Past Spirit Sightings (The Archives)
From Fraser Macnaughton
It has often been said that the mark of a civilized society is how it treats its poorest and most disadvantaged citizens. The upcoming British General Election is dividing the country down a fault-line dividing opposing views of how austerity cuts imposed after the global financial crash impact on the poor. In a recent pronouncement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, refused to rule out cuts to child benefits payments for millions of households by wrapping them into the Universal Credit system.
Under rules that came into force in 2013, child benefits are currently phased out for families where one individual earns more than £50,000 a year and is scrapped completely if the individual earns more than £60,000. However, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, such a move by the Chancellor could strip about 4.3 million middle- and upper-middle income families of more than £1,000 a year.
Six other major types of benefits payments have been rolled into the Government’s flagship Universal Credit scheme,which has much tougher eligibility thresholds. George Osborne recently refused to categorically rule out rolling child benefits into Universal Credit.
Making the change could save about £4.5 billion a year, the IFS estimated, as about 4.3 million households who currently receive child benefit would not be entitled to Universal Credit.
Robert Joyce, senior research economist at the IFS, said, “The losers would be families with children, on middle- and upper-middle incomes. This is because roughly the poorest third of families with children would be protected if they claim Universal Credit, and the current government’s change means that 10 percent of higher-income families have already lost their Child Benefit.”
Entitlement to Universal Credit expires at a gross salary of around £27,000 for a family with one child in owner-occupied accommodation; £33,000 if they have two children; and £39,000 if they have three children, according to a 2013 IFS report.
The battleground over which this election will be fought has, at its heart, the nature of a caring society – a society that shepherds its weakest and most vulnerable members.
Explore… John 10:11–18
Many of us from urban backgrounds know little about sheep and shepherds, or about rural images and metaphors. But being human, we all know what it means to care. May we, in our own pastures, continue to reach out and care for those in our flock who need help. Amen.
From Fraser Macnaughton
The natural world is full of wonder, if we stop and look. Good-news stories stir the heart and rejuvenate the spirit, such as the one concerning the reintroduction of beavers in England.
The only wild beavers in England have been released back into their river home in Devon after being given a clean bill of health.
Conservationists had feared the small colony of beavers on the River Otter in Devon would end up in a zoo following plans to trap and test them for a rare parasite. But a decision by Natural England to issue a license to “reintroduce” the endangered animals opened the door to their return to the river.
A campaign by Friends of the Earth and Devon Wildlife Trust, which managed the animal’s reintroduction program, argued that England forms part of the “natural range” of beavers and that removing them would be against EU laws governing protected species. Friends of the Earth campaigner Alasdair Cameron said, “This is great news for Devon’s beavers. If, as seems likely, they can now remain in the wild, it will be a major victory for common sense and everyone who has campaigned on their behalf. Beavers add to Britain’s rich natural heritage and can bring huge benefits to the local environment, such as boosting wildlife and reducing flooding risks. Hopefully we’ll now see renewed efforts to reintroduce beavers to other suitable locations right across the country.”
This would follow huge successes reintroducing the dam-building mammals in Scotland in recent years.
Local councilor Claire Wright thought it was brilliant news that the beavers will be allowed to remain on the Otter. Local people are also delighted – there is massive support for them. Gratitude was expressed by various wildlife groups to Devon Wildlife Trust, which worked tirelessly for months to make the case for them to stay. Farmer David Lawrence, who owns the land where the animals are regularly spotted, said he too was delighted by the decision. He said, “I have three film crews in my field at the moment, but it’s all passing the beavers by as they are pretty dormant this time of year. The most important thing is that now the Devon Wildlife Trust can study the beavers and in five years we can make an informed decision as to whether the beaver really can thrive and be healthy in England.”
With open eyes and open minds, we gaze and wonder upon the marvels of creation. May we also delve deep into the wonders of humanity, seeing the good in all, seeing the Christ in all. Amen.
From Sandra Rooney
A New York Times Magazine story, “The Empathy Gap,” begins in Nyiregyhaza, a medium-size city in the northeastern corner of Hungry, only 60 miles from the Ukranian border, a nice city with two Roma settlements, “Gypsy ghettos.” The larger one, Gusev, is located in an old 19th century military barracks, away from the city proper near a deteriorating industrial area. Home to 1,000 Roma, Gusev has few amenities, but does have an elementary school with some 60 students, most of whom are Roma.
Officially, the schools in Nyireglyhaza are integrated, and Roma students have access to the same facilities as other students in the city. But it's not as simple as that. While many families in Gusev have been assigned to integrated schools, most are not within walking distance and there is no busing.
The reality is that it’s difficult for Roma to go anywhere except the settlement school. If they do they are often bullied and ostracized. Law suits have been filed. It begins to sound a lot like the situation with education for African Americans in the U.S. 60 years ago.
After that introduction, the Times story moves to look at research being done regarding what’s at work in the way social and economic factors tend to divide us into warring camps and the way a variety of factors can be far more powerful than our own values and personality traits in shaping the way we treat others. With all the advances in brain science during the last 20 years, neuroscientists have begun trying to map empathy’s pathways in the brain, trying to discover how our ability to empathize with one another breaks down in hopes of finding a way to build it back up. One finding seems to be the strength of a person’s group identity. And we see evidence of that all around us.
Back to the Roma, whom non-Roma characterize in many derogatory ways as different from the rest of the community. Much of the Times story focuses on the work of Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and concludes with this statement from him: “But if you can trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.”
In the words of the hymn written by Harry Emerson Fosdick, “from the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts for faith and praise…Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving you whom we adore.” Amen.
Learn more. . .
From Sandra Rooney
A video was making its way around the internet recently about a young woman from Detroit, only 24, who is CEO and founder of her own company: The Empowerment Plan. Here’s how that came to be.
Veronika Scott describes herself as coming from a family of addicts, where she felt she was set up for failure, “in a hole she had to climb out of.” Then she received “a great scholarship” to college, the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. A project in a Design Activism class changed her life. Her professor, Stephen Schock, said they were looking for a way for their students to become problem-solvers. The project was to design something to meet an actual need.
Veronika chose to look for a project that would help the homeless, an ever-present concern in Detroit. She began by talking to the people in a homeless shelter. She got the idea of designing a coat that could be transformed into a sleeping bag at night. She went back, three nights a week, every week for more than three months, talking to the homeless, designing such a coat. As she was leaving the shelter one day, a woman started yelling at her: “We don’t need coats, we need jobs!” And Veronika knew she was right.
What grew out of Veronika’s work on the coat/sleeping bag, still a need, was a plan to employ homeless women as seamstresses, who would not only make the coats, but who would learn the skills they needed to pull themselves out of their hole. Today Veronika employs 20 previously homeless women, is dedicated to paying a living wage, and is selling coats to groups in 29 states in the U.S. and three Canadian provinces, who distribute them to the homeless in their communities.
The Empowerment Plan’s mission is “to educate, employ and empower homeless individuals to create a better life for themselves and their families while producing a humanitarian product for those in need.”
Explore… John 20:1–18
Ever-present God, too often we allow our vision to become clouded; we feel hopeless in the face of the challenges we see. Break through our clouded vision and empower us to bring light and hope to those around us. Amen.
From Ray McGinnis
In the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a group of retired senior citizens from the United Kingdom continue to enjoy their sunset years at a hotel in a city in India. The hotel’s young owner, Sonny, attempts to purchase another hotel to expand his business in the midst of plans for his impending marriage to Sunaina. Only with the help of Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), whose business savvy saved the first hotel, does Sonny have any hope to keeping his business afloat. Each morning, Sonny takes a roll call to ensure the hotel guests are awake and that no one has passed away during the night.
A company in America is interested in providing funding to help purchase the second hotel. It is expected that an inspector from the U.S. company will come to the Marigold hotel incognito to determine if it is in the company’s best interests to be involved with Sonny and his hotel business. Along the way, the elderly folk at the hotel discuss some life lessons and wisdom as they enjoy the time they have left.
Focus: The movie unfolds as different guests face the challenges and graces of growing old. There are pearls of wisdom shared between the aging hotel guests. For example, several guests share insights about learning how simple it is to choose a love you’re scared of: “I will wait, until I can wait no more, because you’re worth waiting for.” “In the end, it’s simple: all it takes is saying yes, that this is what I want, with someone who wants it too.” “You weren’t my first, but I want you to be my last.”
Other guests speak honestly about facing change and the apprehensiveness of letting go: “We have no idea what will happen. Don’t try to control it. Just let go. There’s no present like the time.” And a line at the end of the movie that invites us to ponder endings: “There’s no such thing as an ending; just a place where you leave the story.”
Loving God, in the unfolding drama of life, you are there offering us choices to engage or disengage in what is going on around us. Help us to know when to move, to be guided by your spirit, and to be ready to show up for the sake of your gospel. In Christ we pray. Amen.
From Ray McGinnis
The plight of African and Asian elephants has been in the news as ivory poachers hunt elephants for their tusks and illegal logging operations use elephants to do hard labor under brutal conditions. England’s Prince William recently visited an elephant nature sanctuary in southern China to draw attention to the plight of elephants. Aware that the world’s elephant population is in decline, the prince invited listeners to consider a world without elephants. A world where elephants would become one more species listed as extinct.
People who go to elephant sanctuaries learn, like the prince, the wonder of these pachyderms and are often surprised at how quickly their hearts are opened in a peaceful human-elephant encounter. At an elephant sanctuary, people learn about the challenge of preserving the worldwide elephant population, what elephants eat on a daily basis, veterinary care, and how to bathe an elephant in a river.
The price of ivory has climbed dramatically in the past few years. With the rise in ivory values, more and more people are poaching elephants for their tusks in order to make a living. Some media outlets have reported that terrorist groups are engaging in elephant poaching as a way to raise money to purchase arms.
In Thailand, places like the Elephant Nature Sanctuary rescue elephants from illegal forestry operations that make use of elephants. The elephants are free to roam their new multi-hectare habitat alongside a river valley and mountain ranges that surround them.
Loving God, your cosmic heart beats with our hearts. You who made all things bright and beautiful, draw us nearer to a heart-centered life. Help us live lives of faith that lead with love as our foundation. Reveal to us what is already written on our hearts that we may listen to our heart’s wisdom. In Christ we pray. Amen
From Ray McGinnis
Citizenfour is a documentary that won Best Documentary Oscar at the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood on February 22. The film is an interview between American intelligence analyst Edward Snowden and British reporter, Glenn Greenwald. It is directed and produced by Academy Award winning American filmmaker, Laura Poitras, who narrates the film.
It was in January, 2013, that Laura Poitras got an encrypted e-mail in her inbox from a stranger who identified himself as Citizenfour. The e-mail consisted of an offer of inside information about illegal wiretapping being done by the NSA, the National Security Agency, of the USA, as well as by other intelligence agencies in America and beyond.
Six months later, in June 2013, she travels to Hong Kong with reporter Glenn Greenwald, and the intelligence reporter for The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill. Over eight days, they meet with the stranger who identifies himself as Edward Snowden. In the film, Snowden discusses some of the information he is aware of regarding government surveillance of ordinary citizens on a massive scale. The reporters try to come to grips with how they will make these revelations available to the general public in an effort to inform citizens in democratic countries, and to begin a public debate about illegal wiretapping and surveillance.
Director: Laura Poitras
Film company: Praxis Films/HBO Films
Release date: October 10, 2014
Starring: Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill
Film director Laura Poitras had already been working on a film about surveillance for two years when CIA intelligence analyst, Edward Snowden, contacted her. He used the codename “Citizenfour,” in January 2013. Viewers learn that he chose to contact her since he was aware she had been a subject of government surveillance, interrogated at airports numerous times, and had not been scared off by government intimidation. When Snowden confided he was a high-level analyst called to expose the massive surveillance of Americans by the NSA, Poitras won his confidence in becoming part of her film project.
God of wilderness wandering, like our spiritual ancestors who wandered in the wilderness, we live in times of wilderness. In the face of dangers that could stem our resolve to live and move toward a greater understanding of the power of love, help us to listen to your spirit and lift our eyes to what can inspire boldness and presence. In Christ we pray. Amen.
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.
Send a question or note
Contact the Publisher
Published by: WOOD LAKE PUBLISHING INC.