Sunday, 26 September 2010

Recognising the Good

"One thing I asked of the Lord, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of the Lord, and to contemplate in His sanctuary. Indeed, He will hide me in His shelter (Sukkah) on the day of evil" Psalm 27

Currently the days of the biblical festival of Sukkos (tabernacles/shelters) is upon us. This annual harvest time Jewish festival commemorates the protection by God of the people of Israel during their sojourn in the wilderness after their departure from Egypt. The commandment to build and dwell in these temporary shelters (Leviticus 23:33-44) is fulfilled with much happiness and joviality as Jews bask in their relationship with God, renewed through the repentance and atonement of the High Holy days only recently observed. In addition it might interest some to know, that there is belief held by some that Jesus was born during this festival, which would be quite appropriate.

The Bible makes mention that this festival will be, at some future time, observed by all nations (Zechariah 14:16), and so clearly from its themes there is most likely some jewels of wisdom to be mined to the benefit of all mankind.

At this time of year, traditionally a time of harvest, people have paused to give thanks for all the blessings in their lives. Sadly the process of urbanisation that started long ago, has left millions of people divorced from a real relationship with the passage of the seasons. The constantly stocked supermarket shelves have made gratitude for a bountiful harvest, a very rare thing in deed. And our busy lives have robbed so many of the ability to stop and contemplate the blessings that flood their lives. I think this is a terrible shame, and might help account for the growth in the dissatisfaction that modern Britons often report feeling, and from which they often seek solace in therapies, shopping, or God forbid, self destructive activities. At least for those who observe the Sukkos festival or celebrate Harvest in their local church or chapel, there is an opportunity for thankful reflection. But how much better would it be, if we could all somehow incorporate this thankfulness into our daily lives throughout the year.

A bumper harvest however, is no guarantee to a heart overflowing with gratitude. In fact prosperity itself is almost always accompanied by a complacent attitude which gradually dims our hearts to the beneficences in our lives and from Whom they have come, and can eventually lead us to loose an awareness of the value of what we have. For this reason Rabbi Hirsch argued that God commanded His nation to "leave your sound and solid houses; dwell under the sparse ceiling of foliage, and learn its lesson: The Lord your God,.... sustained (your ancestors) in their booths and so revealed Himself as the Divine Providence, Who sustains all". It is of central importance for those who wish to cleave to their Maker, to realise that we rely on Him for everything, that it is His Countenance shining its grace upon us, that even allows our lungs to expand and be filled with the fresh, revitalising air.

In Hebrew gratitude is known as Hakaras HaTov, recognising the good. It is not just an emotion, but is something we must pursue. A key factor of gratitude is an awareness that we little deserve the blessings we have. That which we feel we deserve we rarely feel gratitude for. This is illustrated in the naming by Leah of her son Judah "She conceived again, and bore a son and declared, "This time let me gratefully praise the Lord", therefore she called his name Judah" Genesis 29:35. The name Judah, Yehudah in Hebrew, combines the root for thanksgiving with the name of God. Why was Leah so much more grateful for this birth than others ask the Rabbis? They explain that as a Prophetess she knew that Jacob would bear twelve children, she assumed that each of his four wives would bear three children each. When she had a fourth child, a child she had no expectation of being blessed with, she was overcome with gratitude. What we expect we rarely feel grateful for. I think that there can be no doubt that we live in an expectation culture. We feel that prosperity is our right, and very often we feel that it is someone else's duty (often the Government) to provide us with it. We hate waiting, we want instant service. We complain when a shirt we want is not in our size, without giving a second thought to how lucky we are that we even have money to buy a shirt. We march in petulant protest if governments seek to limit funding to something we feel we are entitled to. Personally I remember not too long ago, how I managed to ruin my lunch hour with self pity, simply because a sausage sandwich I was very much looking forward to was unavailable, this despite the blessings of a lovely sunny day that surrounded me, and the company of my beloved alongside me. So many of us have simply become spoiled.

To see what a lack of expectation engenders, just look at the reaction of adults and children in the worlds most deprived countries, when they receive even the smallest gift. The happiness, the smiles, the overwhelming gratitude.

Perhaps meditation on the Majesty of God, and the simply fact, that He did not have to create us, and that everything in life is His gift of love to us, could begin to open our hearts. Perhaps an undertaking to recite a blessing before enjoying a pleasure of this world and to recite grace after completing our meals could slowly begin to focus our attention on what we have and not on what we and often what others make us think we need.

Also let us not forget those timeless words of Jesus, who taught "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" Matthew 6:21. Prosperity is often a great obstacle to coming close to God, unless that prosperity is used in His service that is.

But what of those who have not had such a good harvest? What of those who today count the pennies worrying if they will have enough to make ends meet throughout this coming week? Can the themes of Sukkos speak to them? Rav Hirsch again; "And if your are poor..and in despair, move, I pray you, into the foliage-topped booth! Depart from under your sheltering roof and of your own accord live the poorer life and learn the lesson: God sustained your forefathers in the wilderness..that same God still lives and He is your god, and as the twinkling of the stars shines through the roof of foliage so does He wish His watchful eye embrace you in loving kindness, behold your tears hear your sighs and know your cares, and He will not forsake you as He did not forsake your fathers." Each and everyone of us is the recipient of oceans of kindness that was granted to the generations that proceeded us. Your God, who keeps watch over you now, kept watch over them then. Trust in His goodness. Our master Jesus put it the most beautiful way;

"Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" Matthew 7:11

And here is an opportunity for deepening the relationships between people, to strengthen our communities. Those who are blessed with an abundance should see this abundance as given to them in trust by God, to assist those who have less than they need. Let us rally together to help those that might be affected by any potential government cuts. Let us support our neighbours. It is our Unitarian heritage, our Christian heritage, our Divinely mandated Human heritage. But when giving, always remember you are only giving what belongs to God as commanded by God. As King David sang:

"For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. "1 Chronicles 29:14

The more awareness of how fortunate the majority of us are in this great nation of ours, the greater gratitude we feel for these treasures in our midst, the happier we shall all be! And the happier we shall be, the more happiness we can transmit to others. Perhaps then we might move away from an entitlement culture and a culture of waste, were more is destroyed and left unused than can be in any way morally justified.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

I Vow To Thee My Country

"Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem, whither the tribes go up; the tribes of the Lord unto the testimony of Israel. To give thanks to the name of the Lord, for there sit the thrones of judgement; the throne of the House of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. They shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions sake I will now say, peace be within thee. Because of the House of the Lord our God, I will seek thy good." Psalm 122

With the words of this Psalm Richard Price the Minister of Newington Green Unitarian Church began his 1790 "Discourse on the Love of our Country". This was the sermon that led Edmund Burke to write his "Reflections on the Revolution in France" which in turn led Thomas Paine to write his hugely influential "Rights of Man" and Mary Wollstonecraft to pen "A Vindication of the Rights of Women". Today in my town there were commemorations of the Battle of Britain, celebrating the bravery of those 1400 who gave their lives to defend our freedoms and lives, and those who with God's blessing are still with us today, and so I thought it would be appropriate for me to focus on the positive role of patriotism in our lives. In addition our country and the values it has or that it should have as a bedrock, have been a main focus of the Pope's discourses during his state visit.

"The love of our country has, in all times, been a subject of warm commendations; and it is certainly a noble passion; but like all other passions; it requires regulation and discretion. There are mistakes and prejudices by which, in this instance, we are in particular danger of being misled"

These words of Richard Price have not always been accepted, and still are not universally accepted today. There are many, especially of the Left, who are at best suspicious of and at worst hostile to love of country. They pursue as much as possible the annulment of anything that marks the UK as different from other nations, and they tend to be devoted to the supra-national institutions such as the European Union and United Nations. Sadly at the other extreme we have those who's view of national love descends into a rejection of the other and develops an unpleasant arrogance and jingoism that brings only conflict and sadness in its wake. But a regard for our nation does not have to be based on a superior view of ourselves when compared to others as Price said on that very topic;

"to found, therefore, this duty (love of country) on such a preference, would be to found it on error and delusion. It is however a common delusion.

We owe a debt of love and allegiance to our country irrespective of how successful its institutions are, and irrespective of how much better and noble other countries might be. The greater our ability to make a difference for good, the greater the duty. So just as we have a greater obligation to members of our own families than we do to strangers, likewise we have a greater duty to our own country.

"It is proper I should desire you particularly to distinguish between love of our country and the spirit of rivalship and ambition which has been common among nations..forming men into combinations and factions against their common rights and liberties." This teaching of Price reminds me why I have always been slightly uncomfortable with the fact that the most passionate patriotism seems to rise at times of international sporting competitions. Nothing is wrong with such competitions (except the occasional disruption to the regular television schedule :-) or the national pride that accompanies them, but the fact that we only really celebrate our country when in competition with others, or when we commemorate the wars fought with others, perhaps leads to a truncated view of national pride which does not necessarily elevate us.

The world has always been divided by tribe, nation, religion and state, and often those not belonging to one's own group were not deemed to have any intrinsic value let alone rights. The Spartans had no regard for the Helots, who they happily enslaved and even, horrifically, used their murder as initiations for young Spartan men. Many tribal societies from the Celts to Native Americans saw very little wrong in leading raids on neighbouring tribes. And then in the middle east, a different voice was heard. A voice that proclaimed (long before Darwin) that all humans come from the same origin and are ultimately one family. This voice bestowed eternal value on the human person and declared all to be bound by bonds of brotherly duty, under the Parenthood of God. This voice became the national constitution of a small people called Israel and in time one of its sons born(?) and raised in Nazareth, taught these valuable lessons to those who had lost their way, and by the Grace of God, these teachings spread beyond the boundaries of Judea and Galilee and throughout the world people of different nations and tribes began to realise that they were part of a larger family. Sadly this voice has not always been listened to. Which is a great shame because as Price said;

"Nothing can be more friendly to the general rights of mankind, and were it duly regarded and practised, every man would consider every other man as his brother, and all the animosity that now takes place among contending nations would be abolished. If you want any proof of this, think of our saviour's parable of the Good Samaritan."

Loving our Neighbour as Jesus taught, is right alongside loving God. Indeed how can one love God and not love His children?

A country should serve the people who live in it. Its ministers should be the servants of the people, their power used only for the benefit of the public square. Richard Price gave his own view as to what goals should underpin our nation, and Pope Benedict XVI expressed sentiments these past days that share an echo with these words spoken over two hundred years ago;

"The chief blessings of human nature are the three following: Truth-Virtue-and Liberty. These are, therefore, the blessings in the possession of which the interest of our country lies, and to the attainment of which our love of it ought to direct our endeavours. By the diffusion of knowledge it must be distinguished from a country of barbarians: by the practice of religious virtue it must be distinguished from a country of gamblers, atheists and libertines: and by the possession of liberty, it must be distinguished from a country of slaves." I would add that perhaps the meaning of atheist in his day is somewhat different from ours, as I personally can vouch for the integrity and virtue of those atheists I happen to know. However I like Price "recommend religion, by making it appear to be (what it certainly is when rightly understood) the strongest incentive to all that is generous and worthy, and consequently the best friend to public order and happiness".

Sadly in our country as in many, religion has been firmly attached to the state, and instead of leading the country in humility, kindness, respect, virtue and peace, has instead been enslaved to the state's desire for power and adulation. The First World War was perhaps one of the biggest disasters to effect religion in the UK. The public disillusionment in the aftermath of that war, and the overturning of the gentle development that preceded it, did huge damage to the credibility and message of many faith groups, none so much as the established church which strongly placed its imprimatur on that conflict. As a result the spirit was removed from British life, and before long, the lifeless conventions that had once been living supports that maintained identity and piety began to collapse, not unlike many of our historic buildings that came crashing down as a result of Sixties neophile aspirations. And as night follows day, the certainty that this new culture would come to despise authority and usher in a crass and increasingly less gentle time, was sadly all too predictable. During our recent General Elections, I was personally revolted by the disrespectful way by which people addressed leading ministers. Debate is needed, argument valuable and our politicians must be held to account, but heckling them in public, taking narcissistic pride in shouting down those who are imbued by us with the dignity of office? Is this really necessary? It was too much for me, and presumably would also have been for Richard price as he wrote:

"A disdainful pride, derived from a consciousness of equality, or, perhaps superiority, in respect of all that gives true dignity to men in power, and producing a contempt of them, and a disposition to treat them with rudeness and insult".

Such behaviour, also evident in some of the gross caricatures of the Pope and his teachings on display these last few days, is not only unproductive but ultimately demeans us all.

And so today as I saw and heard the spitfires fly over my home I thought about the bravery and sacrifice of those who defended us not so long ago. Could I have jumped into a plane, taken off into the sunny skies all the while knowing that I was very likely to die? I would hope that I could have done, but I am far from sure. All I know is that all of us, including those who reject through noble conscience, any involvement in violence and war, owe a great debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who worked to ensure that the UK remained a bastion of freedom in a continent that was consumed by tyranny. These brave souls ensured that the Jewish refugee Kinder-transport children, could study and live in peace among the good people of Shefford, they ensured that help could then be provided from these shores to the crushed people of Europe. Of this we should all give thanks to God. Perhaps a donation to their present day compatriots would be a good way of expressing our gratitude.

The Pope's visit to the UK was most certainly welcome. Not simply because our Catholic brothers and sisters were given the opportunity to celebrate their faith, but because he spoke words, some of which give us much cause to think. Much reason to reflect. We must realise that the direction this country is to travel in, is in our hands, as much as it was in the hands of the RAF pilots of yesteryear, and we must avoid falling into the limiting trap of party politics or the corrosive pastime of bemoaning this policy or that public funding cut, but instead we should focus on the bigger picture. The Knowledge-Virtue-and Liberty of our own National Family.

A Discourse on the Love of our Country is a jewel of our Unitarian and British heritage. Read it, read it all.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Good & Evil

"I am the Lord and there is no other, who forms light and creates darkness; who makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord, Maker of all these" Isaiah 45:6-6

I was very pleased to receive a profound comment to my previous post from Yewtree. And I am only sad that I have neither the time and certainly not the wisdom to address the points raised in an adequate fashion. I hope that my limited best helps, if nothing else, to illuminate my opinions regarding this matter.

In response to my stating that God is the originator of good and evil, and that it is He who sets the moral boundary over which we should not cross, Yewtree responded:

"That may be the case (though I don't believe in a creator deity, nor that "his" will alone is the originator of good and evil), but how do you know which moral limits are set by the creator, and which are merely attributed to "him" by fallible humans?

I recommend Godless Morality by Richard Holloway, which explains how, even if you believe in God, it is dangerous to claim that human moral codes are divinely inspired or dictated."

I shall firstly try and explain why I feel that the very existence of the concepts of good and evil, find their foundation in the existence and the will of our Father in Heaven.

One could, and many do, view the Universe as a product of natural forces and laws. The laws of nature, and why they are the way that they are, are very seldom delved into fundamentally. They are often stated as axiomatic truths. The foundation of an argument that is not to be questioned. But even still I am sure either now or in the future someone will offer a plausible explanation for the existence of ordered and ordering rules of existence. Such a universe has no Creator and as such no meta-purpose for its existence. It just is! There is no aim, design or purpose behind its myriad phenomena. In such a world right and wrong have no inherent reality and no fundamental purpose. So if one holds to such a view of the Universe, and some disciples of that view include Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Michael Portillo(!) then one, if being honest with oneself, and the above mentioned gentlemen are, is forced to conclude that right and wrong; good and evil are simply human constructs. Created by people to order society, or perhaps originating as an evolutionary mechanism for self preservation. So murder is equivalent to a shark killing a seal. Adultery is equivalent to the behaviour of the local neighbourhood tom cat. Theft is equivalent to a hermit crab taking over the shell of another animal. In all these cases the act is wrong only because we humans and our society define it as so. And as we change in our views, so our ideas of right and wrong change. Hence there is no absolute moral law, and in a very short space of time what might have been regarded as a hideous crime might come to be viewed as a virtue.

I do not subscribe to such a philosophy.

I look at the world around me, the cosmos above me and I see the work of a Mind. A singular mind with a purpose that unites all in its compass. Reason leads me to accept that this mind is the mind of God. The cause without a cause. In addition reason leads me to accept that the tradition faithfully passed down, recording God's revelation to mankind is true. This corroborates the knowledge of God I have already derived from creation and from experience.

As a result I view the world as having a purpose. That there is a Judge and as such justice. That there is a Lawgiver and as such there is moral law. That there is a Father, therefore the Universe is filled with love. Following from this I conclude that murder is not equivalent to a shark killing a seal, but is instead an absolute and eternal evil. Adultery is not equivalent to the local tom cat, but is a fundamental and eternal evil. That theft is not equivalent to a hermit crab taking the shell of another, but is a basic and real evil. Not because man has deemed them so, but because it is written into the very scrip of existence. And as such it does not matter what rationalisations we make for transgressing these moral absolutes, it makes no difference how much society changes, these things and others, remain forever wrong, and lead us away from our destiny and our God. And God has given us the ability to choose which path to walk on. This can be regarded as a proclamation of freedom, and was viewed as such by many a dictatorial state who as a result attempted to destroy religion. No dictator has the power to define right and wrong for me. I stand alone before God.

But truly there is a danger. How do I know what is God's immutable law, and what is the invention of man attributed to the celestial Judge? And if I think something to be God's will then what is to stop me from forcing it onto others, after all surely by doing so I would be fulfilling His will? And what of all those who witness beliefs or morals that conflict with mine and yet hold them to also be from the Eternal?

Clearly it is right for people to shine a powerful beam of observation, on the damage that has been caused and goes on being caused by people of all faiths and none, believing that they have a right or a sacred duty to crush others beneath the tablets of their own divine law. But it does not follow that all who accept a God-given moral code necessarily act in oppressive ways.

I can only give you my approach to this question.

Each and every day of my life I try (and so often fail) to strive for truth. As I have said, I believe as reliable and rational the truth of that tradition which is found in the Holy Bible, the commandments of God as can be found in the Bible and as taught by the sages of Israel, which are so beautifully elucidated by Jesus of Nazareth. To this I add my conscience and reason. I try and examine every law every teaching, to understand it in the light of experience. I work to avoid the trap of personal bias which can often lead us to pick and choose that which suits our desires, and can reduce religion to self worship. This is the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven that I take upon myself. And the key word there is "myself". I know that I could be wrong. I know that I, like all people, am limited in what I can know.I know I don't have all the answers, far from it. As a result I would never seek to impose what I regard as the truth on anyone else. The only one I impose it on, is me. And as such I attempt to keep an open mind, to learn from all those around me.

For certain I would seek to persuade others of what I regard as truth, and dissuade them from what I believe is wrong,just as all others seek to do the same with me. Ultimately in free societies, the best protectors against submission to the beliefs of others, we come to compromise and majority decisions. We work together on our common ground, and we respect, or if this is not possible, we tolerate our respective differences. This is a major feature of Unitarianism now and in the past. And can also be found in the tradition of our Anglican brethren as well as in other denominations.

Ultimately I await the fulfilment of the words of the prayer taught to us by he who's teachings saved many from a life of confusion and darkness;

"Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" Matthew 6:9

And when that day comes, when the words of the Prophet are fulfilled:

"For the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Lord's glory, as the waters cover the seabed" Habakkuk 2:14

Then will all of us know for certain and without any doubt, that good and evil are not subjective human projections but are in fact a reality rooted in that ultimate of realities, God our Father and our King.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Opportunity for Repentance and Atonement

"And you will return unto the Lord your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today...with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord your God..will have mercy on you..He will do good to you." Deuteronomy 30:2-6

As the sun sets this Wednesday, the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, is ushered in. This day is not simply a day of celebration but it also commences, and is itself, a period of introspection and repentance.

Traditionally the New Year is seen as the anniversary of God's creation of mankind. On this day it is believed that God examines the lives of every single human being, and decrees what events will occur in the following year for each individual. Jewish tradition allocates the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as days of repentance. During these days people are bidden to make a self accounting of their deeds and goals, repent of all wrongdoings and make resolutions for the coming year. This reaches a crescendo during the intensely holy Day of Atonement, during which observant Jews abstain from all food and drink for 25 hours, and dedicate the entire day to communion with God in prayer with the aim of full and truthful repentance, to be followed by the blessing of God's graceful atonement.

Repentance is an enduring theme in the Bible and is central to the teaching of our teacher Jesus. "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" were some of the earliest words of his ministry.

In some ways repentance has fallen out of favour in our own day. People have chipped away at the notion of sin, and as such the need for repentance. Numerous excuses or rationalisations have arisen to deny responsibility for bad behaviour. The idea of right and wrong has been watered down by a relativist Zeitgeist which makes a sin of almost nothing other than judgementalism. I exaggerate but not by much. The notions of individualism and freedom, central to our Unitarian outlook, have on occasion, sadly led to a belief that there is no absolute right and wrong. That morality can in some sense be privatised.

But the undeniable reality is that there is an objective good and bad, and sadly we all sin. But what is sin? Two prominent Hebrew words for sin aveira and pesha have slightly different meanings which may cast some light, Aveira comes from the root to transgress, to go over a boundary one should never cross. Pesha comes from the root to rebel. Ultimately it is the Creator of existence who decides what is right and what is wrong. His will alone is the originator of Good and Evil. And He sets the moral limits over which we dare not cross. And Blessed is He who revealed to us in the words of His prophets and in the conscience which is bound to our heart, the parameters of what is good and brings life, and that which is evil and leads to death. And blessed is He who has given us the free will to choose which path to walk on.

But as we are told by King Solomon, "there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not." All of us do wrong for any number of reasons and have any number of temptations pushing us to step over the threshold of sin. From shouting or speaking cruelly to our loved ones to neglecting our duties to those around us, daily we fail to live up to our calling to "be perfect, just as your Father is perfect". But the same Father who gives us this calling awaits our repentance and is "near to those who call on Him with sincerity".

Forgive me for writing in full the Parable of the Lost Son, but I find it's beauty mesmerising.

" A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me". So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered together, journeyed to a far country and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent it all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him Father I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants". And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him "Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son". But the father said to his servants "bring out the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet and bring the fatted calf here and kill it. And let us eat and be merry, for this, my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found". And they began to be merry. Now his older son was in the field, And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing so he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him "your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound your father has killed the fatted calf" But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, "lo, these many years I have been serving you, I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends, But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him". And he said to him "son you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found". Luke 15:11-32

The symbolism in this parable is wonderful. Consider that it was not an unprovoked attack of conscience that drove the son back to his father. It was the famine that reduced him to live amongst pigs, eating husks, that finally opened his heart. So clearly Jesus is telling us that even one who repents from a fear of punishment or as a result of suffering ("E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me") is not rejected, despite his motivation not being the purest but is instead brought "nearer my God to thee". Secondly even when the son is still a considerable distance from home, his father sees him and runs to him. Jesus is teaching us that we only need to begin that journey home to God, and our Father arrives at our side to accompany us home!

These concepts are also found in the words of the Jewish Rabbis who taught in the Midrash; "The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle's eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and camels"

We must never forget that God desires our repentance and awaits the smallest effort on our part to reach out to Him, and then He responds completely disproportionately to our own contributions. We too must endeavour to act likewise to those who have harmed us. When they turn back to us, we must go out of our way to bring them back into our friendship and love.

So let us pause to take stock of our lives. Let us examine our lives to see if we are using them and all the gifts that we are given, to serve our Father and His creations our brothers and sisters. Let us learn what He expects of us, by studying the words of His scripture and listening to the words of His servant Jesus. Let us create moments of quiet and tranquillity to listen to the voice of God, speaking through our consciences. Let us focus on those around us, to see if our actions have and continue to cause them pain or happiness. And when we find a deficiency in any of these areas, let us confess to ourselves and to God our wrongdoings. Let us resolve not to fall into those ways again. Let us pray for God's mercy. And finally let us rejoice in the knowledge that the King of the Universe is with us guiding us home.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote; "If self is to be the end of exertions, those exertions are unholy - there is no doubt of that - and that is part of the danger in cultivating the Individual Life; but I do believe we have all some appointed work to do, which no one else can do so well; which is our work; what we have to do in advancing the Kingdom of God; and that first we must find out what we are sent into the world to do, and define it and make it clear to ourselves (that is the hard part) and then forget ourselves in our work, and our work in the end, we ought to strive to bring about.

May the coming New Year bring blessings to us all, and may we all find our appointed work, and strive to fulfil it in happiness and joy.