PHHHT, PHHHT, PHHHT

I once read an article on Jesus’ parable about the great feast in Luke 14 where there was a scramble amongst some of the guests to get seats at or near the top table.

Jesus saw that this shabby scramble for the places of honour showed they weren’t there to honour their host, but to honour themselves. Then he had a word for his host about giving – giving is at the heart of the Gospel – and is at the heart of Christian life. But not all giving is the genuine article, is it? The writer suggested a story that Jesus might have used to cover this aspect.

A chap called Nicholas, who had a great reputation for generosity, died and went to heaven. St Peter met him at the gate. There he showed him two piles of gold, one small and one large, made up of nuggets of varying sizes.

“What are these?” Nicholas asked.

“They are the acts of giving you performed on earth – one nugget for each act.”

Nicholas’s heart filled with pride. But then Peter said, “I’m sorry Nicholas, sad to say not all giving is true giving. A lot of it is tainted with self interest. So we’ll have to run a test on your acts of giving. By the way, the nuggets in the larger pile don’t count.”

“How come?” Nicholas asked.

“They represent all the gifts you gave to your friends, relatives, cronies, and so on. They don’t constitute real gold. Even gangsters are good to their own.” With a PHHHT the nuggets in the larger pile turned to dust. Peter took a sieve which had large meshes in it, and placed the nuggets from the smaller pile in it. After he had shaken it he was left with the biggest nuggets in the sieve.

“What are you doing now?”asked Nicholas.

“I’m removing those gifts you only gave to get something in return. Such giving is a kind of investment. You get it back, sometimes with a handsome profit.” With that he tossed the nuggets aside, and with a PHHHT they turned to dust. Then he made the mesh of the sieve smaller, put the remaining nuggets into it, shook it and once again tossed aside those that remained. PHHHT

“What was that for?” Nicholas asked.

“That removed the good deeds you did so as to win the praise of others. One can make an idol of oneself through giving.” Peter then made the mesh finer still , putting the remaining nuggets into it. As he did so he said, “Now we’ll remove the good deeds you did simply for the good feeling you got from doing them.”

Nicholas watched him toss the nuggets that got caught in the sieve into the air where with the now familiar PHHHT they turned into dust. Again Peter gathered up the remaining ones an put them into the sieve having made the mesh finer still.

“What now?” asked Nicholas.

“Now we’ll extract all those things you gave only out of a sense of duty.” He shook the sieve, The nuggets that remained were then tossed aside and they suffered the same fate as the others. PHHHT!

“Stop!” Nicholas cried, “If you go on like this, there won’t be anything left. Then how will I earn my passport to heaven?”

“We should go on,” said Peter. “We should look at the cost of your giving. Suppose we removed the things you gave but which you never missed, how much would disappear? And what of the gifts you gave merely because the receiver was someone you felt deserved your gift?”

But poor Nicholas wasn’t listening any more. “It’s a terrible feeling to have gold within your reach, and then have it snatched from you.” He cried.

Peter said, “Or if it turns out not to be real gold but fool’s gold. Ah, Nicholas, real giving is very rare, just as real gold is very rare. To give without expecting anything in return, least of all the great prize of heaven, that is what constitutes real giving. . . . But cheer up, I’ve got good news for you.”

“What good news?” asked Nicholas.

“The Lord is the greatest giver of all. His acts of giving are pure gold. But we’ve talked long enough. It’s time to meet the Lord himself.”

“But I’m empty handed!” Nicholas cried.

“That only means you’re poor,” Peter replied, “But never fear. The Lord gives most generously to those who are poor and are not ashamed to admit it. So let’s go.”

I wonder, is that story relevant to us? It is, regrettably, relevant to me.

Max Young

It says in the Bible . . . Are you listening?

A recent article in my newspaper (18th May) told of a man in Blyth being convicted for keeping four men as slaves and it reminded me of some reading I did on the slave trade some 10 or so years ago.

In 1788 a Jesuit called Fr Raymond Harris published a little book called ‘Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade, Shewing its conformity with the principles of natural and revealed Religion, delineated in the Sacred Writings of the Word of God.’ Harris, as was not unusual at the time, assembled a list of quotes from the Bible showing that slavery was part of the natural order – and one of the most important proofs came from Philemon, the shortest book in the New Testament. Harris’s reasoned that St Paul had told Philemon to take back Onesimus as a slave; and that meant slavery was sanctioned as an institution. Therefore the slave trade that was such a good profit-making enterprise and financially beneficial to the ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol was also sanctioned by the Bible. Harris used the Book of Philemon to defend a gruesome trade in human cargo.

A book that repudiated Harris’ claim was written in the following year by a former African slave. His book was called ‘The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.’ The book told of his life and how he educated himself mainly via the Bible and eventually bought himself out of slavery for £40.

In his memoirs he took Fr Harris to task –saying what was important was that Philemon was asked to take Onesimus back as a brother – and that meant that masters were to exercise brotherly love towards their slaves. And what is more, Equiano thought that since at the time when Paul was writing Christians held all things in common, then there was no way that Philemon would be allowed to keep his slave as his own private property. In the end he thought that Paul was actually not defending the slave trade at all, but attacking the very institution, not just of slavery, but of the holding of property altogether; and that meant of course that if there was no property there would be no slaves.

He concluded with a pretty blunt message to Fr Harris: “of this epistle which you cite strongly in favour of slavery, when the whole tenor of it is in behalf of the slave. Besides who would lose out if slavery was abolished? Perhaps the manufacturers of neck-yokes, chains, collars, handcuffs and leg-boots.”

John Wesley brought Equiano’s book to the attention of William Wilberforce and other anti-slavery campaigners. What Equiano was doing, which was so different from Fr Harris, was opening the Bible and letting it speak to him, instead of distorting it to make it fit his own words. He spoke to the Bible from his own world and it answered him back.

And that was not universally the case for all books, “I have often taken up a book, and talk to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in the hope it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.” But the Bible was different – he addressed it from his situation and it spoke back to him.

By taking his question to the Bible, Equiano received an answer quite unlike those who merely found what they were looking for. He didn’t conform to any stereotype and perhaps because of this, his answers were original – in Philemon, St Paul was heard speaking afresh and he began to say something quite different. Slaves were not commodities but human beings; and perhaps even more importantly, certainly for William Wilberforce, they were human beings who would hear the Gospel.

It was through his act of open listening that Equiano’s Bible was allowed to speak to him and eventually it silenced the other voices of inequality and oppression; it shook a world which had grown all too comfortable in slavery. And it seems to me, if there were a bit more listening going on – not least to the Bible, then the churches might not be quite so divided, and there might be a bit more listening to those who have been cast outside the net of believers.

In fact there are many people who fear the Bible because they think it might say something that threatens their presuppositions about the kind of people God might love; but if we were to listen more carefully then things might begin to change – God loved slaves and condemned slavery and the Western world gradually accepted that message. And there may be many others whom he loves but who so often we seek to condemn.

Max Young

Just listen to those bells

The deadline for this article is the day before I’m involved in a Songs of Praise Service with the Vale of the White Horse Branch of the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers – an annual celebration in which they will make the following resolution:

Almighty God, you have called us to be bell ringers in your Church: make us united and faithful in your service, so that our ringing of the bells may be done to your glory and for the benefit of all your people. As bell-ringers, we dedicate our energy and skill to God’s glory, and determine that our ringing work will be our prayer. That is our resolve.

It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who coined the phrase, “Ring out, wild bells!” Why he said this, as an Englishman, I don’t know, because we don’t want to hear the clang and clash of chaotic continental bells. What we want to hear and relish is modulated, civilised, precise, and glorious English church bells, change ringing. Those beautiful tones that resound around English villages, towns, and cities and those places overseas that love the feel of England, bells calling the faithful to worship.

So let the bells ring out. Let them call us to worship almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed us how much he loves us by living amongst us and dying for us, a life and death costing not less than everything. Let the bells that call us to worship call those who ring them too. Let them call us, each one of us, to a life that offers worship to almighty God, to a life that puts the love of God above everything else, to a life that makes proper space for our relationship with God.

Here’s a bell-related story with a moral we need to heed. During WWII, one of the millions the Nazis sent to concentration camps was Corrie Ten Boom. She with her sister endured numerous indignities and humiliations and her parents died in the camps. After the war ended, she was freed, but found she was still ‘imprisoned’ by her hatred of those who had hurt her and her family. After much tears and prayer she finally succeeded in ridding herself of this hatred and began to speak churches throughout Europe trying to help others achieve the same objective.

She forgave person after person for what they had done. However there was one man whom she had great difficulty in forgiving. So she went to speak to her preacher. He thought about it for a few moments and then pointed to the bell rope hanging in the foyer.

“Do you see that bell rope?” he asked. “Every Sunday, the sexton pulls on the rope and rings that bell – announcing to the community that it is time for worship. As he pulls the rope, the bell rings ‘ding’, and ‘dong’, ding and dong. Eventually he lets go of the bell rope… but the bell, being heavy, still swings and rings ding, and dong, slower and slower until at last it stops ringing.”

“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep niggling away. They’re just the ding dongs of the old bell slowing down. But the key thing is this: you’ve got to let go of the bell rope. You’ve got stop tugging at your grievances over and over again… or you’ll never forgive. So, have you let go of the bell rope?

Is there someone you have never forgiven for something they did to you in the past? Is there someone who – if you met them in the street, you’d try to avoid because their very presence makes you angry? Is there someone at ‘The Peace’ in church that you miss out? Is there someone who, when you hear their name mentioned, it sets your teeth on edge?

Then you need to let go of the bell rope. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”.
Let me end with some words from Longfellow –

The bells are the best of preachers,
their brazen lips are learn-ed teachers,
from their pulpits of stone, in the upper air,
sounding aloft, without crack or flaw,
shriller than trumpets under the Law,
Now a sermon and now a prayer.

Max Young

Wassail! or Cheers! Happy Christmas! or Merry Winterval!

I have been trying to reinstate the word ‘WASSAIL’ (Old English meaning “be healthy”) to replace the meaningless ‘Cheers’, as a greeting, farewell and a toast. Some people also use ‘cheers’ to mean, ‘thankyou’, a word that needs emphasising rather than changing.

I seem to remember that about 20 years ago Birmingham Council officials decided that, in their multi-cultural city, ‘Christmas’ was a word not to be used. Instead they invented “Winterval”.

What an uproar that caused! Can you just imagine Christmas being, as it were, cancelled? Some, including millions of turkeys and acres of Christmas trees, might welcome the thought, and some people too, of no Christmas Cards, stocking fillers, expensive presents, tinsel and Gift-wrap. But the flip side is that shops would go bankrupt; children would be disappointed that there wouldn’t be a pile of e-gadgets, computer games, robots and drones, piled under the Christmas tree; and tubby white bearded chaps in red coats would face early redundancy.

“Winterval”- how insulting that must have felt to the good Christians of Birmingham! It must also have upset the many Muslims and Hindus who celebrated the holiday as well as their own festivals of Eid and Diwali. In that year Advent in the city of Winterval was a time of controversy.

This year amidst all the hustle and bustle of the preparations I hope that there will be time for us to prepare to meet the child Jesus and to celebrate God’s life-changing, hope-giving intervention in our world.

We can learn from the past – remember the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth – old people with no children – the angel’s message to Zechariah? Zehariah was a good and committed Jew who knew the prophets’ words about a Messiah. But he didn’t know just how important a part he and Elizabeth would play in the arrival of this Messiah.

And here we are in the present. We will all have looked with awe and wonder at the almost miraculous sight of a new-born child – no matter who’s it is. The marvel of such perfection. At that stage it is difficult not to feel God’s presence in the child whom we see as a symbol of hope – a new, pure, unspoilt life with unknown and vast potential. Zechariah knew his child was a unique messenger who would be the one who announced the Messiah at the start of his mission.

Today, Jesus’ Advent is into a world with huge distractions; into a world of massive indifference where people will take a full part in “Winterval”  but, sadly, not in Christmas. We must rejoice in the present and enjoy the sense of anticipation of his arrival and, importantly, communicate to all about us that Jesus was born to save sinners and their souls, not to cause us to flex our credit cards.

As we prepare for the future we need to ensure our birthday celebrations focus on the Christ-child and the wonderfully different future he offers to all. Zechariah used the words of Malachi to describe the gift the Messiah was bringing, he talked about the night – the haunt of darkness, bad dreams, fear and evil – being driven away by the sunrise. Isn’t that a wonderful picture? A picture of what he has done, does still, and will do. The present from Jesus under our tree is one of tender mercy that brings to an end our separation from God.

Although we can enjoy the fun, bright lights, TV repeats, pantos and everything else that “Winterval” brings, we know they won’t last. By New Year’s Eve they will definitely have lost some of their sparkle.

However, Christmas represents the unexpected joy brought about by our unorthodox God reaching down and offering to touch our lives. Try hard to accept his gift, because it will last; we will be forgiven so that we can start again; any darkness will disappear, because the light has come.

There may be some of you who remember the words of King George VI in the first Christmas broadcast of the World War II He was quoting Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of Christ.
That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

Don’t celebrate Winterval,
Celebrate Christmas! Wassail!

Max Young

St Bartholomew’s Day

Bartholomew? Isn’t he something to do with hospitals? Look him up and you’ll find he’s mentioned in the New Testament, usually alongside Philip, and in John’s gospel he’s identified as Nathaniel. Legend has it that after the Ascension Bartholomew preached the gospel in India before moving to Greater Armenia (The area between the Caspian and Black Seas). He is said to have been martyred in Albanopolis in Armenia, now known as Kruje some 20 km north of Tirana. In some accounts he was beheaded, but the popular version is that he was flayed alive before being crucified, head downward.

His remains are said to have been given to one of the first churches in the city of Dura-Europos in Syria but later, miraculously, were washed ashore on Lipari a small island to the north of Sicily before being moved to Benevento, 50 km north-east of Naples. Some of the relics were given to Frankfurt, and Canterbury and some to Rome where they were preserved in the basilica of his name. The basilica at some stage inherited an old pagan medical centre, which, over time, made the link between Bartholomew, medicine and hospitals.

But there are other associations. His martyrdom is commemorated on 24th August. On the same day: in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted killing 15,000; in 410 AD, Rome was overrun by the Visigoths, and in: 1349 AD, the Jews in Mainz were blamed for the Plague and 6,000 were killed.

In 1572, 223 years later, in France came the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. It started with the murders of the leaders of the Huguenots (French Calvinistic Protestants) ordered by the King Charles IX, but quickly developed into a mob-led bloodbath which left 3,000 dead in Paris and a total of 70,000 killed in all France.

Although the universal Church was later very thankful for the 16th century Reformation, it brought about a horrifying fanaticism and cruelty, all perpetrated in the name of God. The Bartholomew Day Massacre shows some of the tensions that come at times of religious ‘excitement’ and though I can’t imagine any of us killing for our version of the faith, we need to learn from this event because it might affect our own attitudes to some of our more annoying fellow Christians.

We need to be very careful about generalising about people even if we know they are part of what might be a persecuting movement. One of the enemies of the Huguenots, the Duke of Guise, who personally organised the murder of members of their leadership opened his house to the families of local Protestants and gave orders that they were to be treated kindly when under his roof. Some other Catholic leaders enabled other families to escape the butchery, being horrified that what started as a plot to kill only the leaders had turned into wholesale massacre.

To those who planned the event, such lenience shown by leading Catholics was shocking. The Papal Nuncio is said to have reported to the Pope that, “the only one who had acted in the spirit of a Christian and refrained from mercy, was the King; while the other princes, who pretended to be good Catholics and to deserve the favour of the Pope, had striven, one and all, to save as many Huguenots as they could.”

As Vicar Steve told us, we are all involved in mission, and we should be aware that we are handling what is potentially a very dangerous weapon. Although political, social and ethnic elements also feature in the conflicts that trouble our world, we can’t ignore the fact that religious differences are also used as levers to keep the pot of discontent on the boil. This can cause some people to adopt a very uncompromising stance because they feel that what God wants of them must be adhered to at all costs. For this very reason many people are turned away from religious conviction of any kind because they feel that it only fosters division and lack of toleration.

We, who believe that God’s demands are supreme, must also see that convictions about the details of what those demands are, differ greatly among good people in all generations, and so there just has to be moderation in all things. Only so, surely, can the distinction between faith and fanaticism, conviction and bigotry be drawn. Don’t let anyone deride the “liberal values” of toleration, respect for other peoples’ views or the belief in the common humanity that binds us all together. These things can’t be portrayed as ‘wishy-washy’ and motivated only by the desire to have no conflict, and to compromise at all costs; No, that is misrepresentation, because to stand for these values often requires as much courage, and sometimes causes as much conflict, as a stand for any value, when confronted by selfishness or zealotry.

Remember how the commonly accepted association of leadership with domination was reversed in Luke (22: 25-27) by linking it with service?

Can we use the anniversary of one of the awful events of religious cruelty to strengthen our prayers that such events, which keep recurring in our world, do not turn us or others into partisans wanting vengeance or retribution on whole groups of people, or even into generalisers who tar every one of our enemies with the same brush?

Give us all, Father God, a sense of proportion and zeal of moderation!

Max Young

Never Volunteer

You would have thought that in my seven years in a Royal Naval school and over twenty years in the Army I’d have become inured to withstand requests to volunteer for anything. They say the Army teaches soldiers two things: “If in doubt, put down smoke and go left”; and “Never volunteer for anything”.

“Never volunteer” – when asked for volunteers, soldiers become poker-faced, apparently deaf, and learn to reply, without havering or putting up questionable excuses that they regretted their inability to volunteer for this very worthy task but, unfortunately they already had a commitment. (probably confidential – need to know and all that.)

I’m afraid, I failed not to volunteer on a number of occasions – sorry for the double negative! One of them was back in about June last year when Margaret Starr cornered me and said something to the effect that she needed my expertise (flattery) – she had heard me telling of my time as an Army caterer. Within a very short time I found I had accepted the responsibility of assisting to produce a supper meal for sixty in the Barber Rooms at the end of November. And what a production team it was! Margaret was boss with Jeni Summerfield running the kitchen and a goodly team of cooks and helpers. Then Margaret suggested that it made good sense that the diners were given something to take home after the feast and that I should conceive and organise this ‘gift’. But what gift could I give? A number of possibilities crossed my mind – a bottle of water from South West Uganda? a small pack of Cheese straws? a block of chocolate moulded into the WATSAN Logo?, . . . .  or what? It was, I suppose the word ’gift’ that made me think of our God-given gifts or Talents and a very short hop from there to the parable to be found in both Mark and Luke.

But who would put down the ‘seed money’ for this venture? There were a number of possibilities, and happily, the first person I approached said they thought that their contribution would be rather like handing out starters for sourdough loaves, part of it would be combined with more flour and water and made into a loaf – and so the YEAST PROJECT  was born. YE Are So Talented!

Unlike the recipients of the Talents in Mark and Luke’s version of the parable, the Yeast Project recipients were self- selected and as in Luke’s version given the same amount each. The other difference is that to reduce any pressure on recipients, no names or records were kept – the counting was done in the same way as the counting of the collection of envelopes is carried out each Sunday with complete confidentiality. We know there were some big bags of talents from a number of volunteers, including one of £500! We also know that we/they enjoyed the challenge and met it in a number of different ways – using the money to buy blank CD’s and selling recordings of their work – making marmalade, cakes and  biscuits – using the talent to buy sausages and selling ‘bangers and mash’ lunches – giving talks – making sacrifices by gathering funds from what would have been normal expenditure and putting it in the ‘yeast pot’ instead – Running a stall on a Saturday morning – perhaps the envelope fillers could let me know what they did to achieve what was, in the end, a magnificent result.

Yeast Project envelopes counted thus far raised £2,131 – so WATSAN and the fund for Parish Mission in Faringdon will each receive £1,065.

Many, many thanks to all involved in any way with the Yeast Project, your efforts have been magnificently successful. Here’s what we prayed when the Talents were received and blessed on Easter Sunday:

Heavenly Father, we offer these gifts, raised through the talents you have given us, to help with the work of WATSAN in South West Uganda and here in our Mission in this parish. Half these gifts will go where we cannot go and help those we cannot see or reach ourselves in Uganda and; half will be used here with those we can both see and reach. Through these gifts may the ignorant be taught, the thirsty for water and the knowledge of Jesus be satisfied, and your Kingdom increased. We ask your blessing on these gifts, on all those who accepted the challenge to grow their talents and those who supported them – and on the work of WATSAN and our Mission here.  We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Max Young

Christianity—a Practical Religion

When we look around at the people we meet in Church, I’m sure we see a good number of practical people. And I’m sure that most of us would like to be thought of as practical people. We don’t hold dreamers or idealists in very high esteem, in fact we probably get rather impatient with some of their notions. OK, we may not see many visions, but we do like to get something done. Castles in the air are too wishy-washy for us. We want something solid that’s wind and weatherproof. Great ideas are all very well, but we have to deal with things as they are. There’s so little that gets done, and there’s so much to be done that we really haven’t got time for dreams.

The world needs workers and the best that we can do with what there is of our lives is to pack them as full as we can with practical usefulness. If you come across a lame dog by a stile, you know it wants something more than a stimulating talk on the art of jumping. Our duty is not to waste time in thinking how splendid it would be if there were no lame dogs and no difficult stiles in the world, but just to help the dog get over the stile.

I remember my Granny saying, “A pennyworth of practical help is worth a pound’s worth of sympathy any day of the week.” She wasn’t underrating the value of sympathy, but simply saying that if a pound’s worth of sympathy can’t be converted into at least a pennyworth of real human service, then that sympathy is a pretty poor thing. To feel pity and to do nothing makes an emotional luxury of something meant to stir us into giving practical help. Life is very short for all of us. If we want to leave our corner of the world a little cleaner, healthier, and brighter than when we found it, we need to cut down the talking and arguing about it and get on with the work required.

Christianity is a very practical religion with the aims of preaching the Gospel, healing the sick and blind, comforting the broken-hearted, freeing the oppressed. Practical programmes. There’s enough work to keep us busy for as long as we live.

Jesus was always at work. He was always doing good to somebody, sometimes preaching or teaching, healing, comforting, rebuking – always at work. And I don’t think we can really understand the Christian faith, unless we too are doing something for others. I may get into trouble for saying this, but some of the intellectual difficulties we have with our faith will never be solved by thinking. The only way in which we can see our way through them is by doing. It is by putting the precepts and principles of Christianity into practice, as much as we can, that we begin to understand them. Christ comes to meet us where  we are. If we are trying honestly to do our Christian duty, we shall find Jesus one day standing alongside us.

It’s amazing how many of life’s puzzles are solved when we set to and help others. We’ll never understand everything in this world. It isn’t as though we were sent into this world to make a sketch map of the universe. We shan’t be judged by what we understand but by what we do and were. God gives us all enough light to work by. It will be time enough to understand when we have finished the work that he has given us to do.

The life of the Christian is all coming and going – coming to Jesus for the strength that he alone can give us, going back into life to use that strength in doing good to those that need us, as and when and while we may. Do not dream your time away in wishing that the kingdom of God would come. Help it to come by doing your bit in your own corner of the world. Try to translate the dream into business. It’s a hard task, I know. I find it hard. So, I expect, do you. We can only do our best. We can only try our hardest. But if we keep on trying our hardest and patiently aiming at our best, God may work in us, and through us, in ways we just can’t imagine.

My apologies for the blunt bits in this article, reading it through I realise that I’m actually addressing myself as much as anybody. Happy Easter! May you, like Mary, find the Master standing beside you.

Max Young

Do You Feel ‘Up Against It’?

I was feeling pretty low at one point in January due to a variety of things – perhaps I had a slight case of Seasonally Affective Disorder, affected by the fog as it and life seemed to close around me. Anyway, I met a number of people who were also finding life a bit of a struggle for reasons that were far worse than mine, and knowing that seemed to jog me out of a rather introverted spell.

Thinking and praying for these people brought to mind one of those phrases to describe them as being people who were ‘up against it’. Like the foggy weather at the time the phrase lacks clarity. What is the ‘it’ that some people are up against? I don’t think that it’s life, because we have to deal with that every day. It can’t be God, or anything to do with the will of God, because if that was the case what could possibly save us from a final and irretrievable despair?

‘It’ must be a circumstance or a combination of circumstances that are on our minds that seems to haunt us, like an unseen enemy that’s trying to hurt us, physically, mentally or spiritually. We’re probably all aware, to some degree, of what that feels like but it’s not always easy to put into words.

Of course, we’re all individually very different and so we react to the challenge of being ‘up against it’ in very different ways. Some people seem to almost thrive on being ‘up against it’. They think about their situation as a challenge, a test of the stuff they’re made of. They refuse to be beaten, or if they are beaten they’ll jolly well go down fighting. This is the stuff that heroes and heroines are made of, those who throughout history faced pain, peril and hardship and stubbornly refused to give in, and in Harry Lauder’s words kept ‘right on to the end of the road.’

Some of us are not nearly as brave as the ‘bulldog breed’ and when we feel ‘up against it’, we get demoralised almost at once. We become out of sorts with everybody and are bitter and resentful that life isn’t as easy as we want it, so we tend, if we can, to find some way of escaping the challenge. If we know people like this, including ourselves, then we mustn’t be hard on them.

There are people like this who have tried hard and held their own for years. Then there came a breaking point, when, totally worn down, they felt they couldn’t go on. To meet people who are at this point, to see their unhappiness and hopelessness is one of the most tragic things I know.  What they need is not our contempt but our sympathy, not our indifference but our urgent help.

So, how can we help each other in an emergency of this kind? I think that if it’s ourselves we’ve categorized as ‘up against it’, we ought to be really certain that things are as we think they are – I mean, that they’re not something we’re imagining. When life looks dark, the explanation might be that we’ve put on dark glasses. It is quite possible to feel ‘up against it’ when all the time we’re only up against ourselves as I was in January.

But what about our faith? Where and how does that come in? It may well be that life seems too much for us, if we’ve only got our own resources to count on, but we’re devaluing our faith if we forget about our God and his power and his grace. God’s power isn’t a final resource,  that we only call up when everything else has fallen by the wayside. God’s grace represents the normal, everyday need of every one of us. Maybe it’s this that people forget – perhaps because God has been excluded from their daily lives and only when they are ‘in extremis’ do they remember that he is there beside them in the person of Jesus.

Quite possibly it may be the forgetfulness of this fact – with the neglect, for example, of daily prayer – that has brought us to where we are – ‘up against it’. If any of us have kept God out of our lives, can we wonder at our confusion and despair? Prayer is the threshold over which God steps to be in our spiritual home, to stand beside us and share and support all aspects of our lives – to change our attitude from “I’m up against it” to “We’re in this together”. Put out the welcome mat and open the door!

Max Young

Faringdon’s Got Talent

Those of you who went to the WATSAN event on 25th November will know that I have been thinking about talent, and you would have been on the receiving end of culinary, sung and spoken examples from Faringdon’s talent pool.

We also saw other aspects of this pool at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance that was organised (no pun intended) by Joy Blake with Faringdon Brass, the Ferndale Community Choir, Army Cadets, Yvonne Belcher, our town Mayor Councillor Dr Mike Wise and some stunning audio-visual compositions by Gordon Belcher.

But, of course, talk of talent makes me immediately think of Jesus’ parable of the Talents written in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In them Jesus told of the master commending his servants who had made good use of their gifts, saying that , because they’d been faithful, “in a few things” they’d be rewarded by being “put in charge of many things”.

Matthew and Luke’s stories, though basically parallel, do differ in some details but have essentially the same meaning. The phrase ‘faithful in a few things’ reminded me of the one used in Jesus’ parable about the wily steward that was our Gospel in mid September, when Jesus said , Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. (Lk 16:10).

The British Biblical scholar Dr James Moffatt translated this as: “He who is faithful with a trifle is also faithful with a large trust”,

But as I see it, I think he missed the point. Jesus is not saying, “because he is faithful with a little, therefore, in the future, he will be faithful with much”. What Jesus says is that this is a statement of present fact, that to be faithful with a little is to be truly, greatly, wholly faithful; it is to be faithful in much.

If we are faithful in little matters, that is what counts with God – it is the faithfulness that’s important, not the size of the task. Faithfulness is faithfulness, nothing more, nothing less.

“Well, Max”, I can hear someone saying, “this is just semantics, what difference does it make?” To my mind, it makes a very real difference that is relevant to many people today.

The parable of the Talents is used to teach that honest efforts, and hard work, will have their reward. That’s all very right and proper, and I’ve nothing to say against it. But this neat little bit of moral philosophy doesn’t always apply, and I’m sure it wasn’t what Jesus meant.

For example, I don’t think it applies to a large section of the community; what of the wives and mothers amongst us? What reward after years of faithful service? Surely we’re not suggesting they should have two homes to manage instead of one; or five, instead of two children to care for, saying, “You, who have been faithful in a few things shall now be rewarded by being put in charge of many things”, are we? There’s something to be said for a wife and a mother being made Prime Minister, if she’s got the appropriate skills, but what about the millions who will still be faithfully carrying out their daily tasks to the end of their days? Surely their reward is in their faithfulness, and it is of such as these that Jesus said, “Who is faithful in little things is faithful in much”.

It is faithfulness in small things that is so desperately needed today, not in order to get greater opportunities that may come as a reward, but for the love of true and honest work, and for the joy of serving others.

Most people think there’s not much they can do to shape and influence the great world issues of today. But don’t the great issues depend on individuals, and don’t individuals come from homes, schools, Churches, communities, where faithfulness in small things shows character even as it creates it?

Jesus didn’t say, “He who is faithful in matters that are the smallest will be faithful in greater ones” – anyone could have said that – he put the emphasis where it is so often forgotten, that to be faithful with a little is to be truly, greatly, wholly faithful; it is to be faithful in much. I hope this explanation of Jesus’ message will help and encourage those who are filling small places, and doing little things, with great faithfulness, and always will be. So, go to it, faithful talented Faringdonians! Have an expectant Advent, a joyous and happy Christmas and New Year, and an eye-opening Epiphany!

Max Young

Reunions make you think, don’t they

I’m writing this article having just returned from a reunion weekend in Romsey with three couples with whom I served in the Army. I’ve known them for 54 years in the case of the men and about 48 years for the ladies. We are all married with golden wedding anniversaries spread over the next five years and apart from a bit of hearing difficulty, we are all blessed with reasonable health. The thing that struck me was that although our career paths diverged, after the Army, we are all content with how our lives have panned out and respect the variety amongst us. We had much to talk about and our hosts had arranged an interesting itinerary – altogether it was a most enjoyable reunion – it’s my turn to host next year.

Our time together reminded me of a story of a reunion of past pupils of a school run by a religious order. One of the priests, who’d been abroad for years, returned for the reunion and found himself surrounded by a host of ex-pupils whom he hadn’t met since they left school. To an observer it would have been obvious that he was much loved and respected.

He had a natural graciousness that seemed to trigger an outpouring of the details of their post-school lives. There was an architect who’d built a number of public buildings, including two churches; a university professor who was the author of a number of learned books; the CEO of an international company; a highly successful farmer who used the most modern technology in improving his harvests; a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church; and the Principal of a famous public school.

What a pleasure it was for the old priest listening to all their impressive successes and achievements. It appeared that there wasn’t a failure among those who had returned for the reunion.

He didn’t say much as he listened to them, just nodded and smiled. When they’d done, he congratulated them on their achievements. Then, opening his arms to them he asked them, “And now, tell me what you have made of yourselves?”

There was a long silence. They didn’t really want to talk about themselves. It was clear that they’d been so absorbed in their careers, with their energies focused on efficiency and success, that they hadn’t the time to grow emotionally, and so, in terms of relationships, many of them were impoverished.

There are people who may have done great things in their public lives but failed in their private lives. Most people who are successful at their careers leave their personal lives a long way behind. Indeed, their successes are often achieved at the expense of their personal lives.

Do you remember how in the parable of the Talents the first two men were commended by Jesus because they used their talents, but he berated the third because he had buried his talent?

When Christ talked about talents, he wasn’t meaning say, a musical talent, or a footballing talent. Those talents are important, and full marks to those who have, develop, and use them. But nowadays they are, in my opinion, outrageously over-valued and over-rewarded. Christ’s parable goes a lot deeper. Ultimately the only thing that matters is what we make of ourselves.

But we’re wrong if we think it is about making something of ourselves in a materialistic sense, though this is not ruled out. The ‘wife of noble character’ mentioned in the final chapter of Proverbs could hardly be described as being either successful or famous. Yet she is held up as a model. Why? Because of the person she is – industrious, caring, wise and virtuous. She’s got something more valuable than wealth or beauty. She has a loving heart. She has put her talents at the service of her family, her neighbours, and the poor. And so she is respected by the whole community.

Life is God’s gift to us. What we do with life is our gift to God.

Max Young