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2nd Sunday of Advent 2011 – “Cry Freedom”   1 comment

Theme for week 2: “Valuing Humanity”

The Bible passages set for today are: Isaiah 40: 1-5, 2 Peter 3: 8-14 and Mark 1: 1-8

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

[Isaiah 40: 1-2 KJV]

I can not read the opening verses of Isaiah 40 without hearing the words in my head as set to music in Handle’s oratorio “The Messiah”.

This is prophecy as comfort: things will get better. That sentiment is so well conveyed in Handel’s music.

Isaiah then goes on to pen words that seem to so closely prefigure John the Baptist approximately 750 years later:

A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
[Isaiah 40: 3 NIV]

Mark when he set down his Gospel account of Jesus’ life and teachings begins not with what we now know as Christmas story, his birth, but by referencing this verse from Isaiah and telling the story of John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

[Mark 1: 1-3 NIV]

The nature of prophecy (a personal view)

I think of prophecy as primarily two interlinked roles.  Firstly of understanding and speaking out against the evils or injustices of the day and then of envisaging what the future might become.  The oft thought of, to me distinct, third role of “predicting” the future I understand as something people understand in hindsight and regard it as a less important, and an often abused aspect.

I think prophets, at least religious ones, are people who might poetically be described as being “sensitive to the heart of the divine.”  They have the gift somehow of discerning something of what God “feels” about a situation.  They express this in their sayings or writings often in a poetic form.  This applies both to their analysis of the present and their hopes for the future.

So in the above example Isaiah envisages a time in the future when a voice cries out it wilderness to prepare the way for God, so that His glory “shall be revealed” [Isaiah 40: 5].  Then centuries later Mark would have been familiar with this words because they would have been read regularly in the temple and the synagogue.  When he sets out to write his Gospel and he thinks of the story of John the Baptist which had probably been recalled to him by others, he makes the poetic link.  I see some similarity between this and the various times during the writing of these reflections that I have recalled bit of the Bible that I may not have read since my teens or twenties.  So the prophetic link is made from the present back to the writings of the past.

There are numerous such prophetic links made from he Gospel stories back to the writings of what we now call the Old Testament from hundreds of years before.  Some of these are specifically pointed out by the Gospel writers some are highlighted by subsequent scholars or preachers. Some people sceptically think these links were written into the stories to give them weight. In other words they accuse the Gospel writers of fitting their narrative to the prophecies from the older scriptures. I do not believe that this process was so cynically manipulating. I find it hard believe that the Gospels were fabricated to dupe people.  They were an attempt by the authors to give a true and meaningful account. Tradition has it that both St Matthew and St Mark died a martyrs death. That was the fate of many early Christians. It is difficult to believe someone would die for something they thought was a lie.  However they were writing decades after the events they recorded.  The nature of memory and story telling is that the story may evolve on repeated telling. So it seems possible to me that the detail of the narrative is reported so that the prophetic link is made obvious. For me the truth of scripture is not in the minute of its detail but in what can be discerned about God’s interaction with man in a diverse account spanning approximately 1,500 years of history in one part of the world.

Prophetic roles today

The title for today of “Cry Freedom” is most closely in my mind associated with the struggle from apartheid in South Africa.  It is the title of the 1987 film, directed by Richard Attenborough, based on the writings of journalist Donald Woods, focussing on the story of Woods himself and the real-life events involving black activist Steve Biko.    Biko was a person who envisioned a better future for the black Peoples of South Africa and campaigned for it.  A famous slogan of his was “black is beautiful” addressing the twisted attitudes represented in apartheid and sadly held by many white people.

The notes for today’s reflections cite the example of Aung San Suu Kyi and the ongoing struggle in Burma (Myanmar) from political oppression.  The notes highlight here practice of meditation and its importance in her personal life and the political struggle. It is she says the greatest aim of her life, to seek for purity of mind. In this purity, she is able to see the fear, not only in her own people, but also in their opponents

I can readily regard Steve Biko and Aung San Suu Kyi as examples of modern-day prophetic voices.  There envisioned a brighter future and spoke out clearly against the injustices (the evils) they saw all around them in the present.  Beyond that they were politically active in trying to bring about these visions which I would regard as an activist role that is not always part of being prophetic in this sense.

What about me?

As an aside I wrote a brief account here of my own practice of meditation as it has been raised in the example of Aung San Suu Kyi.  I have moved this to a separate blog post: Meditation (me personal practice).

In the post entitled “Introducing Others“, I outlined how I did not see my role, my calling as being one of evangelism.  Do I have a prophetic role?  Maybe in a very small way I do.  In my work I am often pointing out to “the University” how things might possibly be done better in terms of meeting the needs of our 13,000+ disabled students; in enabling their learning.  Sometimes it feels like being a “voice crying in the wilderness” [Isaiah 40: 3 and Mark 1: 3].  However, just in this last year, some of the opportunities for improvement that were envisioned by a small group of us a decade ago have begun to be established in structures, roles and practice across the university.


Posted December 4, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Advent 2011 Reflections

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Friday 2 December 2011 – “Spilling the beans”   Leave a comment

The Bible Passages set for today were: Isaiah 29: 17-24 and Matthew 9: 27-31.

The title for today comes from the story in Matthew of two blind men who followed Jesus asking him to “have mercy” on them.  After Jesus had healed them he charged them to tell no one but they could not hold their excitement in and basically told one and all; they “spilled the beans”!  I had some thoughts about this when I  was meditating on the passages but I will leave them to the end of this blog post because it was not the main theme.

My professional area of work for the last 20 years has been technology for disabled people.  While I have seen my work as a vocation, dare I say a calling from God, surprisingly I do not remember really thinking through the relationship between my work and the way disability is represented in the Bible.  However I am aware that that representation offends and even angers some disabled people.   Disability is represented in both of today’s passages; let me quote the relevant bits:

In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.
[Isaiah 29:18 NIV]

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”
When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”
“Yes, Lord,” they replied.
Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored.
[Matthew 9:27-30 NIV]

My work is not about healing but it is about enabling.  I undertake research and have an internal consultancy role at the Open University, contributing to its efforts to ensure the needs of disabled people at met in the on-line delivery of its courses. In some ways this fulfils the prophecies of Isaiah.  In a video of someone reading “from a scroll” subtitles (captions to the Americans) or sign language interpreters, presented in the video, enable the “deaf to hear”.  When a blind person studies an on-line component of an Open University course they can access both the text and descriptions of any diagrams through screen-readers.  These are tools that convert the text on the computer into either synthesised speech or Braille on a refreshable display. It is not exactly seeing but it certainly lifts a blind person “out of the gloom and darkness” in an on-line context.  [This is not the place to discuss the subtleties of my work but there is a link to my work related blog on the navigation bar above.] The point is there is, at some level, something comparable between the biblical prophecies and accounts of “healings” and the hoped for outcomes of my work.

One question frequently asked now, and I am sure has been asked all down the centuries, is:

  • If Jesus could heal, why did he not heal everyone that was sick?

Although I am sure I must have asked this question over the years it has never been one that has overly troubled me.  Some people struggle to accept that there could be a loving God that is this partial.  My perspective is wrapped up in my understanding of what miracles are.  I do not believe that God changes the laws of physics or biology, more broadly  the laws of nature, at a particular time and place to effect a miracle.  I think that miracles are possible but unlikely events that are then transformed by God in the lives of people concerned, and indirectly in the lives of some who hear the accounts.   So if you like, the miracle is not the event but the way it is subsequently interpreted.  So in the above story the transformation in the lives of the two blind men it seems reasonable to assume that not only could they now see, but their emotional and spiritual lives were transformed too.

Now, I have no framework for the link between faith and the occurrence of  such miracles. It is one of many things I leave under the category of “a mystery”.  Mysteries are very important in religious life and I have found that growth occurs sitting with them often for years.

There is a real danger in this link between faith and healing, for some Christians, facing life threatening illness say.  They can get into a mind-set that says: if only I have enough faith I will be healed.  Then if they are not it becomes a point of personal condemnation: my faith was insufficient; they blame themselves.  For those facing death this can create a real barrier to a “good death”.  My own thoughts about a strategy for this situations should I ever face it is to follow Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified:

And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
[Matthew 26:39 KJV]

The link between my work and the Biblical accounts of healing continues in this question of: why doesn’t Jesus/God heal everyone?   The technical or other interventions I propose may help in some situation not in others.  In some cases what we do to help one group of students, disadvantages another.  I think there is a point to ponder there when we question: why does not God act? There would usually be knock on consequences for others that we probably can not see.  Especially if you think of God interacting with every individual over all time.

I said I would return to the story of the two blind men and them, as I picture it, running off throughout the area telling anyone they could find that Jesus has healed them; despite that fact that Jesus had instructed them to tell no one.

Firstly, as a teenager I remember wondering why in numerous accounts in the Gospels Jesus gives similar instructions to tell no one.  I have never arrived at a convincing answer. Was it that he did not want to stir up trouble with the political and religious authorities?  At other times he appears to court such trouble.  Did he have an understanding that his message was only for a few at that stage?  I don’t know.

Secondly, as the notes for today suggested, would you be able to keep your excitement in if you had been blind but now you could see?  I have one particular memory where I experienced such similar excitement: the first time I used the formal sacrament of confession.

It was on my second, I think, ever monastic retreat, at an Anglican Benedictine monastery, now closed, called Nashdom Abbey. I was about 24 and a member of an Evangelical Free Church.  The old monk that was guiding my retreat was very deaf in one ear and always sat me on that side.  I took that as a sign for him to talk and me to listen.  He asked directly: “do you make your confession?”, not wanting to offend I said something like: “it’s not part of my normal practice”.  Without any hesitation of discussion he just said: “well I think it should be!”.  I then spent a day or so reading around the subject, decided that it “was Biblical”, and asked if I could make my confession at the end of the retreat.  I spent a couple of days preparing for this, reflectively trying to recall and writing down all my “sins” of the past 20 years.  I made solemnly made my confession, received a notional penance as was instructed to go and burn the sheets of paper with all my sins on.  I experienced such a euphoric sense of “I’m forgiven!“.   I had been brought up in a Christian home within a tradition that largely thought becoming a Christian was an event that happened at a fixed time and place. Some of my contemporaries who were converts had experienced a similar sensation at that time but I have effectively for all my living memory “been a Christian”.  Well, its difficult to go shouting for joy round a monastery but when I got home I wanted to tell all my friends about this experience.

So it is in recalling this incident over 25 years ago now I can empathise with the two blind men in today’s Gospel reading.