Tag Archives: Judgement

31 March or Mars: The God of War

War Memorial, Leominster RM.694

This post was composed before the invasion of Ukraine last month, when I was wondering how to close the month of March for this year. Even before a tank rolled across the border, before a shot was fired, the thought had occurred to me: why do we celebrate the Roman god of war for 31 days each year? Remember that Mars is the French name for the month, and other European languages share the same root.

You might argue that we don’t really celebrate Mars in his month, indeed we never give him a thought, even when eating the eponymous chocolate bar, and that would be quite true. Yet his grey presence still irritates the back of my mind.

What particularly came back to me was this hymn by the Conservative MP John Arkwright, which I first saw carved into the war memorial in Leominster, Herefordshire.

O valiant hearts, who to your glory came

1. O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

2. Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.

3. Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.

4. Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way.

5. Still stands His cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

It seems to me that Arkwright is confusing the god of War, calling men to fight and die – he does not mention the fact that they will be ordered to kill other men – with the Creator who will send out the angels for that last clear trumpet call. And to say that Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way – well, the conscripted soldier, too, went where he was forced to go, even unto death. John 21:18. But Jesus refused to take up arms for his Kingdom.

There is no need to be a total pacifist to feel uneasy about conscripting God as recruiting officer for war, nor to deplore the glorifying of conflict and battle.

Let’s pray for peace, and an end to conflicts between nations and civil wars and terrorism.

Let us pray, too, for the grace to resolve our own personal conflicts and disagreements without escalating them.

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11 February: What is amiss, let us amend.

A queue for covid vaccinations at Lichfield Cathedral. TB.

Feb. 11, 1784.

TO MRS. LUCY PORTER, IN LICHFIELD.

MY DEAREST LOVE,

I have been extremely ill of an asthma and dropsy, but received, by the mercy of GOD, sudden and unexpected relief last Thursday, by the discharge of twenty pints of water[11 litres]. Whether I shall continue free, or shall fill again, cannot be told. Pray for me.

Death, my dear, is very dreadful; let us think nothing worth our care but how to prepare for it: what we know amiss in ourselves let us make haste to amend, and put our trust in the mercy of GOD, and the intercession of our Saviour.

I am, dear Madam,

Your most humble servant,

SAM. JOHNSON.

Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784″ by James Boswell.

Lucy Porter was Johnson’s stepdaughter; he had married her widowed mother but she had died after just a few years. Although he lived and worked in London – the man who is tired of London is tired of life is his saying – he kept in touch with family and friends in Lichfield, his home town, including Lucy. At the time of writing he was an old man and sick; dropsy is now called oedema, a swelling of soft tissue especially in the legs, and may be an indication of heart failure – so carrying 11 kilos of extra weight in fluid was not good. Johnson does not say how his relief was brought about.

But his heartfelt love for his stepdaughter shines through, as well as his apprehension of death and judgement.

What is amiss, let us amend.

Amen to that!

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19 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part II

Second right in the bottom row: this could sum up the experience of the widow in Jesus’ parable that Sister Johanna is reflecting upon. ‘I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.’ Or further up: ‘I feel there is nothing to look forward to.’ It’s not something new to the Covid experience that makes people feel this way. 2,000 years ago, they must have said similar things to Jesus, and he put their experience into this parable, now opened anew for us by Sister Johanna.

We are looking at Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge, from Luke 18:1- 8. I recommend that you scroll back to yesterday’s post to catch up with us. We’re looking at an unusually playful parable, starring a curmudgeonly judge, and we’re wondering what Jesus is really getting at by presenting his ideas in this way. We find out by listening to the lines he allows the judge-curmudgeon to say, ‘… I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person….’ This phrase comes twice in the short parable – the first time Jesus himself uses it to describe the judge, and the second time, he lets the judge say it to describe himself. Repetition is a device used to drive home a home truth. Jesus wants us to hear these words. What is the truth that they contain, then?

I think, first, the words tell us that Jesus understands what it is like for us to pray and not feel heard. He understands how, in our life with God, it sometimes feels as though God himself is the uncaring one, who delays and delays to help us, even though we ‘cry to him day and night.’ When we are going through such an experience, we feel alone, and it seems to us that no one in the history of the world has been through this kind of desolation except us. But in fact, Jesus knows that this is an archetypal experience. Jesus’ listeners at the time would have had it, we have it, all praying people in between us and them have had it. So we can nod our heads as Jesus’ first hearers must have done. Perhaps some in his audience will have begun to cry as Jesus’ words went home and exposed a deeply painful wound or a long-standing problem that felt overwhelming. Jesus is saying here, “I know. It sometimes feels like this when you pray to God for help. He seems unheeding. Here’s me, praying night and day, and nothing changes. Does God care?”

Second: Jesus in this parable is giving us permission to admit that we have these kinds of thoughts and feelings about God. Sometimes it is very difficult not to think of God as anything other than an extremely unjust judge. But why should Jesus encourage us to admit that we feel this way? Because faith is not about pretending to possess a level of ‘holiness’ that we do not really possess. We will return to the subject of faith at the end of our reflections tomorrow. For now, we can say that our faith in God is what allows us to tell God exactly how it feels to be me right now, and, as such, to tell him what we think of him. God knows this already, of course. But perhaps we don’t. Faith is sometimes about discovering who we are, as much as it is about discovering who God is. So, the Lord wants us to tell God all about it, with as much honesty as we can summon, while still hanging on to God for dear life.

The last nine words of the previous paragraph are vital. In light of them, let’s look at the character of the widow in this parable. What role does she play? A widow, in biblical shorthand, represents those who are neediest in society, those who have few human resources, who are alone and must fight hard in order even to be noticed by the current power-base. In this parable we find just such a fighter – a woman in whom the curmudgeonly judge meets his match. Feisty and determined, and as crabby and calculating in her way as he was, she “…kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy.’” Do I detect a hint of falsetto in Jesus’ rendering of these words? Maybe we all know the type of character the widow represents. Possibly, if we know her well, we are a bit afraid of her. But, don’t we admire her when some film or television drama features a character like this, who refuses to be the victim of whatever or whoever is trying to make her one?

We’re going to pause again here and return tomorrow to continue our meditation.

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18 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part I.

Jesuit Chapel, Hales Place, Canterbury.

We can tip our hats to Saint Luke, whose feast day it is, as we enjoy Sister Johanna’s three part reflection on one of the parables: down below the surface are riches not at first apparent.

Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. ‘There was a judge in a certain town,’ he said, ‘who had neither fear of God nor respect for anyone. In the same town there was also a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, “I want justice from you against my enemy!” For a long time he refused, but at last he said to himself, “Even though I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person, I must give this widow her just rights since she keeps pestering me, or she will come and slap me in the face.”’

And the Lord said, ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now, will not God see justice done to his elect if they keep calling to him day and night even though he still delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’

[Luke 18: 1-8; The New Jerusalem Bible, Study Edition.]

I don’t often detect one of the evangelists in a moment of editorial nervousness, but St Luke seems to be having one here. Jesus is clearly having a bit of fun with his audience – something that doesn’t often happen, considering the wariness of the religious establishment as they struggled with Jesus’ unusual teachings and personality. But in this passage, Jesus is probably talking to his disciples rather than the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Lk 17: 22), and he seems relaxed and ready to tease a group of people who, he sensed, were receptive to his teachings. St Luke steps in, however, with a pre-emptive strike, and tells us what Jesus’ parable means before we have a chance to read it and get the wrong impression. No giggling allowed here, St. Luke seems to say. Well, wait a minute, I want to say to Luke. Surely, all great orators know that occasionally it is good to make your point by surprising your audience with humour – make them laugh and they’re yours. Jesus was no stranger to rhetorical techniques. Can we not admit a smiling Jesus into the series of images we have of him? For this brief parable is a remarkably playful one. I imagine Jesus not only smiling at times as he tells his story, but even acting out the parts of the judge and the widow with subtle comedic skill. For the first surprise is this: Jesus hauls a curmudgeon out of his hat and calls him the judge. Second surprise: who does the judge-curmudgeon represent? None other than God himself. What a daring move on Jesus’ part. God, whose holy Name, Yahweh, is so sacred that the Jews were forbidden even to say it aloud, is likened here to a crusty old judge, crabby and somewhat calculating.

It’s possible, of course, that Jesus plays this very straight. But whatever the case: Jesus’ caricature of the Most High God presupposes at least two things in his listeners. One, Jesus assumes that they have a pretty sophisticated sense of humour about religion itself. And two, he takes it for granted that he is talking to people who have an ongoing prayer-life. As such, they will inevitably have come up with some searing questions about God and the way he answers – or doesn’t seem to answer – our prayer. Jesus is playful here, but in no sense is he dismissive. Rather, he uses his playfulness tenderly in order to address what he knows is a very serious matter.

We will continue our reflection tomorrow.

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27 August: a token of respectability

On this day in 1773, James Boswell was conducting Dr Johnson around Scotland en route to the Western Isles. They have come as far as Nairn, some 20 miles East of Inverness, ‘a miserable place’, according to Boswell, but today ‘Scotland’s Highland playground’ according to the Tourist Board.

Here they came upon a Presbyterian response to a modern phenomenon: how to deal with scandalous behaviour among the Christian flock. Boswell and Johnson waited for hours while the minister, Mr Kenneth McAuley, was distributing tokens to parishioners.

Over to Boswell:

In Scotland, there is a great deal of preparation before administering the sacrament. The minister of the parish examines the people as to their fitness, and to those of whom he approves gives little pieces of tin, stamped with the name of the parish as tokens, which they must produce before receiving it. This is a species of priestly power, and sometimes may be abused. I remember a lawsuit brought by a person against his parish minister, for refusing him admission to that sacred ordinance.

(from Life of Johnson, Volume 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773) by James Boswell)

This does not sound like the ministry of Alistair Maclean!

One might ask, is the Sacrament, the Eucharist, a reward for good behaviour or food for the journey? Can we ever eat and drink worthily? Not by our own efforts! Does the grace of the Sacrament reach in to where we hardly know ourselves, but God knows? Did the use of tokens enhance or debase the Sacrament? Does denying it to anyone serve to bring the sinner to repentance, or lead to split or unity in the church?

Stamped tokens from post Great War Germany, when the currency was greatly debased due to inflation.

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8 June: A little longer.

In old age Johnson observed: I hope GOD will yet grant me a little longer life, and make me less unfit to appear before him.

Life of Johnson by James Boswell.

Amen to both these prayers!

When Johnson visited Skye in the late XVIII Century, the crossing from the mainland was by boat – rowing boat – the bridge would have been unimaginable. The rain, and the rainbow, were facts of everyday life. And still are.

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12 March: Ordinary decent people.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is crypt-640x481.jpg

We looked at Ruth and Naomi yesterday: ordinary, decent women who encountered an ordinary, decent man in Boaz; and the rest is history. That story must have been going through the back of my mind, because my eyes were open to an embodiment of ordinary decency as I saw her pushing her walking aid up the hill towards her parish church.

Margaret stopped to chat to three different acquaintances within 200 metres, in my case just a quick greeting as she was already in conversation with someone else. On other occasions she will be walking Basil her Maltese terrier, or giving him a ride on the trolley; or else sitting outside her favourite cafe on the square with a long coffee and a short cigarette, chatting to any who pass by.

There is a ministry of friendliness which doesn’t exactly fit the Gospel accounts of the Works of Mercy, but has elements of several of them. I can imagine Margaret saying: Lord, when did I see thee and befriend thee?

And the Lord could play back a few scenes from her life and say to her: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. And upon such rocks I will build my Church.

Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee?Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee?

And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.

Matthew 20:37-40

We should not pass over those all-but invisible, non-charismatic, ministers of the Good News who bring it to people without preaching; who can say ‘I love you, God loves you’ without those words coming anywhere near their lips. And by no means all of them have any church affiliation at all. Let us thank God for them.

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14 September: Wesley on slavery XIV. Human trafficking in the 18th Century

Wesley continues his argument that it is not by nature that Africans were slaves but by deliberate cruelty on the part of slavers. We today do not know who might be on board a lorry, in a car boot, only to be deprived of liberty and justice by the traffickers and their co-conspirators.

They were, in most parts, a sensible and ingenious people. They were kind and friendly, courteous and obliging, and remarkably fair and just in their dealings. Such are the men whom you hire their own countrymen to tear away from this lovely country; part by stealth, part by force, part made captives in those wars which you raise or foment on purpose. You have seen them torn away, — children from their parents, parents from their children; husbands from their wives, wives from their beloved husbands, brethren and sisters from each other. You have dragged them who had never done you any wrong, perhaps in chains, from their native shore. You have forced them into your ships like an herd of swine, — them who had souls immortal as your own; only some of them leaped into the sea, and resolutely stayed under water, till they could suffer no more from you. You have stowed them together as close as ever they could lie, without any regard either to decency or convenience. And when many of them had been poisoned by foul air, or had sunk under various hardships, you have seen their remains delivered to the deep, till the sea should give up his dead. You have carried the survivors into the vilest slavery, never to end but with life; such slavery as is not found among the Turks at Algiers, no, nor among the Heathens in America.

Oscar Murillo’s Turner Prize travellers

 May I speak plainly to you? I must. Love constrains me; love to you, as well as to those you are concerned with. Is there a God? You know there is. Is he a just God? Then there must be a state of retribution; a state wherein the just God will reward every man according to his works. Then what reward will he render to you? O think betimes! before you drop into eternity! Think now, “He shall have judgment without mercy that showed no mercy.”

Sadly, trafficking continues – we must not grow inured to people dying in the back of container trucks, or smuggled across frontiers in other ways. And if the places they are leaving are poverty stricken, is that not thanks to the economic system which has benefitted us in the prosperous West, but not the people whose fingers do so much of the work, whose products are affordable to us but highly priced to them.

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13 September: Wesley upon Slavery XIII. Can you wonder?

The Last Judgement, Strasbourg Cathedral

What pains have you taken, what method have you used, to reclaim (slaves) from their wickedness?

Have you carefully taught them, that there is a God, a wise, powerful, merciful Being, the Creator and Governor of heaven and earth? that he has appointed a day wherein he will judge the world, will take an account of all our thoughts, words, and actions? that in that day he will reward every child of man according to his works? that then the righteous shall inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world; and the wicked shall be cast into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels?

If you have not done this, if you have taken no pains or thought about the matter, can you wonder at their wickedness? What wonder, if they should cut your throat? And if they did, whom could you thank for it but yourself? You first acted the villain in making them slaves, whether you stole them or bought them. You kept them stupid and wicked, by cutting them off from all opportunities of improving either in knowledge or virtue: And now you assign their want of wisdom and goodness as the reason for using them worse than brute beasts!

The artists of Strasbourg used the Last Judgement to say something about those in authority who had more regard for themselves and their comfort than the poor people of their day. But the Lord is blessing Creation with his Glorious Wounds.

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4 August: Samuel Johnson at prayer.

Samuel Johnson was like Dylan Thomas at least in his love for words and for writing the best words he could to convey his meaning. The following prayer was composed by him at the time he was finishing his dictionary. A labour indeed!

O GOD, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labour, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. Amen.

Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell

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