Thursday, September 29, 2011

Greg Sheriden on Aussie women going into front-line combat

I was pleased to read this article by Greg Sheriden in today's Australian, for it sums up what many people feel about women being put into the front line of combat.

A NATION that sends its women into front-line combat, into close infantry, hand-to-hand fighting and killing, is a nation that either doesn't take combat seriously or doesn't take respect for women seriously. This wretched decision to make all combat roles in the Australian military available to women moves Australia closer to both outcomes. It will make our military less effective, and less respected, and it will make women less respected as well.

It is a decision born of a postmodern fantasy, a kind of derangement of nature contrived by ideology against reason, common sense, military professionalism and all human experience. It is almost certainly a sign that the Gillard government has more or less stopped taking defence seriously.

If you were looking for cynical motives you might note that the announcement came a day after polls showed Julia Gillard with a problem among women voters. Or you might conclude that running the defence force as a vehicle for social engineering and feminist slogans burnishes the leadership credentials of Defence Minister Stephen Smith. The fact the opposition acceded to this move indicates its political ruthlessness and its increasing hollowness when it comes to values.

This is a very, very bad decision. The government's claim that the military chiefs support it is meaningless. The chiefs support what the government tells them to support. That's what civilian control of the military means.

But the decision is bad for the military, bad for women and bad for Australian society. Some media reports yesterday said only Canada and New Zealand operated similar policies, but it may be there are one or two other militaries that do so as well. They do so because they are not militarily serious nations.

Israel, through bitter experience, has had to use women in many roles that men normally perform, but the Israeli army does not include women in infantry and other units that are designed to kill in close quarters. The Americans, who certainly suffer as much from political correctness as anyone, also don't do it because they know it cannot be done meaningfully.

Let's unpick this a bit. First, there are the physical requirements.

The men in the army represent probably the fittest, strongest 20 per cent of men in society. Perhaps 10 per cent of those could make special forces soldiers. So that's 2 per cent of men. There is no meaningful percentage of women who can match those physical requirements. The talk of defining objective physical criteria for a task, and making those criteria gender neutral, is meaningless.

Walking all night with a 50kg pack and then being fit to fight all the next day is not an objective standard derived from a study of what you might have to do. It's an objective standard derived just from the experience of what the very strongest, toughest, most durable men can manage.

If you're going to make the SAS unisex, you're either going to massively reduce physical standards, in order to get a significant number of women in, or you're going to have unisex in principle, but no women in practice. Indeed, that latter outcome, gender neutral in principle but no women present in reality, is the only semi-respectable outcome this foolish policy could produce.

Of course, there would also be intense disruption to the small group cohesion that a fighting military unit works endlessly to attain and then hold on to, and which is often the difference between life and death in actual combat.

This decision is not about women in combat zones, or even in some combat roles, such as fighter pilots or on warships, it's about women in the infantry, in units designed to engage in close-quarter killing.

There is often a squeamishness in Australian discussion about what you have military units to do. Our special forces in Afghanistan hunt and kill Taliban and al-Qa'ida members. It is morally right for them to do so in a just war and, within the laws of war, they are permitted, indeed required, to be extremely violent and lethal.

This new ruling expecting women to do this defies all common sense.

Do we want women to participate in unisex, professional boxing matches with men? If not, why not? Professional boxing is much less demanding, and much less violent, than fighting the Taliban. Do we want women to play in this weekend's National Rugby League grand final and to be tackled at full strength by Brent Kite or Manu Vatuvei? If not, why not? The NRL is a stroll in the park compared with combat missions for the SAS.

Here we come to one of the most bitter arguments postmodern orthodoxy has with human nature: its idea that there is absolutely no spiritual or moral difference between men and women. It's like the scene in Life of Brian where one of the men demands his civic right to give birth to a baby.

This is a kind of war on all tradition and all accumulated wisdom, that while everyone accepts that men and women are equal, we must also now accept the manifest nonsense that they are exactly the same.

This decision represents a further attack on every notion of chivalry. Domestic violence, in Australia as in all other societies, is overwhelmingly carried out by men against women. This is for two reasons. Men are bigger than women and they are much more aggressive.

One of the ways of civilising humanity is by teaching men to control their aggression. Good soldiers are typically very good at controlling their aggression. Part of the training of civilisation is the understanding by men that they owe special obligations of courtesy and protection towards women.

Even to utter such a sentence these days is to invite derision and contumely. But is there a single decent husband who does not feel this way towards his wife and his daughters? If your family is assaulted will you send your wife out first to meet the assailants?

The countries that practise the greatest gender equity, so-called, in military matters are the countries that don't take their militaries seriously because they don't face military threats.

Australia does not enjoy that luxury. This is a really profoundly stupid decision, all headline and no substance, but in so far as it has meaning, bad for our soldiers and bad for us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dead Sea Scrolls online

Two thousand years after they were written and decades after they were found in desert caves, some of the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls went online for the first time in a project launched by Israel's national museum and Google, said an AAP report on the CIO website.

The appearance of five of the most important Dead Sea Scrolls on the internet is part of a broader attempt by the custodians - who were once criticised for allowing them to be monopolised by small circles of scholars - to make them available to anyone with a computer.

The scrolls include the biblical Book of Isaiah, the manuscript known as the Temple Scroll, and three others. Web surfers can search high-resolution images of the scrolls for specific passages, zoom in and out, and translate verses into English.

The five scrolls are among those purchased by Israeli researchers between 1947 and 1967 from antiquities dealers, having first been found by Bedouin shepherds in the Juddvean Desert.

That project, aimed chiefly at scholars, is set to be complete by 2016, at which point nearly all of the scrolls will be available on the internet.

Read the full article HERE

And go HERE to see the first of the digitised collection.

Air-brushing the important bits out of history

What would be a good way to distort your childs education? Re-write what they are taught and leave out important bits. But what are the important bits? That is where the debate is. Its been revealed that the new curriculum is removing references to BC & AD in the schools ..

The nations newspapers today revealed that the PC term - which do not mention Christ - for dates BC and AD in the new national history curriculum was an act of Christian cleansing, church leaders said yesterday. BCE (Before Common Era), BP (Before Present) and CE (Common Era) are the new neutral terms to replace the historical terms BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini).

Eminent Australian Historian Professor Edwin Judge ... himself a supporter of the new curriculum described the move by the Australian Curriculum and Assesment Reporting Authority as "vandalism".

Listen to Professor Judge HERE

(From the website of ABC Radio 612, Brisbane, Australia)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Faith Must be Renewed - Pope Benedict

This is taken from the address Benedict XVI delivered three days ago when meeting with the council of the Central Committee for German Catholics, known by the acronym ZdK, at the seminary of the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Breisgau.

We live at a time that is broadly characterized by a subliminal relativism that penetrates every area of life. Sometimes this relativism becomes aggressive, when it opposes those who say that they know where the truth or meaning of life is to be found.

And we observe that this relativism exerts more and more influence on human relationships and on society. This is reflected, among other things, in the inconstancy and fragmentation of many people's lives and in an exaggerated individualism. Many no longer seem capable of any form of self-denial or of making a sacrifice for others. Even the altruistic commitment to the common good, in the social and cultural sphere or on behalf of the needy, is in decline. Others are now quite incapable of committing themselves unreservedly to a single partner. People can hardly find the courage now to promise to be faithful for a whole lifetime; the courage to make a decision and say: now I belong entirely to you, or to take a firm stand for fidelity and truthfulness and sincerely to seek a solution to their problems.

Dear friends, in the exposure program, analysis is followed by common reflection. This evaluation must take into account the whole of the human person, and this includes - not just implicitly but quite clearly - the person's relationship to the Creator.

We see that in our affluent western world much is lacking. Many people lack experience of God's goodness. They no longer find any point of contact with the mainstream churches and their traditional structures. But why is this? I think this is a question on which we must reflect very seriously. Addressing it is the principal task of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. But naturally it is something that concerns us all. Allow me to refer here to an aspect of Germany's particular situation. The Church in Germany is superbly organized. But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit. I would add: the real crisis facing the Church in the western world is a crisis of faith. If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective.

But let us return to the people who lack experience of God's goodness. They need places where they can give voice to their inner longing. And here we are called to seek new paths of evangelization. Small communities could be one such path, where friendships are lived and deepened in regular communal adoration before God.

There we find people who speak of these small faith experiences at their workplace and within their circle of family and friends, and in so doing bear witness to a new closeness between Church and society. They come to see more and more clearly that everyone stands in need of this nourishment of love, this concrete friendship with others and with the Lord. Of continuing importance is the link with the vital life-source that is the Eucharist, since cut off from Christ we can do nothing (cf. Jn15:5).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lord always point out to us how together we can be lights in the world and can show our fellow men the path to the source at which they can quench their profound thirst for life. I thank you.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bulgakov on the Atonement

The following is a magnificent passage from Sergius Bulgakov (1871 - 1944) The Lamb of God. trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s, 2008), 362. (Go HERE for Archbishop Rowan Williams' brief talk on Bulgakov's life.)

Certain authors (in particular, Socinus) have expressed doubts concerning the very possibility of redemption: How can the sin of one individual be pardoned in virtue of the sufferings experienced by another individual? The very manner in which this question is stated is marred by individualism and juridicism, however, for it considers only isolated individuals to whom the the principle of formal justice is applied. However, such a difference between ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ is overcome by love, which knows not only the difference between I and thou but also their identity. That which is absurd for abstract justice becomes natural for love. And, above all, Christ is by no means ‘another’ individual for every human being, for the New Adam includes in Himself every human individual. He is the universal man who includes every human being naturally in His essence and compassionately in His love. The sin He takes upon Himself by virtue of love is no longer a sin alien to Him; it is now His own sin, although not committed but only accepted by Him. Such is the power of identification that is manifested in the redemption. Personal in His hypostatic being, the God-Man is united with us in His humanity. That is why, in His salvific love, He can represent the sin of the entire world without violating Divine justice, for He has made this sin His own. Here we have not a juridical but an ontological relation, which is based on the real unity of the human essence, given its real multiplicity in the multi-unity of the hypostatic centers. Christ assumed the entire human nature; He therefore can assume, in and through it, the entire sin of all human individuals, although personally He did not commit it. Thus, in His holy humanity, as well as in the universal human personality of the New Adam, every adamite can find and realize his justification and reconciliation with God. In virtue of His love, the Savior identifies Himself with every sinner who comes to Him, so that it can be said about each sinner: ‘not I, but Christ liveth in me’ (Galatians 2:20).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Just for a Change . . . Smile!

The priest told the congregation that he would shortly be leaving to move to another parish. However he assured them that the bishop had promised to send a good man to take over. After the service he noticed a lady crying and said: "Don't get upset my dear, the bishop has promised to send you a good man to take over." "He told us that the last time", replied the lady in tears.


In Scotland, a parishioner gave the priest a bottle of cherry brandy on the understanding that it would be acknowledged in the Sunday pew sheet. In the next edition the priest thanked Mrs MacDonald "for the gift of cherries and for the spirit in which it was given."


A bishop was astonished to hear a little girl say that you had to be brave to go to church. "Why do you say that?" he asked. "Well", replied the little girl, "I heard my uncle tell my aunt last Sunday that there was a canon in the pulpit, the choir murdered the anthem and the organist drowned the choir."


This is a true story: A former Bishop of Guildford told of a selection conference held at his home for those hoping to be accepted for training for the priesthood. The young men were told not to leave the grounds. The bishop had to go to Guildford and suddenly came face to face with one of the candidates who looked flustered and said: "The Holy Spirit told me I must come shopping." "Oh dear," said the bishop, "one of you must be wrong - it's early closing day."


After the baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That priest said he wanted us brought up in a good Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys!"


It is said that Archbishop Tench of Dublin in his latter years had a fear of sudden crippling paralysis. At dinner on one occasion he suddenly said: "It's come at last - a total lack of feeling in my right leg." A lady sitting next to him said, "Your Grace, it may be of some comfort and relief to you to know that during the whole of this meal it is MY leg that you have been pinching."


The Sunday School Teacher asked, "Now, Johnny, tell me honestly, do you say prayers before eating?" "No sir," little Johnny replied, "I don't have to. My mum is a good cook."


A prayer: "So far today, God, I've done alright. I haven't gossiped, I haven't lost my temper, haven't been greedy, or grumpy, nasty or self-centred. I am really glad about that. But in a few minutes, God, I'm going to get out of bed and then I'm going to need all the help that I can get. Amen."


A church's bell ringer passed away. So they advertised the position in the local paper and a man came in with no arms wanting the job. The clergy weren't sure if would be fair to expect him to do it, but he convinced them to let him try. They all went up the bell tower, and the man ran toward the bell and hit it with his head. So they gave him the job.

The next day he went to ring the bell, tripped, bounced off the bell and fell to the footpath below. Two men were walking past. One said to the other, "Do you know this man?" The other responded, "No, but his face rings a bell."

The next day, the dead bell ringer's twin brother comes in to apply for the job which is, of course, vacant again. He also has no arms. They lead him up to the bell tower, he runs at the bell, trips and falls to the footpath below. The same two men walk by. The first asks, "Do you know him?" The other responds, "No, but he's a dead ringer for the chap we saw yesterday."


The new vicar had preached his first sermon but a sudden emergency had prevented one of the churchwardens from attending church that day. When the churchwarden saw the vicar during the week, the following conversation took place: Churchwarden: "I was so sorry to have missed your first sermon, Vicar." Vicar, with great modesty: "Oh, you didn't miss much." Churchwarden: "So they tell me!"

Friday, September 23, 2011

Today - The Feast Day of Our Lady of Walsingham

The Holy House in the church at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

It was in 1978 that Bishop John Hazlewood introduced me to the expression “Our Lady of Walsingham”, his favourite way of referring to the Mother of Jesus. He said it was at Walsingham many years before that as a young man he had witnessed his first miracle in answer to prayer.

When he became Bishop of Ballarat in 1975, one of the first things he did was to place the whole Diocese under the spiritual patronage and heavenly protection of Our Lady of Walsingham. Many times over the next eighteen years he gathered clusters of clergy and laypeople at her feet in his chapel of St Mary and the Angels at Bishopscourt.

Early in 1979, the year of my ordination as a deacon, I found the Walsingham shrine in Wangaratta Cathedral. Later on in that same year, the first book I came to possess about Walsingham was given to me at the headquarters of the Anglican Province of Melanesia when I was passing through Honiara following mission work in the New Hebrides (now Vanautu). It did seem to me at the time that God was broadening my education!

To cap things off, Father Robert Beal (who had been Dean of Wangaratta and would return to be Bishop a few years later) preached at my ordination to the priesthood in 1980. During the retreat he said that he couldn’t really explain this, but in his experience, if a parish establishes a shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham as a centre of devotion and prayer, “things work out”, and “if she’s not there, they don’t!” That was vintage Robert Beal!

Down through the years I have proved the truth of those words. I have also been privileged to visit Walsingham a number of times, and by God’s grace – and the generosity and good sense of the people – I have been able to set up a shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in each of my parishes. These shrines have been focal points of love, devotion and healing blessing, places of intersection of earth and heaven where the Lord Jesus has come into the lives of many who have sought him, especially in times of desperation and distress.


It all began 950 years ago in the little English village of Walsingham, near the North Norfolk coast, which boasts the proud title “England’s Nazareth.” In 1061, Lady Richeldis of the Manor had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin Mary asked her to build a replica of the holy house at Nazareth. This was to be a simple wooden structure to which the people of England could come and reflect on the Incarnation, for the strengthening of their faith. Our Lady went on to say that Walsingham would become a place of special blessing where people from all over would seek God and find him.

Each of Our Lady’s shrines draws attention to some aspect of the Gospel. Walsingham honours the hidden years of our Lord’s family life at Nazareth. Walsingham stresses the truth that through the mystery of the Incarnation God lived an ordinary human life, giving us the confidence that we can seek him, find him and know him in the ordinariness of our lives, and not just in those “spiritual mountaintop experiences” which the Holy Spirit gives us from time to time. Walsingham helps us to be Gospel people who expect God’s love, grace, life, power and healing to surge through us right there in what we sometimes think is the meaningless hum-drum of our unspectacular existence.


My first visit to Walsingham was in 1989. It was my first time in England, and I had become part of an ordinary parish weekend pilgrimage.

It was a blend of devotion and hilarity, penitence and joy, colourful processions, endless singing, and little children doing their own thing. The crowd was multiracial.

The thing that surprised me most of all was that on this particular pilgrimage about one third of our party were not churchgoers, but had come with their friends for a weekend away, and to see if Walsingham was for real. Some had even deliberately set out on a spiritual quest hoping that their deep and ancient longing for God might be satisfied. There was a good deal of full-on “witnessing for Christ” on the bus and around the Shrine. It was the kind of “personal evangelism” (as other traditions would call it) that is sadly lacking in many Anglo-Catholic circles!

So many “ordinary” people (that is, not just the clergy or the parish leaders) were sharing their love for God, and giving testimonies of his goodness – not only in church, but over meals (and pints at the “Lion” - the pub just across the road from the Shrine). Some of the non-churchgoers in our party were drawn by their friends and Our Lady’s prayers to open their hearts to the love of Jesus for the very first time.

Back to history. In the centuries that followed Lady Richeldis’ vision, Walsingham – as we know – did indeed become a famous pilgrimage centre. Even today the village shows signs of this in the ruins of the huge Augustinian priory and the Franciscan friary.


The blessings received by those who journeyed to this place seeking Our Lady’s prayers in medieval times gave rise to the title “Our Lady of Walsingham” for the Mother of Jesus. History tells us that nobles and beggars, saints and sinners went to Walsingham. Almost every king of England visited the shrine at least once during his reign. So famous was Walsingham in medieval times that it was even said that the Milky Way pointed to it! The Holy Spirit was poured out on the the pilgrims who gathered at Our Lady's Walsingham Shrine, resulting in many miracles and healings.


Unfortunately for Walsingham, however, in the words of the “Pilgrim Hymn”:

. . . at last came a king who had greed in his eyes
And he lusted for treasure with fraud and with lies.

The order went forth; and with horror ’twas learned
That the shrine was destroyed and the image was burned.

And here where God’s Mother had once been enthroned
The souls that stayed faithful ‘neath tyranny groaned.

And this realm which had once been Our Lady’s own Dower
Had its church now enslaved by the secular power.

And so dark night fell on this glorious place
Where of all former glories there hardly was trace.

From the time of this vandalism under King Henry VIII until the early part of this century, Walsingham remained a backwater.


But in 1921 a new Parish Priest came to Walsingham, Alfred Hope Patten. He began to research the parish’s medieval history. With the help of his people, he set about to restore the Shrine of Our Lady. A statue was carved, a replica of the one that had been burned in the time of Henry VIII. In 1922 this was placed in the Parish Church, and organised devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title “Our Lady of Walsingham” was restored. In the early years a trickle of people came to join the villagers in their prayers and praises; but soon the trickle became a river and then a flood. This was accompanied by a wonderful renewal of the healing ministry.

In the 1930’s new shrine buildings were erected, housing sixteen altars in various chapels, as well as a replica of the Holy House based on the pattern and dimensions of the one set up by Richeldis in 1061.

While the ground was being prepared for the foundations, the ancient well was discovered. It had been packed with several feet of clay and a good deal of rubbish. When this was removed, clear water gushed up, and a supply has continued to be given ever since. During a pilgrimage people drink of the water and are sprinkled with it by a priest. Many fill bottles with it and take it away for their own use or to give to sick friends. The waters of this well have long been acknowledged as a powerful sacramental channel of grace and healing for the sick and the handicapped.


The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, like many icons and paintings portrays Mary enthroned and crowned, drawing attention to the Child Jesus on her knee.

Her right hand holds a lily sceptre, emblem of her purity. Her feet rest upon a “toadstone”, symbolising the uncleanness of evil.

The throne is adorned with two pillars, encircled by bands, three on one side and four on the other, representing the Seven Sacraments, and the top of the back-piece is rounded like a rainbow.

The Child Jesus, with a cruciform halo, clasps in his left hand the Book of the Gospels, signifying that the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us. His right hand is stretched out in protection and blessing.


Walsingham is the largest and most popular Anglican Shrine of Our Lady. Many who have experienced great blessing at Walsingham have placed replicas of the statue in Anglican cathedrals and churches right around the world in every kind of place and culture, and wherever this has happened, the flow of love, healing and blessing associated with Walsingham continues and expands. There is also a Roman Catholic Shrine at Walsingham, and pilgrims from all Christian traditions mingle together as they allow Mary – the Mother of ALL her Son’s people – to gather us as brothers and sisters in that place. In fact, the prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham are often sought for the success of the ecumenical journey – that we might become one so that the world will believe.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Australia

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Amazing Grace (2)

Many places associated with St Augustine either no longer exist or cannot be identified with certainty. One of the possible exceptions, however, is the place of his baptism, which can still be visited today. This is a photograph of the ancient baptistry underneath the present day cathedral (duomo) of Milan, Italy. The cathedral is built on top of earlier churches, and the baptistry shown here is a sub-basement. There is very little doubt that it is the place of Augustine's baptism.

It is difficult to speak about grace without saying something about the great theologian of grace, St Augustine of Hippo. He defended the authentic Christian understanding of grace against those who thought that our attempts at goodness just needed "topping up" by God. Augustine's experience of life as well as his reflection on the Scriptures assured him of the doctrine of "original sin" and of our total reliance on God's grace for salvation.

Augustine was born in 354 AD in what is now Algeria. Even in his youth he was well known as a skilful teacher and debater. In fact it was his pride as an up and coming philosopher - and his sense of intellectual superiority - that caused him initially to reject the Christian faith of his mother and indulge himself in a lifestyle of colourful immorality. He eventually entered into a "de-facto relationship" (as we would say today) and fathered a child.

As unlikely as it may seem, given his early life, this man was chosen by God to become one of the greatest Christian teachers of all time.

You can read the story of his conversion in The Confessions of St Augustine - available in a number of translations. (online HERE, although I prefer Henry Chadwick's 1998 translation.) It is a thrilling story of God's GRACE at work in Augustine's life.

The values of the world in which Augustine lived, and the variety of religious philosophies on offer makes his age like our own, in spite the obvious differences. Yesterday I wrote about John Newton's experience of God's "amazing grace", emphasising the personal and individual dimension of his relationship with God (although I did mention his ordination to the priesthood and his long ministry in the Church of England). Today, in case you think I have oversimplified the process of conversion on the one hand, and underemphasised the involvement of the Church community on the other, I share with you five factors that in the case of St Augustine led to and sustained his Christian experience:

First, his mother Monica never ceased to encourage and pray for him. St Monica is the patron saint of all those mothers who pray with tears for their wayward children. Augustine never doubted that his mother's faithfulness was the most important factor in his conversion.

Second, Augustine was genuine in his search for truth and wisdom. He loved the writings of Cicero and the Platonists, and even his seduction by the cultic Manichaeans was partly due to his seeking of "higher things."

Third, Augustine experienced a growing sense of emptiness, futility and dissatisfaction with his life. His goals seemed to be eluding him and neither his learning nor his "lifestyle" brought the fulfilment he sought.

Fourth, at Milan, the teaching of St. Ambrose changed Augustine's attitude towards the Scriptures, awakening both his mind and his heart. (Even so, he had a three year struggle before surrendering his life to the Lord.) Augustine writes:

". . . slowly I saw that what Ambrose taught was the truth. My trouble was that I wanted to be able to understand every part of the truth myself, as clearly as I see that two and two are four. As if a mere man can understand everything about you, my God, who are infinite and eternal Truth. Then you began to enlighten my mind. I saw that a man cannot discover all the truth about you by reason alone. It is necessary that you reveal yourself to us. And you had done so in your Bible, and above all when you spoke to us through your beloved Son, Jesus."

Fifth, the worshipping life of the Church community in Milan had a profound impact on Augustine. During his struggle of faith he was supported by the community's prayers. At the time of his baptism he was touched by the community's worship. He writes:

"We were baptized [i.e. at the Easter Vigil, 24 April 387], and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose in the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience."

Augustine eventually returned to Northern Africa where he became a priest and then Bishop of Hippo. His most famous books are The Confessions and City of God; but all his published writings have been influential in the Church's theological and philosophical reflection right down to our own time.

Looking back over his conversion, and the AMAZING GRACE that had brought him thus far, Augustine was to write those much quoted words in the first paragraph of the Confessions:

" . . . you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.?"

Later on, he speaks for each of us when he says to the Lord:

". . . I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is over all things, God blessed forever, who was calling unto me and saying: I am the way, the truth, and the life . . .

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you! For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell upon those lovely things that you have made. You were with me and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness: and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness: you breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for you: I tasted you, and now hunger and thirst for you: you touched me, and I have burned for your peace."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Amazing Grace (1)

John Newton was born in London in 1725, and went to sea with his father when he was only eleven years old. As a teenager he was forced to serve on a warship, and because he hated it, he deserted. He was captured, flogged, demoted, and generally mistreated. Eventually he asked to be exchanged to a slave trading ship working the waters off of Sierra Leone, Africa. He was abused on that ship, too, but his luck changed when he was rescued by a captain of another ship who had known his father. During this time Newton saw how much money could be made trafficking in slaves, and eventually he became captain of his own slave ship.

He prospered; but with little or no religious belief, he had no conscience about the business he was conducting.

Then, on a voyage back to England everything changed. He was desperately trying to steer his ship through a violent storm, but became convinced that all was lost. At the very moment he thought the ship would sink, he surprised himself by calling out, “Lord, have mercy on us.” Instantly the storm began to abate.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence. But he thought about it a lot. Eventually he became convinced that God had spoken to him through the storm. His life changed, and he got out of the slave business. He married, and then, believing that he was called by God to proclaim the Gospel, he immersed himself in the study of Scripture and theology. Eventually he was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England.

He wrote many hymns, the best known being Amazing Grace:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

What do you think about the conversion of a slave trader? What about the hundreds, maybe even thousands, who had died on Newton’s ships? What about the thousands more who wished they had died? All this misery so that he could become a rich man!

He had ignored God for years and then turned to him in a crisis. He opened his mind and then his heart to GRACE - the undeserved gift of God’s love, forgiveness and new life. Is God unjust to have accepted John Newton? . . . and then, to have called him not just to fellowship, but to leadership in the Church?

It is quite human to be scandalised by the generosity of God to horrendous sinners. Graham Greene said: “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Well, we are shocked, but we shouldn’t be, because we, too, have received his “grace heaped upon grace” (John 1:16). Who are we to begrudge anyone their opportunity to respond to God’s love?

Yet, one of the themes in the Gospels is how deeply Jesus shocked the judgmental guardians of the religious establishment with his teaching on the Father's unconditional love and profligate forgiveness and grace.

That’s what the parable of the labourers in today’s Gospel reading is really about. In his book, What's So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey comments:

“Jesus parable about the landowner is really a parable about grace, which cannot be calculated like a day’s wage. Grace is not about finishing first or last; it is about not counting. Because if I care to listen, I hear a loud whisper from the gospel that I did not get what I deserved. I deserved punishment and got forgiveness. I deserved wrath and got love. I deserved debtor’s prison and got a clean credit history. I deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your-knees repentance and I got the banquet of Christ spread for me.”

He also says:

“Jesus' story makes no economic sense, and that was his intent. He was giving us a parable about grace, which cannot be calculated like a day's wages. The employer in Jesus' story did not cheat the full-day workers. No, the full-day workers got what they were promised. Their discontent arouse from the scandalous mathematics of grace. They would not accept that their employer had the right to do what he wanted with his money when it meant paying scoundrels twelve times what they deserved. Significantly, many Christians who study this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day's work, rather than the add-ons at the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers, and the employer's strange behaviour baffles us as it did the original hearers. We risk missing the story's point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God's requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell."

God’s grace comes to different people at different times and in different ways.

And that includes you, dear reader. Maybe you have not been the person you could and should have been. (Who has been?) But you haven’t missed out on God. He loves you. His grace is so amazing that it reaches you as you read these words, even if this is the eleventh hour of your life. There is still time for God to break through to your life if you let him.

God hasn’t given up on you. That’s the good news. Whether you’ve been a lukewarm Christian or someone militantly at war with God . . . it doesn’t matter. Nothing you have done has stopped him loving you. He wants to forgive you, set you free from your past, and transform you into a channel of his love and grace for others.

But he doesn’t want you to waste any more time. He loves you. He wants you. And if you say “yes” to him you will discover how amazing his grace really is.

[Why not speak to someone you know who can help you take the next few steps into God’s love. If you don’t really know anyone like that and you would like to be put in touch with a church near you, send me an email. Click HERE.]

John Newton was ordained in 1764 and accepted the curacy of Olney, where he lived until 1780 when he became Rector of St Mary’s Woolnoth, in London. There he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time.

Originally buried at Woolnoth, Newton’s remains and those of his wife Mary were re-interred at St Peter & Paul's Church, Olney in 1893.

On his tomb are the words:

John Newton, Clerk.
Once an infidel and libertine.
The servant of slaves in Africa
was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ
preserved, restored, pardoned
and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy,
near 16 years as Curate of this parish
and 28 years as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth.

A New Oxford Movement

It mightn't have been precisely what Cardinal Kasper meant in 2008 when he called for "a new Oxford Movement" in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, but look at how the renewed leadership for our people in the Church of England is emerging from Oxford!

Not only is the new Bishop of Ebbsfleet and Chairman of Forward in Faith the Principal of Pusey House (The Rt Rev’d Jonathan Baker SSC), but it has been announced this week that Father Ross Northing SSC, Vicar of S. Mary & S. Giles, Stony Stratford in the Diocese of Oxford is the new Secretary of Forward in Faith, and Father William Davage SSC, until recently Priest Librarian and Chief Custodian of the Library of Pusey House, has been appointed Honorary Chaplain at Christ the King, Gordon Square. (Not forgetting, of course, that the new Bishop of Richborough - The Rt Rev’d Norman Banks SSC - is himself an Oxford man.)

Members of Forward in Faith as well as others who look to Forward in Faith and the Provincial Episcopal Visitors for godly and visionary leadership in these difficult times are very grateful for this particular little “Oxford Movement” and the encouragement it provides for the uncertain immediate future.

Married to Janet and with a son, Luke who is married to Felicity, Father Ross Northing was ordained to the Priesthood in 1995 having served as a Church Army Officer for five years prior to priestly formation at St Stephen's House Oxford. He served his title in the Parish of Up Hatherley, Ss Philip & James. In 1998 he was appointed Vicar of Stony Stratford, St Mary & St Giles and Rector of Calverton, All Saints. He serves on the Bishop of Ebbsfleet's Standing Committee and Council of Priests. He keeps a Parish Blog.

Born, brought up and educated in Newcastle upon Tyne, Fr William Davage was a schoolmaster at the Robert Smyth School in Market Harborough before training for the priesthood at S. Stephen's House, Oxford. Ordained to the Priesthood in 1992, he served his title at S. Hugh of Lincoln, Leicester. He was appointed Priest Librarian and Custodian of the Library at Pusey House in 1994. He is the Patronage Secretary of The Society for the Maintenance of the Faith and a member of the Council; he is a Council Member of the English Clergy Association; he is a member of several Catholic societies including the Church Union and the Society of King Charles the Martyr.

I was at the Forward in Faith National Assembly on Saturday 24th October, 2009 when at a great Votive mass of Our Lady, Father Davage preached with real dynamism and vision. To mark these encouraging appointments, I share his sermon with you. (All of it can be found HERE)


“. . . promises ought to be fulfilled and it is important that promises should be kept. God’s promise to Mary and Our Lady’s promise to God, her brave and even reckless promise to God, her abandonment to his will: ‘Be it unto me according to your word’ were rewarded: ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ That cosmic collision of God’s promise to his people and Our Lady’s promise to God brought about our salvation in the Incarnation: that central doctrinal tenet of Tractarianism, the unique salvific revelation in Jesus Christ, our incarnate God, the God of all knowledge, wisdom, power and truth.

“His Holy Mother’s ‘fiat’ is echoed in his own submission to the will of God. Neither would allow the cup to pass from their lips and both kept their promise. And they keep their divinely-infused promises still. Our Lord’s promise that we would not be left comfortless, that he would be with us until the end of time is eternally renewed in his sacramental presence, those elements that become for us his Body and his Blood on this and on thousands upon thousands of altars as the Mass is offered, the Sacrifice pleaded: an eternal promise, everlastingly fulfilled.

“Our Lady’s promise that we would ever have recourse to her protection and intercession; that those who fly to her would not be left forsaken, is eminently demonstrated in those holy places of her appearing, among them Fatima, Lourdes, and our ever-beloved Walsingham. Here are promises we can rely on, promises divinely inspired, divinely guaranteed. Our promises one to another should be invested with that same sense of divine authority. They should not be something lightly entered into, not capricious, not mere conversational tics. They cannot be other than solemn obligations, unbreakable contracts, given in a divinely ordained society that is the Church.

“So what of the promises made to us by our own Church? Is a binding and lasting undertaking and promise to last a mere seventeen years: a blink in the eye of God? But when doctrinal and ecclesiological self-indulgence has reduced an institution to the shape of the Church of England, confidence in the General Synod requires no more than a sense of the ridiculous. The General Synod is the HBOS of the Church of England; willing to mortgage its future on toxic doctrine. You cannot re-write the Faith once delivered to the Apostles. You cannot dilute the Faith as would the liberal catholic: that suppurant oxymoron.

“. . . The crisis through which we are passing, fundamental to our understanding of the nature of the Church and its sacramental authenticity, has meant that we have become enmeshed in a ludicrous, bureaucratically-driven legislative process which has only engendered despondency and debilitating fatalism, lightened by the occasional false dawn, and a forlorn nostalgia for more certain times. They did not exist. Look at the history of Anglo-Catholicism. Nostalgia is one of the legitimate and certainly one of the most enduring of human emotions: but the ecclesiastical politics of nostalgia is at best distracting and at worst pernicious. (See Irving Kristol quoted in The Spectator 26 September 2009) We cannot live in the past, however refulgent and glorious.

“We are battling for the future, not the despondent present. I spend most of my days in the company of bright, intelligent, committed young people, committed to the Catholic Faith. It is their future in the Church that matters. We owe them a Catholic future and we can only do that by keeping a promise to them. We must have ‘the courage to dare’ (Feodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment) not supinely to acquiesce or to accept the scraps thrown at us. As we commit ourselves with fresh determination and resolve to secure our Catholic future, we must be conscious that we are part of something greater. Our Catholic unity here this morning is but a small part, a microcosm, of that wider unity to which Christ summons all his faithful. There is a Catholic future open for us: new light shines, hope and promise of a new dawn. The future is ours, if we seize the day and the hour. We can do so because we commit our cause to Our Lady, whose promise never fails. Confident that we have a merciful God, for with the Psalmist we can say: ‘under the shadow of thy wings shall be my refuge, until this tyranny be over-past.’ (Psalm 57: 1) Determined that ‘All is not lost,’ we possess an ‘unconquerable will / And courage never to submit or yield / . . . what is else not to be overcome.’ (John Milton, Paradise Lost I. 1. 105)”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Power of the Cross - Fr Sergius Bulgakov

From a sermon preached by Fr. Bulgakov (1871 - 1944) for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14 September, 1924. (Go HERE for Archbishop Rowan Williams' brief talk on the life of this great man.)

Today the Lord's Cross is raised before all the world; today 'the Cross is raised and the world hallowed', and the faithful are called to worship the thrice blessed Tree on which Christ was crucified. We pray to the tree of the Cross, and we pray to the holy life-bearing Cross itself, we invoke it, we call to it: 'Thou art my mighty defence, tri-partite Cross of Christ, hallow me with thy power that I in faith and love may worship thee and glorify thee.' 'Rejoice, life-bearing Cross, unhindered victory of godliness, the door of Paradise, the confirmation of the faithful, the defence of the Church . . . impregnable armour, bane of devils . . . bestowing mercy upon the world.' 'O Cross of Christ, thou hope of Christians, teacher of those in error, haven of the storm-tossed, victory in battle, pillar of the universe, physician of the sick, resurrection of the dead, have mercy upon us.' 'Those who rely upon thee, O thrice blessed and life-giving Cross, rejoice together with the heavenly hosts.' 'Invincible, unfathomable and divine power of the life-giving and honorable Cross, do not forsake us sinners.' 'O glorious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help us together with our Holy Lady the Mother of God and all the saints, world without end. Amen.'

But however much we may revere the actual precious and life-bearing Cross of the Lord, surely we are not tree worshippers who pray to a tree as to a living being, as to an intelligible essence? Is it to a tree, even if it be thrice-blessed, that we pray, or to the divine power and mystery of the Cross manifested to us in that tree? Worship of Christ's Cross is indeed inseparable for us from the worship of of the Cross abiding in heaven, a divine and unfathomable power. The earthly Cross leads our minds to the contemplation of its archetype the heavenly Cross, as indivisibly united to it as the divine and the human nature are indivisibly but without confusion united in Christ. The heavenly Cross of the Lord shone forth on earth in the tree of the Cross, the instrument of our salvation.

At the creation of the world the seed of trees for the Cross was planted in it - the cedar, the oak, the cypress; on the day when the earth was bidden to bring forth every kind of plant, the trees for the Cross sprang up. But the Cross made of wood is the symbol of the Eternal Cross, the revelation of the mystery of the Cross. The sign of the Cross is written upon the world as a whole, for in the words of the Church anthem, it is the 'four pointed power' binding together the 'four corners of the world' as 'height, breadth, and depth'. It is written too in the image of man with his arms outstretched: Moses and Joshua praying with their arms uplifted prefigured the Crucified. The form of the body calls forth, as it were, the tree of the Cross, for it is itself a Cross, the centre of which is the heart. In the image of the Cross the Creator inscribed His own image in the world and in man, for according to the testimony of the Church, the Cross is the divine image printed upon the world. What does the sign mean? It proclaims God's love, and in the first place God's love for His creation. The world is created by the power of the Cross, for God's love for the creation is sacrificial. The world is saved by the Cross, by sacrificial love; it is blessed by the Cross and overshadowed by its power. But the mystery of the Cross, is even more profound, for it wondrously the image of the Tri-Personal God, of the Trinity in unity. The Church teaches that it is the symbol of the unfathomable Trinity, the three-membered Cross bearing the tri-personal image of the Trinity. The Cross is the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the power of the Cross is a divine power. When we call in prayer upon the incomprehensible, invincible, and divine power of the precious life-giving Cross, we pray to the Source of life, the Trinity in unity, one and divine in life and substance. The Cross is God Himself in His revelation to the world, God's power and glory.

God is love and the Cross is the symbol of divine love. Love is sacrificial. the power and flame, the very nature of love is the Cross, and there is no love apart from it. The Cross is the sacrificial essence of love, since love is a sacrifice, self-surrender, self-abnegation, voluntary self renunciation for the sake of the beloved. Without sacrifice there can be no acceptance, no meeting, no life in and for another; there is no bliss in love except in sacrificial self-surrender which is rewarded by responsive fulfilment. The Cross is the exchange of love, indeed love itself is exchange. There is no other path for love and for its wisdom but the path of the Cross. The Holy Trinity is the Eternal Cross as the sacrificial exchange of Three, the single life born of voluntary surrender, of a threefold self-surrender, of being dissolved in the divine ocean of sacrificial love. The tri-partite Cross is the symbol of the Holy Trinity. How is this true? In the Cross three lines meet and intersect; they approach one another from different points but as they intersect they become one in the heart of the Cross, at their meeting point. Similarly in the Holy Trinity the divine life of the Tri-unity is an eternal meeting, exchange of self-surrender and of self-discovery in the two other Hypostases. No limits can be set on love or sacrifice. Renouncing oneself in order to live again in the other - such is the bliss of love. He who loves another loves the Cross as well, since love is sacrificial. Love itself, God, in the Eternal Cross surrenders Himself for the sake of His love. The three points in which the lines of the Tri-cross end are images of the Three Divine Self-subsistent Hypostases, and the point of their intersection is the co-inherence of the Three, the Trinity in unity in sacrificial exchange.

The bliss of divine love is the sacrificial bliss of the Cross, and its power is a sacrificial power. If the world is created by love, it is created by no other power than the power of the Cross. God who is love creates it by taking up the Cross in order to reveal His love for the creature. The Almighty Creator leaves room in the world for the creature's freedom, thus as it were humbling Himself, limiting His almightiness, emptying Himself for the benefit of the creature. The world is created through the Cross of God's love for the creature. But in creating the world through the Cross, God in His eternal counsel determines to save it, also through the Cross, from itself, from perishing in its creatureliness. God so loved the world that from all eternity He gave His only begotten Son to be sacrificed on the Cross to save the world and call it to eternal life through the death of the Cross and Resurrection. God seeks in the creature a friend, another self, with whom He can share the bliss of love, to whom He can impart the divine life, and in His boundless love for the creature He does not stop at sacrifice, but sacrifices Himself for the sake of the creature. The boundlessness of the divine sacrifice for the sake of the world and its salvation passes all understanding. The Son humbles Himself to become man, taking upon Him the form of a servant and becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross. The Father does not spare His beloved, His only-begotten Son, but gives Him to be crucified; the Holy Spirit accepts descent into the fallen and hardened world and rests upon the Anointed, Christ, dwells in His Mother, and sanctifies the Church. It is the sacrifice not of the Son alone, but of the consubstantial and indivisible Trinity as a whole. The Son alone was incarnate and suffered on the Cross, but in Him was manifested the sacrificial love of the Holy Trinity--of the Father who sends Him, and of the Holy Spirit who rests upon Him and upon His sorrowing Mother. The Cross was prepared in the world by God for God and was therefore prefigured in the Old Testament by many symbols and images. And the Cross appeared to the world as the salutary tree, as victory over the world; hence the sign of the Cross will victoriously appear in heaven at the second glorious coming of the Son of God, and in the heaven of heavens there ever shines the Holy Cross, the vision of which was vouchsafed to St. Andrew.

Demons tremble at the blessed sign of the Cross. The Cross is to them a consuming fire. Why do they tremble at this fore of love? Because they hate love, because they are darkened by selfishness and cannot abide the path of the Cross; they are united in their legions by the power of common hatred and not love. The cheering and comforting fire is to them an unendurable flame.

The Cross is the figurative inscription of God's Name, working miracles and manifesting powers, like the name of God revealed to Moses. The Cross is the symbol of the Holy Trinity, the sacred sign of God who is in love, burning up enmity, malice, and hatred.

This heavenly Cross has been revealed to us men in the Cross of Christ, in the blessed tree the image of which we worship and kiss with awe. We are signed with it as soldiers of Christ, we wear it on the breast and carry it in our hearts. A Christian is essentially a Cross-bearer. The sweetest Name of Jesus is said to have been inscribed on the heart of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer; and similarly the heart of a Christian holds the Cross of the Lord which has pierced it once and for all and set it aglow. A Christian lives in God, and, in so far as he enters into the love of Christ, shares both in the burden and in the sweetness of His Cross. To worship the Cross and to glory in it is for him not an external commandment, but an inner behest: 'Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me.' we can only worship the Cross to the extent to which we share in it. He who is afraid of the Cross and in his inmost heart rejects it worships it falsely and deceives his own conscience. This is why today's feast is both sweet and terrible, and the Church accompanies its celebration with a strict fast. The Cross shines in the sinful darkness of our heart, illumining it and at the same time exposing it. Our sinful, self-loving nature fears it and resists it. Why deceive ourselves? The natural man is afraid of the Cross. And yet we must overcome this fear; we must bring forth the tree of the Cross in our hearts, lift it up, and worship it. We must lay on our shoulders, too, as did Simon, the Cyrenian passer-by, the burden of Christ's Cross. Everyone must take up his Cross and never leave it, and, raising the Cross in his own soul, help to raise it in the world.

The Saviour's command to bear one's Cross is not a harsh infliction of pain, but God's great mercy towards man. It is a sign of God's love for man, of great respect for him. God wants His highest creation to participate in His Cross, in His joy and bliss. It was vouchsafed to Adam while still blissfully ignorant of good and evil to taste the sweetness of the Cross through obeying the divine command not to eat of the fruit of tree of knowledge. The tree of life and the tree of knowledge grew together in the garden of Eden. That was the paradisal sign of the Cross: renouncing his own will and doing the will of the heavenly Father, man was crucified on the tree which became for him the tree of life, full of eternal bliss. But through the whispering of the wily serpent, Adam and Eve rejected the Cross; they came down from it having willfully disobeyed. And the tree became deadly for them and gave them knowledge of good and evil, which entailed exile from paradise. But the New Adam, the Lord, the Son of man and only-begotten Son of God, ascended the Cross which the first Adam had forsaken; He was lifted up on the Cross so as to draw all men unto Him, for there is no way except that of the Cross to the sweetness of paradise. The ancient serpent tries to get Him too, saying to the Crucified through the mouth of his servants: 'Come down from the Cross!' But the new temptation was rejected, and the tree of knowledge became once more the tree of life, a life-bearing garden, and those who taste its fruit partake of immortality. In every man so long as he lives there lives the seed of the old Adam; he hears the unceasing whisper seconded by his natural frailty and infirmity: 'Come down from the Cross, don't torture yourself.' The world wars against the Cross, is driven to fury by the preaching of the gospel; love of the world is hatred of the Cross. But love of God is also love of the Lord's Cross, for our hard, rebellious heart can only love it if it be pierced by the Cross. Sweet are thy wounds to my heart, O most sweet Jesus, and it knows of no greater sweetness!

O Glorious Miracle, the width of the Cross matches the breadth of heaven, since divine grace hallows all. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Seventy-times seven

The apostle Peter tries hard, but he is so uncool! Rough, spontaneous and impulsive, so often he gets things wrong. When he does well he REALLY does well. But when he fails, he REALLY fails! He opens his mouth before putting his brain into gear. He does it in today’s Gospel and his remark is the occasion for one of the most powerful teachings of Jesus.

There were Rabbis at the time teaching that we have to forgive someone three times for the same offence. They based this on Amos 1:3-13 & 2:1-6, saying that because God forgives the sinner three times and then punishes the fourth offence, and we cannot possibly be more generous than God, we ought not forgive someone more than three times.

So Peter probably thought he was being extremely generous – and maybe even daring – when he suggested forgiving someone seven times!

I’m sure he was deeply shocked by the response of Jesus: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Of course, Jesus didn’t mean exactly 490 times! “Seventy times seven” is a colourful way of saying “always.”

(I actually think that there are very few people most of us would be willing to forgive even “seven times” for the same serious offence!)

Jesus proceeded to tell a story which contrasts a calculating approach to forgiveness with the infinite love and mercy of God. It also emphasises that nothing others do to us can ever compare with what we have done to God. The message is that if God can forgive us when we wrong him, then the least we can do is forgive others when they wrong us. Jesus doesn’t fool around on this one. He makes it crystal clear that we ought not seek God’s forgiveness, if we are not prepared to forgive others.

He had already said that when we pray we should say: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12)

He had said that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:25)

And in the context of the church community, St Paul wrote: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Resentment, hatred, and bitterness are like bad cholesterol building up in our system and destroying (1) our ability to live with ourselves, (2) our ability to share with others in community, and (3) our intimacy with God.

That’s why Jesus places such a high priority on our willingness to forgive, tying us down to expecting no more forgiveness from the Father than what we are prepared to give to those who have hurt us.

That seems so tough. It’s a really hard teaching. How can we possibly forgive like that? What about those who have been hurt so deeply that the emotional and psychological wounds are still festering many years later? And, what about those who have been abused in one way or another? Isn’t it further abuse to tell them that they, too, need to hear this teaching of the Lord and learn to forgive, like the rest of us?

Well, no-one’s suggesting it is easy. No-one’s saying that it’s not a real struggle. No-one’s telling us that we can do it in our own strength. But it IS part of our healing. And, like every other area of healing, while there are miracles of instant transformation for which we praise the Lord, most of the time the change in us takes place gradually as we become more and more open to the healing love that is being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).

Provided, of course, that we actually set out on the journey of forgiveness. To do so is important NOT even so much for the sake of the person we are trying to forgive, but FOR OUR OWN SAKE. That is true whether we are coldly withholding forgiveness in order to punish someone for what they have done, or if we would genuinely like to forgive “but just can’t.” In What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey says:

“We forgive not merely to fulfil some higher law of morality,
we do it for ourselves.
The first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness
is the one who does the forgiving . . .
When we genuinely forgive
we set a prisoner free
and then discover that the prisoner was us.”

Yancey hits the nail on the head! What he says is the reason why the journey to forgiveness of someone who has hurt us deeply is worth the agony, the struggle and the challenge. Indeed, in their wonderful book, The Transformation of the Inner Man, John and Paula Sandford make the point that

“Prayer for inner healing always involves at root a decision to forgive.”

This is really important. Forgiveness is not just an act of love; it is an act of the will. WE have to make a start, and that start is DECIDING to forgive because it is a command of the Lord, even if we don’t feel like it. Sometimes this is easier than at other times. Sometimes the best we can do is to pray with all sincerity, “Lord, I don’t want to forgive N., but I “want to want to” forgive him/her.”

Then, following the Lord’s teaching that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), we should remember that person by name daily in our prayers, asking for the Lord to pour out his love and blessing on them. That can be so difficult as well. But we do find ourselves being healed, little by little, and sometimes there is a wonderful result (that we mightn’t even know about) in the life of the other person.

But I can tell you from my own experience, it’s a real struggle. It’s the hardest thing in the world. It can be a long, long journey. But it’s worth it, as Yancey said, FOR OUR OWN SAKE!

I should add that to forgive is not necessarily to forget completely. Most of us cannot forget what we have suffered. In fact, sometimes we shouldn’t forget! But through the miracle of forgiveness, the open wound of a past hurt becomes a kind of scar which ceases to trigger off a re-living of the pain and trauma, but is, in fact, an outward sign of the healing that has happened. In its own way, it is a testimony of God’s healing love.

And, though we have forgiven them, it is – obviously - not wrong to be careful and circumspect in dealing with those who continue to cause hurt and injury.

Furthermore, it needs to be said that while we forgive as Jesus told us to, the gradual re-establishment of trust (if it is to take place) is very much the responsibility of the one who caused the pain in the first place.

I want to finish today with a news article from the Sydney Morning Herald, 29th December, 2008, a truly breathtaking example of ordinary Christian people embodying – by the grace of God – what I have tried to share with you:

The family of a teenager stabbed to death at a Sydney railway station have gathered for the much-loved youth's funeral, saying they forgive his killer.

Andrew Motuliki, 17, was stabbed in the chest with a large fishing knife allegedly after a fight broke out between two groups of teenagers on a train at Campsie station, in Sydney's south-west, on December 21.

Passengers on the train tried to give the Marrickville teenager first aid but he was pronounced dead on arrival at St George Hospital.

A 16-year-old boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has been charged with his murder, as well as affray and custody of a knife in a public place.

He was refused bail in Parramatta Children's Court the day after the stabbing death.

"This boy who did this to my son, I forgive you," Andrew's father Etikailahi Motuliki told the Ten Network.

"Pray to God, pray for forgiveness."

His mother, Ane Motuliki, echoed the words of forgiveness, happy for the murder-accused to be dealt with by the courts, saying: "(I) leave up to whoever (to) deal with him".

Shortly after the killing, the Motulikis made a tearful public plea for people not to carry knives.

"I would like to appeal to kids everywhere not to carry knives," Mr Motuliki said the day after his son's death.

"They need to find out another way to solve their problems."

Following Monday's funeral, family and friends gathered at the scene of the stabbing, singing and praying for Andrew who was killed on his way to church just days before Christmas.