My February Coolumn – Full Text

This month I’ve been thinking about the Fourth Commandment, Honour thy father and thy mother. At first glance that seems straightforward. It could be translated as ‘Be quiet and obey your parents’. In most cases that would be good advice (speaking as a parent). However, life is not always so straightforward. What if you are an orphan? Who should you honour then? Logically you would be required to honour your legal guardian or those in authority over you. So it’s not just about father and mother then.

The implication is that we should honour those in authority. What if those in authority, even parents, are not a good influence? We surely should not obey in matters that are wrong. So honour is not simply a matter of obeying. Did you always just obey your parents or did you question what they told you? I certainly questioned things and sometimes my questioning led me to a better understanding of what was right and sometimes it raised issues questioning our assumptions.

Now, honour is not a term we normally use. What exactly is meant by Honour in this commandment? It certainly implies deferring to our parents or those in authority over us. But it also tells us more about our relationship with our parents as we get older. It’s not only children who should honour their parents adults are also under this obligation. The nature of honouring our parents changes as we become independent of them. As parents get older their children take on responsibility for looking after them.

This can take the form of dropping in to see that they are doing okay, helping with tasks that are now beyond them and generally looking out for them. This will just seem normal behaviour to many of you who have family fussing over you or even bossing you about. I used to imagine that all families behaved in this sort of way but recently I have begun to see things differently.

There seem to be lots of stories of children being abused or even killed by family members, even parents. Surely if children have to honour their parents the other side of the coin is that parents must love and honour their children. I was disturbed by an item in the news recently about a child who had killed a small boy. He is an adult now and finds himself in trouble for having indecent images. It made me wonder how a child could develop into someone who could do terrible things. I can’t believe that he was born with a terrible urge to do harm. What happened to that child to cause him to be the person he now finds himself to be?

Are we now becoming a people who regard children as a possession rather than someone who has been given into our care? Medical advances have given us the ability to make choices we never had in the past. Embryos can be frozen to be implanted when it is convenient. We may soon be able to choose the design of the baby by genetic engineering.

We have seen cases of marital breakup where one parent has killed the children so that the other parent will not have them. These are examples of people in desperation. They are not behaving as they would in a normal day. However we see examples of people in famine ravaged countries walking for days without food and water in the attempt to find help for their child. We see parents sacrificing their own lives to save their children. Now those are desperate situations. Where have we gone wrong?

Perhaps the wording of the commandment is misleading. It could be seen as putting the onus on the child to be obedient. Have we lost sight of the implication that to be honoured the parent must first be honourable? If someone in authority is to be honoured then they must first be honourable. If a government passes a law which is morally wrong we would not be expected to obey it. Parents teach their children by example. If parents do not act in an honourable way then that’s how the children will learn to behave.

When I think about it I realise that this is not a commandment about children or about parents. This is a commandment about family. The vision encompassed in it is of a traditional family unit with parents and children and the extended family too. The relationships between the family members and their responsibilities are fairly well understood. But the traditional family is fast becoming a thing of the past. Lots of children are now growing up in different sorts of families. There are single parents taking on the responsibilities of both father and mother. There are split families where children live with two separated parents and other less conventional units too.

Where a family is split up as a result of infidelity where is the example of behaving honourably? Where there is acrimony in the breakup what pressures are put on the children? People today are pressured into thinking about what is best for ‘me’. We are constantly being urges to look better, dress better and be more successful. That is not a bad thing in itself. It’s when these things are taken to extremes that we get trouble. If I’m persuaded that doing what’s good for me takes priority over everyone else then that is a problem.

A lot of this is about selling us stuff. We should buy this shampoo because we are worth it. We should drive this car because it creates the right impression. The other night I saw and advert on television where a man declares that he has begun to ski; spend kid’s inheritance. I suppose it’s meant to be funny but it has a serious side. What do our children inherit from us? Money is the least of their inheritance (it will be in our family anyway). Our children inherit attitudes and values that will be with them long after they have spent the cash.

Today it’s all about promoting ‘me’. Christ’s example to us is one of putting us before Himself. He died on the cross to save us and showed us that we too must put our family before ourselves. That was my experience in growing up. As a parent bringing up children in a house I was able to buy and able to provide them with simple luxuries, I was compelled to wonder at how my parents managed to provide for us in the way they did. They did it by putting their children before themselves. They left us an example of how to be a parent, an example I struggle to equal.

So the commandment that I initially thought was really quite straightforward turns out to be nothing of the kind. If these commandments really are God’s guide to happiness then the fourth is the one that brings happiness to everyone involved. Selfless parenting results in children whose attitudes and values will stand them in good stead to face the difficulties in life. Strong family units will tend to produce a society based on honouring and respecting each other. Wouldn’t that be a welcome change?

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Keeping the Sabbath Holy? – My January Column – Full Text

Over the last couple of months I’ve been examining the Ten Commandments to see if they are really God’s guide to happiness. This month I’ve been looking at the third Commandment – remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. So what’s the Sabbath day and how do we keep it holy?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us more detail.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.”

The Jewish Sabbath is a Saturday but the early Church made our day of rest a Sunday to mark the day of Christ’s resurrection. Now I would imagine that having a day when you don’t have to go to work would make most of us happy but why the ban on work and just how practical is that?

In Scotland there are many Christians who believe that no work of any kind should be done on a Sunday, The day should be completely reserved for worshipping God. Even household chores must be completed on the Saturday night and Sunday will see no cooking or cleaning. A day spent in close communion with God should make us happy.

A few years ago some island communities were split over the issue of the ferries sailing on a Sunday. For Catholics and many other denominations Sunday does not mean a complete shutdown of normal life. According to my old ‘penny catechism’ the Church requires that we assist at a public Mass and refrain from servile work on a Sunday. I suppose the difference is about what we mean by holy.

Servile work would be going to work as usual, working for pay. Working in the home, preparing meals, tidying up etc. would not be classed as servile work. Whatever we do for our family, making meals, cleaning the kitchen etc. is part of marriage and because matrimony is a sacrament we actually receive grace for doing these things. I think that means these tasks are making the Sabbath holy.

In our society today we are often expected to work on a Sunday as a normal part of the job. We expect the buses and trains to run on a Sunday. Where would we be if the emergency services didn’t work on Sunday? Doctors and nurses in hospitals must work on Sunday. Some people would not be able to get to Mass otherwise. Even in non-essential jobs Sunday working is seen as normal. The shops are open on Sunday. How many of us leave Mass and go straight to the supermarket or meet friends in a coffee shop to catch up? These things require people to work on Sunday.

It is also permissible to indulge in entertainment like going to a football match (though some of the matches I’ve seen require a great stretch of the imagination to describe them as entertainment) or the cinema or some other entertainment. These things promote bonding among friends and family. But what about the workers; those who have to work so that we can be entertained also have need of family time. They may get time off during the week but that might not allow for family activity.

I noticed that Poland has decided that Sunday shopping should be phased out to allow the workers to have their day of rest as well as everyone else. This may not be too popular with the shoppers but I for one would be delighted to have one day in the week when I can’t be taken shopping.

So what exactly do we mean by holy? This is a question that has got me into arguments in the past. Some would cling to an image of someone kneeling in prayer before a crucifix or a statue of a saint. Hands joined in prayer are a famous image on prayer cards. There is no doubt that being in contemplation of God or in deep prayer would be described as being holy. However I don’t think that is the only context that could be described as holy.

Saint Thomas described holiness as the virtue by which we make all our acts subservient to God. It would follow then that whenever we act in ways that follow Jesus’ example we are being holy. How, then, could we keep the Sabbath holy? If we join with our fellow Catholics in the celebration of the Eucharist we are joining with them in communion with Christ. Jesus spent time withal sorts of people, his disciples, friends and many people he did not know. He shared meals with them and engaged in conversation.

I would consider from his example that we could spend the Sabbath with family and friends, sharing a meal, conversation and entertainment (there is no mention of Jesus going to the football but we can disregard that) and act in a way that is holy. When we are dealing with those we don’t know we should treat them with respect and friendliness.

You might argue that we should always behave in that way and you would be right. Why would we expect to spend Sunday behaving in one way and the rest of the week behaving differently? Really we should try to keep every day holy. We don’t need to walk around with a beatific smile on our face every day but I suspect Jesus didn’t do that either.

Now the question is simply one of whether this approach to holiness would make us happy. Now it seems to me that breaking up the working week so that life is not just one long unbroken trail of working days must be good for the psyche. Whether your work is hard physical labour or some more cerebral occupation you need to stop and rest regularly.

Whatever your station in life, Prime Minister or bin man, it is good to stop and consider the relationship you have with God. You were made by the God who created the universe and all its wonders. In your Sunday Mass you receive the Saviour who died to save you personally. He knows your name and listens to your prayers. God has no favourites; you are just as important to Him as the Bishop or the Pope. In that Mass we are all joined together through Christ. How could that fail to make us happy?

In making our Sabbath day a holy day we can transcend the daily niggles and hurts that can make us unhappy. We stop and remind ourselves that we are passing through all this on a journey to our eternal home. We will leave behind all the worries, all the trivial issues that bother us. We can start a new week ready to face whatever confronts us.

It’s never material things that make us happy. Your new sports car will only make you feel good until you start to hear strange noises or warning lights start blinking on the dashboard. Our happiness depends on our relationships. We need to build good relationships with our friends, family and the people we come into contact with. Our relationship with God is the most important and brings true happiness.

Keeping our Sabbath day holy builds these relationships. So to be truly happy don’t treat the Sabbath as just another day; it’s the most important day of the week.

My December Column, The Second Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Christmas double issue of the Scottish Catholic Observer on 22/12/2017.

The Second Commandment

In this series I’m having a look at the Ten Commandments from the point of view of them being God’s guide to human happiness. This month I’m having a think about the Second Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ At first glance that seems to be a straightforward command. What, exactly, does it mean? My old ‘penny catechism’ tells me that taking the Lord’s name in vain means using the name of God or the Holy Name of Jesus Christ without due reverence. That sounds quite reasonable but it also says that we are commanded to keep our lawful oaths and vows.

Now using the Holy Name with due reverence was a big issue in my religious education in primary school. We were all made aware of the importance of never using the Holy Name. Any time we used the word Jesus in a prayer we had to bow our head. I had forgotten all about this until I was approached at the end of Mass one day by someone who thought I must have been at his primary school. He explained that he had noticed I bowed my head when we said the word Jesus. He was taught that at his school and had realised he was still doing it too.

I’m not alone in this. Using the name Jesus outside of a prayer can be problematic. A few years ago, in my MISSIO days my Irish colleague related an event in a Dublin primary school. She had brought a Ugandan nun, who was on a visit, to meet the children in the school. Sister Fortunata was no quiet contemplative. She was big and forceful. She wanted the children to understand that what we do to others we do to Jesus. She wanted the children to see Jesus in others and she had a plan to help her achieve that. She told the children to turn to their partner and say “Hello Jesus. How are you?”  The children were quick to adopt this greeting and it became their standard greeting. Every day the children came into the playground shouting “Hello Jesus.” to their friends. The good Catholic teachers were shocked at the effect the nun had. They had to stop the children using the Holy name without losing Fortunata’s message. Even with all their efforts it took the teachers over a week to stop the children greeting each other with “Hiya Jesus.”

I confess it grates when I hear someone misuse the Holy Name. I’m sure I would never deliberately do that. However, it does raise a question. It is very annoying but why did God use one of his Ten Commandments to focus on this one act of disrespect? Is there more to this than I had thought? Does this apply to me? When would I use the Holy Name outside a prayer?

Thinking it through I suddenly realised that I do it all the time. I profess to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. I’m using that name. In my prayers I offer all I do in Jesus’ name. Whatever I do reflects on the Holy Name. I suppose that as a Christian I’m telling the world that I’m an example of how Jesus taught us to live. Now nobody wants to give a bad impression of Jesus’ teaching but I wonder how I go about that.

I don’t want to be seen to be someone who does wrong. That would really be giving the wrong message. I wouldn’t be doing wrong in Jesus’ name but Jesus wasn’t known for what He didn’t do. He was known for what he did. If I want to live my life in Jesus’ name then I will have to actually do the kind of things that Jesus did. Now I’m not talking about working miracles. I won’t be walking on water anytime soon. It wasn’t the working of miracles that made Jesus stand out; it was how he dealt with other people.

Jesus showed no interest in people of importance. He spent time with the poor, the sick, people shunned by polite society and sought out sinners. In his story of the widow’s mite he shows that the small coin given by the poor widow is more valuable than a much larger sum given by the rich man. He recognised that the poor are often more generous than the rich, more ready to share the little they have. Now I might think that I’m being generous by putting a pound in the charity box but I’m not really sharing; I’m giving the extra I have left over.

When it comes to helping the sick I’m afraid I fall short again. I’m happy to visit friends and family when they are sick but Jesus helped the sick people he didn’t know. I’ve never been one to think about the people in hospital who have nobody to visit them. Especially now in winter time I should be ready to look out for frail people who might need help.

Beggars are now a feature of our city streets. It’s now difficult to distinguish between people who really need help and those who could fend for themselves. That’s where my problem lies. I am ready to make a judgement about who is ‘deserving’ and who is not. I’m happy to help the deserving poor but not the others. What evidence do I have when considering my judgement? What right do I have to judge? I suppose the answer is that I am in no position to judge. I have no idea what circumstances have brought about the change in someone’s life that sees them outcasts. Given those circumstances could I find myself becoming an outcast? Jesus had no problem in associating freely with the outcasts.

What about sinners? Am I prepared to denounce those who are seen to be ‘living in sin’ or in prison? Jesus didn’t condemn sinners. His mission was to save sinners while He was without sin. On the other hand I am a sinner. My sins might not be publicly noted but never the less I’m not in a position to cast the first stone. As Jesus showed compassion to sinner shouldn’t I do the same?

The period leading up to Christmas (starts mid-October now) has become a time to focus on buying gifts. Television adverts are full of great ideas for things you must give this Christmas. I watched part of a television programme about the most expensive gifts you can buy. They had gold plated everything you could think of. The best things were also diamond studded. I noticed a curious thing. The people buying the gifts wanted to show that only they could give these gifts. The gift was a sign of their status rather than their regard for the recipient. Christmas has become all about ‘me’.

The real Christmas is about a different gift. The coming of Christ is God’s gift to us. Christmas is not about me; it’s about others. The giving of gifts is about showing our appreciation of those we love. The message is quite simple. If you want to be happy forget about you and do what God does – think about others.

I hope you have a happy, relaxing Christmas.

My November Column – The First Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 1st December 2017.

The First Commandment

Last month I set myself the task of looking at the Ten Commandments as a guide to human happiness. This is harder than I had imagined. How do we know that we are happy? We find it easy to know when we are unhappy but I don’t go about thinking how happy I am. I think it is when we are unhappy that we can see how happy we had been before.

Now the Commandments were given to Moses when the Israelites were so unhappy in their wanderings in the desert that they began to reject God. They were so unhappy that they began to pine for the good old days when they were slaves being mistreated by the Egyptians. They had been told that God would lead them to a new land where they would have all the good things they wanted. Now they couldn’t see any sign of this Promised Land and they felt that God had failed to provide what He had promised.

Does this sound familiar? Sometimes I hear people complain that they have prayed to God for a solution to a problem and they have seen no answer. Why doesn’t God give us what we ask for? In the first commandment God sets out to clarify the nature of our relationship. He says, “I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt not have strange Gods before Me.” You might notice I’m using the old fashioned ‘thou’ rather than the more familiar ‘you’. That was deliberate. Thou is a singular form. God is making it plain He is talking to me, not just the whole group; this is means me. He is telling me that he is the one who will decide what to do and when to do it. I don’t call the shots.

If we look at where we get this commandment from we go back to the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy we find,

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

That’s a much stronger version than our modern instruction. If we are going to get along with God we are going to have to understand the true nature of the relationship. We didn’t elect God and we are in no position to dismiss Him. God is making it plain that if we do then we will not prosper.

God is also pointing out the folly of worshiping some other ‘gods’. His list would seem to prohibit worship of animals but that is not really the whole story. We can understand the folly of worshiping an animal. Our understanding of the nature of living things precludes the possibility of them having any special powers. Praying to a horse will get you nowhere. Bookmakers understand this and make lots of money from it.

We may be at risk of worshiping other ‘gods’ though. Our attitudes to God today might betray some similarity with those of the Israelites wandering in the desert. We now seem to have a tendency to blame God for things. I think the New Testament may have given rise to this. We are told in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus could command a storm to stop.

“They woke him and said to him, ‘Master, do you not care? We are going down! And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!’ and the wind dropped and all was calm again.”

Mark 4:39, 40

Now some of us think we can call on God to sort out anything that threatens us. They question where was God when the earthquake struck? Why was my child allowed to die? They even blame God for causing disasters as a punishment for our bad behaviour. Do we really believe that God sent AIDS to punish the wicked?

In the first commandment God tells the Israelites that He decided to lead them out of Egypt. It was not their idea. God intercedes in human events when He decides to. It is not our decision. The Israelites could only see the desert that surrounded them. God has a much wider vision and he is not bounded by time. Our big mistake is that we think we can understand God. I can’t really understand what God is never mind understand His plans.

God knows we can’t understand what he is so he is making it simple for us. God is in charge. He is not Santa Clause, bringing us the things we ask for. God gives us what we need for our place in his plan. That’s why He doesn’t let me win the Euromillions; it’s not what I need to follow His plan. I can’t really see that it would do me any harm but just as God led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, I have to remember that he is leading me out of the bondage of sin. My vision is just as restricted as that of the Israelites so I have to trust that God can see where he is leading and trust to His mercy.

In western society we seem to have decided that God has it wrong on so many issues. We have decided that sanctity of life is inconvenient. God’s idea of all human beings being of equal value does not fit with our modern world. We don’t see life as a gift from God but something we control. In a sense we could be accused of going beyond the worship of false gods. We could be accused of thinking of ourselves as being God. We can decide when life begins and ends. We can now decide whether we are male or female, or something else.

Of course our transition into gods is incomplete. We are still limited in our length of life. Research is proceeding to ‘switch off’ the gene that tells our bodies to stop repairing itself so that we can live for hundreds of years if not forever. This idea of living forever has great support from some very wealthy people. If you have more money than you can spend in a lifetime immortality is very attractive. Who knows what the State Pension age will be if that comes about.

History shows us that human beings who think they are God have never brought us any good. I might be of being old fashioned but I’ll stick with the belief that there is only one God. That job is taken and they are not recruiting anyone else.

As God says in the First Commandment, those who reject Him will suffer and those who love Him will be loved in return. I know whose side I’m on.

The Guide to Happiness – My October Column in Full

This article was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 27th October.

I’ve almost given up watching the news on television and after a quick scan of the headlines I tend to turn to the crossword. The reason is that it’s all bad news. Think about the big items on the news recently. Asia has suffered from terrible floods, mudslides and earthquakes. The Caribbean has been hit by one hurricane after another before they moved on to hit America. Then California went on fire. The vineyards were burned down. No more Californian reds; that is really depressing.

Politics has been no better. Right wing extremists are on the move everywhere and nobody likes this government; not even the politicians themselves. Nobody is happy. Even in the Church we have dissent and distrust. We have cardinals telling the Pope he has got it wrong. We have a Catholic hospital in Belgium offering euthanasia. Is it any wonder people are unhappy?

Surely God didn’t intend us to be unhappy? He could have given us some advice on how to avoid unhappiness. Luckily he did. If you think back to the Old Testament story about how the Israelites escaped from Egypt you might remember that they wandered around the desert for years. They became very unhappy with their leader Moses. He was taking them to a promised land but they couldn’t see an end to their wandering.

Moses was sent off to consult with God and returned with a guide to happiness that we call the Ten Commandments. Now, not everyone would agree with my description of the Ten Commandments as a guide to happiness. Today many people think of the commandments as a prescription for unhappiness. They stop us doing things we might want to do. They are said to emphasise the negative rather than the positive. Can commandments like these really be a guide to happiness?

If anybody should know what it takes to make us happy it must be God, he made us after all. God is in a unique position to know what makes people happy and what makes them unhappy. If I had the job of sorting out people’s unhappiness I would probably start by looking at what makes them happy. Winning the Euromillions draw could really boost my happiness levels. Being famous or staying in luxury hotels should really boost my self-regard; maybe even being able to buy a pair of shoes that actually fit would help.

However, looking at the facts seems to undermine my conclusions. People who win large sums seem to experience a hard time. Some even claim their windfall has ruined their lives. Looking at celebrities and the ultra-rich I seem to see people who are really unhappy. A few years ago, when I wrote the Missio column for this paper, a former editor complained that the pictures of children in Africa that I submitted were good but the children were always smiling. Perhaps some sad faces would paint a better picture of their plight.

I did offer to provide pictures of sad faces but I warned that I would need to go around Scotland to get some miserable looking faces. The African children were happy that they has something to eat that morning or that they could go to school that day, simple things. Here we take it for granted that we will be fed but we might not be happy with what is served up for us. I never saw children in Africa complain that they didn’t like the food.

It would seem my understanding of human happiness is less than useful. I think I need to have a look at God’s ideas of happiness and try to understand why He sent Moses to lead the Israelites to a happier place.

So, who was Moses and why did God choose him to lead the people? We all remember the story of Moses being put into a basket and floated down the river to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. In this way he was to escape the slaughter of Israelite children by Pharaoh’s soldiers. He grew up as an Egyptian prince but had to flee after killing an Egyptian who was mistreating Israelite slaves.

Moses was a killer, a poor orator and wasn’t very confident. I would not have thought he was a good choice as leader of the people. When God called Moses he was afraid and when he was told what God wanted him to do he was reluctant to agree. God persisted and gave Moses miraculous powers so that he could convince the Israelites that he had been sent as their leader and to convince Pharaoh to free the slaves.

As we recall, Moses did manage to free the slaves and led the people into the wilderness; taking them to the ’land of milk and honey’ that God had promised. If he had led the people straight to this Promised Land I’m sure they would have been contented. Unfortunately they wandered through the wilderness for forty years. The people experienced hunger and thirst, scraping an existence from very poor land. No wonder they were unhappy. They began to think that God had sent them there to die. They complained to Moses and that’s when he went off to the mountain to consult with God.

Why did God make the Israelites wander for years before coming to the Promised Land? I think He might have known that if the journey was quick and easy the people might not have appreciated God’s gift. They would soon forget what God had done for them and assume that it was all their own doing. He wanted them to remember that all the good things they had were given by God.

I can’t help drawing comparisons with our western society today. We assume that everything we have is entirely the result of human genius and man’s labour. We have rejected any idea that God had a hand in our good fortune and many reject any suggestion that there is a God at all. Our sense of values is distorted. We value an iPhone8 above a real apple because it can enable us to communicate. You can eat an apple but not an iPhone8. We talk of growing our own food as if we make the plants grow. We didn’t invent plants or any other form of life. We have written God out of the story. Fake news is nothing new. We have been steeped in fake news for years . No wonder we are unhappy.

Over the next few months I’ll be looking into God’s guide to happiness.  What is it about the commandments that can bring us back to recognise what’s real and what’s fake news? Do they contain the truth about me as a human being and help me understand why I’m here? How many of us can remember what the Ten Commandments are? My investigation of the Ten Commandments will not have a cast of thousands or the booming voice of Charlton Heston. It will not have a budget of $13 million but I hope to take a serious look at something I’ve taken for granted.

The problem with this is the danger of showing up shortcomings in me and how I live my life. Will that make me happier?