Different paths, same aim

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Earlier in the week, my wife and I took a trip to St Mungos Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow. It was chock full of religious imagery, artefacts and ritualistic objects from all kinds of faiths and from all over the world. They ranged from the painting above (“Crucifixion” by Peter Howson – 2010) and similar images depicting familiar views of Christianity to a bronze statue of the Hindu deity Shiva,

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a painting of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak

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and a depiction of the holiest site in Islam, the Ka’aba in Mecca.

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The museum was a very still, quiet and moving place, full of the reverence which each of these and many more artefacts bring with them. They served as a reminder of the search that the human race has had for a higher power ever since we first climbed out of the trees (*dons tin helmet at the mention of evolution*).

Many of these religions and faiths grew totally independently of each other throughout the world. Some no longer exist, such as the ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, while others, like Islam and Christianity, continue to grow and thrive. All, however, centre around an innate need within all of us to find meaning in our existence; some kind of order, purpose and aim in life. The fact that so many civilisations have focused on this idea of a god or gods speaks volumes to me. Where did the idea come from? Why the concept of a god or a group of deities? I could understand this being a purely human construct if it all came from one origin, but it appears that people have worshipped a god of some sort in every part of the world without any outside influence. It is a natural, divine urge to connect with the higher power who created the heavens and the earth.

I’m a Christian, so central to my belief is this one verse from John’s Gospel,

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” (John‬ ‭14‬:‭6‬ NIVUK)

I believe that Jesus is the way to God. However, the fact is that billions around the world, both today and through the ages, have sought and are seeking God. I feel that this need to connect with God is the most powerful thing a person can experience and that, however we chose to do so, we must learn about and from other faiths and learn to respect and understand their beliefs. Our aim is the same, after all, to know and grow close to our creator. The one who made and knows each of us and left a desire to know him buried in our very being.

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Why I agree with the National Secular Society, for once

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The UK Parliament is currently debating the Local Authority (Religious etc. Observances) Bill. It was introduced as a Private Members Bill by the Conservative MP Jake Berry, who recently said that it provided “freedom to pray and to hold prayers at the start of council meetings, should that local authority wish to do so.” at a committee stage debate on the Bill.

He also stated that it was designed to combat “an aggressive and unwelcome secular attack on our core British values.” This is, no doubt, referring in part to a ruling in 2012 that prayers before meetings of Bideford Town Council were unlawful if held as a formal part of the meeting, following a challenge by the National Secular Society and an atheist town councillor.

There have also been a couple of amendments tabled by other Conservative MPs to the Bill. Edward Leigh MP has proposed a close which requires local authorities to “keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundations of the United Kingdom” when religious observances are held. Phillip Davies MP has also proposed that prayer actually be a compulory part of Council business (“the business at a meeting of a local authority in England shall include time for (a) prayers or other religious observance, or (b) observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief.”).

Now, I am a Christian, so you may expect me to wholeheartedly welcome these moves. However, far from welcoming them, I actually fear for the implications of the Bill and the amendments, both socially and theologically.

To legally oblige people to pray during public meetings, or at any time, regardless of their faith or lack of faith is pointless at best and counterproductive and divisive at worst. One of the reasons I’ve heard many times for people’s lack of respect for organised religion is the way they feel it was forced down their throats during compulsory religious observance when they were at school. Making people do something regardless of their will is a sure fire way of turning them off of the thing you are trying to encourage. In fact, more than turning the, off of it, it breeds outright hostility to the act and to those who take part in it.

Also, the clear indication that Christian prayer be the form of prayer which takes place not only alienates atheists, agnostics, humanists etc. but also those of other faiths who play an active and important part of our public life. To do that to anybody is wrong, but to do it to democratically elected officials carrying out their mandated duty is mind boggling. This is especially true when you try to justify the reasoning behind it. There is nothing stopping people praying together before meetings or even silently before it, but does it actually have a place in the business of a local authority? I would say not.

Assuming the reasoning behind this Bill is to allow people to follow Jesus’ teachings, why not look at what Jesus himself had to say,

“While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’” (Luke‬ ‭20‬:‭45-47‬ NIVUK)

“‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew‬ ‭6‬:‭5-6‬ NIVUK)

Now, these verses don’t mean that all forms of public prayer are bad, but do show that an insistence on praying publicly demonstrates a desire to show off one’s own righteousness rather than actually conversing with God, the reason for prayer. Doing these things in private will be rewarded, showing off on public is, in Jesus’ own words, hypocritical.

Nobody has banned prayer or limited our right to do so, but we must realise that there is a time, a place and a method. Putting prayer at the start of business of a secular meeting as a compulsion is none of these things. I don’t often agree with the National Secular Society, but they are spot on here. It is simply not appropriate, especially to enshrine it in law.

If the Conservative Party want to “keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundations of the United Kingdom” then maybe concentrating on justice, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and love for your fellow human being rather than battling a form of persecution which simply isn’t there.

Their god is not my God

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The logic is this: God wants us all to obey him, so you can either obey him or face being killed by those who do.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God will shower you with all types of riches and hedonistic delights in the next life if you give all of that kind of thing up in this life and force your choices on everybody else.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God wants you to subjugate half of the population because of their gender. He wants you to make sure they can’t teach, lead, make their own decisions or have any kind of independent thought.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God wants you to be intolerant and hateful towards anybody different to you. He wants you to exclude them, discriminate against them, preach against them and deny them basic human rights.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God has no sense of humour. He wants any ridicule of the more extreme views his followers have to be answered with vitriol, imprisonment, persecution, terror and death.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God doesn’t care if you want to follow him. He doesn’t care if you love him. He doesn’t care if you obey him because you want to or if you obey him because his followers force you to through the law, through fear, through violence… even if they have to behead your friends and family in front of you to make you obey him. He just wants blind obedience.

That isn’t the God I worship. That isn’t the God any Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh I have met or known worship either.

The God I worship, the God we worship, is love. He is generous. He has given us free will to choose how, or how not, to respond to him. He wants us to obey him, but only if we have freely chosen to do so.

The God I worship does not want his followers to respond to satirical cartoons by killing those responsible like those who shot 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo did. He has been through more suffering and ridicule than we can imagine and grieves for all the suffering we inflict on each other on Earth. He has much bigger things to worry about than cartoons.

The God I worship does not want us to install a worldwide state in his name by force, by fighting and killing our way through the world and bringing it to heel by fear.

The God I worship does not want us to hate people we disagree with due to religion, politics or lifestyle. He doesn’t want us to condemn or persecute anybody, but to disagree in love and always point to him.

If God was like the one that extremists of all kinds claim to follow then I wouldn’t want to follow him. I would resist him and his followers. But he isn’t like that at all.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John‬ ‭4‬:‭7-12‬ NIVUK)

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Shout for peace

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The children of Gaza I Channel 4 News

A question. How many of you pay tax in a Western country, especially the UK or USA? How many of you care enough about where those tax pounds or dollars or euros go that it sways your vote? Or it sways you opinion on subjects like welfare, health care, education, immigration or many other issues? How many of you have actually used the argument “I don’t want my taxes being spent on that”?

Your taxes are being spent in defending Israel from Hamas rockets. This is a good thing, it is undoubtedly saving lives in the face of an aggressor which needs to cease violence immediately.

However, do you see the video I linked to at the top of this post? Your taxes paid for that, too. The support western governments give to Israel allow them to fire rockets into Gaza, killing innocent men, women and children. We help to pay for young foot soldiers to go into Gaza and put themselves in the line of Hamas guns. We pay towards the violence and mistreatment towards Palestinians which has led to the election of a group such as Hamas as their leaders, escalating this situation to what it is now.

We live in a society which complains at our money going to those who, for whatever reason,, are not working and get angry when we see them with an iPhone,  but we say nothing when atrocities like those in Gaza are carried out with the help of our money.

No more!

We must start to put pressure on our political leaders to take on those causing the violence in Gaza and Israel and stop giving them financial aid. We must tell them that if all world governments were firm in their resolve that both Hamas and the Israeli government should cease hostilities of all form then we may, finally see a way forward.

We can no longer allow our leaders to excuse the actions of the Israelis by simply labelling Hamas as terrorists. Neither of them are acting with regard for peace and humanity. Both authorities are responsible for misery and suffering.

The arguments about whether Hamas are using human shields or not are pointless. Either they aren’t and Israel are indiscriminately bombing and killing innocent civilians, or they are and Israel are bombing targets knowing that they are killing innocent civilians. Neither are excusable. Neither, in a conflict between two religions from the same origin, are the will of God.

“I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me. And I am willing to die for them.  There are other sheep which belong to me that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them, too; they will listen to my voice, and they will become  one flock with one shepherd.” (John 10:14-16 GNB)

We are called to be one people. One flock with one shepherd. This is what we should be working towards. I’ve read about “evicting” Hamas or military action against Israel. Neither of these can serve to do anything except drive a wedge between Jews and Muslims even deeper and cause further animosity towards the west.

The time has come for us, as one voice, to call for peace and to back it up with actions. We need to stop paying for war and misery. We have done that in Israel and look what’s happening there. We have done that in Syria and Iraq and ISIS are reaping the benefits and are driving out and killing all of their opponents from their self imposed Caliphate.

Join demonstrations. Spread information. Contact your elected representatives. Do what you can, but we must stop this and stop it now.

A short open letter to people of all religious persuasions.

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If you are an adherent to one of the World’s major religions I have one simple request.

Please stop killing people.

Especially in the name of your religion.

I don’t care whether a person or group of people have insulted your God or major prophet.

Please stop killing people.

I’m sorry if people of your religion are being persecuted, tortured or murdered in countries around the world. It’s a truly awful thing to happen and we need to stop it. Reacting in kind, however, just makes things worse. So…

Please stop killing people.

I know some of you live in very complicated situations. Many historical arguments over land, particularly holy land, have led to animosity, hatred and extreme conflict. Do you know what may be a good first step to solving these situations?

Please stop killing people.

I know you may be incredibly zealous about your faith. You cannot understand why there are people who don’t share your beliefs or values. You are frustrated that some see openly hostile to your religion. You feel compelled to do something about it. But, if you want to win hearts and minds…

Please stop killing people.

You may feel that your way of life is under attack by people with extremist views, determined to force their ways on everyone else through violence. They recruit followers by looking at how you treat the adherents of their religion around the world, saying they are the true victims and building sympathy from normally reasonable people. Guess what may help there?

Please stop killing people.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, Jews,  Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Zoroastrian, Taoist, Satanist or any other-ist. I don’t care how literally you interpret your holy book. I don’t care how much you hate the beliefs of people of other religions. I don’t care what anger, hurt, text, argument, disagreement, injustice, historical claim, war crime or wrongdoing you use to justify your acts. It is so much easier not to kill someone than it is to kill someone. I’m not killing someone right now. I haven’t killed anyone all day, or year, or for my whole life. It’s easy.

I have faith in God. I see text in the Bible about people killing in God’s name. I see Christians being persecuted worldwide. I don’t,  however, kill people.

So please, I beg you, in the name of whatever God or gods you pray to.

Please.

Stop.

Killing.

People.

There’s only One way of life…

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I was watching The One Show tonight (Yes,  I watch The One Show. Get over it.) and the star and writer of the marvellously funny Rev,  Tom Hollander,  was on. He had mentioned the ridiculous amount of plastic carrier bags polluting the Atlantic Ocean and,  in connection with an item on scientific innovation, suggested that,

“Science is destroying the planet,  so maybe it can help to fix it too.”

And I thought, yes! Science is destroying the planet!  This ‘great force for reason and good’ is actually a force of destructive,  ruinous evil which will be the end of us all!

Let’s look at the evidence. Science has given us guns,  nuclear bombs and chemical weapons; instruments of great suffering and mass killings.

Science has given us vehicles and factories which belch out greenhouse gases,  changing the climate and choking the vulnerable.

Science has given us the race to create so much new technology that we strip our planet of its natural resources,  leaving our children or grandchildren with a barren Earth.

Science has allowed us to create working practices which sacrifice services and jobs in place of efficiency and profit

Science is evil.  It has destroyed lives,  jobs and our world. 

Hasn’t it?

Of course,  it hasn’t.  Science is,  more often than not,  a force for great good.  Medicines saving lives,  communications bringing people closer,  the ability to predict and survive disasters,  cleaner and safer energy,  the list goes on and on.

Science is clearly not evil,  but some people have chosen to use it for selfish or evil means. They have twisted its intentions and practices for their own ends with no regard for the good it can do.

The same goes for religion. It is a common argument that religion is a force for evil.  The scourge of the world.  The cause of all of its ills.

This is also patently untrue. Religion has,  of course, and continues to be used for great evil. Wars,  torture,  oppression, murder, abuse of power, mental and physical abuse and brainwashing are just some of the evils carried out in the name of religion.

They are not,  however,  the reason for the existence of religion.  Religion exists in order to help to bring peace, order, love and salvation to a chaotic world. It exists to bring people closer to the higher power people call God.

Religion has been used to create organised health care,  mass education, peace work, the fight against poverty, campaigning against human trafficking and many other great things. 

The fact is that religion,  in itself,  is neither good or evil.  Science,  in itself,  is neither good or evil.  How people choose to use these tools determines how we view them.  People choose to be good or evil.

It’s easy to focus on the bad points of something you disagree with and call it evil.  It’s easy to focus on the good points of something you agree with and call it perfect. The fact is that very few things are either bad or good,  it’s purely how we choose to use them which determine that.  Where religion is concerned,  only God is truly perfect.  His followers aren’t,  which is why so much evil is done in his name.

Jesus commands us to love, be peacemakers, show forgiveness and help the poor,  sick and vulnerable.  He also calls out those who don’t do any of these things and asks us to do the same. We can’t stop evil,  but we can help to shine a light on it,  and on good,  and help to point people down the right path.

We need to take responsibility for the actions of human beings,  rather than  blame concepts for evil.  And we need to find a better way,  the right way,  to run our lives and the world.

We have been given the way by Jesus,  and we can do our best to follow his example.

Lent Day 31: John 3-4

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“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)

When I was really young I used to see people holding the John 3:16 posters up at sports events on the TV and wonder why. I couldn’t understand what it was all about partly because I had virtually no biblical knowledge, partly because I didn’t see why one verse was so important amongst so many and partly because I couldn’t understand the point in holding that up without the words of the verse being with it.

I still don’t really get how it’s meant to achieve anything, to be honest. Following Jesus is all about relationships. Relationships with other followers, with people who aren’t and with Jesus himself. I don’t see how holding up a piece of card with one word and two numbers on it from, often, a foreign country, with no chance of building that relationship is going to have much, if any effect.

I also don’t see how quoting it out of context is going to do any good. What does it actually mean in practice? Who is God’s son, really? Who is God? How does he give us eternal life? What does it even mean? We need to go beyond one verse to even get close to answering those.

However, if you asked people to quote you a Bible verse, the chances are that they would quote you this one (or “Jesus wept”, which comes a bit later). This means that, despite whatever the poster bearer’s intentions, this is a great conversation point. What does John 3:16 actually mean? And why is it so famous?

The fact is that it’s the verse used by remote, faceless evangelists because, more than any other verse, it sums up why Jesus came. He came because God, the Father, loves us. Not because he wanted to judge us or punish us, but as an act of love.

He came because God gave him up. He gave him up to us as a gift of love so that we can learn from him about life, about love for him and for each other and about God’s kingdom. He also gave him up to death. I once took part in a Church music as l called “A Man Born To Die”, which describes Jesus well. His teachings were important, but his death and subsequent resurrection are what leads to the final part of the verse.

Eternal life is a tough concept. I don’t know what it looks like, but then, I don’t want to. Not yet. I want it to remain a mystery, a surprise, if I get it. I do know that Jesus overcame all of the wrong things we’ve done by dying, as sin is what really kills us spiritually, and by coming back to life. This is how he gave us eternal life, I just can’t explain how it means. I tried him that it’s worth it, though.

And that’s the point. Whoever believes in him gets it. When Jesus speaks of belief here he means that we trust what he says and follow him. Simple as that. It’s not about having a rigid set of rules and regulations. It’s not about ritual, avoiding doing certain things at certain times and doing others on a regular basis. It’s about listening to what he teaches us, trusting that he is the way to go and following him. It’s about helping others along the way; loving them, guiding them, comforting them, feeding them, sharing everything with them. It’s about life.

What it’s not about is religion. I try to avoid the word because it has so many negative connotations, and rightly so. Religion is a system of rules, a system of control, a system of separation and segregation. Religion is man-made and has been used as the justification of so many bad things throughout history. I mean, read the Bible itself! There are enough examples there of how religion has been used to justify evil, including Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t come to found a religion. He came to give us life. To show us the way to live, fully, eternally. He came to help us to break free from the control that those in power have over our hearts, minds and souls and to show us how to love each other and him so that we can truly live. Believing in him means all of this and more. Not control, not religion, not rigid rules, not condemnation, but love and life.

Who wouldn’t want to believe in that?