures. It is a place where they can find the kind of information to support what refugees tell her they most need – legal aid.
Refugees fleeing war and persecution, and seeking asylum, often arrive without papers or the documentation needed to support their claims. Refugees fearing imprisonment or even death in their home countries may have had their passports revoked. Others may face special issues, with which their lawyers, who work across different languages, legal systems, and experience, may have little or no experience: issues ranging from “apostasy” to “witchcraft.”
For those seeking asylum, the stakes are very high and without legal assistance they find the deck stacked again them. In 2012, only 36% of the 70,400 people who came to the US and applied for asylum were successful, according to figures from the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those with lawyers had a much higher success rate.
Harrell-Bond, now long past typical retirement age, works from her apartment in Oxford, England, assisted by law school interns, to help refugees and those representing them to locate and access the information they need to make their cases. Themba Lewis, co-director of the Fahamu Refugee Programme with Harrell-Bond, says of her that she “is fundamentally, unyieldingly dedicated to the concept of refugee protection and respect for refugees.”
God, you offer us the water of life in many ways. May we be prepared to do the same for those whom we encounter, wherever they may be. Amen.
Learn more. . .
From Sandra Rooney
To be born again is to see the world from a different perspective, to live in a new way. But is that possible in a world where religion is often twisted to justify hatred and persecution, and where conflicts are fueled along religious lines? We remember the words of the musical South Pacific: “You have to be taught to hate and fear…you have to be carefully taught.” What about love?
Two months ago, we read about two religious leaders in Nigeria – one Muslim, the other Christian – working to bring different religious communities together to learn tolerance and respect. Today we learn of a group of Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Protestant leaders in the Central African Republic, where brutal ethnic cleansing has pitted Christians against Muslims. These religious leaders have banded together to remind people that they share a common faith, based on Abrahamic teachings, and that principal among those teaching is peace.
One extraordinary example of faith at work in the midst of horrific brutality is found in the town of Boali. There the local priest, Xavier Fagba, has been protecting hundreds of Muslims inside the parish church since mid-January. The situation in Boali was desperate. Outside the church a young man, part of a Christian militia, who said his name was Mad Dog, was heard to say, “There should be no more Muslims in our country. They must all leave, and if they don’t, we must kill them all.” Knowing that many of those being sheltered have probably committed atrocities themselves, Father Fagba nevertheless believes that the time has come to live in a new way. In a recent sermon, he said, “We cannot be silent and cower in the face of injustice, but must have courage. True Christians live a life of love and reconciliation, not bloodshed.”
Father Fagba reports that the Muslims had discovered that, “in this church the God we worship is the same as their God.” He said that’s the vision the whole country needs to have. “We should consider them as our brothers.”
In the words of a James Manley hymn, “Spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free, Spirit, spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness, wind, wind on the sea.” Amen.
From Paul Turley
Imagine, for the moment, that you are somehow in charge in Independence Square in Kiev, in the Ukraine. What would you do to end the fighting and bring about reconciliation in a divided nation?
There are no simple solutions to the situation in the Ukraine.
Ukraine is a deeply divided nation. It is tempting to represent that division as one between the west and east. But the issues are more complex than that and there are real differences between the two halves of the country. In the western provinces of the new nation, there is a move to look west to liberal market economies and to align with and gain membership in the European Union. In the eastern provinces, where the population is predominately Russian-speaking and membership in the Russian Orthodox Church is high, there are strong links with the ousted president Victor Yanukovich and with Russia.
The very existence of Ukraine as a country has been contested all through the modern history of Europe. As, Remi Piet, points out, writing for Al Jazeera, “the emergence of a common Ukrainian identity only gained momentum in the 19th century.” In 1921, the treaty of Riga dismantled the country and it became a part of the USSR, where it remained until independence in 1990.
In the current uprising, according to Piet,“None of the opposition parties can claim to legitimately represent the popular uprising by itself.”
What solutions are needed? How can all the concerns of all the people be heard and addressed? How can power be legitimate and how should it be legitimately used?
What would you do, if you had the power and the responsibility?
Explore… Matthew 4:1–11
God, today we pray for our sisters and our brothers in the Ukraine. Like us, they seek a good, just, and peaceful society in which to live and flourish. Give them courage and wisdom. Give them compassion for each other and patience to hear each other’s fears, hopes, and desires. We especially pray for the citizens of Kiev who, as we pray, are in Independence Square trying to find a way. Amen.
From Ray McGinnis
For over 100 years, scientists have believed the reason why it took such a lengthy time for animals to evolve was due to a lack of oxygen. Once animals had the capacity to breathe in more oxygen, as the structure of their bodies changed, and as their access to oxygen in their habitat changed, the process of evolution quickened.
According to the scientific consensus, about three billion years ago the levels of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere increased, from about 20% of what they are today, to the present-day levels, which have remained constant for the past three billion years. A dramatic increase! Scientists have assumed that animals needed these higher levels of oxygen to survive and evolve.
Yet a new study out of the Nordic Centre for Earth Evolution at the University of Southern Denmark is confounding the prevailing consensus. The study, with an international team of scientists, examined sea sponges. Sea sponges are technically considered among the earliest forms of animal life. This is because they are always multi-cellular, and they grow from an embryo, just like humans. Sea sponges raised in a lab were able to survive on 0.5% of the oxygen now available in the earth’s atmosphere. This is a mystery to the scientists. Why are sea sponges able to exist on such little oxygen? And why did sea sponges take over 800 million years to start evolving if low levels of oxygen were not an inhibiting factor in their growth? These are questions scientists will be debating for years to come.
Explore… Matthew 17:1-9
God who moves in mysterious ways, you take us to mountaintops. You astonish us. You surprise us. In your presence, the world we knew shifts. Sometimes we tremble. Sometimes we are at peace. Meet us in the places of life where the answers come slowly. Meet us in the spaces between what we know and what we do not know. Hold us in the secret places, too, where we contain ourselves as we lean not on our understanding, but grow toward your radiance. In Christ we pray. Amen.
From Ray McGinnis
In over 100 years of making films, Hollywood has shied away from doing a film about slavery from a slaves point of view. (Roots, a TV mini-series, did this in the 1970s.) So 12 Years a Slave carries a weight of responsibility on its shoulders. Steve McQueen adapts a much-admired antebellum memoir by Solomon Northup concerning a free Northerner kidnapped and dispatched into horrific servitude.
The film, like the memoir, details the brutal and endlessly suffocating world that slavery was. Filmgoers encounter the murderous circumstances of life for newly kidnapped “negroes” on paddle-wheel steamers heading into the slave states with their fresh “cargo.”
At the beginning, Solomon is an expert violinist. Then, in 1841, he is kidnapped. Solomon is taught by a fellow captor to hide his education and ability to read and write at all costs. His white masters would sooner kill an educated black man than take the risk that he may use that social advantage to rise up and usurp his owners.
His first owner is Ford, who tries to be a humane slave-owner. But the system of oppression inherent in slavery makes Ford’s efforts to soften life for his slaves a delusion. Then he is sold to Edwin Epps, a ruthless slave-owner who oversees a world that is inexhaustible, vicious, and pitiless.
Type: DramaDirector: Steve McQueen
Film company: Fox Searchlight
Release date: October 18, 2013
Starring: Chiwetel Eliofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson
Solomon Northup is hanged from a tree after daring to question his overseer’s ignorance. Desperately, he manages to keep one toe in contact with the mud in an effort to avoid slow strangulation as everyday life goes on around him – other slaves in the yard next to him keep on doing their chores, hoe the ground, do the laundry. In secret, Northup takes time to write down his experiences of being a slave hoping one day someone will appear whom he can trust, and who will get word about his kidnapping out and return him to being a free man.
Explore…Psalm Matthew 5:21-37
What is the heart of the matter in this passage? What does Jesus say are the consequences of murder, anger, contempt, and mockery? What does a path of reconciliation offer for Gospel living? How do the slave traders and owners in 12 Years a Slave behave towards their slaves? What difference does it make that Bass (Brad Pitt), the contractor from Canada, takes a letter from Solomon Northup to authorities in New York State to report Solomon’s kidnapping? What is the heart of the matter in 12 Years a Slave? What is its message for us today?
Loving God, life is short and we have never too much time to gladden the hearts of others who travel on the way with us. So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. In Christ we pray. Amen.
From Ray McGinnis
The film Saving Mr. Banks begins in 1960. We meet P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the pen name of a reclusive Australian author torn by her distaste for a film adaptation of her seminal book Mary Poppins.
However, her economic circumstances place her in need of the funds that would be generated by an agreement to adapt her book for movies. Meanwhile, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is a fan of the material since his daughter first introduced him to the Mary Poppins books (of which there would be eight written by Travers). Disney has been aggressively trying to persuade Travers to sign over the rights for 20 years. During World War II, Travers was working for the British Ministry of Information. It was while on a trip to New York City in 1941 that Disney discovered that the author of Mary Poppins was in America. That was when he made his first offer to pay for the rights for the book adaptation. Saving Mr. Banks details their resulting collaboration and struggles. The perfectionist and stubborn author constantly criticizes Disney’s team during the script writing process, which started in 1961. In the midst of working on the script, she begins to experience flashbacks to her troubled working-class childhood and the influence her father (Colin Farrell) had on her writing.
Director:John Lee Hancock
Film company:Buena Vista
Release date:December 13, 2013
Starring:Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley
It’s not until Walt Disney begins to dig into Travers’ childhood that he learns why she’s so protective of her story. Flashbacks that begin when the movie starts have already revealed scenes of her as a child, Helen Lyndon Goff (Annie Rose Buckley). Her family was in hard times in Australia. Her bank-employee father (Colin Farrell) – a heavy drinker – was rarely able to support the family, but loved Helen nevertheless. He always rebuffed her defeated and ill-spirited mother’s (Ruth Wilson) wisecracks. Disney discovers the seeds of P. L. Travers inspiration for Mary Poppins in Travers’ upbringing. By confiding his own difficult childhood, Disney, at last, softens Travers frostiness and she relents to grant him rights to the book.
Explore…Psalm Matthew 5:38-48
What is the scripture teaching? What does “turning the cheek” or “going the second mile” achieve in Jesus’ view? How does Walt Disney go the second mile with P. L. Travers? Are the concessions Disney gives to her in writing the script a form of turning the other cheek? How might Disney’s empathy with Travers – when he shares with her his own difficult upbringing – be an attempt to be loving?
Loving God, you break down our defenses, seeking us, pursuing us, going the second mile with us, no matter how often we turn away from you or those around us. When we have been through difficulties, you seek to love and understand us. Help us to be present to others without judgment, to be a witness in ways that are disarming and compassionate. In Christ we pray. Amen.
From Fraser Macnaughton
Surely one the most clear examples of letting your light shine is when people decide to work cooperatively for the good of all rather than from an “every man for himself mentality.” News that a village in China became rich after locals invested in pig farms, cherry growing and hydroelectric energy demonstrates the value of working collaboratively. This village became so rich that the rural farmers from southwest China have become instant celebrities at home after building a £1.3 million “money wall” in their village with rectangular bales of cash.
The seven-foot wall was built from a total of 13.1 million yuan in cash bonuses that were paid out to members of a rural cooperative this week ahead of Chinese New Year celebrations at the end of this month. The cash was distributed to the 340 households in the Jianshe village, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, who are shareholders of a rural cooperative that owns farm enterprises and investment companies, the local newspaper Huaxi Metropolis Daily reported. Bales of bright pink 100 yuan (£9.89) notes stacked up in a tree-lined squared on Monday before the money was distributed.
“It took me so long to count the money that I almost lost strength and feeling in my hands,” one villager was quoted as saying by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
The government-controlled China Radio International said the village became rich after “piloting a land circulation project, which introduced a new farming company and an investment company” to the area.
However, one local wit demonstrated his unease at their new-found wealth. He complained that in order to protect the giant wall of cash from thieves he had been forced to sleep on top of a rock-solid “mattress” of money worth around £808,000, with pillows that cost around £424,000. “It is not comfortable at all to sleep on cash,” he was quoted as saying!
Explore… Matthew 5:13-20
Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, asking that his followers might be salt and light in that task. May we be informed, educated, and inspired to change our world by starting right where we are in the small things of life. Amen.
From Fraser Macnaughton
So much of our political life is a minefield of decision-making. In the current debate over the UK’s continuing membership in the European Union, views swing between the sense of a reversal in progress made in keeping European peace for nearly 70 years and the economic advantages or disadvantages or reversals of being in or out of the European trade zone. The latest episode sees UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warning the EU it must reform or face an ongoing crisis and economic decline, in a significant toughening of the Conservative leadership’s position on Europe.
Mr. Osborne said the UK Government wants to remain part of the EU after the in/out referendum on the issue pledged by David Cameron. But he added, “There is a simple choice for Europe: reform or decline. Our determination is clear: to deliver the reform, and then let the people decide.” The Prime Minister has pledged to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU before the 2017 referendum. Mr. Osborne said that the “biggest risk” facing the EU comes not from the referendum vote, but from doing nothing to change the organization.
Sounding the alarm on economic growth, he said that over the past six years Europe’s economy has stalled while other countries have stormed ahead. “In the same period, the Indian economy has grown by a third, the Chinese economy by 50%,” he said. “Make no mistake, our continent is falling behind.”
He also warned that the EU faces another crisis – like that which engulfed the nations within the Eurozone – unless it changes. His speech suggested that Europe’s problems include a lack of innovation, growing youth-unemployment, and high welfare spending.
In all our deliberations and musings on matters great and small, may we always apply gospel values to actions, to help us discern the way of Jesus, whom we seek to follow. Amen.
From Fraser Macnaughton
In September 2014, the people of the ancient nation of Scotland are to be called to vote as to whether they wish to become independent of the United Kingdom. Until then, both sides in the debate seek to press their claims that either independence or staying part of the UK is in the peoples’ best interests. But how do people discern what is best for them. Each week a new issue or topic comes into the media, with both sides claiming the high ground resulting in claim and counter claim.
Recently, the Scottish government has come under pressure to publish legal advice suggesting universities could continue to charge fees to students from the rest of the UK after independence. The European commission has cast serious doubt on the legality of the plans of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, to continue charging university tuition fees for English, Welsh, and Northern Irish students in an independent Scotland. European Union law prevents undergraduates from European countries outside the UK being charged fees by Scottish universities because they have to be given parity with home students – who have their tuition paid for them. However, if Scotland were to become independent, it seems likely that students from the rest of the UK would have to be treated like European students and be given free tuition.
This has escalated a dispute over the future of one of the Scottish government’s most prized and popular policies: giving all Scottish-domiciled and EU students free university tuition, while charging an average of £7,500 a year for all other UK students. Mike Russell, the Scottish education minister, fears giving free tuition to all UK students would lead to a flood of “fee refugees” applying to escape charges of up to £9,000 a year at top English colleges.
A report by Academics Together added: “Even if the numbers of students from elsewhere in the UK stayed at the same level as today, this would represent a loss of income to Scottish universities of £150 million. If the numbers were to increase – and there would be a very strong incentive for young people from England to come to Scotland for a free education – the effect could be even greater.”
Jesus teaches us to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. May we be enabled to make choices for our lives, our faith, and our communities with our eyes and ears open, and with discernment enough to be true to ourselves. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
It’s easy to despair when the news is so filled with stories of ethnic conflict, sectarian violence and hatred, and political animosity. Then we read a story such as this one coming from Nigeria, where, although an insurgency has killed hundreds just in recent months, something potentially more powerful is happening. For it is here in Nigeria that Imam Mohammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye have turned from being leaders of militias fighting to defend their faiths, to spreading the practice of tolerance and reconciliation. Two decades ago, both men heard sermons on forgiveness, one in a mosque and the other in a church. A senior colleague told Wuye that “you cannot preach Christ with hate in your heart and you must learn to forgive.” Ashafa heard a similar message at a mosque. Both men heard the message and it was God’s call to them.
They formed the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, Nigeria. In this country where the population is evenly split between Muslims and Christians, religious tolerance and interfaith understanding are the key to political stability and development, as they are in so many places around the world. Using their personal story to challenge others, the two men teach and preach respect for one another’s beliefs and mutual recognition of the common humanity we all share. They do not seek to convert, but to bring the true teachings of their respective faith traditions to their fellow Christians and Muslims.
The center trains young men and women how to bring different religious communities together for dialogue. Teams of Christians and Muslims go to trouble spots. There are workshops and community forums. People talk about why they changed their minds about people of other faiths, building trust and paving the way to peaceful interaction between their groups.
The work of teaching and learning tolerance and respect is slow but steady. Wuye and Ashafa have shared their story in many places, including Iraq, Lebanon, Kenya, Croatia, and Northern Ireland. In October 2013, in recognition of their work, Ashafa and Wuye received the Hesse Peace Prize, awarded by the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. Now, partnering with the Public Conversations Project in Watertown, Massachusetts; and the Centre for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, The Interfaith Mediation Centre hopes to extend the reach of its message. They hope to “sow a seed that will germinate and become the antidote to terrorism, fanaticism, bigotry, and extremism,” says Muhammad Sani Isah, considered the “alternate imam” at the center.
Explore…Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11
Ever present God, too often we have eyes only for the wrongs in our world. May we have eyes and ears to perceive also the many ways you are at work in the hearts and minds of your faithful people. Then may we bear testimony to your love and power with our own lives. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
National Public Radio recently aired this story: “After Discharge Upgrade, Marine Finally Finds a Reason to Live.” It is the story of one Marine, Michael Hartnett, and his two-decade-long journey into darkness and back to life. On the one hand, it’s an all-too-common story, but it’s also a very special story.
Hartnett enlisted in the Marines to be a tough guy. Deployments in the first Gulf war left him haunted by nightmares, unable to sleep. It hadn’t been what he and the other Marines expected. The ground war ended in just four days and they found themselves working in the aftermath of the massive air campaign – “miles of charred bodies of Iraqi soldiers.” He turned to alcohol, and though he got treatment, the nightmares and the drinking continued and he was eventually busted down in rank.
The Marines gave him a way out, he thought, through Somalia, where he volunteered for convoy security, escorting trucks delivering humanitarian aid. The situation in Somalia deteriorated in unimaginable ways; Hartnett’s nightmares worsened and he went back to drinking, adding meth and crack cocaine, which led to a “bad conduct discharge.” Denied military benefits, Hartnett described his life as “nine rehabs, seven psych wards, six arrests, five jail stays…and a thousand wasted opportunities.”
Then he met Molly. She saw something in him he couldn’t see himself. After dating six years, they got married. But the drinking continued and there were fights. Everybody told her to leave, but she couldn’t. She feared he might commit suicide.
But there’s more to the story. Because Hartnett had a special court martial, a discharge review board could upgrade it. Encouraged by his parents, he got a lawyer, whose advice was for him to tell the truth and speak honestly from his heart.
Hartnett started going to AA, but had been sober only about two weeks when he had his hearing. Fortunately, military attitudes toward post-traumatic stress disorder had changed since his court martial. Seven weeks after hearing his story, the review board voted three to two in favor of upgrading Michael Hartnett’s discharge.
Things are looking up. Hartnett gets full medical care and disability for this PTSD. And he hasn’t had a drink in nearly three years. He says he feels forgiven. “It was the Marines saying, you’ve had enough, Michael. Just go live your life. Do something with it.” Which is exactly what he’s doing. He’s studying to be a social worker and hopes to work for the VA, where he thinks he’ll be able to reach combat vets in a way others can’t. As for Mary, she says after all he’s been though and everything those around him have been through, if he doesn’t do something with this gift that has been given him, that will be his greatest sin.
This brief account of Jesus’ baptism leads us to think about the fulfillment of promise, seeing in a new way, and living into a future more amazing than we can imagine.
Faithful and loving God, make your presence known in our lives. May we hear your still, small voice calling us out of our darkness into the service of others. May we know we are never truly left alone. You are our God and we your beloved children. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
A month ago, as we entered Advent, we learned of the death of Nelson Mandela, the man who led South Africa out of the oppressive apartheid system to become the country’s first black president. We heard tributes and watched as leaders from all over the world joined thousands in a Soweto soccer stadium to pay tribute to the man who showed not only a nation, but a world, the way to freedom – freedom, not just from oppression and fear, but freedom of the spirit. We saw the long lines of those who waited for one last look as his body lay in state in Pretoria, and the crowds that gathered to bid him farewell when his body arrived in Mthatha, in his native Eastern Cape Province, for a state funeral and then burial in Qunu, the town where he grew up.
The path from herding cattle as a boy to the presidency of his country was long and difficult. He says he learned his early lessons of leadership listening to the endless consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council. His ties to the Thembu tribe also gave him insights into the tribal politics of South Africa and the divisions within the large Zulu nation.
During his 27 years in prison, Mandela further honed his skills as a leader and negotiator, among the other prisoners as well as in his relationship to the guards and prison administrators. He studied his oppressors and learned Afrikaans, their language, and urged other prisoners to do the same. He credited his prison experience with teaching him the tactics and strategy that would make him president, and more. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, reflecting on leaving prison, he wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Throughout his life, Mandela was never without his critics: as a young revolutionary, it was the older members of the African National Congress; as a prisoner on Robben Island, it was the radical younger inmates; after his release, it was the white extremists and factions within his own people. But what he and President F. W. de Klerk managed to negotiate was a peaceful transfer of power, with free elections in exchange for the promise of power sharing and a guarantee that whites would not be subject to reprisals.
In his tribute to Mandela, and alluding to the challenges we face in today’s world, President Barack Obama said, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it [change] always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows that is true. South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.” To these attributes we might add courage, compassion, patience and forgiveness, which also marked the life of Nelson Mandela.
Explore…Matthew 2:1-12As we read this ancient text, we reflect on longing and hope and fear, in Jesus’ day and our own. What do we imagine the wise men sought? What did the people of Israel long for? What did Herod fear?
As words of a familiar advent hymn echo in our minds, “Come thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free,” may we be inspired by the lives of those of every generation, who have sought the truth and shown light on the path to freedom, human dignity, reconciliation and peace. Amen
From Ray McGinnis
The Book Thief is a movie adapted from a bestselling novel by Markus Zusak. In the movie version, Geoffrey Rush (Hans) and Emily Watson (Rose) play a World War II German couple who adopt Liesel, a young girl acted by Sophie Nelisse in a winning performance.
Liesel learns to love books from Hans. After the Nazis burn most of the village’s books, she ends up stealing them from the library of the wife of the town’s mayor. Liesel’s family also harbours a young Jewish man named Max, at the height of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Max and Liesel get to know each other as she reads to him beside his hiding place.
The Book Thief is a suspenseful coming-of-age story about the courage it takes to do the right thing. It is narrated by Death (voice of Roger Allam) and advises that all humans have to face death no matter who they are.
In the midst of the story, the backdrop of what is unfolding in World War II’s Nazi Germany is glossed over, which has a disorienting effect on viewers who know a bit of history.
Director: Brian Percival
Film company: Fox
Release date: November 8, 2013
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse
Focus: In the movie, we encounter an affectionate narration of Liesel’s shift from illiteracy to love of the written word. Alongside her growing love for books, she is changed from a frightened youngster to a giving and brave young woman. Liesel becomes animated as she grows in her relationship with her foster father, Hans. He gives her shelter when her Communist mother is arrested by the Nazis.
“Your majesty,” says Hans, extending his hand to the scared child who cringes in the car on her arrival. Hans inspires Liesel with the notion that nobility is a gift that has nothing to do with birth and everything to do with the soul’s capacity to approach the light.
What does the psalm invite its readers to do? How are the people of Israel “close to God’s heart?” How might this psalm be a source of strength in difficult times? What is Liesel’s focus during her years under Nazi rule in Germany? How does her focus sustain her in the face of the disorienting and cruel events unfolding in her country? What role does innocence play in helping a person persevere in dark times? What do children see that is different from what adults see? What stories do you know about people who have had to deal with disorienting events in their lives and found a way forward?
God of the people of Israel, your heart is close; it aches at the sight of suffering, and rejoices to see individual acts of mercy and bravery. As we encounter you in each story we see or hear, in scripture, in books, in movies, in everyday life, stir in us the capacity to grow our own souls toward the light of your love that we may participate in the small victories that bring us close to your heart. In Christ we pray. Amen.
From Ray McGinnis
Bali is a very popular tourist destination. The tourist boom has been accompanied by rising prices in housing, which has placing farmers at risk of not being able to earn enough with the traditional crops they’ve grown to absorb the changing fortunes of the island’s increased land values. In the face of these changes, the island administration in Bali has set a goal to make Bali an “organic” province, where local farmers switch to more sustainable and healthier organic farming. On December 5, Bali Governor, Made Mangku Pastika, announced that his government would increase the subsidy offered for organic fertilizer. The initiative is intended to help local farmers make the transition from chemical to organic fertilizer.
“We’ll continue to increase the subsidy for organic fertilizer and hope our attempt to transform the island into an organic island can be realized soon,” Pastika said in a seminar in Denpasar. Pastika promised that his government would earmark Rp 10 billion from its annual budget for the subsidy by 2014. This is an increase from Rp 4 billion set aside for the same program in 2013.
Organic farming has been one Pastika’s initiatives since 2008. The governor trusts that organic farming is essential to the continuity of the island’s agriculture. Bali’s farming sector has been threatened by land conversions related to tourism and the booming property sector. Organic farming could provide the difference local farmers need to corner competitive food product markets in the tourist sector.
It is hoped that organic farming will enhance the environment for the island and the economy of the island’s farmers.
Explore… Matthew 1:18–25
How does the story told in Matthew’s gospel plant the message that God is with us? What is the impact of the angel’s message? What difference does it make that administration in Bali is offering a program to increase organic farming on that island? How is this initiative in Bali sowing seeds of new birth in their community? What other stories can you point to that are examples of new life, of God being with us in surprising ways in these times?
God who makes all things new, be with us. Move in the womb of this life to empower us to dream new dreams. Help us to be open to the messengers you send to us. Make us receptive to the announcements you bring, and able to respond and make adjustments to the plans we have made, so that we may be free to be present to you and follow you into the light. In Christ we pray. Amen
From Paul Turley
If there was ever a time when, in the words of our text for this week, the hungry need to be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty, it would be now.
The United States, according to Robert Reich, former Clinton cabinet member, has, “Of all developed nations, the most unequal distribution of income, and we’re surging towards even greater inequality.” In 2012, the top 1% of US earners collected 19.3% of household income, breaking a record previously set in 1927.
In 1978, according to Reich, a “typical male worker” made $48,302, while the typical person in the top 1% earned $393,682, more than eight times as much. In 2010, even as overall gross domestic product and productivity increased, the average male worker’s wage fell to $33,751. Meanwhile, the average top 1% earner was making more than $1.1 million – 32 times the average earner.
But it is not just in the U.S. where inequality is growing. On November 26, 2013, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel. In this letter to “the Christian faithful,” Francis directly tackles inequality and specifically the “trickle down” economic theory.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
As the Washington Post reports, “Many of the world’s richest countries are experiencing historic levels of income inequality. And even in the developing world, there are emerging concerns about whether workers will benefit from their countries’ increasing prosperity.”
The song of Mary, ancient words put into the mouth of a young girl in desperately unequal Palestine in the first century CE, continue to be a cry of hope for all.
Explore... Luke 1:47-55
God, we are not living the way you long for us to live, with generous and open lives, joyful and giving in our relationships with each other and this good earth. Forgive us, renew us, give us courage for the long journey ahead to the place where all have enough. Amen.
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