My New Year’s Resolution – Full Text

The following article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 27th january 2017.

Well, I’ve just about recovered from Christmas and New Year. I hope you have too. I really enjoyed Christmas this time. I found the liturgy very uplifting and I think it made me think about family. Christmas is that kind of feast. This has been a strange Christmas. I could say 2016 has been a strange year. Looking back on it we might see it as the ‘Post Truth’ year. The simple truth in our Christmas celebration was a welcome break in that.

Christmas has had a struggle to keep its identity. What we know as the birth of the Saviour has become a commercial binge time. We seem to have gone from giving simple gifts as a sign of our caring to running up debt to splash out on stuff nobody really needs. Even here truth is being pushed out of the way. They even want to remove the word Christmas. They say we could be insulting people by wishing them ‘Happy Christmas’. Well, I’ve been insulted from time to time but never by anyone wishing me well.

The New Year celebrations are a different thing. I suppose I’ve never really understood what there is to celebrate about getting older, counting off the years ‘till it’s time to go. It’s the tradition of New Year resolutions that bother me. The one good thing about this is being forced to have a look at your life and figure out what you should do to improve it. That’s not as easy as it sounds and keeping resolutions beyond the first week in January is even harder. I’ll come back to that later.

Both celebrations involve getting together with family. That always raises the question of who is your family. You may have family who live so far away you rarely see them, weddings and funerals, that’s when you might catch up with them. I have cousins I would not recognise if I met them in the street. That might be because they live on the other side of the world or maybe just the other side of Glasgow.

That brings me to something I noticed in the readings this year. In one Gospel reading I noticed that John the Baptist did not recognise Jesus.

Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said, “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I spoke of when I said: A man is coming after me who ranks before me because he existed before me. I did not know him myself, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water.

John 1:29, 34

Now I’m not sure whether John did not recognise his cousin Jesus or had not recognised that he was the Messiah. I don’t suppose it matters since John had recognised that his role in life was to prepare the way of the Lord. He did this by preaching and baptising.

John was popular among the people. He was not popular among those in authority. He was not popular among the powerful because by preaching simple truths he exposed the corruption at the heart of the authorities. That has a familiar feel to me. I have recently felt that my religious views do not fit in with those in authority. My views on Christian marriage are deemed to be homophobic and one politician has recently suggested that by not agreeing with the law of the land I must be breaking the law.

It seems to me that we are the problem because we look to an authority that is not the government, the press or the pundits. We look to God as the source of truth. That truth seems to be more and more in conflict with the law of the land. We Christians are a problem because we are casting doubt on the veracity of man-made laws. Who should we look to for the truth?

This is not a new problem. When Jesus stood before Pilate he made plain the place of truth.

“I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” “Truth?” said Pilate “What is that?”.

John 18: 37, 38

As Pilate showed by his question, truth and politics do not always mix. As we have seen recently that is often still the case.

 

John recognised Jesus in his role a Messiah rather than a cousin. Some things are more important than blood ties. Our real family is God’s family. We call God Our Father and we refer to Mary as our mother. We are part of that family whose purpose is to bear witness to the truth. In a sense we are to continue the work of John the Baptist in preparing the world to meet Jesus.

John the Baptist has been described as a wild looking fellow with wild hair, dressed in animal skins and living in the desert foraging for food. He had removed himself from society and its trappings to point out where it was going wrong.

Now I have been described as a bit of a scruffy dresser. My hair, when I still had some, was never described as being stylish. I don’t think that puts me in the same class as John the Baptist but perhaps I should be taking a leaf out of his book. I could be argued that rather than being annoyed by politicians rejecting my views, I should really be pleased. Perhaps I’m doing something right?

The past year has shown us politicians both here and in America making up truths as they went along. When challenged they rejected the idea that they should believe in truth but claimed that truth was what they believed. Commentators have pointed out that Donald Trump’s supporters accepted him because he said what they believed, whether there was any evidence to support it or not.

Who should we believe? Those who promise us hundreds of millions to be spent on the NHS every week rather than sending it to Europe (and then deny saying it) or Jesus who gave his life for the truth? I think we now have a clear purpose. We should be proclaiming the truth to a society that seems to have lost the very concept of truth. We need to continue to reject falsehood and lies. We should be seen as the new John the Baptist.

Of course that will make us unpopular in official circles. We can take reassurance from that Jesus said that the world hated him and so it will hate us too. The world crucified Jesus so we must be doing something right if we are rejected too.

That might give me the answer to my New Year’s Resolution problem. I could resolve to be just like John the Baptist and insist on the truth, reject the lies our society increasingly relies on and take the consequences. I won’t be moving out to the desert (some might suggest that Coatbridge is a good substitute) nor will I be dressing in animal skins. I wonder if we could make a difference. Perhaps if we habitually pointed out the truth when we are presented with lies the message might get through.

Happy Christmas? – Full Text

I’ve been in the loft today to bring down the Christmas decorations and the Crib. The crib was always an important part of our Christmas, an important thing for our children. It tells a story of a joyful occasion when God sent his Son to be one of us. Now we have grandchildren the story is still important in our house.

I think it was a smart move on God’s part to send us Jesus as a baby rather than an adult. Who could fail to welcome a new baby? The arrival of an adult would not produce the same feelings of joy as a new baby. Of course this was no ordinary baby. This was the Christ child, come as the saviour of mankind. This was the child come to give us a future, an eternity with God.

The Crib is full of symbolism. Jesus is born in a stable with an animal feeding trough for a bed. God sends His Son to us in poverty. His first visitors are the poor shepherds, alerted by an angelic choir. This birth has been foretold by prophets. A sign in the sky, a star, guides three kings on their search for the holy child. These kings or wise men pay homage to the child; thus the child is king of kings.

The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are potent symbols of the kingly and divine nature of the child and the medical properties of myrrh attest to a violent end. The symbolism of the Crib prepares us for the role Jesus is to play in our salvation.

There is a dark side to the story. King Herod decides to kill the child out of jealousy. He doesn’t want another king to usurp his place. This is the first rejection of God’s salvation and it is played out in the violence of the massacre of the innocents. Loving parents, Mary and Joseph abandon everything and take the child into exile in Egypt. Jesus starts life as a refugee.

For children this is a lovely story. They sing “Little donkey” and imagine Joseph leading the donkey with Mary and the holy child on its back. They think of Mary cuddling the child close as the donkey takes the strain. The reality must have been a bit more stressful than that. I’s a nice image for a child but I’m not a child anymore; though my wife might suggest that my behaviour sometimes belies that fact. While I might enjoy playing hide and seek with my grandchildren I must force myself to take an adult view of the journey into Egypt.

The holy refugee family must have experienced the fear of being caught and must have worried about their uncertain future. This Christmas there are many families in that same part of the world experiencing the same worries and fears. The flight of refugees from danger in Syria and African countries is now a crisis that even threatens Europe. Thousands have dies in the Mediterranean, drowned in a vain attempt to reach a new, safe life.

I find it hard to understand why people would put their children’s lives at such risk. That’s because my grandchildren are living in a safe, loving environment. King Herod’s role has been taken over by others who are jealous of their role and status in the world. People with real power; people who should know better are bombing and shelling more children that Herod ever killed. How can I hope to understand the fear that drives refugees to journey to a Europe where nobody is trying to kill you?

Sadly, those who are successful find themselves in a continent where children are not as safe as they assumed. It seems like every day that we hear stories of children being abused in the Church, in schools, in sports activities and even in the BBC. We hear that abuse has been going on for decades and we wonder what kind of place this is. It seems like those in authority have shamefully neglected their responsibilities to children.

I’m part of the Safeguarding team in our parish. The Church is now facing up to reality and putting in place a structure to defend the vulnerable. It’s high time the rest of society was doing the same. But surely we must do more than that. Surely we must change the culture of abuse in our society. If abuse of children and the vulnerable was tolerated by those in authority it can only reflect the attitude to people in general. If we refuse to value the lives of people, be they children, the poor, the old or those with special needs then abuse of these can be seen to be acceptable. It is only when we value all human life, even the unborn, that we will begin to stamp out abuse.

When a political opponent makes a good argument we can rubbish it by pointing out they have a physical deformity or they breed salamanders or some other thing that makes them less than us. If they are less than us we can abuse them and that’s ok. But that’s a dishonest argument and distorts our political life. If we want truthful debate and live in a society where truth is a guiding principle (this seems to be an old fashioned idea today) then we must accept and promote the truth that all people are of equal value.

So what to give the children for Christmas? It could be the latest big thing. It could be Star Wars, that’s big again. It could be Batman, Iron Man and the rest of the gang; my three year old grandsons are avid followers of them. These will fade away in their turn to be replaced with a new big thing for next Christmas. The compelling thing about these superheroes is that they fight for justice. They step in to defend the people where governments fail. I wonder if that’s what attracts children to them. They appeal to a child’s natural sense of justice.

Perhaps that’s what we should be hoping to give our children for Christmas. Do we need to become the superheroes of our age? Can we defend those people society abuses? Perhaps we should be more vocal about the injustice of attacking the unemployed, describing them as scroungers and cutting the benefits paid to the poor. Should we be asking questions of our parliamentary representatives about how we deal with those refugees who are seeking a safer existence for their children?

Now you might ask if that’s not asking the Church to become political. That’s a good point and some politicians have suggested we should keep our noses out of politics and stick to Sundays in church. But we are part of the Universal Church. The Church is for everyone in the world. We are all part of Christ’s family and have responsibilities for each other.

Imagine a world where every person is valued. Dare to hope for a world where everyone has the right be live in safety. I think that would be a wonderful Christmas present for my grandsons. I can’t go out to a shop and buy it. There is no online store that can deliver it. I could start slowly. I could begin with me and see if I can change my ways to make me more open to the people who are not like me and begin to see them as just as valuable as me.

That’s my road to superherodom (I just invented that word) this Christmas, what about you?

Who Wants to go to Heaven – Full Text

heaven

November is the month when we usually focus on remembering the dead. As a nation we have just been commemorating the deaths of the military in two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts. As usual this brings about sharp debate about wearing the poppy. Woe betide the T.V. personality who fails to display the poppy on screen. It was extended this year to condemn the puppet that did wear a poppy. It seems public display is the order of the day.

For Catholics this is a month of prayer for the dead. We compile our November lists and our deceased relatives and friends can be formally remembered in masses each day. The uninformed observer might ask why we bother as the deceased are, of course, dead. The answer is that we know they are dead but they are not gone. In God’s eyes we are all one. Death is merely a step out of this life into the next. As a wee boy I learned that we are praying for the dead that they might get into Heaven.

It’s comforting for us to know that those we love are still there. I’ve always hoped and imagined that they are really in Heaven already. That brings me to the thorny question of Heaven. What or where is Heaven and what is it like? This question came to the fore in our parish recently when our Parish Priest tried to clarify our ideas of Heaven. He pointed out that despite the fact that we often point upwards to Heaven; there is no evidence of any trace of Heaven up there. He told us not to think of Heaven as a place. It was quickly reported and repeated throughout the town that the priest had said there was no Heaven.

It’s a lesson I learned many years ago, be careful what you say because some people will hear something quite different. Thinking that there is no Heaven is a serious matter. If there is life after death there must be somewhere to live and that is Heaven. Jesus promised us Heaven when he told the Apostles that his Father’s house has many mansions. The idea of mansions colours our image of heaven. It is easy for us to imagine an eternal life of luxury. This would be our reward for living a good life.

This is where my doubts arise. My doubts are on two levels. Firstly I wonder just what we can expect in Heaven. The Church has taught that we will be resurrected in our bodies glorified and imperishable. This is the reason for the recent statements about cremation and how we should treat the remains. If we will have bodies in Heaven there must be a place for those bodies. So where is Heaven?

Now I must come clean and confess that I don’t know the answer. I suspect that nobody knows the answer. Nevertheless it is a question that seems to bother us. I satisfy my own curiosity with the thought that we have a two state existence. We are flesh and blood and we are also spirit.  After death my spirit will leave my body. I will still exist in my spirit. My spirit doesn’t need a place to exist. At the last day, when time comes to an end, the world will be recreated and our bodies recreated in glorified form.

Now that might not be completely accurate. It lets me move on, though, to another question. That’s the question of why is the nature of Heaven so important to us. We have the idea of Heaven being the reward for our good behaviour. There are lots of stories about how our Heaven will be determined by our earthly behaviour. I remember the story of the priest who was ushered in through the pearly gates (now where did that idea come from?) and was led past a large mansion. “Is this my place?” he asked. “No, you are further along. That one belongs to a Glasgow taxi driver.” came Saint Peter’s reply.

They came to a small hut and the priest was given the key. He was not too pleased. “Why does a taxi driver get a mansion and I only get a hut? I’ve led hundreds of people to God.” He asked.

Saint Peter replied that by his wild driving the taxi driver had caused thousands to pray every time he went out on the road. Thus he was due a greater reward.

If we try to be good simply to gain a reward are we really living by Christ’s teaching? Think about your children. One child is obedient to the parent for love of the parent. The other child obeys in order to get a chocolate bar. Which is the good child? What’s so good about shaping our behaviour to gain a reward?

This reveals a great error in our understanding. In reality we are not able to earn a place in Heaven. We can get to Heaven by Christ’s sacrifice for us and by God’s infinite mercy. If we try to live a good life we are choosing to follow Christ. That reflects the desire to share our eternal life with Him. In rejecting Christ’s teaching we are choosing not to spend our eternity with Him. We can only condemn ourselves.

There is the story of the priest giving a mission who tells the congregation to put their hands up if they want to go to Heaven. They all do. He then tells them to keep their hand up if they want to go tonight. The hands go down. Apparently we all want Heaven but not yet. The reason is, of course, that we need to die before we get there. Dying is a step into the unknown. Nobody we know has been back to tell us it’s ok so we are understandably apprehensive.

The bishops of England and Wales have recognised this problem and I read in the Catholic Herald that they have done something about it. They have launched an Instagram page which offers advice on dying well. Pictures of those who have died can be uploaded and a network of five convents and abbeys in England will offer prayers for the dead and dying people. There is a website which complements this work. You can find it here.

http://www.artofdyingwell.org/

As we get older (let’s face it nobody is getting younger) the prospect of death and its inevitability loom larger. The T.V. adverts encourage us to prepare for that time. We can take out a life assurance policy so that our family will have money to bury us with some ceremony. We are urged to take out a pre-paid burial plan so that we can rest in the assurance we have somewhere to go.

These are all very well. It is good to prepare for the future. There are no adverts reminding us to prepare for the real event in our death. After all we will not be around for the funeral. We will be too busy meeting our Maker. Can we prepare for this interview? Just like any job interview we need to revise our life experience. How have we demonstrated our suitability? We have the opportunity to fill in any gaps in our experience of Christian living and get on better speaking terms with God.

We know the questions He will ask. “When did you feed me when I was hungry, clothe me when I was naked, give me a drink when I was thirsty? We all know the questions and perhaps we will have time to prepare some suitable answers.

Well, Are You a Saint or A Sinner?

The Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to an end this month. We have been given the opportunity to consider how we benefit from Christ’s Mercy and were encouraged to step through the Holy Door to begin our journey back to Christ.
At this point it is worth looking back to assess what the Jubilee Year meant for us. The Holy Father instituted this Holy Year as a means of taking the Church forward. How far have I come? It is easy to fall back into the “Done that – move on” mind set. That would be a big mistake in the case of the Year of Mercy.

I’ve learned that Jesus knows me better than I know myself and despite of those aspects of me that I try to hide He loves me. His mercy is limitless and we are encouraged to imitate Him in this. When I’ve considered being merciful to others I’ve really only thought about people I know. The things I might be called to be merciful about are trivial. I haven’t thought about being merciful to really horrible people.

Like most people I don’t come into contact with horrible people. Recently, though, I was made to consider those we might regard as horrible. I was attending the Conference of the Church’s Safeguarding service. Those charged with putting the Church’s Safeguarding policies into practice in our parishes gathered at The Scottish Police College in Tulliallan.

The Safeguarding policies are designed to protect vulnerable adults and children from abuse and are a response to the scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years. The main speaker at the conference was Martin Henry from “Stop it Now”, a body whose purpose is to deal with sex abusers at an early stage.

Now don’t turn the page now. This is not a pleasant subject and many of you might be revolted by the very mention of it. I know how you feel. Bear with me. Martin’s major point was that society is intent in finding and punishing sex offenders. Nobody would argue with that. Martin, however, pointed out that the damage has been done by that time. A more sensible approach would be to intervene at an earlier point to stop the abuse happening.

One tactic of his group is to work with offenders who have been caught downloading nasty images of children. The aim is to work with the offender to help them avoid progressing to abusing children. They work with the offender to change how they think and to help them deal with these problem urges.

It struck me that this view of the offender as a person who needs to be helped rather than a monster who should be punished is a prime example of mercy at work. It is worth remembering that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners. The greater the sinner the greater the mercy. If Jesus regards even those who would harm a child as redeemable who am I to think of them as monsters?

There are people who should be locked up. Incarceration can serve as a punishment and can remove a threat from our midst. However, the “Lock them up and throw away the key” attitude is not an acceptable course of action. It is usually expressed in anger and we don’t always make good decisions in anger. Despite their crimes, or because of their crimes, we should be trying to redeem them. That’s the role of the Church; bring sinners to Christ.

I need to examine my motives for regarding these offenders as monsters. Perhaps it’s a case of their great sins putting my sins in the shade. I might not always live up to the Christian principles I profess, but, hey, these people are much worse. That might salve my conscience but it doesn’t help to make me a better person. Could I see that I have something in common with the monster? We are both sinners and I am not the judge of either of us. It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to punish rather than save.

I feel that I’ve come to the end of the Year of Mercy and I still have not grasped its full meaning. The message is change. I need to change my outlook. Rather than needing to condemn those who are caught in crime I should be looking to ways of reforming them. But how can I do that?

Surely, though, I will not be judged on whether I can succeed in turning people away from crime, turning them away from sin? I may be judged on whether I can change my attitude. The Holy Father, addressing the Wednesday audience the other week said that we will be judged on how merciful we are. That rang a bell with me. When we say the Our Father we ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. The part in italics is the important part. We are asking God to treat us as we treat others. We expect infinite mercy from God but in this prayer we are asking for much less.

We all hope to get to Heaven, not immediately but all in good time. Have you ever thought what Heaven might be like? I have no idea what Heaven is like. I did think about what I would expect. I hope that if I get to Heaven my friends and family will be there too. Would Heaven be Heaven if someone I love is missing? None of my friends and family is perfect (except my wife, of course). I hope that God will overlook any faults in His mercy.

It does seem to me that I have a lot of work to do on being merciful. Finally at the end of the Year of Mercy I can now see the way ahead. As I watch the news I see people being bombed without mercy. I see people being subjected to violence without mercy and refugees being rejected without mercy. Even political debate has lost any sense of mercy. I read that a councillor in England wanted those who oppose Brexit to be charged with treason.

Perhaps by example we could spread a more merciful attitude throughout our country and the world. It will not be easy. It is much easier to help old ladies across the road than to be merciful to those we dislike. Remembering the Holy Father’s words we must persevere to be merciful and not just for this Holy Year. A change is expected of us.

How am I going to keep this process of change going. It could be like a New Year’s resolution that we make and keep it for a week or so, then it is abandoned. I’ve thought about this and the only strategy I can think of is to remember every time I recite the Our Father that I am asking God to judge me by how merciful I am. I think that might just frighten me into constant alertness.

Whose Side is God on? My September Column – Full Text

I’m normally a bit of a news freak. I tune in to the news first thing in the morning to find out what’s going on in the world. Recently, however, I find that I’m not so keen to find out what’s going on. All the news seems to be bad news. Refugees are dying, extremists are launching random attacks and the world seems to be in turmoil.

At times like these people often ask where God is in it all. Surely God is on our side? When is he going to step in and ‘smite the wicked’? This thought is not new. Those of us of a certain age may remember the poet Bob Dylan (I hesitate to call him a singer) tackling this question in his song, “With God on our side”. For those of you too young to remember I’ll summarise.

In the First World War God was on our side against the Germans. The same in the Second World War In the cold war God was now on the German’s side. God seems to be a bit fickle in Bob’s mind. He finishes up by concluding that if God’s on our side he’ll stop the next war.

Well the wars have continued to rage on since Bob wrote that in the sixties. So why do we think God is on our side? According to scripture God called Abraham and made a covenant with him. He would be our God and we would be his people. God would be on our side. Of course Abraham was the founder of the Jewish people so God is on the side of the Jewish people and through them to the Christians. The Islamic people are also spiritual descendants of Abraham so God is on their side too.

Now Jesus came to complete the covenant. In Christianity we have the true covenant and so God must really be on our side, surely. The big problem with that is that many of our wars have seen Christians pitted against Christians. So whose side is God really on? It surely must be our side because we are the good guys.

We Christians are the followers of Jesus. In fact we claim to be part of the Mystical Body of Christ. Now you can’t get much closer than that so we must be the good guys with God on our side. That still leaves the question of what God is going to do to our enemies and when He is going to do it.

It’s still a puzzle so I decided to look at it from another direction. How do we know we are the good guys? We must be the good guys if we follow the example of Jesus. Jesus taught us to love our neighbour – even if he is our enemy. In short, Jesus came to save everyone. God is on everyone’s side. As Bob Dylan put it

But I can’t think for you

You’ll have to decide

Whether Judas Iscariot

Had God on his side.

“With God on our side”. Bob Dylan

When the news is all bad it is useful to remember that the news is not the whole story. It is just a sample of what is going on in a chaotic world. We are reminded in this Jubilee Year of Mercy that we have to let the voice of God speak through the clamour of a complex world. His Holiness Pope Francis recently spoke of Benedictine Monasteries being oases of mercy. They allow God to speak amid the deafening and distracted lifestyle of today’s world.

I don’t live in a monastery. I’m out here in this deafening clamour of a modern world. How am I supposed to let the voice of God speak out? The Holy Father also spoke recently on the occasion of the Canonisation of Saint Theresa of Calcutta. He held he up as an example of a single person who worked to let God’s voice be heard in her actions.

Mother Theresa, as she was known, was heavily criticised for her failures. She failed to do anything to cure the people in her care; she just let them die in dignity. She failed to tackle the root causes of poverty but just lived with the poor. These criticisms say more about the critics than they do about Theresa. In failing to cure the root causes of poverty this one woman failed just as every government in the world failed. In living with the poor and being with them in death she threw a spotlight on the failures of a rich world.

If Theresa, one woman, can have such an impact then surely we too can play our part. What can I do, alone in the face of a hostile world? Of course, I’ve got it wrong. I’m not alone. God is on my side. He is there ready to help me face up to my worst enemy. Who would that be, my worst enemy? Is it ISIS? Is it the capitalist world? No, it’s only me. I’m my worst enemy.

I’m the one who lets doubts undermine my resolve to follow Christ’s example. I’m the one who refuses to see Christ in every other human being. I’m the one who allows myself to be deluded by the world into thinking that the simple message of Jesus to love my neighbour might not always apply – especially to an enemy.

I’m the one who can’t see that Jesus never saw an enemy. He was opposed by many and killed for his message but He died for the sinners who opposed Him. This is the real message I take from this Year of Mercy. It’s not about forgiving people. It’s not about letting others get away with things. I think the Year of Mercy is about changing how we see each other.

I’m writing this on a very early Sunday morning. In six hours I’ll be at Mass and sharing the sign of peace with those around me. I won’t go round the whole church shaking hands with every other person. Not only would that take too long but it would miss the point. In sharing the sign of peace with those beside me I’ m symbolising the sharing of God’s peace with everyone. Not just everyone in the church for that Mass, but everyone.

I must confess that I’d never considered that I was sharing God’s peace with every other human being. I’ve been missing the point all these years. This should be a symbolic statement of what I’m going to do in the world. My outlook must change. Every day must be an occasion for me to allow God’s voice to be heard through my attitude to others and my actions. Just like Saint Theresa, I need to see through the bad news, the political posturing and the negative propaganda to the simple truth of Christ’s message.

Of course I don’t know how to go about this. I’m not smart enough to figure this out for myself. Fortunately I don’t have to. I’m not alone in this. I have God on my side. What I really need to do is to listen to Him. Listen for that quiet voice every day. I don’t need to look for opportunities to help my fellow human beings. God will point them out.