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by A. Soule New

What are the roots that clutch?
by A. Soule

Daddy or Chips?
by A Soule

Out of the blue
by A Soule
Back to Church by Judy Smith Something worth reading
by A Soule
A Game of Cards by A Soule What is Faith? by Elaine Fermer
A bit of drama  by A Soule The Other Side by A Soule
What Matters Most by A Soule Unusual Times by A Soule
Looking for Rainbows by Judy Smith The Armour of God by Bob Lindridge

Masterpieces. A. Soule

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that we spend most of our time trying to sort out the here and now of our daily lives. Routines of the day slip into months and months to seasons, and the years slip by. But what if we were able hold a moment in time for us to gaze and ponder at our leisure? A work of art, does just that.

One can pass by many famous paintings in a gallery, never really thinking about them but the memory of just some paintings can haunt you a long while. A painting, however, doesn’t give up its secrets at first sight. What one sees on the canvas is much more than what the eye can see at a particular moment; for the painting also captures how the artist feels about the subject being drawn. This is where the genius of an artist is observed.

A true masterpiece stays in your consciousness, speaks to you across time and space; usually after the artist and the subject of the painting have long gone. It has the capacity to recreate the mystery of an event or an object so successfully that it touches something deep in ourselves and hints at unexpressed thoughts.

Painting by Edouard Manet (created in 1882)

The painting by Manet of the barmaid is one of those where the scene and the personages painted are never really forgotten by someone who has gazed at it long enough. The painting is well known and there is already a lot of critical commentary on who the girl painted actually was and the place. But to appreciate the painting one needn't go into what is not actually painted by the artist -  what really matters is what is shown or hinted at in the painting itself.

The expression of the barmaid speaks of a mind at unease and yet an acceptance of her situation, whatever that may be. She is unsure of herself; of whether she needs to be where she is. The bustling excitement around her (shown only in a mirror behind her) seems to leave her untouched. There is a sadness in her eyes, which is quite in contrast with the general atmosphere of the place. Something in her tells her that at the end of the road, there is sorrow.

Whilst critical opinion on Manet as a painter can be divided, there is no doubt the painting is striking and can haunt our imagination for long.

Rembrandt's painting of the prodigal son (created between 1663 and 1669)

Another painting which can surprise one by its sheer emotional intensity is that of Rembrandt's Prodigal Son, based on the well know parable described in Luke's gospel. What is striking is that we don’t see the face of the prodigal son, all we see of him is his back and his bent head. The shape of the body from behind is enough to convey the wayward son's  deep repentance, and the realisation that he now has no right to anything but to plead for his father’s mercy.

The expression on the father's face is that of pure love; looking over any judgement of what the son had done or deserved. The painting also shows the older brother looking on at the scene in awe of his father’s love for the brother who has returned. Clearly the scene shown is after the father has explained to the older son his reasons for welcoming his brother. He understands that for him to love his father (which he does) would also mean loving his repentant brother - whom his father loves dearly.

Anyone aware of the Biblical context of the story will understand. that the forgiving father in the parable stands for God and the repentant son for all those returning to His fold. One can see how well Rembrandt rises up to the challenge of  depicting the actual narrative along with imaginatively hinting at the wider theological context. The painting is purely an artist’s vision, and is no substitute for the actual narrative in the Gospel. But it is clear that the artist has delved deeply into what the story is about.

The expression of love and forgiveness on the father’s face and the figure of the repentant son in tattered clothes is something that stays with you long after you have moved from the painting. For this is about homecoming, the son has traversed the crossroad faced by the girl in Manet's painting, and concluded this is where he needs to be, under his father’s protection. A true masterpiece no doubt.

What are the roots that clutch? A. Soule

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It is often said that poetry can articulate truths hidden deep in our subconscious. This is particularly true in the case of TS Eliot’s 'The Wasteland' which touched the general mood  of the western world at the end of the Great War. It speaks of a time in our history when not many families were left untouched by grief and despair. A great many families then had to deal with deaths in their immediate family - of their husband, father, brother, a loved one or someone they knew.

The old optimism of the nineteenth century that things in the end would turn out well had crumbled. Many came to accept that the governing principle of life was plain absurdity- after all nothing else then made sense. The poem in describing the dark mood of those times poses a deeply existential question, set out in Section 1 of the poem as:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?

Leaving aside the permutations of poetic interpretations with what follows next in the poem;  the question as it stands is pretty direct, what is it that holds us together? How are we to live having seen death and destruction around us?

The poem was written in 1922, and despite the decades which followed, the question still haunts us. We still seek assurance of having something really strong and abiding to hold on to, something which can sustain us - renew us.

At the time when the poem was published, most people felt they had had a belly full of simplistic platitudes, which seemed to fall far short of what they were actually going through. What was needed then and even now perhaps, is a basic acknowledgment that there are no straightforward answers as to why despair and grief accompany life. How we feel about things, cannot simply be brushed aside as not being material fact. For in the end what we are left with are our feelings, they are the experience of reality for us. We are what we are shaped by our doubts, insecurities and belief.

It is also fair to say that how we act and decide in life is in a large measure guided by what we believe in. A life based in the acknowledgment of our inadequacy, God’s abiding love for us and a sense of duty to care for fellow beings can land us in a different place to where we might end up in a life dictated by anxiety and doubt.

The first port of call for many of us in understanding what life is all about is in our relationships with each other, within families and friends, who often hold a mirror to us to see how we really are. But there are times when the glass cracks; friends and family who you expect support from let you down.

A rather haunting example of this is described in a beautifully written poem by Thomas Hood, called the 'Bridge of Sighs'. A young woman turned out by her parents, for some misdemeanor in their eyes (possible pregnancy), throws herself down Waterloo bridge and dies.  As she stood near the bridge trying to decide what to do next, there was no one there to hold her hand, to talk to her, bring her into shelter and warmth; all she had in her mind were the harsh words spoken to her by her family. The stanzas below from the poem are particularly heart wrenching:

 Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God's providence
Seeming estranged.

There was deep hurt somewhere, and a complete absence of those she expected to stand by her or understand her. Everything around her seemed to say ‘no one cares’.

Christian charity which the poet refers to would surely mean more than just slipping a fiver in her lap and quickly walking on. It is the ability to stand alongside the vulnerable, having the patience to listen and do all one can to help. But it needn’t be large gestures which are always needed. Very often what’s needed is just standing alongside the person and a kind word. After all, there is something more than just two square meals a day which keeps us ticking along.

Words can give us most joy but they can also be a cause of great sorrow. Something said or unsaid can make all the difference at times. The feeling that someone cares is what we hold on to. A world of indifference and apathy is certainly far from what Christianity is about.

Note; The full poem can be accessed online at this link:

The Bridge of Sighs


Daddy or Chips A Soule

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It’s said good advertising is an art form in itself. The ads which one never quite forgets are usually those which touch an emotional chord in us. There was an ad in the Nineties for oven chips, which many people still remember. A young girl sitting in a school bus being asked by her older sister if she loved Daddy or chips. The young girl puzzled over the question, Daddy or chips or Daddy, all the way home.

It does seem rather an odd question for a sister to ask; pitting love of chips against the largely philosophical concept of love for their father. The way the ad went, it wasn’t an easy choice, given that love for her father didn’t seem to tip the scales straight away.

Aside from what the question meant to the young girl, it also touches on something more fundamental; what do we mean when we say we love a thing or a person; and more specifically in what order do we place the various loves of our life. The hierarchy of love is something which does play on people’s minds, however much it is denied or rationalized. Where one stands in the ladder of love has frequently been the subject of popular writings and drama; which is not surprising given art mirrors real life after all.

In Shakespeare's King Lear, the tragic dimension of the play unfolds with the old King asking his three daughters to tell him how much they love him; with the intention of dividing his kingdom in accordance with their answers. It was important to the old King to know where he stood with them. The play is, after all, a work of fiction but it does show that it not only matters to us that people care for us, but also how much more or less in relation to all the other things they love.

Going back to the advert of Daddy or chips. The young girl mulling over the question reaches home and when sitting at the table to eat, Daddy sneaks a chip off her plate. Somehow in her little brain that tilted the balance in favour of chips - perhaps based on a childish understanding that it was Daddy first who, not withstanding her annoyance, had chosen chips.

In all honesty, the ad in itself is nothing more than an affectionate play amongst siblings and a parent. It does, however, show that our reactions to others are often guided by what happened to us.

A key aspect of Christianity is about keeping love at the centre of all our dealings with each other. This may seem simple but it is quite at odds with how the world at large shapes us. It is often thought that much of the love we can show for others is a reflection of what we have felt from others. For many though, in reality, this may be a mixed bag - for not every one may have grown up surrounded with love.

What can make a difference is if we are able to rise above our own experiences. This may not always be as straightforward as it sounds, for it is not always easy to break away from the tracks of  past experiences laid down in our minds.

The reality is that we remain on a journey of not only understanding ourselves, but also to understand how to care for others. That being so, genuine love and care for others does have the power to breakthrough any barriers.

If there is love and a caring concern at the very core of any relationship, one can usually understand how best to make it right for the other. After all, the good Samaritan in the parable told by Christ, did not wait for the injured man on the road to articulate his plight (he probably couldn’t in the semi conscious state he was). The Samaritan knew what needed to be done, without any verbal justifications or expectation of gratitude.

All said and done, the question still remains; Daddy or chips - love for person, who has cared for you,  provided you chips or just chips in themselves. Love for someone who has control of everything in your life or for just something you can see in front of you. A child’s lens might see the more immediate, but if the question was looked through the eyes of an adult, the scales would have tilted differently.

Understanding love and consideration for what it actually involves, means growing up.


Out of the blue A Soule

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There is quite a memorable scene in the movie 'Independence Day' when one morning people look up and see an unusual darkening in the skies, only to discover a gigantic flying saucer hung above the sky. Something which lay in people’s imagination and fictional works appearing as an undeniable physical reality, defying  any straightforward explanations. No one seemed to know how it came to be there, when it would move away or how it could be got rid of. The movie, of course in true Hollywood fashion has a long drawn battle with the alien invaders; with humanity winning in the end.

It doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to see some similarity in the situation caused by the virus now - which hangs across the world like a large dark cloud. The world and its scientists are busily working to understand the virus, discover its weakness and fight it on all fronts; perhaps not in the Hollywood sense but in more realistic and practical ways. 

When a situation of such magnitude occurs, the natural instinct is to range though history to see if mankind has faced similar situations in the past. Yes, there have been plagues, terrible earthquakes and long-drawn wars before, but the world has never been so connected as it is now. The horror of what happens in one part of the world is never far off from happening where we are. The virus which started in a remote corner of the world is now across our entire planet.

The feeling of frustration with this pandemic stretching now for several months could have some echoes (although in a much smaller way) of what people during the long stretching two worlds wars may have felt; things moving backwards and forward, and the increasing number of families grieving their loss. The fight against the virus is also a battle, and things which matter in any battle remain the same; discipline, rules and organisation - and above all remaining calm.

The normal hum of busy life before this pandemic had its own stresses no doubt, but there had been adequate outlets which helped a lot of people cope with that - such as going out  for meals with friends or shopping with family or the normal worship/fellowship within the church.  It is a well known fact that stress can affects people in many ways - some more and some less; bad temper and blaming the world at large are but common responses to it. The virus has already taken many lives but if it also starts gripping our long held trust and expectations of each other, and supportive fellowships; that's something to guard against.

Wars and crises have always ended, as will this too. A lot of people are praying for this to end - for human endeavour to be directed effectively towards a successful solution. Very often you see skies pouring rain where you stand, but then also in the distant horizon you can sometimes see a small clear patch of blue light. And if you remain patient, you might  also see the slim blue streak slowly spreads more widely across the sky - and the rain stops. This cloud over the world too will give way to clear sky in time.

Reading through accounts of the generation which had witnessed the first world war, the Armistice day, when it came, was an occasion of great jubilation. In the streets across towns, market squares and in families, there was at first disbelief that it was actually all over - then an intense wave of relief across the continent that the guns had finally fallen silent.

It is also worth considering the question that when the pandemic ends, would we come with a slightly different perspective of life? Perhaps we may become more aware that things which we took for granted are not guaranteed, perhaps we may seek to treasure them more. Perhaps realise that for all our technological progress, how vulnerable our bodies remain.

We may perhaps also realise with awe that the creator of all that is seen and unseen, the one who lays down the manner of movement and behaviour of all living and non living things, promises to walk with us all the way:

'Lo  I am with you always, even unto the end of the world'. (Matt 28:20).

And it is to our God in Christ that we look to carry us through this tumultuous period, and deliver us safely once again to the time of  jubilation and joy when this virus ends its march.


Something worth reading A Soule

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Quite often when people talk about a well known book that you may have read at school or whilst growing up, it could well occur to you that you hadn't really cottoned then to what the book was about.

I experienced this with George Eliot’s Silas Marner which I re-read recently. I was surprised at the depth of the story - describing the way life turns corners, and yet in the end, the past and present coalescing into a well wrought plan.

The story is set in the early nineteenth century and is about Silas Marner, a weaver by trade who starts off as a committed member of a closed Christian community in a Northern town. As a man of upright standing in the community there, Silas is asked to keep vigil over a sick member of the community. Silas falls asleep briefly and when he wakes up, money is discovered missing from the room. Despite his protestations that he knew nothing about the theft, he is blamed. Silas points to his blameless  conduct and standing in the church community, but the religious community decides his guilt by first praying for guidance and then casting lots. The lots go against Silas and despite his innocence, he is blamed. Understandably Silas is outraged at the injustice and concludes that there was no divine control of the world.

Silas leaves the town and settles in Raveloe (another small town) and immerses himself in his work, only taking joy is the money that he has saved stored in little bags, until one day someone breaks into his cottage and takes way all his money. He is utterly distraught.

The story progress further, when with one day a little girl crawls into his cottage, Silas picks up the baby girl but sees outside nearby the girl's mother lying dead on the road. He adopts the girl, looks after her and his whole world changes. He discovers a definite purpose and joy in his life. The girl grows up to love Silas as her father and chooses to live with him and take care of him even when her real father is discovered.

George Eliot (whose real name was Mrs Evans), wasn’t given to overt moralising, but the novel touches on complicated theological debates. How could something done with prayer come up with unjust consequences? Being wrongly blamed and then robbed of all honest earnings seems to go against our understanding of natural justice.

But these things do happen, and sometimes with all good intentions and prayers, things do not go as wished for. What can come across is that we are powerless in the face of circumstances.

That being so, our lives are not governed by the flip of a coin; both sides equally viable, heads or tail. There is value in standing in the right corner, doing what is right in all circumstances, being governed by the light of truth: as mentioned by Christ 'ye are the light of the world' . The community which made the decision to blame Silas did so knowingly, by closing their  eyes to his defence.

Silas eventually did find joy and happiness in caring for the little girl who had walked into his cottage. One can also surmise that there was a realisation that his early 'religious life' was shallow in seeking contentment within a closed community, blind to wider compassion or love for the neighbour in its truest sense - as taught by Christ.

There may also have been a realisation that his love of money later had shut him to what life was really about. And perhaps the love and care he bestowed on the child was what was needed for him to be led back to church and community in the end. He may well have also pondered whether after all there may have been a higher power which  had  been putting things right in his life.

Learning to care for just one person can open the way to greater love. What happens in future is not for us to know but what connects our sorrows and joys, our past, present and future, is the arc of love - God’s love, present in the tough times as well as in the good times. Listening to the ups and downs of Silas's life Mrs Winthrop, a plain speaking village woman in the novel comes to the conclusion that God above us is much more merciful than we think and if anything looks unclear to us it is because  there are plenty of things we don't know.


Back to Church Judy Smith

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It's 8.30 am and it's Sunday morning.  I am up, dressed and ready to leave the house (bit of an effort!).  Colin has already left.  I am excited to be going to meet and worship with other people from the church family.  I know what it looks like inside the church, so it won't be a surprise to see how far apart the chairs are and how bare it looks.

I arrive at the church and cross the car park. The doors to the church are wide open, it looks so welcoming. Lauraine and Colin are waiting to greet me.  As I approach I slip on my face mask.  I have my temperature taken (phew, it's normal!) and sanitise my hands.  There is classical music playing, people are sitting quietly and expectantly waiting for the service to begin.  The atmosphere is reverent and peaceful. The doors are open and there is a cooling breeze blowing through.

Clive starts the service promptly at 9. It is a traditional red book communion service.  The familiar words resonate and touch the soul.  The breeze catches the flags and they rustle and flutter happily.  It feels like a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work. Clive's sermon is about healing - Bartimaeus' encounter with Jesus just before He entered Jericho. It is so relevant for us today, when many people feel bruised and battered and alone.  Jesus can and will heal if we allow Him to.

During the administration of the communion more classical music is played and as we sit back in our seats I do indeed feel that Jesus is present with us.  After the blessing we leave the church quietly and thoughtfully to the theme tune from ET and indeed we do feel that we have come home.  Socially distanced socialising takes place in the car park before we leave.  We are all smiling.  It has been such a positive and fulfilling experience.  All our thanks go out to Clive, Lauraine and Colin for the preparation it has taken to make sure that we could worship together again in safety.  God be praised!


A Game of Cards A Soule

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It’s often said that the key to success is knowing what to do and when; and if we are honest, we all struggle with that. Most of us go through life trying to make the best guesses, hoping those choices  work out well in the end. And when we look back on what and when we did things, we often wish we knew then what we know now. But life is pretty much a one way street, you can't go back in time; you know what you know at a point in time and make decisions with that as best you can.

However, the desire to explain the why and how of life has always been there, and despite the plethora of philosophical explanations already out there, a new approach always arouses curiosity.  An interesting approach doing its rounds lately is that of understanding life in terms of a game of poker - yes a game of cards.

Poker is seen as a close comparison with how people deal with life - in areas where we are in control and where we are not, and how we compromise with what we cannot control.  Players need to make the best decision based on what they think the cards others hold and how they would play. You play with the understanding that you will never have complete information, and that however well you make your decisions, you could still lose. Whilst a lot  depends on the cards you get, there also remains the chance element, that despite the cards you hold, you could still win as a result of others making bad decisions – circumstances can change and everything stacks up in your favour.

The chance element, coincidence or whatever you wish to call it is a well acknowledged factor in the way things happen in life. A lot of autobiographies of actors and directors talk about accidentally being in the right place or the right time, meeting someone by chance who put them in touch with someone, and the rest being history. Obviously this does not discount the fact that in most cases they were extremely talented and had an obsessive determination to make it big; but chance too played a vital part in where they ended up  eventually. And quite often, people looking back on their lives also seem to see some kind of a plan in the way life went for them; chance happenings which resulted in one thing leading to another, and things had to happen in that way only to end up in a certain way.

If you were to think of life moving to a pre-set plan out there; the problem remains that you still need to make specific choices on the basis of incomplete information. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher at one point in his writings mentions that the human condition is similar to prisoners in a cave who perceive mere shadows at play as reality; for that is all they can see from where they are.

It is difficult to understand what reality or truth is philosophically, but such  an abstraction can hold  the mind in its thrall. Incidentally, this was something which played on Pilate’s mind too when he asked Jesus, 'what is truth?', little knowing that he stood before the embodiment of truth; 'I am the way, the truth, and the life' (John 14:6).

As a Christian, this in its concreteness is the point at which the quest for truth and reality ends – in the person of Jesus as God on earth, for what he taught and his love for humanity.  The God who has always loved us, known us from when we were in our mother’s womb. We don’t know what lies ahead but God does and trust in His love and mercy is what gives us peace and assuredness.

There is though no getting away from the responsibility we bear for taking decisions as a consequence of the free will we have. One can't possibly go through life with eyes shut to the consequences of the decisions one takes. You would make those decisions as intelligibly as possible using  your  skills, talents and opportunities for acquiring knowledge as gifts of God. But it is in the assurance of God’s love that we make our choices, asking Him to guide us in our decisions, trusting that He knows what’s best for us, even if we think we want something completely different.


What is Faith? Elaine Fermer

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Everyone has some kind of faith other- wise no one would do anything. Faith is that you go about your normal life, walk or drive down the road. As Christians we choose to put our faith in God. Ephesians 2 v8-9 “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-Not by works, so that no-one can boast.”

God provides it through Jesus by grace through faith we are saved. Doing what we do every-day in faith. There is so much Our Lord wants to give us, but we don`t always ask. Our bible has 5,467 promises from God roughly. So, faith is based on God`s word we need to read/study that word for our lives every-day. Reminding and refreshing ourselves of what Jesus did, by dying on a cross and rising again to save us from our sins. Which means a forgiven people to live life to our full potential with a Joy that no-one can take away. Trusting God.

I read bible notes and I have a few. A friend gave me a little daily binder called `Jesus calling`. It has been an inspiration for my life with little versus and extra bible references if I need to dwell in the word. It has increased my faith and it builds you up daily to face the world. It is short, to the point and I can pray into it. True Blessings.

At this particular time of releasing of lock down and uncertainty of how things are going to be. It is good to look at the promises of God. One of my favourites is from Romans 8 v38, 39 ending with – “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”. This helps me when my faith wobbles. How awesome is that a promise to cling on too?

I pray that this has encouraged you to read your bible and it will enrich your journey in Jesus Christ. Building up your faith in God. Blessings to you all.


A bit of drama  A Soule

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It’s fair to say that most people like a bit of drama, and by and large the shows we like are those which grip us. Quite often the story grows in our mind and we come away wondering whether that’s how the characters should or should not have behaved, or perhaps how would we have handled things.

Some TV dramas, for whatever reason, seem to catch people's curiosity and end up generating high viewing figures. This is how its turned out to be for the recently aired BBC drama 'Normal People' based on a novel written by Sally Rooney. Both the novel and the drama have had good reviews generally but also a fair share of criticism for the needless vulgarity shown.

The title of book and the TV drama 'Normal People' is curiously interesting; implying that this is how most  ordinary people lead their lives and react to situations. The storyline is fairly common - Connell and Marianne who have known each other since their school years fall in love, break up, meet up later and part again.  Both of them are at an age where they don't really understand the depth of feeling they have for each other. As the story progresses, the veneer of defiant choices in life slowly peel off to reveal a deep emotional vulnerability in both.

Although the novel is set in Ireland, there is nothing explicitly Christian (in the devotional sense) about the story, and some scenes may indeed seem gratuitous and unnecessary. And yet the story in the main is quite poignant - two people going through life, reacting not as saints but as ‘normal people ‘. It shouldn't take a great leap of imagination to ask if this is how normal people live their lives, who then are those who choose not to live in such a way? Would it exclude people who don't subscribe to making casual choices in life or those who take life a bit more seriously? However that may be, there is also the fact that art reflects life, and what we see there is in some ways a reflection of what the world seems to be from a certain point of view.

What is plainly evident is the fact of a generational shift; the pattern of life which society expected some years ago has changed.  There has always been an awareness that religious belief has mostly existed within the margins of people’s lives, and now those margins have moved even further -  to the point that people seem to be embarrassed to talk about their faith. It is also true that people on the outside often feel 'good Christians' are simply too embarrassed to acknowledge the messy circumstances of people in the real world. The drama does reveal the sad underbelly of modern life which, if you like,  you could either condemn or take that as step in understanding what life really is like for those starting out in the 21st century.

It has to be said that most people by and large lead decent lives but when it comes to faith, the usual tendency is to shy away from an overtly religious approach, often labelling Christianity as being outdated and not being in synch with their complicated lives Whilst it’s worth reflecting on this, it is also true that people were leading complicated and burdened lives when Jesus preached. What Jesus taught has survived many centuries; ideas and fashions have come and gone but the message of faith and the teachings live on. These teachings are aimed at the very essence our being - parts of ourselves which even we don't understand.

Coming back to 'Normal People', what may have resonated with people who liked this drama is that it showed how emotionally fragile we all are. Something said or unsaid can so easily change the course of our lives. It is beyond doubt a moving story - but it is just that - a story, and this is how it  was crafted by its author - Sally Rooney.

Real life, whether we like it or not, has many more dimensions to it – and some drama too. No one knows where our own stories lead to - apart of course from the Author of our lives. One thing we do know is that nothing can separate us from the love of God and through all the good and bad times we go through, the Good Shepherd walks with us.


The Other Side A Soule

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Now here’s an interesting question, what would life be for you if you weren’t a Christian? I don’t mean the not going to the church kind, but having no religious belief whatsoever.

No big deal, a lot of people would say and probably add that they know many people who aren’t religious, including some of their good friends and many of their family members. We all know people who believe in making a success of this life, and think of prayer as a bit of mumbo jumbo. They are usually self reliant and make their way in life rather heroically.

How different would life be if  you were with the other side – those with no belief in God. It would be, I imagine, difficult to see a noticeable change overnight. One would still get up, go to work if one works, and in general try to enjoy life as much as one can. You would in time try to develop your own philosophy of life or follow others who are similarly not religious. There is though the fact that you are in a large measure what you think, and as your view of your own existence changes so would the way you react to circumstances.

There would be ups and downs, and as it is for all of us, and at times nothing would make sense. In your quieter moments you would sometimes wonder what it's really all about. Life may feel very much as described by Shakespeare in Macbeth:

"'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

You wouldn’t try to dwell on complex issues like good and evil as that might lead you to abstract notions. You would be looking for answers but soon realise how narrow  our own vision is which cannot see beyond the immediate, how quickly your circumstances can change and how powerless the human body is against disease and death. You would realise there is really very little that you control.

Whilst you may think you have got away from moral dilemmas and judgments which people always think as belonging in the realm of faith, one is still beset by rights and wrongs in the normal course of life. You would still be judged by yourself and the society around you.  The load gets heavier - it is hard going.

There was an interesting article in the 'Independent' I read last year talking about  someone (of no belief whatsoever) describing what it was to live with a Christian - an interesting observation made by him was: “when my partner panics or finds herself in a dilemma, sometimes the best thing I can say to her is, ‘Let your faith guide you’. It speaks to her, calms her, and brings clarity while communicating that I trust in her decision-making faculties — whereas, if she said that to me, I’d plunge further into uncertainty.”

There it is - the sense of uncertainty at the bottom of one's being in the quagmire of unbelief.

There is then the other way; of placing trust in the goodness of God. God understands the heavy burden of journeying alone; and offers a clear invitation in Christ’s words; "Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest". Added to that is also the gift of divine peace in our lives, "My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." It all though  hinges on the choice which people make; to either accept God with them in their journey of life or to go it alone.

It all sounds simple, but life seldom pans out like a well preached sermon. People may well choose to continue on the path they have chosen, and accuse the other side of living an illusion. As a Christian, one would no doubt accept that God loves the unbeliever too, and hope they find the peace that you have found in faith. You would support them and love them as you know God has loved you too.

In the end what people really believe in their hearts, for all the different things they say, always remains a mystery. There are people who aggressively avoid the mention of church and worship, but in times of trouble say a silent prayer. There is also the oft quoted saying that not many die as atheists. Who knows what changes in thinking may come about in the fullness of time, and who's to judge a person's relationship with their maker.


What Matters Most by A Soule

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There is this rather a deeply haunting story by Tolstoy which I happened to re-read recently. This is not to say that I had forgotten the tale completely as I doubt anyone who reads it once could wipe it away clean from their minds. The details can get blurred with time, but in the main this is one of those stories which sticks with you.  When I first read it, some years ago, I thought it morbid but on reading it now again, I think it shines a  light on what really matters in life or what we ought to live by. The story itself is titled ‘What men live by’.

The story goes that a poor shoemaker despairing of his debt goes out on a cold evening, gets drunk and on his way back home sees a naked man lying by the lonely road shivering in cold. He asks him who he was; the pitiable naked man could only say his name was Michael and that God had punished him. The shoemaker takes pity on him, covers him with his warm coat and takes him home. As expected, his wife shouts at him for coming home drunk and for bringing home another mouth to feed. But later that evening, looking at the stranger closely she feels pity for him and offers him some food. Michael (the stranger) smiles for the first time then.

Time goes by, the shoemaker puts a condition of his stay that he work with him in shoe making. Once an angry rich man comes in with an expensive roll of leather ordering the shoemaker to make expensive shoes for him with that. The shoemaker assures him that the shoes would be ready, but all the while the shoemaker was talking to the man, Michael seemed to fix his gaze beyond the door way where the rich man stood, as if in recognition of someone, and smiles for the second time. Instead of making the kind of shoes demanded by the rich man, Michael quietly went about using the expensive leather to make a pair of soft slippers instead.

The shoemaker got very angry with Michael, worrying that he had wasted the  expensive leather but shortly after there was a knock on the door. The rich man’s servant came to inform them that his master had died due to an accident, and that   they would now only need soft slippers for the body (as was customary in Russia then). Michael had already made those slippers. The shoemaker was puzzled by all this, but kept it to himself.

Some years go by and then one day a middle aged woman comes in accompanied by two young girls one of whom had a severe disability in one leg - asking for shoes to be made for them. Michael takes shoe measurements of the girls and at that point the shoemaker’s wife asks the woman if the girls were her own daughters, to which she replies that they weren’t, but she had brought the two girls up as her own after their mother had died suddenly crushing one of the girl’s leg at her deathbed. Michael smiled again - and this was the third time he had smiled. But the shoemaker saw something else apart from the smile on Michael’s face, he didn't know what to make of it; he saw a kind of a halo forming around Michael.

Michael explained that he was actually an angel who was tasked to take away a woman's life so she could pass on to the next life. However, he had allowed the woman to live because she begged that she must take care of her children for no one other than their mother could care for them. However, he was punished for his disobedience and commanded that he must find the answers to three questions in order to be an angel again: What dwells in man?What is not given to man?, and What do men live by? 

He learned the answer to the first question when the shoemaker’s wife felt pity for him, thus smiling and realizing that what dwells in man is 'love'. The answer to the second question came to him when he realized that the angel of death was looming over a nobleman who was making preparations for a year though he would not live  Michael smiled, realizing that what is not given to man is 'to know his own needs'.

The answer to the third question came when he saw the woman with the two girls, and smiled the third time when he realised that men live not by care for themselves but by love, and concluded, that "he who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love." When Michael finished wings appeared on his back and he rose to return to heaven.

Now this is purely a work of fiction from one of the greatest writers of all time, who incidentally also spent a lot of time pondering on what Jesus actually taught. But not many can dispute that there is truth in the fact that love, whether we understand the workings of it or not, is central to our lives. There is a lot already written about love and how it makes the world go around, but this story is different - it is about how we are essentially wired, taking into account how very fragile our existence is. It speaks volumes in times of uncertainly - such as what we are going through now.

Understanding what makes us tick is really quite complicated, especially if you consider recent advances in psychology - the writings of Freud, Jung and many others; the solution is often summed up as ‘finding yourself’, ‘being true to yourself’. Whilst there is a lot of value in trying to know oneself, I don't think knowing oneself, as fully as one can, is the answer to what life is all about. Psychiatry and counselling can help you know yourself and come to terms with what happens in your life, but that only seems like half the answer. Surely our journey as Christians doesn’t stop at just getting an understanding of ourselves.

Coming back to Tolstoy’s story, despite a lot debate about the writer’s intention, the message that comes across for most people, loud and clear, is that love for others is at the root of human happiness, and that is how we are made. But all this can sound quite glib - much easily written about than actually understood in the complexity of every day life. All of us through the various stages of our lives undertake a journey; to find ourselves first, and then ourselves in relation to others. In all probability it takes a life time to understand what really matters to us. It is not surprising then that most death-bed accounts talk about the person dying making sure near and dear know how much he or she loves them.

There are still though many hard questions about death and suffering in the world, especially in the face of  thousands already being killed by this pandemic in just two months. We are all seeking some rationale to why such horrifying things happen, so often across history. What resonated with me in this context was an article I read   fairly recently in the New York Times (by Ross Douthat), which pointed out  that whilst it was easy to presume the messages God was sending the world through suffering, natural disasters and pandemics; most ordinary Christians the writer knew stay away from attempting to answer the “why?” question - they point to Job whose friends were rebuked by God for trying to do precisely that. 

Now this is not to say there aren't any theological answers to the conundrum of suffering; in fact there are a range of answers given by eminent theologians across the centuries, but none of them deny the reality of suffering. Suffering comes to all, Christians or not, but as Christians we believe God not only entered a world filled with suffering but also that through the incarnation in Jesus sided with those who suffer and suffered himself. The reality of lives being lost is written large across our TV screens on a daily basis these days - with pictures of family members grieving and lamenting their loss. Like everything in life, there is a time for joy and a time for lamentation. There were times when Jesus also grew weary and grieved.

Lamenting in itself is a very natural response; and there is no explaining it away - it hits people hard. It is but important to understand that lamenting or grieving at its core is an acknowledgment of love for the other - an acknowledgment that the thread of love is at the root of our existence, which ends not just with us, but also links us to God who in Jesus lived in solidarity with our pain.


The Armour of God by Bob Lindridge

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A few months ago, I went to my Granddaughter Esme's school to talk to her class about life as a Roman soldier. They were studying the Romans in their history lessons. They really enjoyed meeting a real live Roman legionary and had lots of questions to ask. Esme's school is very close to where they live but has no parking facilities. This meant that I had to change in Esme's house and walk to her school. People who I passed on my way were very amused.

I was reminded of the visit to Esme's school when Ephesians 6 verses 10-20 was given to us in our Daily Bread bible readings recently. The subject of the passage is "The Armour of God". After reading the passage I went into our office to look at the photo of me dressed in my legionaries’ outfit. This well-known passage uses the various components of a suit of armour of the time - presumably Roman, as a visual aid to various aspects relating to the Christian Life: -

The breastplate   righteousness

Footwear              readiness to spread the good news of the Gospel

Shield                    faith

Helmet                  salvation

Sword                    of the spirit - the word of God

Belt                        Truth

We need to put on the Armour of God to deal with this virus that is affecting our lives.
In this passage, Paul tells the Ephesians to pray in the Spirit on all occasions using all kinds of prayers and requests.
Now is the time to "bombard" God with our pleas to end the spread of the Coronavirus.


Looking for Rainbows by Judy Smith

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Reading Lauraine's answer to the question Colin and I posed about how Noah fed the animals on the ark, I was suddenly struck by the similarity between his situation and what we are experiencing. His whole world had been turned upside down, just as ours is now. He'd stockpiled dried food (pasta!) and he probably worried that he wouldn't have enough to feed everybody, because like us, he didn't know exactly how long he would be in isolation for. He had no need to panic about stockpiling toilet rolls, sanitary arrangement being somewhat different in his situation! Although Noah may have had momentary doubts and worries, he knew that God would never let him down. He trusted God and knew He would be with him throughout this difficult time. His faith was strong. When the flood eventually subsided and the land was dry again God chose as His symbol of hope and promise a beautiful rainbow.

Today, in the midst of our crisis pictures of rainbows are appearing in windows everywhere, as signs of hope and gratitude to the people who are risking everything to help us in so many ways. This was originally meant to be a fun game for children prevented from going to school, but has come to mean so much more. We all know the 7 colours of the rainbow, but rainbows actually contain many more colours, not visible to the human eye. If the visible colours represent our human visible help, then wouldn't it be lovely to think that the colours we cannot see, but know are there, represent our loving and ever-present God? He is in the crisis with us, we cannot see Him but we can feel His presence.


What it all amounts to by A Soule

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Most of us are taught the right things by our parents; be good, don’t fight, play fair, don’t show off unnecessarily, and so on. But some things fall off along the way as we grow older. And how different it is when we try to find our way around the world. The unspoken message which one hears echoed around us is  that you need to look after Number One - that is you yourself.

A long time friend of mine, let’s call him John, once talking about his difficult childhood (being abandoned by his father when he was growing up) summed up his philosophy of life neatly: ‘I knew the score, John will look after John’. He is now a very successful businessman. He has gone up and down in business, but nothing seems to unsettle him, for long. He always comes out on top - John looks after John, and does it quite well it seems.

On the face of it, looking after Number One does seem the sensible thing to do. The argument goes - if everyone looked after themselves, we would all do well and fulfil our dreams. And there is some  truth in this; after all even to help others one has first to be in a position to do so.

As arguments go, one can see  its appeal to the mind for it is ‘a very rational argument’- it is well thought out and  even fair. In fact, this approach would be an ideal fit for a ‘fair and a rational world’.  But here’s the problem, the world we live in and what life throws at us can be far from rational or fair. In life two plus two may not add up to four- it could come out  less or more  than four. All of us have at some point in our lives have asked the question - why did this happen or how did that happen?

A crisis can come out of the blue. If at all you have the time to prepare, you can plan for that logistically; but how we face it largely depends on what our approach to life is then. And every once in a while we come across instances which can make us think that there is more to human nature than anyone could have predicted.

Sometime ago I read about such an individual action of a sailor in a book (by AG Gardiner) which has stuck with me ever since. This  happened around the First World War. On a cold January night in 1915, an English Naval ship named ‘Formidable' had been torpedoed in the seas, and it became inevitable that the ship would go down. Ballots were cast for who should board the rescue boats there, and this young sailor had won. The ship would sink with all left on board but he would be saved.

The author in  describing the incident tried to imagine what would have been going on in the sailor’s mind at that point. As the boat awaits for him to take him to security and comfort from a certain and a horrifying death, he also sees his fellow sailors, looking at him, perhaps not with envy but with resignation of men who see death hovering over them - and I like to imagine, wishing him well in the end. He also looks across at  the cold, dark sea which would surely be their watery grave. The sailor hesitates a bit, not certain how he should bid them good bye. He looks at one of the older sailors smiling at him trying to make it easier for him to leave.

He cannot do it. In one of those supreme moments, when one has to choose between life and death, he makes his choice. He looks at one of his fellow sailors saying, "You've got parents," then swiftly adds. "I haven't." He makes that sailor take his place in the boat and chooses to die with all the rest.

There were no long drawn melodramatic speeches or rationalisations but only a straightforward simple decision was made. He understood that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself knowing he could have saved someone but hadn’t. For all what the world teaches about looking after Number One, he didn’t.

I am pretty sure anyone reading about this incident will not fail to conclude that there is something more to human nature than simply a two plus two equals four approach. What happens to others affects us all. And as none other than the greatest of those who laid his life for others said, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

There is no doubt a deep theological significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. But on a straightforward, simple level it was an act love for all humanity.

Like it or not we are all connected to each other, and we are more ourselves when we understand that what happens to others affects us all.

Acts of sacrifice and compassion, somewhat similar to that made by the sailor are also happening here and now. Which of us hasn’t felt the tumult of feelings at seeing the NHS staff now battling a very deadly enemy at close quarters. Whilst we rightly stay at home, they are at the front, witnessing death at close quarters, holding hands of people in their last moments. How many of us have clapped for them with in awe of the sheer magnitude of their service.

This is humanity at its best, with acts of heroism happening every day in hospital wards and communities across the country. This is who we can be when called upon. We are definitely more than those just looking after Number One.

This was the HMS Formidable commissioned in 1898; there have been about three other ships since also named HMS Formidable.


Unusual Times by A Soule
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These are unusual times. There is no denying the feeling of despair at seeing the rising  figures of those infected and those dying because of the virus. It is a global battle, we are up against the invisible enemy: the enemy which stalks bars, cafes, restaurants and mass gatherings.

This is not the first time the world has faced pandemics. There was the plague of 1665 and the Spanish flu of 1918, both which killed off thousands. Obviously people survived through these crises, but public memories of these are mixed.

One thing is for sure is that  crises do not as always bring out the best in us. Fear can make us do things which we would ordinarily be ashamed to own up to.

A couple of days ago, rather late in the evening I went to a local superstore, looking to buy a few essentials. As you would expect with so much of this being in the news, there was hardly anything on the shelves. It took a while getting used to seeing the large store with so many empty shelves; which does  make one wonder whether we are  facing a famine or the virus.

It was late evening that day and behind me in the store came in a young family, the parents appeared to have come  straight after finishing work. It was hard not see the look of utter dismay on their faces at the empty shelves - with nothing left for them to buy that day. The mother was in tears.

The shop assistant told us that shoppers come in early to take in ‘all sorts - bread, vegetables, soaps, toilet rolls ‘in bulk. She mentioned ‘they want to get in first’. The irony is that there is no shortage of these things as such, and there is no indication that shelves wouldn’t be restocked the next day. And yet, the ransacking of shelves continue.

But this is the nature of the beast (crises). I was reading Daniel Defoe’s journal of the 1665 Plague, which mentions that despite some incidents of bravery shown in the face of death all around them; people became immensely selfish. It was wife against the husband, husband against the wife, neighbour against neighbour. It was every man for himself – for the fear of catching death.

An Article  I read in the New York Times mentioned that despite the Spanish flu killing over a million people in America in 1918, there were surprisingly very few books or historical accounts written on that. There is though the record that at its peak, there was a desperate call for volunteers to care for sick children, which went callously unheeded. The authorities had pleaded with the local community making it clear that there was no one to give the children food as the death rate was very high, but people, ‘much respected’ as they were held back. David Brooks, the author of the article I mentioned explains that the possible reason for there not being many records of the flu was ‘because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed.’

Self sacrifice and caring about your neighbour are essential aspects of being a Christian. But it is so easy to forget all that in times of crisis; even Peter denied Christ three times, fearing death. But that story didn’t end there, it was with him later on that the Church began, and he wasn’t in the end afraid to face death when it came to him.

It is true that the common decency expected by society can never be taken for granted and human behaviour can never be completely predicted, but it is also true ordinary people can be transformed into heroes of the day, doing everything they can at the time needed. Peter after all turned out to be better than he thought who he was. We are all weak, but it is our relationship with God, with God at its focus, which can transform lives.

Understanding who we are as Christians is important especially in these times. I am often reminded of a quote from a long standing Church member (from a previous Church I used to go to) : ‘being a Christian makes me better than I am’.


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