AS OLD AS THE FIELDS

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”

The American nation has been examining its soul. It has taken time to focus inward upon systemic injustices that divide and sometimes conquer people. For many of its people it has been a painful experience. For some it has prompted moments of revelation, for others it has provoked resistance.

Sloping away from a global pandemic we are all subject to low-level trauma. We never believed the last two years could have happened. Out of that trauma should we expect the world to behave a little less rationally? A shooting in a grocery store kills ten and is conducted by someone who wants to eliminate people who are different from him. The event is just one sharp tip of a massive iceberg that, hidden beneath an ocean of civility, absorbs the private thoughts of the masses.

What happened in Buffalo on May 14th, is nothing new. It is not justified by a pandemic nor by recent racial introspection. It is as ancient as the first sinful act of aggression. It is another event in the Eden-old narrative of man’s inability to live with either himself or others.

In the garden Adam and Eve demonstrated they were not content to live solely in God’s presence. Out in a field Abel’s death at the hand of Cain was not merely the result of anger as a younger brother usurped the favor of the Lord, rather it was the first manifestation of man’s unwillingness to live with his fellow man. Difference breeds contempt in a sinful heart. A lack of deference nurtures persecution. In gardens and in fields; in homes and in grocery stores; and on the battle front and in the halls of power, the hearts of men and women reveal their true nature. In a world where wise mentors encourage the protégé to ‘just follow your heart’ a wiser word declares: The heart is deceitful above all things!

Beyond the garden and the field came the tower; man’s vain endeavor to reach the heavens in an act of self-aggrandizement as he ran from fear of an unknown wider world. Then came the dispersal as confusion ruled communication and suspicion of the other became endemic.

Today we are living in the age of the paranoid and egocentric authoritarian. Controlling nations of the dispersed the dictator derogates diversity and enforces conformity to a religious, political or cultural norm. Suspicion of the other invalidates the uniqueness of the individual created after God’s image.

A nation far to the east incarcerates a minority community in the name of deradicalization and reeducation. In reality its leadership is afraid of a people exerting their religious and ethnic identity raising the specter of separatism. To the south another insecure totalitarian holds his people in economic misery delegitimizing opposition and mortgaging territory to bluff his way through sham constitutional processes.

In one of the great travesties of our time the successor to the Tsars has manipulated his way to enduring power through the elimination of all opposition and the suppression of objective truth. He distracts his people from economic failure by embarking on a special operation to rid a neighbor of extremists and invokes the name of God in defense of traditional values. In the process whole cities, full of gardens, homes and grocery stores are destroyed. Thousands die and are laid to rest in muddied fields.

For those who survive the purge, wherever it takes place, refuge in strange lands is the prize. That is why a Ukrainian pastor and his family arrive in Richmond, fleeing a war, finding a welcome, but not without frequent worry. That is why the former Afghan finance minister, fleeing the threats of theocratic madmen who violently enforce the will of the minority, now finds himself driving for a rideshare service in Washington only streets from an embassy to which he was once an official visitor. It is also why my Afghan friend Salim is working a custodial job at the University of Richmond rather than running an insurance company office in Kabul and why my Turkish friend Ihsan, a former civil servant in his homeland, is building a new life in the strange surroundings of the Swiss Alps.

The rule of the absolute is not the way of Jesus. His journey took him through the fields, to people’s homes, and whatever served as grocery stores in his day. It ended in a garden where he healed the wound rather than watch his friends discriminate against his persecutors. He had commanded love for enemies, love for neighbor as for self, and love as he had loved, for one another. The life that loved gave itself up with the words: Father, forgive!

I deliberately kept the names of nations out of this piece, except where they relate to nationalities, because I wanted the focus to remain on the issues at the hearts of peoples and nations. However, for those who don’t follow global news as keenly as I do, the nation to the east is China and its treatment of its minorities, and the one to the south is Venezuela. I don’t think the third nation needs naming since it is all over the current news. I also gave pseudonyms to my refugee friends.

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THE FLESH BECAME WORDS

– A Christmas Reflection –

A childhood memory has me sitting on the kitchen stool, just home from school, while my mother stood at the sink peeling potatoes for supper. I am talking at full speed recounting the events of my day, not heeding repetition, and probably not making much sense. My mother would pause, look in my direction and say: “Now Andrew, slow down and don’t waste your words!”

While shy and quiet in the classroom I must have been garrulous once at home as I remember this phrase being repeated on many occasions. Sometimes my cheeky response would run something like this: “Mum, how can I waste my words? Do I have only a limited supply of them? Is it possible that I could tell you the teacher gave us a project for (the) weekend, and at that point I run out of (the)  word “(the)” never to repeat it again? Could it be that there is a limited supply of (the)  word “(the)” and once they have been used up (the)  word is never to be heard from my lips again?”

As I began to study French maybe I could have come home to substitute French translations for that same word, and so, in telling my mother of my day I could tell her that: “Le teacher had asked us to leave le classroom quietly and enjoy le weekend”. But that would leave unaddressed questions about gender and language. Should it be le or la? Is “classroom” masculine or feminine? Who cares?

From our first breath we begin to use our mouths to communicate. As we learn to speak, we subconsciously discover that tongue and lips and throat are used to control sounds that produce responses in our hearers. No matter which language, our use of vowels, consonants and glides constitutes speech.  Whether we aspirate, lisp, or growl; whether our voice sounds sweet or hoarse; whether we use glottal stops or nasals, fricatives, affricates, or diphthongs, it is our flesh that forms speech. Flesh of tongue and lips, with flesh of alveolar ridge and velum combine to form our words as air is expelled. For other languages, such as French and German, Uvula and Pharynx come into use as different sounds form shapes of foreign words.

Once words are formed, they carry meaning. They can tell stories, they teach and instruct, they can encourage and speak life, they honor, commend, congratulate, praise and worship; but then they can also tear someone down, curse someone out, tell lies, deceive, and negate truth. They gossip, upbraid, accuse, defame, and slander. Flesh, worded out, can build up .. or destroy.

Our flesh truly wastes our words when we gabble on, when we don’t listen reflectively, or when our speech denies another an opportunity to speak. Aesop told us that: after all is said & done, much more is said than ever done, while Simon & Garfunkel reminded us that man hears what he wants to hear & disregards everything else[i]. So many words wasted. Jesus tells us that out of abundance of heart, mouth speaks[ii]. What is inside, comes out… & in this world of instant connectivity today’s words travel far further, more quickly.

Two thousand years ago our world was turned upside down. Flesh had formed words for centuries as men & women of old spoke their thoughts, feelings & emotions; as they laughed, loved, taught, fought, groveled & reveled. Now, Word, creative power of God, was made incarnate to live among men & women. That Word, which was when all began, which was with God, & was God; that Word through which all things were made, without which nothing was made that has been made; that Word through which all that is flesh & all that is not flesh came to have being in this world; to breathe, to labor, to live, to love … friends, neighbors & enemies; to take all punishment for all evil acts of all flesh upon His own flesh; to die, brutally, horribly, cruelly; to rise to resurrected life, conquering death, conquering destructive power of flesh; to rise, to ascend, to live forevermore; to offer that life to us. That Word came!

As Christmas brings another year to its close, we may reflect on one of greater challenges than before; of anxiety, heartache, grief, & fear, brought on by pandemic, economic challenge, observations of suffering among others, & low-grade trauma that has affected us all. Surely, though, we are entitled to moments of levity as our flesh makes words, so here goes:

I used to think that sticks & stones could break my bones, but words could never hurt me – & then I fell into my friend’s printing press!

How can you tell your alphabet spaghetti was manufactured in Eastern Europe? Those naughty little consonants all clump together! (It looks far funnier in Polish – Po czym poznać, że spaghetti z alfabetem zostało wyprodukowane w Europie Wschodniej?)

Oh, & my friend just told me that if I did not get off my computer, he would slam my head down onto its keyboard. I think he’s only joki_tgyjkhgtfrdtryuy;lxs’sfn

& with discernment you will have noticed that after my conversation with my mother I’ve not been able to use definite & indefinite articles. My supply has run out. Readers may also note that after paragraph six my computer had exhausted supplies of one particular conjunction replacing it with ampersands.

So for thousands of years flesh has been making words but after all is said & much left undone it is good to be reminded that Ο λόγος έγινε σάρκα και κατοίκησε ανάμεσά μας (O lógos égine sárka kai katoíkise anámesá mas)…… Oh! Great news! My supply of English words has been miraculously replenished. I can now say: THE Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, THE glory of THE one and only Son, who came from THE Father, full of grace and truth.[iii]

And the Word of the Lord endures forever!

Merry Christmas


[i] A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest – Lyric from The Boxer – Simon & Garfunkel, Columbia Records, 1969

[ii] Matthew 12:34

[iii] John 1:14

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ANCHORS FOR THE SOUL

I have been thinking about the way we teach a Biblical basis of Christian mission starting with God’s call and promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t root Genesis 12 in the chapters that precede it. Here I endeavor to introduce this topic. I hope to follow it up with some more articles covering specific aspects of the Genesis narrative.

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Sunlight streamed through the open windows of the study center, and the shadows from fluttering spring leaves dappled the room. The air flooding in was warm in the cool morning of the classroom-cum-library. A gathering of occasional students sat with Bibles open, and pens held to notepads as they listened to the lecture.

Some were obviously attentive; others, with eyes glazed over, seemed to drift as a slight breeze ebbed and flowed. Of the nine participants in the class only four were official students. The others were all volunteers in one capacity or another. Jake, the Messianic Jew from Philadelphia, was attentive as ever, round thick-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose as he read the Genesis passage. James, the son of a vicar from the north of England, was a recent Theology graduate of Corpus Christi in Cambridge. He was now taking a year before training for ordination.  Lindsay, traveling the globe together with her southern accent was from Alabama. Gabi was from Mannheim, Germany, and clearly the most bored attendee; though whether that was because of the subject or her struggles with reading Scripture in the English language remained unclear. And then there was me, taking time out to volunteer on a construction crew renovating the old hotel in an ancient city on the shore of the Mediterranean; a building that was slowly being transformed into a Christian community center.

This class was my introduction to the Biblical basis of Christian mission. The teacher was a parish priest from Northern Ireland who, together with his wife, had volunteered a year to lead this diverse community of young people. We loved them. They were warm and generous of spirit. They hosted frequent suppers for us, kept an open door, and while not always able to answer questions with facts, were quick with responses full of wisdom.

The student body, having completed an overview of Luke’s gospel were now embarked on a mission class beginning with God’s call to Abraham recorded in Genesis chapter 12:1-3:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

This was the 1980s, and my own missionary calling was being informed by the call to a man whose name would change from the exalted father Abram to Abraham, the great father of a multitude. Here I was in Jaffa, a port from where Jonah had taken ship fleeing his mission, and where centuries later Peter, had a vision that sharpened his call. Where one man rebelled against God and another was given direction, I was now being shaped.

Traveling forward through thirty years of adventures in a multitude of mission roles I revisit a moment late in the second decade of the twenty-first century. I’ve noted that Genesis chapter twelve begins with the words: The Lord ‘had’ said to Abram, and not simply: The Lord said to Abram. If the Lord said it, then surely the moment was there in the passage, but if the Lord had said it, then the moment was sometime in the past. The only way we can get to the past from Genesis chapter 12, is to turn back the page and read: Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.

The cities of Ur and Haran were located along the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the first recognizable rivers to be mentioned in the Bible, for they are referred to in the second chapter of Genesis as headwaters of the river that watered Eden. This region is known as Mesopotamia, literally between the rivers.  According to those who have studied the ancient Sumerian culture of the Middle East, life was a series of cycles. The cycle of the moon, born to wax and wane and die; the cycle of the harvest from sowing through to reaping; the cycle of the flow of rivers from flood to ebbing through the dry season; and the cycle of human life, being born, growing, reproducing, and dying, governed every aspect of life.

Into this world a voice speaks, and at its command a man called Abram embarks on what has been called The Unaccountable Innovation[i]. Out of an endless cycle a journey begins. It is a journey with direction and purpose. It is as though a slingshot, whirling at a steady pace is broken by a tangential departure toward a distant target.

We can choose to view the endless cycle as a cultural origin, or we can look back beyond the last verses of Genesis chapter 11 and rediscover the foundations upon which Abram’s society was grounded, and with them, the first principles that have always been there in God’s Word, and without which, as the tedious genealogy of the chapter tells us, Abram would not have been born.

We can regard the beginning of Abram’s journey as a random embarkation from a collective to a personal narrative. Or we can look at the scattering of peoples resulting from the Tower of Babel and say that out of a shattering moment for early civilization came a call to momentous purpose for one man.

As the world of the missionary has sometimes neglected the story before the call to Abram the modern church has sometimes followed the way of the world and consigned those early chapters of Genesis to the world of myth and fantasy. We do so at our peril, and we see the fruit of that ignorance in our broken society. We do so at ever greater risk, for they are anchors for our souls.

I have heard many objections to stories contained in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Commentators have taken issue with the literality of a six-day creation; they have dismissed genealogies that ascribe hundreds of years to one man; they dismiss the possibility of a cataclysmic flood with no thought to narratives that contain an inundation in the folklore of many peoples other than those of the Bible. How often do we stop and ask not what is contained on these pages, but why is the narrative there and what is the reason for these specific stories reaching us?

Eleven chapters tell us about creation, fall, rebellion, salvation, renewed rebellion and then dispersal. But they also lay foundations for understanding a triune God, His redemptive purpose, the uniqueness of mankind, human sexuality, the purpose of work, creation care, the depravity of sin, and the relevance of geo-politics. These eleven chapters, 299 verses, and 1,946 Bible years until the birth of the man who embarks on the incredible journey are the foundation for the rest of scripture and the rest of the human story. They are the crucible in which are cast the anchors for our souls.


[i] The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill, Anchor Books, 1998, p.50

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ST PATRICK’S DAY THANKSGIVING

My first encounter with Thanksgiving came in the 1990s just weeks after my move to the United States. Growing up in England I did not experience this most American of festivals. My meagre endeavors to explain that, “Yes” we do celebrate thanksgiving in England – on July 4th – seem inadequate to describe something so profoundly important as a simple remembrance of the one from whom we have so much to be grateful. But after all, we Brits are grateful that because of 1776 we do not share in a thirty trillion-dollar national debt.

That first November in America I was delighted to receive an invitation from a member of our board of directors to dine with him and his family. The simplicity and the solemnity of a meal filled with laughter and conversation expressed around a moment of deep gratitude impressed me. My introduction to Thanksgiving helped make it ongoing, one of the most meaningful of celebrations.

Similarly, my first encounter with St. Patrick’s Day followed my arrival in America. His Saints Day along with many things Irish were not worthy of recognition in the Protestant England of my childhood. Indeed, the activities of the Irish Republican Army during “The Troubles” did not endear the nation to the sentiments of a Unionist and pro-Loyalist nation. So, it was to my surprise when I walked into a Hallmark Cards store in Fort Pierce, Florida, early one March, to discover a blaze of green and a field of plastic clover. Rounding an aisle in search of a thank-you card for my hosts I was confronted by a petrified expression on the face of a little boy. For rising from the ground between us was a helium-filled Leprechaun trailing legs of green crepe. The boy screamed and ran away, presumably in search of the safe assurance of a parent. I was left wondering at the meaning of this bizarre spectacle until I learned that in material America every month deserves its Cardiversary. Christmas, and New Year, are followed by Valentine, Patrick, and Easter – which incidentally must be why Mother’s Day is in May in America and not in March as in my homeland.

As newly-weds Jill and I looked for means to establish family traditions. We conceived the idea of a St. Patrick’s Day Thanksgiving. Not, I should add, a celebration of the shamrock, the snakes being driven out of Ireland, or little green men. Rather, a celebration of the legacy of the mystical saint. Inspired by stories of the Celtic monks and Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, then listening to recitations of St. Patrick’s Breastplate and a recording of Shaun Davey’s Pilgrim Suite, I have become deeply enamored with the methods by which the Emerald Isle has consistently punched its above weight around the world.

St. Patrick, prototype of the cross-cultural missionary; the first ambassador of Christ in the West who stepped beyond the civilization of the Roman world and into the Pagus; a pioneer for those who have exchanged their maternal language, culture and costume, for all that then identifies them as among another people. St Patrick, following in the example of St. Paul to become all things to the Irish so that by all possible means he might save some. St. Patrick, whose generations of disciples became missionaries to the Scots, and the Germans and as far as the gates of Kiev…. And probably to North America long before the Vikings and Columbus.

Our Thanksgiving around March 17th has become a thanksgiving for the work of these and generations of subsequent missionaries. We have a meal – it could be traditional Thanksgiving, with a Turkey and all the trimmings. Equally it could be Irish banger sausage with the traditional colcannon, a mash of potatoes, cabbage and scallion. Whatever, it should always be accompanied by some Soda bread.

Depending on our guests we share a testimony from missions in one part or another of the world. One year in the early 2000s an Irish colleague was visiting. We had not given thought to her national identity; after all another guest that same evening was from Brazil. But for Dianne the evening proved to be moving and so meaningful.

Whatever direction the evening takes we will always close with a recitation from the prayers of St. Patrick: I arise today. Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, Through belief in the Threeness, Through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation….. Christ to shield me today: Against poison, Against burning, Against drowning, Against wounding….. Christ with me…. Christ in me…. Christ when I arise. St. Patrick has become a means to inspire our Thanksgiving well beyond the traditional November Thursday.

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PREPARING THE WAY IN THE WILDERNESS

The long, hot day sinks below the horizon and the night blooms full with the sound of frogs and crickets. The air is heavy and heat lightning flashes around the sultry sky. A mosquito buzzes nearby, then falls silent, swatted away with a smear of blood.

In a clearing among the stunted trees and tangled vines, back-packs and sleeping sacks are scattered around. People, unfamiliar with this strange land, sit around in a circle, leaning their weary bodies against whatever they can find. A guitar, softly strummed, picks the tune for a gentle offering of praise. Music from another world penetrates the dusty bush. Songs slip heavenward from this traveling band of friends, and prayers, sometimes whispered and sometimes shouted, are offered to the Lord of lords.

In the remoteness of a somewhat random reality the presence of the Spirit of God is felt in different ways. For some it is found in the relaxation at the end of a long day, for others it’s there in the worship, and for yet others in the meditation upon a word from scripture. In another form this could be the mountains of North Africa, or the desert sands of Sinai. It could be the vastness of the Tibetan plateau, or an island along one of Asia’s great rivers, as much as it is the Sahelian bush of West Africa. But in every mind is the thought that maybe, just maybe, this is the first time that man has lifted up his voice and given glory unto almighty God from this exact place.

Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord to us: Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people (Isaiah 57:14). Down through all our years pioneers of church and mission have often stumbled over these obstacles. We have found them along the ways that we have been called to follow. We have crissed and crossed the Sahara desert, praying our way, sometimes clearly and sometimes incoherently, into an understanding of how to prepare the way and always with a desire to proclaim Christ and his cross.

We have traversed the shores of the Mediterranean, and taken trains to cities along Central Asia’s Great Silk Road. We have sailed down the mighty Mekong River and we have hiked among the nomads of Tibet. We have travelled high and low, out and back, using whatever means were offered, as we have taken praise and prayer to places where the name of Jesus is rarely, if ever, heard. And we are only successors to generations of missionaries before who brought Good News to our own lands.

Here and there, both expected and unexpected, we have found some of the obstacles and spoken the name above all names over them. Languages have been learned, culture has been understood, the spiritual atmosphere has been confronted and the Good News of the Kingdom has been translated into the hearts and minds of the people. And as we have prepared the way in the wilderness we have ploughed up fallow ground; we have sown and watered; we have harvested, and others have harvested as well – because we went. Men and women from other tribes have joined eternity’s unending song of praise. In a mountain city, a desert village, or an ordinary town somewhere out there in this extraordinary world, Kingdom communities have formed. People who never before knew Jesus have come to worship and that which history has called The Church has emerged in a less familiar form.

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VISITING THE OLD WORLD

In December of 2019 I was in England and had a day between scheduled activities. I took the opportunity to visit a village that some of my ancestors came from. I recently realized that this experience was among the very last of my travels before the pandemic put an end to most travel. December 2019, represents for me the last time I traveled to the old world.

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The world of our ancestors is an old world. Some date the modern world to 1914 and the collapse of Western Civilization into uncivilized warfare; some point to the 1960s as the watershed decade in which the world came of age. History, layered upon itself, retells its own story with each passing generation, generously allowing a reinterpretation even though each is allowed a lens only seventy or so years in length.

The world of our recent ancestors is a distant world, handed down in old photographs, retold stories, and vague memories … of other’s memories. It is a world of black and white, and sepia tint, unless, from among those of means it bursts from the wall in coloured portraiture and landscape. For the poorest it is non-existent unless found in a faded inscription on a lichen-covered stone, leaning sideways in a crumbling churchyard.

The world of our ancient ancestors is a silent world. Nothing remains. There were no cameras, and artistry was for the aristocracy. The illiterate left no memoirs and the ignorant saw no point to posterity. Even so, that world can be found in the weathered walls and thatched rooves, the church towers and the manored halls of sleepy picture postcard villages. What names those structures could speak of; what events they could retell if their windows could but reflect on a time delay.

In December of 2019 I visited the old world. The English village of Ixworth, Suffolk, where my great-great-grandparents kept shop was where I landed. It is the community, according to the 1881 census, where my widowed grandmother together with her daughter, the widow Fuller, and in turn my grandfather’s mother, lived at number sixteen along the High Street.

The house still stands; one in a quaintly colorful row of road-front cottages. One is white, another pale blue, while yellow and pink complete the palette. Today the windows are double-paned, the door is of vinyl panels and a satellite dish sprouts from the long-disused chimney. Where once the roof was stepped with straw, slate is now the substitute. The ridge-line slopes slightly as subsidence skews the one house toward its neighbour.

I walk along the road and visit the old Co-operative store, now a general grocery recently combined with the Post Office. The stone in the gable above states “Bury St. Edmunds Cooperative Society 1923”. It is far too young to have been around for my forebears, and I wonder where they served the community and what they served them with. In vain I ask the proprietor if she knows any Caudwells in the village.

Farther along the High Street is the old Post Office, now a curry house. Not, I should add, an Indian restaurant, but a store hosted by two very English ladies selling their own blends of very Indian spices against a backdrop of colorful costumes and cooking implements they had sourced from the sub-continent.

Opposite is the Pykkerell, the village public house and restaurant that also provides accommodation. Named for the baby pike that grow to be fished across the county, this establishment was the coaching inn when my family lived here. Today with its decorative wrought iron railings, flowery window-boxes and wide-arched entryway to the stable-yard, I imagine it much the same as in their day.

The world of my ancestors was a close-knit community of country-folk. Blacksmiths and bricklayers, carpenters and coopers; drapers and druggists, milliners and mongers. All determined by a trade handed down from father to son. Lives were born; they laboured, loved, and laughed. They traveled little because they had nowhere to travel to. They cycled together through the seasons with comforting familiarity, each with its rites of passage for the next generation. They lived, through to death, within very small spheres of influence. Stones were raised in churchyards, within stones’ throw of where the deceased had entered the world, and where everyone could freely stand and mourn.

I wander up a little lane that leads me to that place of interment. St. Mary’s is a much older building than the village inn. Over six centuries it has witnessed the rise and ruin of dwellings all around. The shopkeeper, Edward Caudwell, appears in the 1830 edition of Pigot’s Directory more than half a century before his widow was living on the High Street. His name is there, but I search in vain for it among the ancient memorials and burial mounds.

The old world may not be well-known, but it was a world unveiled; a world of intimacy; a world of being known within a small compass. I turn and head back to my car in the gathering gloom of a damp December afternoon. December 2019 was the last time I visited the old world … where neither mask anonymized, nor distance encroached.

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CHRISTMAS – THE MYTH AND THE MAJESTY

My wife and daughter enjoy watching Hallmark Movies. During this season they can binge on the Christmas movies, of which there are many.

A Hallmark Christmas Movie is usually set in an idyllic setting in small town rural America, presumably never in the South, because it always snows on the 24th of December. There are trees and ornaments, cookies and candy, and always hot chocolate and apple cider with a sleigh ride thrown in for good measure. There are candles to light the way, and a fire burns in every welcoming hearth.

The plot lines are often similar – nice girl helps nice guy enjoy Christmas, while nice supporting cast cheer her on…. nicely! Incidentally, the nice guy, immersed in his career, has always previously worked on Christmas Day.

When it comes to Christmas music you might hear the strains of Silent Night, or In the Bleak Mid-Winter, but when it comes to singing it is always accompanied by lots of frosty snowmen, jingling bells and red-nosed reindeer. Church never seems to enter the storyline unless the bells are heard, and the nativity is nowhere to be seen unless in a children’s pageant. Somehow, however, the storyline always comes around to the true meaning of Christmas.

In my opinion Hallmark do not do a good job of representing the diversity of America. Small-town America is probably not the place to endeavor to do this and consequently the minority characters, unless they are a friend back in the city, are often misplaced. But in the interests of diversity, it seems that Hallmark want to put their own hallmark on the true meaning of Christmas in a way which people of all faiths can enjoy without ever touching on the real message.

We recently watched a non-Hallmark Christmas movie that belonged in the Santa genre. A recently engaged young woman wants her fiancé to introduce her to his parents. He tells her that they will be way too busy with their toy-making business to visit from Alaska. However, when they hear he is getting married they drop everything to fly in – quite literally, to the roof top.

The girl’s father is quite suspicious of this jolly couple who are too full of life for his dour academic outlook. He does a background search and discovers no records at all for them; they do not exist. Moreover, the DNA test he runs reveals a red and white helix that looks like shimmering Northern Lights.

He does not believe in Christmas, he does not believe in Santa Claus, and he does everything he can to debunk belief in the hearts of others including his own grandchild

Christmas has become a culmination to the year. Coming immediately after the solstice it overtook the winter festival of old. As northern days begin to get longer, Christmas heralds the new year on the Western calendar. The religious festival, amalgamated with pagan traditions, has become a big party for all to enjoy.

Those who shape modern media don’t know what to do with real Christmas. The movie script encourages us that all we must do is believe. We make our Christmas wish and Christmas wishes really do come true.  We follow the Christmas star, even when we have no idea of the one on whom it shines. In an endeavor to turn the simple truth, handed down through two thousand years, into something universally palatable, the general public are encouraged to believe a myth, shaped by two millennia and more of fabrication.

All the shabby scenery contrives to hide the majesty beyond: That once upon a time, or more specifically in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria, the Prince of Peace arose from the right hand of his Father in heaven, crossed the great divide between the eternal realm and our time-confined and defined world, and was born a weak and helpless baby. He came to an animal stall because there was no room in a crowded boarding house; he was born illegitimate by all human standards; he was birthed to a season as a refugee, fleeing the persecution of a paranoid king; and he was given to a humble tradesman’s life.

Yet prophets foretold his coming, shepherds worshiped him, wise men gave him gifts, the temple saints honored him and after thirty years of obscurity, the crowds followed him. For three short years his earthly candle flamed with no need to celebrate a Christmas. Then he returned to his Father’s house imparting a fire to the hearts of those who really chose to believe.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, at the end of a tough and tragic year for many, let’s look beyond candle and star toward the one who lights the way for all the world. Let’s look beyond fir tree and fireside to the redeemer’s cross and Holy Spirit flame; beyond wishes that may or may not come true, to pray the prayer that rightly prayed answers all. And let’s look beyond the white whiskered myth of the jolly old man into the eyes of the majestic King of the universe, who longs for all to believe.

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A COCKTAIL, A COMFY CHAIR AND A CROWN OF THORNS

The recent explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, albeit an avoidable accident, reminded me of the many times when that Mediterranean city has suffered the tragic consequences of explosions. Followed so shortly by the verdict of the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon finding a member of Hezbollah guilty of the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri through a massive car bomb explosion has only further served to remind me of the paid of a nation whose recent experiences former London Times Journalist Robert Fisk wrote of in his book ‘Pity the Nation’.

I have friends who are today bearing the consequences of the recent port of Beirut accident. Their work, and that of many others in the Middle East has encouraged me to share an updated version of an older article.

**************************

A survivor who saw the driver of the truck said that he was smiling as he drove to his destruction. On October 23rd, 1983, a truck laden with explosives was crashed into the American marine compound in Beirut killing 241 American servicemen and several Lebanese. A similar incident at the same moment in the neighboring French compound killed 58. Two suicide bombers took more than 300 people with them into eternity. The Middle East and South Asia have been filled with these incidents over recent years; Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The latter is presently the site of regular occurrences of this kind taking dozens, if not hundreds of lives.

In 1993, in his first western television interview Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah, the leader of the Hezbollah, attempted to explain the attitude of mind of a Muslim martyr. He spoke of one who drives a truck with a smile on his face, knowing he is entering into true life. He likened this to a person being in a sauna for a long time. “He is very thirsty and tired and hot and he is suffering from the effects of the high temperature. Then he is told that if he opens the door, he can go into a quiet, comfortable room, drink a nice cocktail, and hear classical music. Then he will open the door and go through without hesitation, knowing that what he leaves behind is not a high price to pay, and what awaits him is of much greater value”[i]

During the Iran/ Iraq war, teenage Iranians would fold Qu’ranic inscriptions inside black bandannas and bind them around their foreheads. They would then head off to the front. Some of them marched into minefields to clear them in their quest for eternity; others willingly sacrificed themselves in waves of no-man’s-land warfare. One young soldier stated: “..to be martyred while opposing God’s enemies brings us closer to God. There are two phases to martyrdom: we approach God and we also remove the obstacles that exist between God and the people. Those who create obstacles for God in this world are the enemies of God”[ii]  Another wrote, shortly before his death: “I’m not frightened of the day of resurrection…when the first drop of martyr’s blood is spilt, all his sins are cleansed”[iii]

According to a saying of Mohammed martyrdom equates to an atonement of blood sacrifice. Among six things the martyr receives from Allah, he is forgiven at the first shedding of his blood. [iv] In the Palestine of today there is little hope. The young man born in a refugee camp has no hope of returning to the land his ancestor’s farmed. His home may lie in ruins, victim of Israeli retribution. He has no hope of a worthwhile job and no hope of escape to another land where he can be treated as an equal and a citizen. The offer of the blessings of martyrdom is attractive by comparison.

The recent predations of Islamist communities such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram have wrought havoc in many places as a vicious and ruthless agenda which tolerates no opposition is imposed.

Meanwhile, for the frustrated son of Muslim immigrants to the cities of Western Europe, there is an attraction. Growing up in the French HLM, or the English inner-city, color and cultural divide cause him to fall victim to derogatory racial epithets. Subtle profiling may hinder his opportunity for education and employment. He was born into the so-called developed world, but his roots are in the under-developed world his parents left decades before. Radical Islam offers him a hope and an identity.

We do not know what exactly was in the minds of Mohammed Atta and his brethren in the days preceding September 11, 2001, nor in the mind of Abdel-Basset Odeh on the morning of March 27, 2002 before he walked into a Netanya hotel and detonated his bomb amidst a crowd of Israeli Jews celebrating Passover. They are among the most well-known of multitudes down the ages who have pursued a suicidal course on behalf of the Lord of Death. Whether attracted by a quiet release from pain, the memorial of a blaze of glory or the carnal pleasure of perpetual virgins, the attraction of suicide in the cause of Islam is selfish. Crowned with the words of Allah, burdened by personal pain and clinging to a vain promise of atonement, the martyr enters an empty eternity in search of a comfy chair and a long cool drink.

But we do know what was in the mind of another who went willingly to his death. The Word of God tells of him: Who being very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing…humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross![v] He who knew no wrongdoing, who was pure and spotless, willingly gave his life, not for personal gain, but for the salvation of his brothers. As he went to his death he struggled under the weight, not of a bomb, but of a wooden cross whose explosive consequence has shattered the darkness and restored the lives of a multitude of broken people. As he allowed himself to be nailed to that cross, surrendering himself, he allowed not a headscarf filled with Arab script, but a crown of thorns to be pressed down upon his brow. And there upon the brow of the King of Kings spout a thousand bloody pinpricks, each one offering a cleansing atonement to the life of a would-be martyr; each one proclaiming love for the sons of Ishmael.

On a dark day, long ago He stumbled under the weight of His cross. Another was recruited to carry it for him. Nothing justifies the violent actions of the Shahid, the Muslim martyr, but our challenge today is to lay aside our own lives, lift the burden of his cross and share for Him the power of His shed blood that can set all men free!

 

[i] Robert Fisk -The Great War for Civilization – 2005, Alfred A Knopf – p. 477

[ii] Ibid – p. 203

[iii] Ibid – p. 286

[iv] Al-Miqdam ibn madikarib Ma’dikarib MISHKAT AL-MASABIH “The martyr receives six good things from Allah: he is forgiven at the first shedding of his blood; he is shown his abode in Paradise; he is preserved from the punishment in the grave; he is kept safe from the greatest terror; he has placed on his head the crown of honour, a ruby of which is better than the world and what it contains; he is married to seventy-two wives of the maidens with large dark eyes; and is made intercessor for seventy of his relatives.” Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah transmitted it.

[v] Philippians 2:6 – 8

 

 

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CUTTING BACK – A COVID STORY

I was recently struck by the reaction of a Richmond barber to the decision of the mayor not to allow the city to begin to reopen, after he (the barber) had stepped out in preparation to reopen by setting appointments for customers that he then had to cancel.  So I wrote a short story – and then I saw the article about the “Haircut Police in Lansing, Michigan!”

John was feeling depressed. He had been in social isolation for more than two months, living alone and only connecting online with friends and family. His weekly trip to the grocery store had become the highlight of his social life. He had shocked himself by flirting with the girl on the checkout behind her plexiglas shield.

His phone pinged and he looked for the text. It was Brian again, with another one of his harebrained schemes for flaunting the rules.

“Hey John, how long is your hair?”

“Eh, what?” John responded.

The phone rang. He answered and listened as Brian told him to meet him at eleven that evening on the corner of South Main and Sixth. “There’s a place I know”, he said, secretively.

John pondered a moment. So far he had declined Brian’s invitations to afterhours adventures, but boredom and depression were provoking a desire to let his hair down, so to speak.

He drove downtown and parked in a mostly empty lot. He walked across Main and greeted Brian, who quickly steered him down Sixth Street. He looked in surprise at Brian’s normally well-groomed appearance. He had never before seen him with a beard and now it was hard to tell where the uncut locks above ended and the downy facial growth began.

“Boy! Do I look as if I’m having as bad a hair-day as you do?” asked Brian. John pondered the question and then caught a glimpse of himself in a store-front reflection.

“And I have just the place for us tonight!” continued Brian, slapping his friend across the shoulders.

This section of Sixth Street was normally known for its restaurants and bars. They had been shuttered for the duration and the street was beginning to look a little faded. That seemed not to deter Brian as he again grabbed John by the elbow and steered him between two closed establishments and down some steps to an unassuming subterranean entrance. A couple of sharp taps and the door swung open for the two friends to be greeted by a suited and well-groomed doorman, sporting a remarkably sharp razor cut.

The light was low, but John could see enough to observe a shimmering plastic-sheeted wall some fifteen feet in front of him, a few tables and chairs in the foreground, and, over to the right-hand side, what looked like a bar with rows of bottles ranked behind it.

“Good evening Sirs. What can I get you?” inquired a man in a white dress shirt with a black bowtie at his neck. John was surprised to see how neat the barman’s dark hair was, brushed back and neatly trimmed. He hadn’t been in a bar for nearly three months and felt the urge to ask facetiously if they stocked Corona. Instead he asked for a single malt with a little ice.

“I’m sorry sir, but we are not that kind of establishment”, he responded as he folded a white towel and lay it on the counter in front of him. “If you’ve come for a drink try Charlie’s down on Seventh”.

John looked helplessly at Brian who stepped up and stated, “We’ve come for a .. ahem .. cut!” He dropped his voice to a whisper at the end of the statement.

“In that case I can offer you a crew or a quiff. I doubt a mohawk would look so good on you, but maybe an Ivy League to give you that professional look”, responded the host.

“What is this place?” John nudged Brian.

Their host responded. “We call it a SnipEasy. A hundred years ago we had the Spanish flu followed by the era of the Speak-easy as we dealt with prohibition. Today we have this Covid thing, so it stands to reason that in another era of proscription we should have a few places where honest guys and girls can get their hair cut.

“So, how does it work?” asked Brian.

“Well we’ve set up our chairs back there, each one shrouded in plastic, six feet wall to wall, and then the next little booth. We’ve got stylists from all over town setting up shop here. Maybe you know Julia from Julia Styles down on Riverside. Rapunzel was in here last week and Julia gave her a Pixie Cut. Locks of Love were overwhelmed. Julia’s even thinking of changing the name of her salon to “The Whole Nine Yards”, when she opens up again”.

“So I guess we’ve come to the right place to get a trim and a shave then”, declared Brian. “But’s what’s with all the bottles on the wall?”

“Oh, they’re real alright. A little bourbon, a little gin and so on. Flip them round though and we have a little argan oil, a tea tree, and a jojoba conditioner. See, all of them disguised, but all genuine. We’ve even got a little restorative tonic aged over thirty years”. He chuckled a moment and went on. “We need to keep up the appearance. We would not want the wrong people to get the right idea about this place. After all we are not here to encourage bar-hopping, just a little barber-shopping.

Just at that moment the doorman snapped his fingers. “Feds are coming!”

“Quick” the host said, pointing to a card table and a couple of chairs. “Grab a glass and take your seats. We’ll show them that we’re nothing more than a few friends enjoying a socially distanced night-cap”.

As they sat down, the door burst open and in rushed four men wearing government gray suits. All of them were completely bald. They quickly glanced around, eyes settling first on the man at the bar, and then roaming past the table to the shimmering plastic curtain.

“What’s going on here then?” demanded the lead man, whose naked dome seemed larger and balder than those of the other men. “We heard the buzz of an electric razor going round the neighborhood!”

“There’s nothing to concern yourselves with here gentlemen”, responded the barman, now fully in role, “Just some friends having a quiet drink and a game”.

“And what’s back there?” he impatiently indicated the curtain.

“Take a look”, came an invitation.

He pulled back the curtain to reveal a dark and silent hallway.

“Just some restyling we’re doing during the lockdown!”

“Well make sure it stays that way, or we’ll be back to trim your business further”.

With that the four men turned somewhat disappointedly and left the establishment.

“So, who were they?” Brian asked.

“Oh they’re just the local enforcers. They call the big guy Allott Less. I understand he had a childhood accident with a wax”.

“And the others?”

“They call them ‘The Uncuttables!”

The curtain shimmered again, and with a plastic rustle a small man came through from the rear. Rubbing his chin and speaking to no one in particular, he headed out into the night, with the words: “Well, that was a close shave!”

Andrew Fuller – May 20, 2020

I was recently struck by the reaction of a Richmond barber to the decision of the mayor not to allow the city to begin to reopen, after he (the barber) had stepped out in preparation to reopen by setting appointments for customers that he then had to cancel.  So I wrote a short story – and then I saw the article about the “Haircut Police in Lansing, Michigan!” What are we coming to!
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THE RESULTS ARE IN; AND FURY IS THE WINNER

The Nevada caucuses took place yesterday. For those not following the American news, these gatherings of voters across the state of Nevada are the latest stage of the process of choosing candidates for the Presidential Election in November. It seems a foregone conclusion that President Trump will be the Republican candidate running for another four years in office. However, on the Democrat side a candidate is far from clear.

A field that once numbered at least 24 has been whittled down to less than a dozen, among whom there is no obvious front-runner. Mrs. Clinton was the clear party favorite back in 2016, but had to fend off a strong challenge from Mr. Sanders, an independent who has represented the state of Vermont in the US Senate since 2007.

Mr. Sanders is running again and if by chance he should win the nomination and be elected in the fall, he will, at age 79 become the oldest president in US history. He’s an independent who joins the Democrat party at times when it is convenient; namely to run for presidential office on the Democrat ticket. He describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, and his radical policies probably place him to the left of all his Senate colleagues. For this reason he touts his independence.

Mrs. Clinton was the winner in Nevada in 2016; Mr. Sanders won the most support yesterday. Nevada is only the third state to vote in a selection process that will last until a winning candidate is nominated for the Presidency by a convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in July.

Another clear winner in Nevada yesterday was Tyson Fury. The Gypsy King from Manchester, England, who first shocked the boxing world in 2015 by beating long-time Heavyweight World Champion, Vladimir Klitschko. He later surrendered his titles and retired unbeaten from boxing. Two years later he made a comeback and drew a challenge match against American world champion Deontay Wilder in 2018. Fifteen months later Fury was back in the ring for a rematch in Las Vegas against Wilder. He won, while presenting what the media have described as: the most destructive performance of his boxing life.[i]

Fury may have won in the ring; I want to suggest that fury is winning in American politics. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 unleashed streams of vitriolic attacks from both the Democrats and segments of the media. Mr. Trump has not helped his cause with his mastery of Twittering ineptitude. The Mueller Inquiry, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the recent impeachment process have all given the spirit of anger an opportunity to expose itself.

I watched the Democrat candidates debate on stage in Nevada last week. Six of them qualified for the debate including billionaire Michael Bloomberg who is self-funding his campaign, rising in the polls, and has yet to participate in any of the state voting. I was immediately struck by the lack of civility as candidates appeared not to pay attention to the moderator’s rules, spoke over one another and were often harshly critical of their fellow participants. But more than that I regret that I saw little real statesmanship at work. A tired former Vice President, an angry progressive socialist, a strident college professor who wants to levy a wealth tax to provide massive injections of government spending, and a former mayor of a small mid-Western city are among those who join Mr. Bloomberg among the choices. Speaking of former Republican Mr. Bloomberg, and independent Mr. Sanders, noting that neither are long-time democrats, former South Bend, mayor, Mr. Buttigieg observed: Most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks money ought to be the root of all power. He went on to say: Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat. We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out. We can do better. [ii] But that comment was one of the rare moments of civility, albeit highly critical, in an evening filled with what might be regarded as hate-speech if it came from the mouths of others.

I realized that four of the six on stage last Wednesday evening are over 70 years old, and wonder what the chances are they will all still be alive come inauguration day in January next year. Prolonged anger and the associated stress are rarely attributes for longevity.

I also wonder how the headlines will read if Mr. Bloomberg does gain the nomination to challenge Mr. Trump in November’s election. His Wikipedia entry states: Throughout his business career, Bloomberg has made numerous statements which have been considered insulting, derogatory, sexist or misogynistic.[iii] It would be sad if the only person the Democrats could agree upon to challenge an incumbent billionaire New York businessman who has been accused of racism and misogyny was an even wealthier billionaire New York businessman who has been accused of racism and misogyny.

Following the last presidential election, an article entitled The Culture of Nastiness appeared in the New York Times. Teddy Wayne wrote: Despite efforts to curb hate speech, eradicate bullying and extend tolerance, a culture of nastiness has metastasized in which meanness is routinely rewarded, and common decency and civility are brushed aside.[iv] Donald Trump’s reference to That Nasty Woman, and Hilary Clinton’s statement that half of Mr. Trump’s supporters could be placed in a basket of deplorables only emphasize the thesis of the article. Many of the comments last Wednesday evidence a further decline in civility and a departure from true statesmanship.

Last night in Nevada, Fury was the winner. I pray that fury, with all its accompanying anger and rudeness is not the winner in November.

[i] https://www.bbc.com/sport/boxing/51602615 (accessed 2/23/2020)

[ii] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/02/19 (accessed 2/23/2020)

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Bloomberg (accessed 2/23/2020)

[iv] The Culture of Nastiness – Teddy Wayne in the New York Times – February 18,2017

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