Past Spirit Sightings (The Archives)
From Sandra Rooney
“The heavens are telling the glory of God” and scientists are trying to make sense of it all. A local newspaper recently carried two interesting stories. The first proclaimed, “UA scientists have eyes on Europa.” A striking picture of the surface of Europa, compiled from images taken by the Galileo space craft, was accompanied by an artist’s concept of a plum of water vapor spewing from the Javian moon of Europa, some 500 million miles from the sun. Scientists at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory are proposing to send cameras with a NASA mission to help discover whether life might have developed in the liquid ocean beneath Europa’s frozen crust. While the accepted theory has been that the ocean was buried under impenetrable ice, most scientists now agree that there are fractures where that water meets the atmosphere. In 2013, the Hubble Space Telescope saw evidence of water geysers erupting at Europa’s south pole.
Recently, many newspapers also carried AP photos of Antarctica, with a headline, “A window into mankind’s future.” Thousands of scientists from different fields come to Antarctica for research, where it is said that “Earth’s past, present and future come together.” “It’s a window out to the universe and in time,” according to Kelly Falkner, polar program chief for the U.S. national Science Foundation. Here they are finding clues to answering such questions as: “Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What is the fate of our warming planet?” They are searching for alien-like creatures, signs of pollution trapped in the ancient ice, evidence of the Big Bang, and biological discoveries that might lead to new medical treatments. And, if scientists are right, and the West Antarctic ice sheet has started melting irreversibly, what happens there will determine if cities such as Miami, New York, New Orleans, Mumbai, London and Osaka, along with many island nations, will have to contend with regular flooding from rising seas.
Explore… Psalm 19
Creator God, we marvel at the night sky and at pictures taken in space. We are awed by the intricacies and complexities of all living creatures. We are amazed by each new scientific or medical discovery. We are surrounded by the mysteries of creation and pray that we may live responsibly and use all new-found knowledge in a way that honors creation. Amen.
From Paul Turley
In the last week, the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy have evacuated their embassies in Yemen. Ban-Ki Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, following a recent visit to the nation reports that Yemen is “collapsing before our eyes.”
It is the collapse of law and order like we see in Yemen that creates the refugee problems that are being experienced in nations all around the globe.
“We cannot stand by and watch,” the Secretary-General told the United Nations General Assembly. But. of course, as he well knows, the world can and very much does stand back and watch as totalitarian regimes and war drive people from their homes and land.
It is the desperate hope of a safe refuge that has, according to UNHCCR, led 3 million Syrians to flee their homes for surrounding nations. Add to that number the 6.5 million who have fled their homes but not yet their country; they are classified as internally displaced.
The vast majority of people who leave their homes and countries do so not, as some would have us believe, for economic gain or from a long-held dream to live in the nation in which they now find themselves. Rather, they are fleeing for their lives.
Recently, an Iranian man, who arrived in Australia less than two years ago, told a story of being invited to the home of a well-meaning Australian-born person. Welcoming him to their home, the host showed him their television and turned it on to show him how it worked. Perhaps the host had paid attention to too many Australian politicians peddling the line that all asylum seekers and refugees are poor, illiterate peasants who must be dazzled and so desperately pleased to be in a country as wonderful as Australia.
While it is true that the Iranian man is glad of the shaky and temporary asylum that Australia is grudgingly offering him, he longs for change to come to his own country so that his life is no longer under threat and he can return to the life he loved and help shape his nation.
Oh, and in Tehran, the sophisticated city from which he hails, he did have electricity, a car, a house, a television set, and better internet speeds than most Australians. And he was a professor of literature at the University of Tehran. He is a refugee because his life is in danger.
As we now watch Yemen “collapse before our eyes,” with, as The International Rescue Committee puts it, “some of the highest malnutrition levels in the world in southern Yemen,” we must remember that those who will flee, or seek to flee, will be just like us – lovers of peace and freedom, people who need hope for the future, people who dream of a better world.
Explore… Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
God of the longed for peaceful world,
From Paul Turley
How do we know what time it is? How do we know whether something that is happening now will be just what it seems – perhaps a small incident in a place distant from us, or a catalyst that sparks a series of events that will change the world?
Few people at the time recognized the significance of the assignation of Archduke Ferdinand 100 years ago this year, or the significance of the self-immolation of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, in 2011. Yet the death of the first was a trigger for the start of World War I and the second triggered the Arab Spring.
When we look at the world at this moment, don’t the unfolding of events in Ukraine look like they might just be the trigger for events with repercussions far beyond that region?
In the Ukraine, 5,300 people have been killed and one million have been displaced in the last ten months since the beginning of fighting. The ceasefire that came into operation in September of 2014 has never fully held, with both sides using the lull to build up their forces.
In the early days of 2015, the fighting intensified in the East with Russian-backed rebels taking the airport in Donetsk on January 22.
Ukraine’s Western allies accuse Russia of sending in troops and armour to help the rebels – an allegation repeatedly denied by the government in Moscow.
Now, understanding something of the vital importance of Ukraine and aware of the designs that Russia has on at least parts of the country, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France have met in Belarus’s capital, Minsk, to discuss a peace plan for eastern Ukraine.
However, there are major cracks showing in the peace process. Russia is demanding that Kiev stop its military operations in east Ukraine. “Kiev’s attempts to exert economic pressure on Donbas (region of east Ukraine) and disrupt its daily life only aggravates the situation. This is a dead-end track, fraught with a big catastrophe,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Phillip Hammond, has recently described Putin as, “some kind of 20th-Century tyrant.”
So there are very few guarantees of peace and many opportunities for further bloodshed. The question we must ask is, what might it mean? What time is it?
Explore… Mark 1:9-1
God, give us wisdom
From Paul Turley
A couple of weeks ago, we had an election here in Australia. It was in Queensland, one of the seven states and territories that make up the commonwealth of Australia. It was a difficult and close election. So close that we are still waiting for a result. A first-term government, led by a man who had never been in parliament before being elected to his seat and to the Premiership, had made a number of sweeping changes, many of them unpopular. The Premier, Campbell Newman, has lost his seat as have many of his colleagues, and the opposition Labour Party is poised to take power, perhaps with the support of minor parties and independents.
While this election is important and interesting to Queenslanders and other Australians, the most remarkable thing during this closely-argued and contentious period is that there have been no deaths, no tanks or military presence in the streets, no violence at all.
We take this for granted in Western democracies, but this is not always the case in other parts of the world, and has often not been the case in our own countries in past times.
Transitions and transformations are, in most of the world and in most of history, moments of anxiety and concern. Will the new be better or worse than the old? Will the relative uncertainty or total chaos around the transition mean that some previously unknown or weak element might take the opportunity to assert itself?
Both our readings for this week, the Transfiguration in Mark and the transfer of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha, are shot through with the anxiety of change. Those who watch the transition and who will be affected by it have no certainty of the outcome.
For a modern example, look at Libya. Surely any Libyan interested in freedom of thought and of action would have celebrated the end of the rule of Gaddafi in 2011. But the great hopes many people had for a democratic alternative, that would offer freedom to the men and women of Libya, have now become a vain hope.
As Nicolas Pelham puts it in a recent article in The New York Review of Books after a visit to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, “Tripoli’s distraught population might have welcomed anyone bringing a semblance of order, including the ghost of Qaddafi. But three months into its rule, Libya Dawn’s honeymoon is fading. My first night in the capital was blissfully free of explosions. Libya Dawn had sent text messages to residents’ mobile phones banning not just gunfire but fireworks. But the following night, Tripoli’s gunpowder orchestra began its familiar crescendo. The criminal gangs who had largely gone underground after Libya Dawn took over again began trying their luck.”
For ordinary Libyans, the transition of power in their nation has become dangerous and frightening. The current ruling group, Libya Dawn, has imposed strict controls on the activities and dress of women and has destroyed or not prevented the destruction of art works and sites deemed as “un-Islamic.” However, Libya Dawn may be a preferable alternative to Isis who, just last month, in an attempt to gain a stronger foothold in Libya, blasted their way into the five-star Corinthian hotel leaving ten people dead.
Once a transition or transformation or even transfiguration begins, there is really no going back. In our own lives, in our nations and in the deeply troubled nations of the world we must move forward and pray for courage and for hope, for wisdom and for peace.
Explore… Mark 9:2–9
God of the longed-for peaceful world, we pray for ourselves and for all who are in the midst of transition. Especially we pray for those whose very lives are in danger in Libya and other parts of the Middle East. May the transition in which they are engaged be a transition to a world of peace and respect and freedom for all. Amen.
From Fraser Macnaughton
The unexpected exit of British number one female tennis player Heather Watson from the Australian Open has prompted the player to come out and deal with what is being talked of as the last taboo in women’s sport, namely menstruation. Yet this is symptomatic of our relentless activity and hectic scheduling, as more and more top sportspeople become slaves to and pawns in what is a global entertainment business. What chance to sports stars have for retreats or just to opt out if they are not well enough?
“Watson’s admission that she wasn’t able to perform because of her period is a first, and has opened up a huge debate on menstruation in female sport,” wrote Annabel Croft, the former British number one.
Croft went on. “In my opinion, it’s one of the last taboos to be smashed. Strangely, not much has changed in the past 30 years. When I say it’s the last taboo, I mean it. We can talk about all sorts of other things now, yet menstruation has always been kept under wraps. It’s never something men want to hear or talk about, as it makes them squirm.”
Sporting performance has often been discussed in relation to pregnancy and childbirth, courtesy of athlete Paula Radcliffe, for instance, who also memorably helped put bodily functions on the map when she took a roadside toilet break during the 2005 London Marathon. Perhaps it would help if sportswomen from all disciplines started talking more openly about the subject, making it commonplace rather than taboo. Women in Sport commissioned its own research (in 2010) and found “that in some circumstances, reduction in aerobic capacity and strength were exhibited,” says Ruth Holdaway, the charity’s chief executive. “It is important that sport understands and is sensitive to the potential impacts of the menstrual cycle for female athletes. This is not an issue that should be taboo for sport.”
May we always remember that were created as human beings not “human doings” and follow Jesus’ own example to take sufficient time to be with God. Amen.
From Fraser Macnaughton
As the government in the UK continues to introduce more and more austerity measures to counter the growing national financial deficit, there appear to be more and more unintended consequences for ordinary people. Reports recently relate how people’s fair access to justice is being affected. One report is about how the principle of fair justice is being undermined by the growing number of criminal defendants forced to represent themselves in court. Seniorlegal authorities believe high levels of self-representation could be due to reforms in legal aid, where an 8.75% cut in fees paid to lawyers has been incrementally imposed. This has reduced the number of solicitors willing to work on criminal cases. More and more defendants sentenced for assault or robbery represent themselves, invariably with little knowledge of the legal system or of court procedure. Lack of legal representation can also lead to serious issues surrounding, for example, sensitive child custody cases.
In another area of the legal system, child contact centres, where children meet with their separated parents who cannot agree on access rights, are disappearing as legal aid cuts take effect. The National Association of Child Contact Centres says that because it can no longer obtain legal aid, the number of parents accessing the family courts to resolve their problems has halved. As a result, they are not receiving advice from solicitors who are likely to refer them to the centres. The NACCC says, ‘“Given that family breakdown costs the country an estimated £49bn a year, family legal aid cuts may prove a false economy, unless more is done to let families know the contact centres are there to help and that parents can apply to centres directly themselves.”
Despite judges saying things like,“Defendants in-person are at a constant disadvantage and justice is often not done as a result,” and “We see people pleading guilty when they could have a real defence,” and official Ministry of Justice figures recording a drop in legal aid claims, the government maintains there are adequate resources and personnel to see justice done.”
Explore… 1 Corinthians 8:1–13
May we inform ourselves better, listen more carefully, speak up less reticently, and open our arms and our hearts more widely that we become more effective channels for Christ’s love in the world. For if it not us, then who… Amen.
From Fraser Macnaughton
How far the world come from the time of the psalmist, who put his trust in God. Today, we put our trust in money making. And how much has this obsession to make more and more money contributed to the ever increasing gap between rich and poor?
According to a report that appeared in the Guardian, “Billionaires and politicians gathering in Switzerland will come under pressure to tackle rising inequality after a study found that – on current trends – by next year, 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99%.Ahead of this week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in the ski resort of Davos, the anti-poverty charity Oxfam said it would use its high-profile role at the gathering to demand urgent action to narrow the gap between rich and poor.”
Using data from Credit Suisse’s latest global wealth report, the charity warns that rising inequality is holding back the fight against global poverty at a time when more than a billion people still live on less than $1.25 (83p) a day. The report also warns that global wealth “is becoming increasing concentrated among a small, wealthy elite.”
The executive director of Oxfam, Winnie Byanyima, said, “The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering, and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast. Failure to tackle inequality will set the fight against poverty back decades.”
She went on. “We want to bring a message from the people in the poorest countries in the world to the forum of the most powerful business and political leaders. The message is that rising inequality is dangerous. It’s bad for growth and it’s bad for governance. We see a concentration of wealth capturing power and leaving ordinary people voiceless and their interests uncared for.”
There is a growing clamour for inequality to move up the political agenda as evidence increases that it holds back economic development. Oxfam itself has published a seven-point plan that includes issues such as tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals; increased investment in universal, free public services, such as health and education; the introduction of minimum wages and a move towards a living wage for all workers; and ensuring adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum-income guarantee.
Explore… Psalm 62:5–12
We call to mind that Jesus talked much about bringing life in abundance to all. May we, each in our own way and collectively, work to bring that call to fruition, to speak to the powerful and challenge the seemingly accepted norms of society. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
National Public Radio recently aired a TED Talk by Daniel Goleman titled, “Why aren’t we more compassionate?” Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, first described new findings in the field of social neuroscience that indicate that “our default wiring is to help.” Research suggests that when we pay attention to others, we automatically tend to empathize with them. So, he asks, “Why don’t we?”
The reason appears to be our preoccupation with ourselves and what we’re about. Goleman cites a study done at Princeton Theological Seminary. Students were given a Bible text and told to prepare to give a practice sermon. Some were given the parable of the Good Samaritan, others random Bible passages. Then they were instructed to go to another building to give their sermon. On the way, each person passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need of help. None of them stopped. Interestingly, it turned out that it didn’t matter if they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan or not. What mattered was how preoccupied they were with their sermon preparation.
Goleman gave a number of examples of how our preoccupation with ourselves inhibits our compassionate response. Then he recalled a time when he was working on an article on homeless people for The New York Times. He spent a couple of weeks going around with social workers from a social service agency. He said he began to see the homeless through their eyes and described the experience as “shaking him out of the urban trance,” where, when we see someone who is homeless in the periphery of our vision, it stays on the periphery. “We don’t notice and therefore we don’t act,” he said.
Then one Friday afternoon, as he was heading down the stairs to the subway along with hundreds of others, he noticed a man slumped to the side of the stairs. The man was shirtless and not moving. Everyone just stepping around him. Because Goleman had been shaken out of his “urban trance,” he said he found himself stopping to find out what was wrong. As soon as he stopped, several other people stopped too. They learned the man was Hispanic and spoke no English. He had no money and had been wandering the streets for days. He had fainted from hunger. Those who had stopped along with Goleman went for food and someone brought a subway cop. The guy was soon back on his feet. All it took was that simple act of noticing.
In the words of an old hymn, “Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth Thou has for me” – the truth that we are all more than outward appearances, the truth that all your people yearn to be recognized and thus empowered and transformed. May we see in such a way that we become true disciples of your love, compassion, and justice. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
In communities throughout Europe and North America, especially where there are large concentrations of Muslims, young men and women are being drawn into the web of the jihadists and are joining foreign fighters. Authorities are searching for ways to stop the spread of radical Islam and there is great debate about how to treat the hundreds of young Muslims who have gone to fight in Syria and have now returned home.
In much of Europe, the approach has been to lock them up. The Netherlands has prohibited some Syrian fighters from returning. Belgium, which has the highest number of Syrian fighters per capita, targets those who return and prosecutes those who stay home, but encourage others to go to fight.
Denmark, which has the second-highest number of foreign fighters per capita, has chosen another approach, rehabilitation. “We cannot afford not to include them back in our society and make sure that their path of radicalization is changed, so they can be an active part of our society,” according to Jacob Bundsgard, mayor of Aarhus, the country’s second biggest city. Their program includes counselling, help with readmission to school, meeting with parents, and other outreach efforts.
The returnees are screened by police and the domestic security service. Instead of being arrested, they are offered a “mentor,” whose task it is to convince them that militancy has no place in mainstream Islam. Preben Bertselsen, a psychology professor at Aarhus University, whose theories help support this alternative program, said returnees had “lost their moral compass” and “only become ticking bombs if we don’t integrate them” back into society.
Erhan Kilic, a Turkish-born lawyer and observant Muslim, serves as a mentor. He said the biggest hurdle was winning trust. If this can be done, he feels you can move their ideas in a moderate direction by exposing the flaws in their interpretation of their faith. According to Kilic, the young recruits often know little about their faith and get their ideas from “watching videos of incendiary preachers on YouTube or from schoolyard talk about the West’s humiliation of the Muslim world.”
While the numbers to date are small, those involved are cautiously optimistic. The police report that since late 2012, 31 Aarhus Muslims, all under age 30, have gone to Syria to fight with forces battling the government of Bashar al-Assad. So far 16 have returned home. While 10 of the 16 have rejected counselling, they are often willing to accept other help in adjusting to society. As a local official put it, putting returnees from Syria in jail “is easy” but will only expose them to further radicalization, while “integrating them back in society is very hard” but has a higher potential payoff in the long term.
Culture, society, myths, misunderstandings – all may lead into hurtful relationships. May we see beyond the narrow, the rigid, the exclusionary, and move into acceptance, understanding, and tolerance in our relationships. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
We’ve moved beyond the Advent candles and carols, beyond the Holy Family in the stable, beyond the Wise Men. But we can’t move beyond the news. Last month the U. S. Senate Intelligence Committee released its damning report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects in the years after the September 11 attack. The next day, the Rev. Susan Russell, Episcopal priest and activist from Pasadena, Calif., wrote these words in her blog:
It’s been a particularly dark Advent… the “breaking news” of the day echoing in our ears and in our hearts: the Ferguson Grand Jury decision, Eric Garner’s poignant cry of “I can’t breathe,” the Torture Report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy and the reminder of the scourge of gun violence in our nation.
Then she went on to say that it had gotten a little lighter for her that day, when she heard the words spoken by Malala Yousafzai upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:
“Dear brothers and sisters,
Russell said that in Malala’s words – “words of a young, Muslim schoolgirl targeted for violence by extremists of her own faith for daring to both aspire to and speak out for the education of women” – she heard the echo of the words attributed to another young girl, a Jewish girl, who extolled the greatness of God in the timeless words we call “The Magnificat.”
He has shown strength with his arm;
Russell titled her blog that day “Malala’s Magnificat.” She reminded readers and reminds us that faith can produce courage, a courage that can take on the powerful and raise up the lowly.
In a speech in the Senate, shortly after the torture report was released, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Intelligence Committee’s Democratic chairwoman, called the CIA interrogation program “a stain on our values and our history.” She said, “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’”
While there has been widespread condemnation of the CIA torture methods, there have also been denials from former CIA personnel, national security justifications, and questions by some of the value of information gained by torture. A New York Times editor put it well, saying the report “should be the start of national soul-searching.”
Jeremiah speaks his words of hope against the background of systems of power of his day.
God of history and of our everyday lives, we pray that you will overcome our fears and use our lives and our voices to proclaim a new day, a day of justice, compassion, and love.
From Ray McGinnis
The Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (OCTA) is an intergovernmental organization formed in 1978 by nations along the Amazon Basin. Typically, citizens don’t look to international organizations to be on the forefront of positive change. However, at the recent United Nations Convention on Climate Change hosted in Lima, Peru, from December 1 to 12, 2014, the member states of the OCTA stepped up to the plate. Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela will cooperate in monitoring deforestation in the Amazon and efforts to regenerate the Amazon rainforest.
The effort is the outcome of the lead taken by Brazil, together with its Brazilian Development Bank, to train 150 technicians and to purchase equipment to allow each member nation to monitor efforts to reduce deforestation and to regenerate the Amazon forest. In 2014 alone, Brazil has been able to reduce deforestation in its part of the Amazon rainforest by 18 percent.
Recent successes are part of an encouraging trend that has seen deforestation of the Amazon reduced by 82 percent in the past decade. At the same time there has been research showing a 23 percent recovery of the forest in this same timeframe.
An amount equivalent to $8,000,000 in US funds has been spent to advance this effort. It comes from a larger fund of $800 million US funds. Some of the interest generated from this fund can be delegated toward projects of any nation in the Amazon Basin area to help stabilize the environment.
The announcement was one of several that were welcomed at the close of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference and give hope to those planning the next conference in Paris in 2015.
Explore… Isaiah 61:10-62:3
God of righteousness, we long for your spirit to be born again and again. When we no longer have eyes to see or ears to hear, help us open our whole selves to the new thing you are doing in our midst. Help us care for this, your planet, one step at a time, so that the land itself may rejoice in your creation and the nations not stand in the way of your abundant gifts of life. In Christ we pray. Amen.
From Ray McGinnis
In July, a church in Chicago received a real estate windfall of $1,600,000. In early November, the senior pastor, the Rev. Laura Truax, let those attending the La Salle Street Church know that the church was giving them each $500.
Back in 1979, the church had helped begin a low-income residence along with three other churches and a private developer. Over the years the property had grown in value. It was time for the property to be redeveloped to accommodate more low-income families. This would involve a larger development. As a result, the current primary developer wanted to sell the property. La Salle Street Church was one of the beneficiaries of the windfall of money from the sale of the property to the new developer, who wanted to take on the larger emerging project.
On that first Sunday in November, those at the worship service were each invited to take a cheque for $500 and to think about what it means to bring good news to the world. Then they were invited to do something with the money not to harm, but to help move the world along.
Church members are meeting into the new year to prayerfully determine what they will do with the remaining $1,440,000.
Some church members have talked about pooling their funds among maybe 40 or 50 people to establish a fund to help people in need or to provide no-interest loans. Others wanted to establish emergency relief programs. Some gave to those helping to deal with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. One woman wrote on the church’s blog how full of angst she was now that she had to decide what to do with the money. The woman admitted she never liked dealing with finances and left all those decisions in her life to her husband. News of the La Salle Street Church’s novel decision led one woman in Oklahoma to make her own donation of $500 to the ministry at the Chicago church.
Explore… Luke 1:46b-55
God of reversals, we are a people of habit and routine. So often we are mired in what we expect and we forget to expect the unexpected. Shake us up that we may imagine shifts in how we live that are signs of love and grace for your church and the world. In Christ we pray. Amen.
From Paul Turley
This is the crucial question asked in our text for this week. The answer that each person and group of people give to that question will shape the future of John the Baptist and his movement.
The answer to the same question is determining and will determine what happens in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis in the United States of America. Who is Michael Brown, the young teenager who was shot and killed in that city on August 9, 2014? Was he an innocent young black man, the victim of police brutality? Was he a violent criminal with a hatred of authority? Who is Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown? Is he a violent racist with too little training in correct police procedures? Is he a young, inexperienced police officer who, afraid for his life, acted in self-defense?
Or is it all much more complicated than that? Brown was black so in the minds of many he stands in for all of the pain and abuse, the disenfranchisement that the black community has suffered in St. Louis and beyond for generations. Wilson is a white man in a position of authority so in the minds of many he stands either for the thin blue line between chaos and order, or for the abuse of authority of white over black. And all of this is taking place in a nation where inequality is worsening and where guns remain central to many dreams of what it means to be American.
The Rev. Michael D. Kinman of the Episcopal cathedral in downtown St. Louis, in a sermon two weeks ago, encapsulated the issues this way:“This past Monday night, for the second time this year, we watched parts of our beloved city burn on live television. For nearly four months, we have heard powerful, young, nonviolent demonstrators cry out that black lives matter. We have heard terrible stories of the treatment of people of color at the hands of the police, which many of us have had to hold in painful tension with the relationships we have with beloved friends and family who are those police.”
Whatever the answer is to the question “Who are you?” it is never a simple one. Michael Brown led a complicated, conflicting life; so too Darren Wilson. We know this because both men are human and all human life is complicated and conflicted.
John the Baptist answered his questioners not with a simple statement – a box in which he could be contained – but with a response that opened up possibility, defied categorization, and engendered hope. It must be our prayer that as the citizens and authorities answer this same question they will do the same.
Explore... John 1:6–8, 19–28
God, we pray for the soul of Michael Brown and for his family and community.
From Paul Turley
During a televised address to the nation two weeks ago, U.S. president Barak Obama told Americans that deporting millions is “not who we are.”
In his address, Obama promised to reshape the nation’s immigration system by executive action in order to give an estimated five million illegal immigrants the opportunity to live legally in the country.
The president has been heavily criticized by the Republican opposition for his actions. In the words of House of Representatives Speaker John A. Boehner, President Obama “has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.”
Other critics have called the President the “deporter-in-chief.” Two million people have been deported during Obama’s time in office – 400,000 in the past year alone.
The president is said to have taken the Executive Action route out of frustration with a Congress that is unable or unwilling to pass an immigration reform act. “To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” the president said.
Toward the end of his address, the president quoted some ancient words held sacred by Jews and Christians and of deep importance to those of the Muslim faith. Specifically, he quoted a version of Exodus 23:9, an instruction to the people of Israel as to how they should treat strangers or aliens in the land of Israel: “You shall not oppress a resident stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The president went on to say, “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship.”
In our text for this week, the pain of separation and alienation is so very evident. For the people of Israel to hear the repeated word “comfort” is to begin to experience the world as God intended it to be. Perhaps President Obama’s words, too, can be the beginning of a new and more humane world, at least for the five million illegal immigrants who will be impacted.
Explore... Isaiah 40:1–11
God, teach us your truth that we are all strangers in a strange land.
from Fraser Macnaughton
The plight of the Arab world as a whole in the face of Isil (Isis) and their brand of Islamic fundamentalism can in some ways be viewed as a waiting. But also a sense of longing for freedom. Now there are beginning to be voices of protest against the barbarity perpetuated in the name of Islam. Recently, Queen Rania of Jordan used her opening speech at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit to condemn the atrocities committed by the group across swathes of Syria and Iraq. Isil militants have capitalized on social media as a way of constantly spreading propaganda, recruiting fighters to join its self-declared “caliphate” and distributing horrifying videos showing brutal executions and beheadings.
The group most recently uploaded the beheading of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig and 17 Syrian servicemen on YouTube, from which images were rapidly circulated across Twitter and Facebook.
Queen Rania urged the audience to harness the same tools used by Isil to spread its agenda and use them instead to push forward a more progressive one from the Arab world. She warned that Isil is attempting to “drag the Arab world back to the Dark Ages” and was using social media as a tool. The irony that Isil, in the process of dragging Islam back to savagery and the Middle Ages, is using such a modern means of communication to make its point was not lost on her media savvy audience. She was also careful not to exclusively identify the Arab world only with Islam. Referring to the horrific images of beheadings she said “These images don’t represent me anymore than they represent you. They’re alien and abhorrent to the vast majority of Arabs – Muslims and Christians. And they should make every Arab across this region seethe. They are an attack on our values as a people and on our collective story. This is their version of the Arab world’s story, their plot, their narrative, their heroes, and the rest of the world is listening and watching.”
She was clear that it was education that was the key to defeating Isil rather than a cycle of further violence. In the well-crafted speech, she came over as a clearly intelligent person who is also thoughtful and caring in the way she suggested better education facilities to discourage young Arabs from extremism and barbaric, backward ways. She presented the audience with a choice: “We either develop our region, or we let others dismantle it; find solutions to the challenges, or watch the challenges avalanche; harness the tools to drive the Arab world forward in the 21st century.”
In our waiting times, may we be more aware that we do not wait alone, that others wait longer in more trying circumstances for their freedom from injustice and oppression. Amen.
From Fraser McNaughton
Just as the Ebola crisis in Liberia appears to be starting to improve, the outbreak in neighbouring Sierra Leone takes a turn for the worse. Of all the examples of what Jesus was talking about in his parable of the sheep and the goats, in the contemporary context, the Ebola virus and how it is dealt with has to be one the most challenging. Some countries have reacted in extraordinary ways, while others have sought imaginative solutions. As British forces withdraw from fighting in Afghanistan, military medics are being deployed in a much more positive and peaceful way, setting up specialist Ebola hospitals in Sierra Leone. Their action and their dedication in putting themselves in harm’s way is no less dangerous than firefights with the Taliban. It is hoped that these interventions may stall and reverse the spread of Ebola.
To help check the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Britain has pledged £20 million to build and run three new medical laboratories, which will be used to test blood samples and virus swabs.
The first lab opened in Kerry Town recently, immediately doubling the country’s testing capacity. Two more labs are planned in Port Loko and Makeni under the direction of UK Royal Engineers, Public Health England, and the Department for International Development.
When all three are finished, it is expected that Sierra Leone’s testing capacity will be four times what it was and will be able to turn around blood samples in 24 hours instead of the current four days.
International Development Secretary Justine Greening said, “Tackling Ebola at the source is key to beating it and stopping the spread. Some of Britain’s best and brightest scientists will be at the forefront of our UK-funded testing facilities ensuring that people with Ebola are isolated and then treated as soon as possible.”
Sierra Leone’s rural areas are worst affected by the virus, but the situation seems to be escalating in capital city Freetown, where there are six times the number of cases per day as there were during the summer.Laboratory results for patients in Freetown, which include the new British army-built Ebola hospital, showed 40 new cases a day. Only in the northern region of Bombali has the outbreak begun to slow. There have been more than 1,500 Ebola fatalities in Sierra Leone, around a thousand fewer than in Liberia, the country worst hit. There are also reports that another doctor in northern Sierra Leone has tested positive for Ebola prompting concerns over how the medical operation in the region can manage after four doctors died in recent months.
Explore… Matthew 25:31–46
May we have the discerning Spirit flowing through us as we stand alongside the suffering and support those victims of injustice and conflict. Amen
Three weeks ago, the sixth Oslo Freedom Forum brought together dissidents, journalists, authors, artists, philanthropists, photographers, musicians, students and many others from 81 countries. They came together to share their stories, brainstorm ideas, and experience solidarity as they individually challenge arbitrary powers. Speaking to the issue of human rights, Thor Halvorssen, the forum’s founder said, “Things are unquestionably getting worse.”
Halvorssen went on to say, “People say the truth will out, but it needs a little help.” Those gathered for the forum are among those who, with their lives, seek to proclaim the truth and to give it a little help, some in dramatic ways, others more quietly.
There was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian billionaire turned dissident, and Bangladeshi women who campaign against the forced marriage of teenage girls. From Egypt there was Bassem Youssef, his country’s Jon Stewart, who told of his show being canceled under pressure from the current military regime.
There were many stories of the dangers faced by journalists and artists expressing new ideas and trying to tell the truth. One appearing recently in the news was of the Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, who, back in 2012, published a list of some 2,000 possible Greek tax evaders who held Swiss bank accounts – a list that officials claimed to have lost. The named included politicians and wealthy businessmen. Within 24 hours a warrant was issued and 50 police officers were deployed to arrest, not the tax evaders, but Mr. Vaxevanis. He was ultimately acquitted , but the efforts to stop him and other journalists from digging too deeply into corruption are all too familiar in many countries. Vaxevanis says he has no regrets. “I’m a journalist, and I did my job,” adding, “I want to be a journalist in a country that is not afraid of the truth.”
Among the forum’s recipients of a prize for “creative dissent,” one, a Tibetan film-maker is serving six years in prison. Another is a Turkish performance artist who attracted attention by standing still for many hours in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in June 2013 while protests and brutal police action took place nearby. And there are the two Russian punk-rock artists from the group Pussy Riot, who served 21 months in a Russian prison camp after their protest in a cathedral. The list goes on.
We pray, O God, that we may hear the still small voice that reminds us who we are and whose we are. We pray for the courage to speak and act in ways consistent with the values of our faith and always on behalf of those who are oppressed by the systems of this world. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
Ebola has become a main focus of the news in recent weeks. Here are just a few headlines at the time of this writing: “In Homeland Liberian Finds Resilience Amid Horror,” “Fear of Ebola Closes Schools and Shapes Politics,” “How to Defeat Ebola,” “Ebola Quarantine Serves as Barrier to Volunteers.”
The picture changes daily as we receive new information and wait – for clarification about how the virus is spread, for reports of new cases of the virus in our own countries, for news of new treatments and possible vaccines, for the announcement of new safety procedures, for signs the epidemic might be waning. And as we wait, rumors abound, anxiety increases, fears rise.
In an Op-Ed piece, Nicholas Kristof says, “An alarming new symptom of Ebola in America: It seems to make brains mushy and hearts hard.” The quarantine use grows daily, with repercussions reaching far beyond any one individual’s isolation, time lost from work, and anxiety, possibly affecting our ability to stop the virus at its source. Responding to the announcement by the governors of New York and New Jersey that all people arriving at their international airports who had direct contact with Ebola patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea, would be quarantined, many medical professionals are expressing concerns. They fear that such restrictions may seriously affect volunteers’ efforts at the front lines of the epidemic. Dr. Rick Sacra, who contracted Ebola in Liberia and was treated in the US in September, said he believes that the new rules in New Jersey and New York will reduce the number of people willing to volunteer their time to treat Ebola patients.
In the West African countries where the number of cases is still doubling every two to four weeks, it’s clear they can’t defeat the outbreak on their own. Volunteers are critical to the care of patients in these countries. The medical community seems in agreement that, as Larry Gostin, Georgetown University Law School, said on the Diane Rehm Show, “Our risk is directly tied to the source of infection in West Africa.” Also speaking on the show, Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator for the U.S.. agency for international development, added, “Our immediate priority is to stop this problem at its source and to make sure we get the technical leadership and support in the region to be able to do that.”
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, speaking on the PBS News Hour, reminded us that, “These are people who actually put themselves on the line to help strangers they don’t know, their knowledge, their careers, themselves, not for money, not for power, but just for humanity…and that is the most admirable development in this whole terrible panorama.”
Explore Matthew 25:1–13
If this passage is not really about staying awake and “lamp oil” is a metaphor for righteousness, what does this passage say about the state of “waiting”?
Prayer links. . .
God of all our days, and nights, in our waiting, for opportunities or outcomes, quiet our fears and move us beyond anxiety to continue to work with compassion for the health and well-being of all, that together we might experience your kingdom. Amen
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From Paul Turley
When both The Economist magazine and the United States Federal Reserve start talking about inequality you can be sure that the issue is firmly on the front page.
At least once a month during the last year, The Economist has featured an article on the issue of rising inequality in western economics.
Just last week, United States Federal Reserve Chief Janet Yellen, in one of her first major speeches since taking on the role, addressed a conference on inequality in the U.S., in Boston.
Inequality in income between the richest and the poorest is growing. The fabled 1% now see their incomes and their share of wealth in stratospheric figures, while those at the bottom end of the income pool have stagnant or falling incomes.
“By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years,” Yellen said in her Boston speech.
And now it’s not just people who study these figures who are worried. Nor is it just those who are reading Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the biggest selling economics book in decades. According to new studies by the Pew Research Centre, Americans and Europeans both rank inequality as a greater threat than pollution and the environment, religious and ethnic hatred, and nuclear weapons.
Surely it is inequality that is at the heart of our text from Matthew’s gospel this week. Leaders who say one thing about how life should be led and then lead their own lives in a totally different way come in for Jesus’ intense criticism.
Leaders in our communities who call for people to get off benefits and to work hard but who, at the same time, reduce the funding to support services for the unemployed and increase the red tape and taxation burden on small business who might be able to offer employment are, in Jesus’ understanding, hypocrites. Those who insist on tax breaks for the rich and for corporations while loading tax onto the poor and the middle class are those who would be condemned by Jesus.
Explore… Matthew 23:1–12
God, in our hearts we know that if we live well while another starves, we do not truly live well. We know that if we ignore the inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and safety in our world, none of us will ever truly live in peace and harmony. Give us courage to face the truth and to change our world. Amen.
From Paul Turley
This week, as we read of the arrival of the Hebrews (who had escaped Egypt) into the land of Israel, the war in the Middle East over the tiny bit of land known as the Gaza Strip goes on.
“They keep on trying to kill us, every day, all day, this is their one and only goal. They want Israel to be Palestine with not one Jewish person alive.” These are the words of Mati Bloomberg, a resident of the illegal Jewish outpost of Esh Kodesh in the Palestinian Territories – Territories that Bloomberg and her fellow Esh Kodesh residents refuse to acknowledge is anything other than the ancient home of the Jews, as promised by God in texts such as the reading for today.
Less than two kilometres from Esh Kodesh is the Palestinian town of Kusra. In 2007, two boys from the town were chased from the vineyards of Tsviki Strouk by the owner. One of the boys escaped; the other, 16-year-old Imran Farach, was caught by Strouk and beaten.
Farach’s brother says, “They caught him and they started hitting him using weapons, their hands and sticks until he lost consciousness. Then they carried him in the car and they took him to the settlement Esh Kodesh, and there they continued to beat him even more. And after that, he woke up and he heard one of them tell the other, ‘Kill him!”’
Strouk was convicted by an Israeli court and spent 20 months in prison for the crime.
The most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas lasted for 50 days and left over 2,000 dead, the majority of them Palestinian civilians. Over 100,000 Gazans remain homeless.
Now, in the last week, a conference in Cairo has concluded with the international community pledging $5.4 billion to rebuild the shattered province.
But what will this rebuilding mean for Tsviki Strouk, Imran Farach, Mati Bloomberg, and the neighbouring settlements of Esh Kodesh and Kusra?
Explore... Deuteronomy 34:1–12
God, no matter our age, we have been aware of the troubles in the ancient lands on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea all ofour lives. With so much past pain, so much current hurt and damage, it is easy to despair. Remind us, God, that your plan for this region was delivered, in our great story, by an angel: “Peace on earth and goodwill to all people.” Amen.
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