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.

My October Column – Full Text – The Power of Faith

This article appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 25th October 2013.

So far in this series I have looked at Faith in various ways – how I learned my Faith, how I grew in Faith and how my Faith might put me at odds with the world. I have looked at life as a journey of Faith, taking me from childhood into a more mature understanding of my relationship with God.

In this month’s article I want to take a look at Faith from a slightly different perspective. I have looked at the strength of faith and strengthening my faith. The other day I found that Jesus used a different idea. He spoke of the size of our Faith.

In the parable of the mustard seed He says that if your faith was the size of a mustard seed you could command a tree to uproot itself and walk. Now we can take that statement on many levels. Obviously I am not able to command a tree to do that so my faith must be really small. It can be taken as a simple comparison.

On the other hand it is saying something about Faith. Jesus is saying that Faith gives us power. In another place he tells us that faith can move mountains. He is telling us that we have the power to do things that we think are beyond our capabilities.

Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the Gospel, just to check. In Luke 8; 43 – 48 we hear of a woman who is suffering from a condition that has been dragging her down for twelve years. She believes that Jesus has the power to heal her. One day she pushes through the crowd and touches the hem of his garment, She feels the power that cures her that instant. Jesus feels it too. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

Everyone denied it but Jesus said,

 “Somebody touched me. I felt that power had gone out from me.”

The woman came forward and confessed to touching Him and said she had been cured. Jesus said,

 “My daughter, your faith has restored you to health; go in peace.”

He didn’t say that He had cured her because of her faith. In fact the woman felt the miracle happen before Jesus was aware of her.

Jesus frequently refers to the power of Faith. On visiting Nazareth, his home town, the people would not accept Him. He was still the carpenter’s son. In Mark 6; 4-6  we learn,

“And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and He could work no miracles there, though He cured a few sick people by laying hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of Faith.”

The gospels make it clear that when we have Faith we have power to do good. We have power beyond our imagining. We have power to carry out the work that Jesus has set us to do. We know that, but do we really believe it?

My faith is certainly much smaller than that mustard seed and I’m sure many of us don’t feel we have the power to do marvellous things. However if we all have a small faith we can join together and in coming together our Faith can become much bigger. It is as though all our little mustard seeds come together to make something much bigger. I believe that is why it is important that we come together in prayer. We worship together because the Faith is stronger then.

Who has been to a procession in Lourdes, with thousands of believers singing and praying together and has not felt the effects. For that time our faith is magnified and we can feel it. I belong to a small choir and we work hard at our hymns. Recently we attended a couple of workshops in Motherwell Diocese. There were participants from across the area. When we all sang together we were lifted by the other voices. The sound was wonderful and it was not just more noise, we all felt inspired and sang better than our usual attempts.

As a community of Faith we are a power for good. There are, however, things we can’t do. In Mark’s gospel we hear of Jesus casting out a demon from a boy. The boy’s father asks Jesus to help him. Jesus casts out the spirit and the boy is cured. His disciples asked why they had been unable to cure the boy. Jesus answered,

“This is the kind that can only be driven out by prayer.”

Mark 9; 29

There we have our answer. It is through prayer that great things are done. When we are united in prayer we are most effective. Sometimes people tell us that they don’t need to go to Mass because they can pray at home or on the bus. While it is certainly true that we can pray anywhere and at any time, it is when we come together as a community of prayer that we are truly united. When we are united in the Eucharist then our prayers are truly powerful.

I recall being at a meeting of priests on a mission in Liberia. This was after the troubles there. Someone asked the priest who had run the Catholic radio station, Radio Veritas, to explain his escape from a fire there. The station had been broadcasting news of the atrocities Charles Taylor’s army had been carrying out. One night he was seized and locked in the inner studio of the station and the building set on fire. He was soon overcome by fumes, flames surrounding his studio.

He woke up on someone’s kitchen floor. Nobody knew how he had arrived there. His explanation was simple – he didn’t know how he got out, only that he had been saved by people’s prayers.

It is evident, then that Faith is not an individual thing. It works best in community, the bigger the community the better. Faith demands to be shared. There is a temptation for us to be smug in our religion. We could easily feel that we are chosen by God and other people may not get to Heaven but we will be ok. I don’t think it really works like that. Jesus calls all men (and women – I’m not looking to start a fight). As Christians we are called to help others to come to Christ. If we sit back thinking “I’m all right Jack.” Then we might be in for a rude awakening when the time comes.

I believe that it is vital that all Christians come together and show, by example, how Christ’s message of love can transform us. Only by being united in Christ can we persuade non – Christians to turn to the gospel. In sharing our Faith we will make it bigger and more effective in dealing with the problems of our world.

This Year of Faith has given me a timely reminder that the Faith I have taken for granted is not something to leave in the drawer and bring out on a Sunday. It has to be the guiding force in my life. I wonder where it will lead me?

My September Column – False Gods

Last month I quoted His Holiness, Pope Francis I, telling us to build the Church. We must be the evangelists spreading the Faith. That sounds exciting and really scary all at the same time. It’s exciting because it places us in the forefront of building the Kingdom of God on earth. It is scary because we don’t really know how to go about it.

A few years ago I was in Liberia with Father Gary Jenkins, an SMA missionary. I was learning about how a mission works, looking at the school, the clinics and the people working there. He was a very experienced missionary and was working in remote villages, bringing the Gospel to people who had never heard the Word.

At that time Liberia was emerging from a disastrous civil war and people were returning to devastated villages to try to pick up the threads of normal life again. I asked Father Gary how he went about introducing people to the Gospel. How do you get them interested? His answer was quite simple. The culture in those African communities was an oral one. Most people could not read and write so everything was in the spoken word. Their culture was passed down through the generations in stories. Father Gary told stories.

His stories were the stories of the Bible. He visited villages and told his stories to generate an understanding of what Christianity was about. He told me that Missionaries did not bring God to Africa. God was already there. The Holy Spirit moved in Africa before the white man and created a thirst for knowledge of God. What was new to Africa was Jesus.

This seemed logical but it all seemed a bit too simple. Father Gary agreed and offered to take me on a visit he was making to a village in the forest where he had started a small Christian group. The village was not too far away but was not easy to reach. We drove off the road and down tracks through the forest until we reached a river. There we were met by a boatman in his dugout canoe.

There were only two men who were allowed to ferry people across the river. He came back and forth until the whole party was across. We found ourselves on the edge of the village and walked in to a great welcome. We celebrated Mass in a hut in the centre of the village before sharing a meal there.

As darkness fell we were treated to a spectacular dance display where Magongo, a forest spirit danced through fire, displaying his power over that element. The boys from the mission who accompanied us stayed close to us in fear. The old religion still carried sway. Magongo is really a man in a suit of grass, not exactly what you would wear to dance through a roaring fire but that’s why it is so impressive.

I wondered what it was about Father Gary that impressed the villagers more than Magongo. It turned out that Magongo is a spirit dedicated to Father Gary and he bowed down before the priest after the dance. Now I was really puzzled. Father Gary eventually told me the story.

He had gone to the village, telling his stories and building a community but there was another group there, an Evangelical group who opposed his presence. They disrupted his attempts to have a Mass in the village and he eventually gave up. He explained to the village chief that the people did not seem to want him there.

That would have been the end of the story but for the start of a new war. The civil war was, as I have said, disastrous for the people. Many fled into displacement camps, seeking safety but often finding very difficult conditions. Father Gary stayed in his post throughout the war and did his best to alleviate the condition of the people and sought aid from many people in the UK. Many of you will have helped him via SIR and Mary’s Meals.

When the war finished and the people were returning a messenger came from the village. The chief wanted Father Gary to come back. He went to the village and asked the chief why he had sent for him. He had tried before but the people had preferred a different group. Why would things be different now?

The chief agreed that the people had been drawn to a different Christian group who had offered prosperity in this life. When the war came that group left. Father Gary had stayed and had continued to work to alleviate their difficult conditions. The people had realised that Father Gary brought more than promises; he brought himself. By his selflessness and good works he had shown them the true meaning of the Gospel message.

It seems to me that it’s not the telling of the story that is important. If we are to build the Church we must be prepared to give ourselves to be used. Evangelisation is the work of the Holy Spirit. We must allow the Spirit to use us to influence other people. We can be an influence by behaving like true Christians in the way we go about our daily lives and in the way we treat others.

Telling the story of Magongo dancing through the fire made me think back to the boys who were afraid of the forest spirit. At the time I was both puzzled and amused. These boys had been boy soldiers in the civil war and had seen dreadful things. They were Christians, firmly believing in one God and yet they still feared this other god.

The apparent weakness of their faith made me think of my own faith in one true god. Do I really have no other gods in my life? If that is the case then why did I make sure I had a lottery ticket last night? If my Faith was strong I would understand that money will not bring me happiness or satisfaction. I tell myself that money is useful and could be used to change the lives of so many poor people. It could do a lot of good.

I’m deluding myself. Millions could be put to good use, but the Gospel message is not about using easy money. It is about the hard reality of sharing the little we have, not the surplus we can’t think how to spend. If I won the lottery would I help the poor before or after buying myself a shiny red sports car?

Yes, there are still some false gods in my life and I need to recognise them for what they are. Only then can I live a life that truly teaches by example. Only then will I be able to live up to the task Christ set for all Christians; to lead the world to Him.

Now I’m not so sure of myself than I was when I started writing this. I need to go off and seek out those other false gods that might be lurking there, somewhere in the back of my mind.

You will find him there. Are there any false gods lurking in your background? They might not be dancing through fire but they could be hiding in that lottery ticket or that bottle of red. Oops, that might be another of mine.

To see the video in YouTube click here