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October 31, 2004

Childhood revisited?

This block of large flats, built in the 1930's, was where the monk spent the first eighteen or so months on this planet. Situated near the top of Buitenkant Street in Cape Town, it was then, and is even more so now, a "sought after residence"! The Monk's Grandparents held the lease on Number 2, the right hand side ground floor verandah in the picture. To say that I was surprised to find it still standing and in such good repair some 58 years later is a complement to both its architect and to the original builders.

One of the many childhood homes of the Monk, rediscovered in his perambulations in SA

Driving on from Cape Town along the "Garden Route", one passes the now booming centre of Mossel Bay, actually the site of an attempted Portugese settlement in 1510 - 20 (abandoned in favour of Lourenco Marques [now Maputo]) and now the centre of offshore oil and gas production in South Africa. About 30 miles further East is the village of Little Brak River and five miles further is the town of Great Brak River. It was here that my maternal Grandparents had their home (my Grandmother's favourite of the many she and my Grandfather shared in a rather nomadic life), and it was here that the Monk was sent as a very small boy to live while his parents struggled to establish a home for themselves. It is a place of magical memories which came flooding back when I found the house (built around 1896) still standing, although now minus its wide verandah on the upper floor.

On the banks of the Great Brak River, this house has many magical memories. It is now a Guest House and Restuarant.

A journey back in time and a real ride down the old Memory Lane!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:30 AM

The White Plague returns ....

Tuberculosis is a scourge which, in the usual arrogance of this country, was supposed to have been stamped out years ago. Only it wasn't. Then they stopped innoculating people against it - and then they opened the floodgates of immigration to countries where the disease is almost as big a killer as HIV/Aids! Oh, and you can't have screening - it might infringe someones "Human Rights". So now the plague returns - and the last stage is worse than the first!

Abuse of anti-biotics over the years has produced a number of resistant bacteria - the most well known being the hospital superbug MRSA (Methycillin Resistant Staphlococul Aureus) - but now we also have a TB strain that is resistant to most anti-biotics, and it is very easily communicated! You can catch it sitting next to someone on the Tube or the Bus. No innoculation, no screening, easily transmitted infection. How long before we find ourselves faced with a runaway epidemic?

No point in looking to Blair and the Whitehall Wankers to do anything about it; it would upset the PM's wife and her partnership making millions out of Human Rights no end for starters! This is going to be a political football, and we needn't think that our politicians or Civil Servants will be willing to deal with it. Nope, in fact, Blunket is much more likely to hand the problem over to Brussels - by simply abrogating responsibility for control of our borders to the EU.

Let's hope the medics can get a grip on this - and on the idiots in Whitehall - before it really gets away from us!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:45 AM

October 30, 2004

The United States of Europe

Mr Blair has sold the United Kingdom straight into oblivion. This week he signed the new European Constitution, bleating happily that it "strengthened" democracy and the Nation States. I begin to think that this cretin is incapable of reading, because the "constitution" does no such thing - it is the death knell of them all.

The Constitution imposes among other things, "Common taxation", "Common defence forces", a "national" anthem, a "national" currency, a charter or rights that makes a mockery of justice, the economy, and of anyone's ability to direct a company. It even gives the armed forces, the police, and other emergency workers the right to strike. The English Criminal Justice system, 1,100 years in the making, will be one of the first victims as the constitution imposes the European model, and English and Scottish Law will shortly be subject to challenge in European Courts as being contrary to the principles of EU Justice.

NATO is a goner under this, but then, that has been a French ambition from the start. A pity our idiot Prime Minister hasn't the guts or the intelligence to see it. Any hope of the UK remianing a "power" under this is simply wishful thinking, we are out-voted and out-numbered in every sphere, and once our economy is under Brussels control, we will soon be a backward backwater, grateful for any crumbs the French and the Germans care to allow us.

I am not a "Little Englander", I am proud to be British, and very proud of my family heritage which includes Anglo Saxon, Norman, Celtic and Danish - we even have some German connections, but I am not and will never consider myself a European. In fact I am an African Anglo-Saxon Norman Hibernian Englishman - because I live and work in England but was born in Africa of British parents. I rejoice in having English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish blood in my veins and almost 600 years of recorded antecedents in this country. As a family we have served the Crown for almost all of that. Yes Mr Blair - the Crown - not the usurpers like yourself who have at various times brought calamity to the world in much the same way you are doing in Iraq today!

The one saving grace in all of this is that the government MUST hold a referendum on the acceptance of this piece of treason. If any country rejects it, the whole sorry mess fails. Mr Blair and his traitorous chums are hoping, no doubt, that either they can avoid this - by including it in their manifesto at the next election - or that someone else will reject it and thus save their bacon for them. In the meantime, our armed forces are being reduced to a rump in preparation to being handed over to Europe, our Navy has already been all but scrapped, and our place on the UN Security Council (unlike France's, you will notice) is about to be given up to the European Council.

We will have to watch this party of closet communists, fascists, traitors, and gerrymanderers very, very carefully in the coming months. They simply cannot be trusted. I am prepared to bet that Blair will try to slip something into his party manifesto so that he can claim, if re-elected, that the voters endorsed this piece of calumny. We must call his bluff!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:26 AM | Comments (1)

October 29, 2004

1984 is upon us!

Interesting, is it not, that the political group who shout loudest about "threats to Democracy", the political Left, are also the most vociferous suppressors of any opinion they do not approve of. In a prime example earlier this week, the Socialist coalition who dominate that most undemocratic of institutions, the so-called European "parliament", almost brought about the interesting situation of the EU being entirely without a "Commission", the body of super-bureaucrats who actually rule the EU.

The reason? One of the proposed new Commissioners has dared to speak about his own personal views on single mothers, homosexual relations, and religion. Well, that last was enough to get him rejected by this Godless and arrogant bunch of freeloaders, anyway, but add to that the sacred rights of single mothers (all abused by evil males, of course!) and the equally sacred rights of the vociferous likes of Peter Tatchell (a frightful militant "gay" who most decent homosexuals abhor!), and you now have a recipe for them to launch a campaign to bar him from holding any public office! Welcome to the world of Orwell's 1984!

Since when has it become the business of any so-called representative to dictate what anyone may or may not believe? Since when has it become "democratic" to suppress any persons views when they do not accord with your own? This is where the Left reveals its true political colours! Democracy? Don't make me laugh; this is not democratic, this is dictatorship, dictatorship by a small group of supposed "intellectuals" who believe that they can now dictate to the majority on every issue of "morality". The trouble is that their "morality" is a deeply twisted and viciously brutal perversion of every moral code contained in almost every religion founded on the one true God.

"Affirmative" action is merely a new name for a new and even more pernicious form of Apartheid, this time enforced by a sisterhood of feminists against any white male, against the family, and all in the promotion of "equality" and "fairness". What, dare I ask, is equal and fair about rejecting applications on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, or race - so that "quotas" of women and representatives of ethnic minority groups (gays fall into this category as well!) can be parachuted into the top jobs? Never mind the efficiency or the quality, just make up the numbers.

The example this week of the sort of mentality of this lobby in the European "Parliament" underlines my point. There is no democracy where someone is not free to express a deeply held personal view publically without fear of reprisal. I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it! Perhaps it is time to remind Blair and the rest of the so-called Democratic left of this simple principle! Perhaps it is time also to clear out of the Civil Service everyone who does not share that view, or who has been appointed to a post for which they were not the best possible candidate!

Back in the 1960's a prominent Italian Communist leader made the point that an armed struggle was not needed to overthrow the Western Democracies. All it required was for Communists to gain legitimate control of the educational institutions and to convert the leaders of tomorrow. Then they could infiltrate the organs of State and the Media; and impose a Marxist state from within. He has succeeded probably beyond his wildest dreams - Blair, Brown, Straw and all the rest are the product of an education system perverted by the Communist lecturers of the 1960's, their fellow travellers now control the Civil Service and the Media. The flood of regulations, the restrictions on freedom of speech, the gerrymandering to ensure re-election - it is all in the Communist Manifesto.

It is time we took back democracy from the Left and made it into a true vision of democracy, one without the left wing control of the Civil Service, the Media, and the Education system. If we do not, the Marxists and the Communists have won.

In the meantime, welcome to the world of Big Brother, of New Speak and of 1984! I expect a visit from the Re-education Corps at any time now!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:19 PM

Cheetah alert?

By popular request - another Cheetah picture!

So how alert is a Cheetah - this one went from lying down to standing in a movement so fluid that I almost missed it! Like all cats they are supreme masters of the instant start and fire on all cylinders from the moment they are ready - and can stand down almost as fast.

The magnificent beast - a cheetah standing ready is almost the size of a Great Dane, but built more along the lines of a Greyhound.

These animals are built for speed, not strength. They can outrun any enemy and any prey animal. The kill is most usually acomplished by a bite to the neck and strangulation if they can't get a grip on a vital blood vessel. At speed they are nothing short of magnificent!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:19 AM | Comments (1)

October 28, 2004

The Gravy Train is out of control

Mr Blair's cronies have certainly made hay! Expenses claims are running at tens of thousands of pounds each, most of them for things that could be (and perhaps should be) perceived as "party political promotion". So now the taxpayer is funding the Political activities of the Labour Party.

Not that this is new. We, the taxpayers of the UK, have been funding them ever since they came to power. Not content with stuffing the Civil Service with their placemen and cronies - all at the top salary bands - they have used "publicity" campaigns to promote their political agendas. The cost of this is more than four times what the previous Conservative government spent. But this is not all - we have also been subsidising them in their magnificent new HQ - a publically owned building in Westminster taken over by them at a peppercorn rent as soon as rthey came to power. Moving out the previous occupants - the Department of the Environment - cost the taxpayer in the order of Ł30 million.

So now we are also paying the mortgages on multiple homes for members of the Labour Party in Parliament, the publicity campaigns they are running under the guise of "consultation", and every other little perk they can charge to us. No wonder the tax take keeps going up. No wonder pension funds have to be raided to subsidise their bloated salaries and their bloated perks.

I hope the Conservatives do get back in power - and carry out their cull of MP's. A hundred less of these obnoxious freeloaders will be damned good for the country. Now, when can we expect to see someone knock off 2 million or more of the other great drain on the country - the army of Civil Servant managers destroying the institutions mis-manage the economy, and erase everything British.

Trouble is - Mr Howard and his party of losers aren't likely to get anywhere - the Lib Dems offer only even more of Mr Blair's wastage. So perhaps its time to bale out and go somewhere else!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:32 AM

October 27, 2004

Ceremony of Remembrance

Founders Day at Selborne College has always been a bit on the different side. The day starts with the impressive "Ceremony of the Key", a tradition begun in 1924 when the first "Custodian of the Key", one Charles Prior (later a teacher at the same school), was presented with a large ceremonial key to the "Memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War". It is handed on from one Matriculation Class to the next at Founders Day each year. Since the inception of the ceremony it has had a military flavour (the school has links with the local Regiment - the Kaffrarian Rifles), and the school's Cadet Battalion mounts Guard on the Memorial with the "Old Guard" changing places with the "New Guard" after the Key has been handed to the new Custodian. The Custodians are elected by their classmates in each year.

All the boys taking part in the parade are volunteer members of the Cadet Battalion - a remarkable tribute to the boys' own sense of duty and loyalty to the school and their country.

The New Guard (nearest camera) await the change of sentries, while the Old Guard mount sentry on the cenotaph.

The ceremony takes place within a short service of remembrance and is very moving; those of us who have not seen it since we last took part in it 40 years ago were surprised by the emotions it stirred in us. Probably not least since a few of our number are now in the Roll of Honour read out by the incoming and outgoing Custodians!

The school has grown larger, the political climate has changed, and the pupils are now drawn from the entire community, and it was encouraging to see that the full spectrum was there, and the boys all demonstrated the value they place on the upholding of tradition and in getting it right. A school to be proud of, indeed - and I am privileged to have been a pupil there, even though I probably did not appreciate it at the time!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:05 PM

October 26, 2004

Trafalgar Day - don't upset the French?

My thanks to a friend and colleague for this gem - and he used to play with the RN's nuclear weapons and propulsion systems for a living so he'd know!

The 21st October this year was exactly 200 years since Lord Nelson's famous naval victory over the French and Spanish in the Battle of Trafalgar. To kick-start the anniversary celebrations, an actor dressed as Nelson posed for pictures on the River Thames at Greenwich. But before he was allowed on board an RNLI Lifeboat (the RN couldn't send a ship - they have hardly any left thanks to Blair and the Civil Service!), safety officials made him wear a lifejacket over his 19th century admiral's uniform.

So how would Nelson have fared if he had been subject to modern health and safety regulations?

"Order the signal to be sent, Hardy."

"Aye, aye sir."

"Hold on, that's not what I dictated to the signal officer. What's the
meaning of this?"

"Sorry sir?"

"England expects every person to do his duty, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious persuasion or disability. What gobbledegook is this?"

"Admiralty policy, I'm afraid, sir. We're an equal opportunities employer now. We had the devil's own job getting 'England' past the censors, lest it be considered racist."

"Gadzooks, Hardy. Hand me my pipe and tobacco."

"Sorry sir. All naval vessels have been designated smoke-free working

"In that case, break open the rum ration. Let us splice the main brace
to steel the men before battle."

"The rum ration has been abolished, Admiral. It's part of the Government's policy on binge drinking."

"Good heavens, Hardy. I suppose we'd better get on with it. Full speed

"I think you'll find that there's a 4 knot speed limit in this stretch of water."

"Damn it man! We are on the eve of the greatest sea battle in history.
We must advance with all dispatch. Report from the crow's nest, please."

"That won't be possible, sir."


"Health and safety have closed the crow's nest, sir. No harness. And they said that rope ladder doesn't meet regulations. They won't let anyone up there until a proper scaffolding can be erected."

"Then get me the ship's carpenter without delay, Hardy."

"He's busy knocking up a wheelchair access to the fo'c'sle Admiral."

"Wheelchair access? I've never heard anything so absurd."

"Health and safety again, sir. We have to provide a barrier-free environment for the differently abled."

"Differently abled? I've only one arm and one eye and I refuse even to hear mention of the word. I didn't rise to the rank of admiral by playing the disability card."

"Actually, sir, you did. The Royal Navy is under-represented in the areas of visual impairment and limb deficiency."

"Whatever next? Give me full sail. The salt spray beckons."

"A couple of problems there too, sir. Health and safety won't let the crew up the rigging without crash helmets. And they don't want anyone breathing in too much salt - haven't you seen the adverts?"

"I've never heard such infamy. Break out the cannon and tell the men to stand by to engage the enemy."

"The men are a bit worried about shooting at anyone, Admiral."

"What? This is mutiny."

"It's not that, sir. It's just that they're afraid of being charged with murder if they actually kill anyone. There's a couple of legal aid lawyers on board, watching everyone like hawks."

"Then how are we to sink the Frenchies and the Spanish?"

"Actually, sir, we're not."

"We're not?"

"No, sir. The Frenchies and the Spanish are our European partners now. According to the Common Fisheries Policy, we shouldn't even be in this stretch of water. We could get hit with a claim for compensation."

"But you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil."

"I wouldn't let the ship's diversity co-ordinator hear you saying that sir. You'll be up on disciplinary."

"You must consider every man an enemy who speaks ill of your King."

"Not any more, sir. We must be inclusive in this multicultural age. Now put on your Kevlar vest; it's the rules."

"Don't tell me - health and safety. Whatever happened to rum, sodomy and
the lash?"

"As I explained, sir, rum is off the menu. And now there's a ban on corporal punishment."

"What about sodomy?"

"I believe it's to be encouraged, sir."

"In that case ...kiss me, Hardy."

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:48 PM | Comments (2)

Encounter with a big cat....

Driving to Bloemfontein, my son expressed a desire to see some of the big game close up, and shortly afterward we found a sign saying "Cheetah Breeding Project". Well, let me say, it was worth stopping for!

My son getting the "I like this" treatment from a full-grown Cheetah. The purr could be mistaken for a two stroke motor!

Cheetahs are amazing beasts, the fastest land mammal, able to accelerate over short distances to up to 70 mph. They cross the line between cat and dog, having features of both in their physical characteristics including claws they cannot retract - but tongues like sandpaper - really coarse sand paper! The tail is long and very muscular, an essential tool, as this is what allows this amazing creature to steer and balance while turning at high speed.

The smallest of the "big" cats, they are never fully domesticated and small children would be at risk around these guys - a fact born out a few minutes after this picture was taken when a family group walked past the enclosure - both cheetahs were immediately alert and started to stalk the small children on the other side of the wire! Fortunately they also did a remarkable "who us?" impersonation as soon as the farmer called "Los!" - Afrikaans for "Leave!" - to them.

As it turned out, we did not get much opportunity to see many more of the amazing range of animals on our travels. This is at least in part due to the fact that many are nocturnal and we were travelling in the heat of the day. Nic did get to see the elusive Hyrax - or "Dassie" - a small and rather unprepossessing creature who lives around cliffs and mountains (rather like the Australian Wombat in appearance, but rather smaller) and whose genetic first cousin is the elephant! We would have seen more had we done the Game Farm routes, but time and distance didn't allow. As it is we covered almost 3,500 miles!

The scenery is spectacular, the wide open spaces are wide open, and the night sky outside of the towns - well, it has to be seen to be believed.

---More to come as time permits!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:38 AM | Comments (1)

October 25, 2004

The absent Monk returns!

The Monk has been a busy traveller for the last four weeks, and the anticipated ability to find places through which the blog could be posted or updated simply failed to materialise!

My apologies to anyone left out there who bothers to visit after so long a silence!

I will try to make up for it with some good pictures from the trip and some thoughts and comments on the things my son and I did and saw during our perambulations. Including petting full grown Cheetahs and flying in a restored Huey Gunship.

The reason we were there? Well, I left school 40 years ago - and around 40 of my former class mates - some much more worn and damaged than I am - managed to drag our zimmer frames, assorted wheelchairs, and other walking aids across to the little city of East London for a get together.

Only one question remains. Where the hell did the last 40 years go?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:47 AM | Comments (2)

October 14, 2004

A Reminder from 2001

The battles still rage on three years on, but truth does not change. Church Mouse finds this sermon from 2001 still very current in applicability, for it would seem in some ways we've not made any progress in resolving anything in a satisfactory manner. Chaos and irrationality still run rampant whilst calm and peace seem to be out of reach. Do read this sermon and find some guidance for the soul.

Tewkesbury Abbey
Trinity 14
16th September 2001

John 6:66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

At the end of a week such as the one we have just lived through, I suspect that many will be asking the question “Why does God allow this?” Perhaps the question would be better phrased “Why does man never learn?”

In St John’s account of the events in tonight’s reading, several strands weave together to create the background to the rather bald statement I have taken as a text. For many, this Galilean has taken that one step too far. He has crossed that invisible line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. For many in his audience, the claim that the bread of his body will impart eternal life is just one claim too far. Indeed the word, which our translators give us as “hard”, is more properly rendered as “offensive”. For the faithful Jew much of what he reveals in the discourse would have been offensive for it cut to the heart of what they believed the Messiah was to bring and do.

No doubt many in his following knew him well enough to know at least some of his background and upbringing and his claim to be the Messiah, the Holy One of God is just too much. No doubt they too asked; “Why does God allow this?” The problem for them would have been the language of eating his flesh. This would have been difficult to understand even though it seems that John has included this discourse as an explanation of the miracle in Mark 8 - the feeding of the 5000. The twelve alone seem to understand, eventually, and accept the teaching. It is Peter who once more speaks for all in declaring “you are the Holy One of God.

Many of the audience on this occasion could see no further than their own expectations. The Messiah was destined to come from the Royal House of David, not from Galilee! He was supposed to usher in the new age of glory for Israel, not come preaching sacrifice and reconciliation! He was supposed to crush their enemies, not nurture them or offer them healing and hope! Their concept of the Messiah blinded them to the indications in the prophets and in many other parts of scripture. God offers humanity hope, healing, and immeasurable riches, not in material goods but in spiritual terms.

So why does God allow the sort of atrocity that we have witnessed this week? Why do we need to be reconciled with the perpetrators when every instinct says we should wipe them from the face of the earth? It is not God’s will that is served in the perpetration of atrocities such as the deliberate crashing of passenger carrying jetliners into buildings, it is man’s blind hatred and man’s evil egotism which is served by these means. Pity those who carried out the deed, dying no doubt with the cry “God is great!” on their lips, believing that they were winning for themselves eternal joy by killing so many “infidels” for God. Pity those who rejoiced in this carnage; pity them for they have sown the seeds of their own judgment in so doing.

It is not God that allows this. It is man. It is man who, given free choice, deliberately chooses the path of darkness and evil, turning his back on God and walking in misery and false hope. It is man who will not learn who, in the name of God, carries out the sort of vile attack we saw on Tuesday or the demonstrations which terrified children in Belfast last week. Like Christ’s audience in the synagogue, we turn away when the message doesn’t suit our pattern or our desires and fail to follow where he would have us go.

It is difficult to respond rationally to the events of this last week. Events of this magnitude defy our ability to absorb the full horror of what we are seeing. Bad enough if it is a natural disaster, but this is man made, man inflicted might be a better description.

The problem for all of us is that we have allowed our faith to become something of a habit, something almost two-dimensional. When we are then confronted by events such as these we lose our bearings, our faith is shaken, and we experience fear of the unknown. That perhaps was the problem for those of Christ’s listeners. He was asking them to abandon some of their comfortable certainties and follow into unknown territory, to take his teaching on trust and allow themselves to believe what they were seeing and hearing. Even now it is difficult for some to accept that the path to salvation and eternal life is through Christ, through the word made flesh and not through any deed or action of our own. Psalm 125:1 declares:
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures for ever.

Faith, to endure, needs to become three-dimensional. It must be founded firmly on understanding, nurtured in worship, and fulfilled in belief, and it must grow and develop as we do. Those who fail to develop their faith find themselves eventually confronted with “hard teaching” and must then choose to follow and accept or to turn away in anger or sadness.

It is often said that there is no free lunch. Certainly that is true in this case. There is a penalty to accepting the Bread of Life; discipleship means accepting the hard and sometimes unacceptable. It means following sometimes where we do not wish to go and accepting God’s timetable and God’s judgment or intention, not our own. As Jonah discovered when he railed against God’s sparing the people of Nineveh, God often asks us to do and to accept hard things. It means standing up for God when that is required and staying silent when that is what is needed. It is all to easy to respond in anger and pain when we feel afraid or threatened, but down that path lies only misery and loss. So to whom do we turn when we feel threatened, when we are threatened?

Christ has promised us his fellowship and the salvation that comes from the divine bread of the spirit. It may be “hard”, it may at times be unpalatable, but it is the way of hope. To whom do we turn when threatened? Our response to the threat surely reveals our direction. Turning to Christ in times such as these may not be the easiest option, but it is the right one. When we can join Peter and say: “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God
then we will have begun to drive fear and prejudice from our lives. When we can also truly turn away from the viciousness and wickedness that characterizes so much of the relationship between faiths and between our fellow Christians we will truly have begun to share in the one true Body of Christ.

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

The events of this week have shocked us, shaken our security, and reminded us, if such were necessary, of the inhumanity and evil that man is capable of producing. Who could be surprised if some turned away from God as a result of this week’s atrocity? Yet we must not, for to do so is to allow evil the victory.

I am the living bread that came from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.

In Christ alone we find hope and salvation. In him alone we find peace and refuge from the insanity of this world. In him alone we can hope for the future. We must learn to trust in him and teach others to do so, too.


Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:15 PM

October 12, 2004

What WERE they thinking ?!

Church Mouse still scampers around the I-Net to read her favorite blogs, which is how she found this item of sheer stupidity and timidity. MommaBear, over at On The Third Hand, found a dreadful piece of news that just proves that today's papers and TV outlets have succumbed to PC'ness !! The D-T refused to print a column by Mark Steyn unless he watered it down to nothingness mush which he refused to do, so they would not run it. According to the link in MB's post, the 'cut' column is available on-line at Steyn's own website, just the same. A powerful piece of writing it is, too.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:07 AM

October 11, 2004

A still-timely sermon........

At this time of year Church Mouse is usually very busy gathering up nuts and grains to store for the winter when the gleanings are hard to find, so rummaging in the Monk's archives has rather interrupted those efforts, but she did find a sermon of his given back in 2001 [CM has resisted the urge to title this post An Oldie but Goodie] that is more timely now than it was then, which is most discouraging to her mind. Its message is needed even more than ever!

Trinity 5, 15th July 2001

Tewkesbury Abbey


+In the name of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

Jesus said, “What comes out of a man makes him unclean”.

In many respects that would seem to be true of society as a whole as well.

In recent weeks there has been much in the press and elsewhere about morals in society, ethics in public life, and the responsibility of governments to provide guidance or to bring criminal proceedings against this national leader or another. We here at the Abbey have also been privileged to hear a number of preachers touching upon the dilemma of Christians when confronted by crime, bigotry, and other related issues. Reading the papers, listening to the radio, or watching television you could be forgiven for wondering what was going on in the world when we have racist riots in some of our Northern cities and horrific crimes against humanity in the Congo, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Montenegro, and other parts of the globe. In recent weeks there has been public outcry over the pending release of two boys who murdered a toddler and it sometimes seems there is scarcely a day goes by when there is not another youth murdered by his peers.

In tonight’s reading from Mark’s gospel we find Christ telling his audience that it is not what you eat or touch which makes the spirit unclean but rather the darkness and uncleanness which lurks within us all which does the damage. Perhaps this tells us something of what is wrong in our society, our world, when we stop and look hard at it all.

Christians are charged with two great commandments, we must love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls, and the second is to love our neighbour as ourselves. It matters not who that neighbour is, we are required to love them. This opens for us all a huge dichotomy. How can we love someone who has committed, is committing, and may well continue to commit some terrible crime?
Some years ago when I served on the Bishop’s committee for justice and reconciliation, it often seemed that for most of the members of that committee justice meant revenge and reconciliation meant reversing the hurt they were suffering and inflicting it on the members of society they saw as responsible. And this was a Christian Committee, its membership drawn supposedly from congregations in the Diocese! It often struck me that, while this response may well have been justified, it was hardly a Christian one, yet to say so was to invite vilification.

As many of you will know, I have spent most of my working life in the fire service. This has given me the opportunity to see humanity at both its best and at its worst, and not unnaturally some of it has left me with huge questions to deal with as a Christian. How do you deal with a man who is prepared to burn, kill, and maim his fellow humans in order to achieve a political objective? What do you say to the 80 year old pensioner whose one room hovel and all his worldly possessions have been destroyed by a gang because he dared to remonstrate with them for destroying his garden? What do you say to the man who tries to kill or maim you with an acid bomb flung at you from the shadows? In the course of 30 years in the fire service I have had all these and a few more to deal with, and I still do not have answers.

For all of us there is a larger problem to confront; we live in a society which measures success or failure, poverty or wealth by purely material yardsticks. In the midst of plenty we are in the depths of poverty - not material poverty, but a more devastating form of poverty which cannot be fixed by the Chancellor throwing more money at it. Our society, or our world, has become so spiritually deprived that its very fabric is in danger. In a society where almost anything goes, anything of a spiritual nature is belittled, believers denigrated, and churches treated as irrelevant to the modern world. Our wealth masks our true poverty. In the society in which Jesus lived, the slavish adherence to rules without actually understanding their purpose debased these to meaningless showmanship which hid the fact that the society was far from the haven of God's chosen. Similarly, in all the hype and glitz of the society in which we must operate I would suggest to you that there is very little substance underpinning much of it. And here lies the problem for the Christian. At almost every turn we are faced with ethical questions which must be resolved before we can do what is right as a Christian, and sometimes that may require not doing what Society sees as right.

Recently we heard Fr Simon preach on the dilemma of the Death Penalty for murderers. I will admit that I disagree with him on some points he raised with this, but it made me think hard about a range of these issues and what they mean for me a struggling Christian. I concluded after reading several different authors' thoughts on this topic that there is no easy answer. Firstly because it dissolves into several subsidiary questions which need answers, and secondly, because there is never only one answer to any of them.

The first question I think arises in this is the question of forgiveness. Can I forgive the criminal who rapes and perhaps kills another family’s daughter? I think not. In the first place the crime was not against me or any member of my family, it cannot therefore be right for me to act on their behalf. This was brought home to me again recently when the Rev Saward, whose wife was killed and his daughter raped in the Ealing Vicarage, wrote a letter to the paper on the subject of the Bulger case. Forgiveness here must come from the victim or the victim’s family; it cannot come from me. Yet in the last few years we have seen the growth of the belief that society can and must act to “forgive” the criminal once they have been caught and sentenced, the inference being that they are also the victims of some nebulous wrong committed by our society. In my view this is a monstrous perversion of the whole ethos of forgiveness.

How can I forgive the vicious gangs which roamed the streets of South Africa’s black townships, killing and murdering their fellow blacks purely because they refused to support “the cause” or had perhaps managed in that benighted society to make their homes look a little nicer or perhaps a little more comfortable than their neighbours. How can I forgive the murderous mobs that used the inhuman “necklace” treatment on those they had decided must be police informers? How can I forgive the Martin MacGuiness’ of this world who bomb and maim their way to power? How can I call myself a Christian when in my heart I want to see these madmen removed from society forever? Placed where they can do no more harm to anyone. Many of my colleagues find themselves driven to renouncing God altogether in such circumstances.

In the society in which we live today it often seems that the good are no longer regarded with anything but contempt. The more vicious the crime, the more depraved the act, the more likely to be rewarded. How can the Christian reconcile the teaching of scripture with the evidence of a society which sees rewarding truancy with CD’s and designer clothes as a way of preventing re-offending, and the act of defending oneself from a burglar as a crime?

The truth is, of course, that nothing is ever clear-cut or as black and white as we would like to think. We live apparently in a society in which moral responsibility is not a person issue but a state-controlled one. There is no crime these days that cannot be excused by shifting the blame to someone else. Poverty is blamed for crime; upbringing blamed for loutish behaviour, and “society” is blamed for creating a world of haves and have-nots. Our duty to care for one another is now taken over by the armies of civil servants and social workers and paid for in our taxes. Personal responsibility? Not me, guv!

Yet that is the very core of Christian teaching. Each of us is and must be responsible for our own innermost thoughts and our public actions. Just as Christ told his audience that the observance of the strict codes of ritual cleansing and the observance of the strict dietary laws did not make a man Godly, so with us. The outside may appear shiny, upright, and righteous, but the inside is an appalling mass of corruption where there is only hatred, anger, or deceit. I am very much afraid that all to much of our society today is just that, good to look at, but corrupt and utterly devoid of God at its heart. You have only to look at the product of our society with its rising crime, predilection for violence in “entertainment” and the desperate searching for some substitute for the gospels, so expertly undermined by the propagandists of the anti-church factions.

So how do I, as a would-be Christian, reconcile the commandment to love my neighbour as myself, to forgive until seventy times seven the wrongdoing of that neighbour, and the pain and hurt at the damage that those wrongdoings cause. I am not sure there is an answer to this question. I do know that I wrestle with it daily as I try to apply the commandment to give love to the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable, and attempt to live in a society that has turned its back on God. Nor can I be entirely satisfied that I am as clean on the inside as the image I try to project on the outside. Sometimes my anger, and perhaps my self-righteous arrogance, shuts out God entirely and I find myself sinking into the same Godless state that Christ’s questioners are accused of.

It seems to me that I, too, need to wrestle with God, just as Jacob did to find the new man, the man who can worship not just the God of the gospel and the Church, but God, Lord of all creation and of my soul. In our society it is all too easy to be distracted from the things of the spirit, to become so wrapped up in the minutiae of the world that we lose sight of the help God can and does give in all these things.

“What comes out of a man makes him unclean”.

We, as Christians, need to be aware of this and strive to ensure that what we show to the world is what is within us. That what comes from our deepest and most hidden recesses of the soul are the things that come of God and not the things that make us “unclean”. At the same time, we must also remember that we are also human. God knows this and just as he knows our inmost thoughts, from him, too, comes the strength to at least strive for that goal.

So, can I forgive the murderer and the evildoer? I do not know. Forgiving must come from the victim and I am merely the witness. And I remember, all too clearly perhaps, the pain, the anguish, and senselessness and waste. I remember the disgust and the sickness I felt at the sheer evil I have witnessed, and I pray that God can give me grace to find a way to at least continue to alleviate such suffering where I can. In the meantime I will continue to strive to keep Christ as my King and as my Governor and pray that all who have heard his name may do so with me.

If it is what comes out of us which makes us unclean, then we must needs examine ourselves, and our inmost thoughts, our anger, our hurts, and perhaps our responses to the world around us to see how and where we can drink from the cleansing power of Christ to ensure we are truly clean. Only then can we begin to be truly Christian.


Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:27 PM

October 10, 2004

The Enigma of Moses

Church Mouse was given the key to the Monk's archives vault in order to find some articles and sermons to post in his absence. This one intrigued her particularly, so please read the article and enjoy it as much as she has, for it fills in more than a few gaps that help make the Old Testament a little more comprehensible.

The Enigma of Moses

Some musings on a great character, founder of the Jewish nation and of the Jewish Faith.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the key characters in the Old Testament as a continuation of the series on reading the Bible. Essentially, this is almost a case of “take your pick” - there are any number of fascinating people in the pages of this wonderful book - so why start with Moses?

Well, there are several reasons, but I shall settle for just one. This rather enigmatic figure is regarded by the Jews as the greatest of the Prophets. Prophet, you may ask? Yes, is the simple answer, prophet, soldier, hermit, murderer, husband, and leader of the Exodus. See what I mean? Read through the books Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy and you will see what I mean. There are almost as many facets to this man as there are on a cut and polished diamond! We ought to know more about him - he is, after all the founder of the Faith that has given rise to ours! He, quite possibly more than John the Baptiser, is the “One calling in the wilderness - make straight the way of the Lord.”

So what exactly do we know about this enigmatic man? On one level it appears that we know quite a lot - but then when we look more closely we discover that we actually have very little of the man himself. We know the story of his birth and the story of his being raised within a Royal household. We also know the story of his killing the overseer and fleeing into the desert. Then, beyond his marriage to a Midianite, and the birth of his son - whom he fails to circumcise until much later in life - we know little more than that he worked as a shepherd for his father-in-law. Jewish folklore tells us that God chose Moses because, once, when a young goat had strayed from the herd, Moses went in search of it and finding it weak and unable to return, carried it to water and the flock. The Bible simply tells us that God chose to call him from out of the burning bush.

On the face of it - why would God choose this man at all? We cannot really know the mind of God, but we can discern His purpose, and this man Moses evidently had the right credentials for God’s purpose at that time.

If we start with what we do know of his life, we find an interesting tale of a child born during a period when the rulers of the Nile Delta had evidently decided that these Canaanite settlers had become a threat - possibly the expansion of their numbers had begun to worry the local populace who saw them as immigrants threatening to take over jobs and power. There is quite a lot of debate as to the interpretation of the word we have as “slavery” among scholars - it seems that the original meaning may be more accurately “bondsman”. The difference is subtle, but quite significant, for a bondsman may have considerably more freedom than a slave, and certainly, if they had become an economic force, they would have been able to wield a certain amount of power. Thus, the Egyptian Rulers saw them as a significant threat and dealt with it in a fashion typical of the period (and not unknown in the last century or this one either!) - they ordered the killing of all male infants (and possibly preteens as well) and the marriage of Israelite girls to Egyptian boys. Nothing like depriving a people of its identity, and the ability to maintain itself as a distinct group in the populace, to destroy it as a threat.

Moses is saved by the ingenuity of his mother who sets him adrift, in the story, in a reed basket to be found by the Egyptian Princess. Look carefully at the story, however, and you see that the Hand of God is in this instance assisted by a desperate mother. She has done her homework and knows her Princess! The basket is set loose at a time that the Princess is most likely to spot it, and among the retinue is a sympathizer. Consider this event carefully - the Nile was at that time (and still is - but not so much in the delta area now) the home of the Nile crocodile. These beasts thrived around the early human cities and settlements precisely because they are supreme opportunists and very good at taking unwary beasts, people, and any flotsam. Would you bathe near a crocodile habitat? More importantly, would you set a small child adrift in a basket where the crocodiles could get to him? Probably not, so this in itself speaks of some careful planning. Does this mean God wasn’t in it? Of course not, it was a part of His purpose and He will have selected the players and the instruments with care.

Now begins the enigma. We do not know if this “Princess” was a member of the Pharaoh’s Harem or one of his sisters - or whether she was perhaps the wife or daughter of a high born official, perhaps a local governor. Whatever the circumstances, it is pretty clear that Moses was raised within the confines of the palace (again we have to be careful of the interpretation of this word - it often simply means an important house or the residence of someone important), and this would also seem to have led to his acquiring certain military skills. It would seem that he also developed into having a rather fiery temper and an arrogance to match it! I find myself wondering, and others have also wondered, whether his “crime” was killing the brutal overseer (after all, if he had been raised as a member of the Royal household, this was probably regarded not so much as a crime, but as an unfortunate display of Royal temper) or that there having been a change of the balance of power in the Harem, he and his surrogate mother's protection was uncertain. Perhaps even a combination of both, the politics of the Egyptian Harem at this time could be extremely convoluted.

As an added puzzle, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the actual timing of these events. Generally it is accepted that the events of Exodus occurred in the reign of Ramses II and his successor Merneptah, but there is a strong case for an earlier date coinciding with the end of the reign of Akhenaten around 100 years earlier. This was a period of tremendous upheaval and particularly in the sphere of religious thinking, as Akhenaten had imposed a monotheist religion with the disc of the Sun as god (the Aten). Other sources raise the issue of the lack of any reference to the Exodus in the historical records of Ramses or any of the earlier Pharaohs (or for that matter the later ones), but we now know that the Pharaohs, like modern politicians, often didn’t record their defeats - they glossed over them and promoted the idea that they had actually won the battles they lost. Where they couldn’t get away with that - the answer was simple - ignore it!

A number of things suggest that the Ramses period is the most probable candidate period, among them a volcanic eruption at Santorini early in Ramses' reign which caused plagues of frogs, insects and other unpleasantries in all the lands bordering on the Mediterranean, particularly the South Eastern corner around the Nile Delta. Again, the hand of God using the events of nature to His purpose. It certainly got the Israelites moving, whatever the cause.

So, if we have a period, then what of the man? Here again, our information is very limited. Having fled into the Sinai (a tradition which we have accepted), Moses finds himself eventually falling in with a Nomadic group called the Midianites. Here he marries the daughter of Reuel (also called Jethro, later in Exodus), a local priest and evidently also a tribal chief, named Zipporah who bears him a son. In defiance of his Israelite heritage, he fails to have the boy circumcised, something he is compelled to do much later, in order to become Israel’s leader.

After the encounter with God in the burning bush, Moses takes on the task with a mixture of courage and timidity. He tells us, himself, (and God!), that he lacks the courage and is not a good speaker, asking how can he persuade Pharaoh if he isn’t able to speak effectively. God provides the answer with Aaron - who has evidently maintained the connections to get them into the court and is also a good advocate, and with the support of his sister whose role is perhaps less obvious but evidently vital. With God’s help we know that the debate was eventually won with the persuasive influence of the plagues as the ultimate threat. It is now that Moses' leadership and organizational abilities come fully into play - yet again, the book itself only gives us tantalizing glimpses and does not tell us the who and the how of the organization. Consider, however, that the group spelled out in “Numbers” is a tally of those males of “military” age. Extrapolated to include the children, women and the aged, this tallies up to a very large group - somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 people. This would require an enormous amount of organization, and so we must assume that Moses, through Aaron and the various “heads” of house from each of the twelve “tribes” (essentially the descendents of the original brothers of Joseph), mobilizes and moves a group in an order of march that looks remarkably like the order of march recorded for Ramses II’s abortive invasion of Syria in roughly the same period.

If Moses was the Leader for this he either had a remarkable ability in himself (and Jewish tradition suggests that he was the organizer) or, he was ably supported by military leaders who knew their business extremely well. This is in effect another part of the puzzle that is the picture of Moses as we have it. Whatever the case, it would have taken an extremely able leader to hold this movement together as it is very clear he did.

The image we have of him from the Bible is quite candid in its record. It does not paint him as some sort of superhero, but rather as an honest man with many flaws who was chosen by God to be His instrument in bringing to fulfillment His promise that the children of Abraham should be His chosen people and occupy the Promised Land. His courage is boundless and his temper prodigious - see only his response to the golden calf - yet, he is not afraid to confront God and to take upon himself the failings of this rebellious and difficult rabble he has liberated from Egypt.

The second part of the enigma is the setting up of the Law and of the patterns of worship and sacrifice. These are unique in their attribution to God, for other law codes exist with similar themes, but not with the same moral authority. The worship is distinctive and again moral in tone. The strictures on excess in worship make it plain that the Israelites are to exercise morality in worship as well. Bear in mind that many pagan rituals of this period were “fertility” religions with acts of excess and frequently sexual activity as well. These are strictly forbidden among the Israelites, their worship is to be focused on God, not on things material! Again, this gives us an insight into a powerful mind at work, quite definitely guided by God, but still with the ability to translate the will of God into terms and actions at a human level. This suggests a man whose breadth of knowledge, whose education and understanding of these matters is extensive - and rather questions the image of him as a humble shepherd minding sheep and goats through the period of his exile.

The dietary rules that are also attributed to him and from God, are common sense - if you understand disease transmission through the food chain. Hence the prohibition on eating the flesh of scavengers and carnivorous animals - their habit of eating rotting and diseased animals could mean the transmission of poisons to humans. Pigs, too, carry, particularly in these hot climes, parasites and a range of human diseases. It makes good sense to not eat them - or bottom feeding crustaceans and fish - all of which can transmit toxins and diseases from what they eat to whatever eats them. Here again there is a hint of something which was not commonly understood in the culture he came from or the cultures around the Sinai. Indeed, it was not well understood until the 19th and 20th Centuries, yet here is a man who has supposedly spent 40 years as a shepherd setting in place these complex dietary rules.

Another part of the enigma is one we can probably never answer completely. It is this: who were his parents, what was their role, and what part did his early preparation have to play in his eventual role. Some have suggested that he was quite possibly raised by devotees from Akhenaten’s court, or even that he was influenced by their thinking. This is a possibility, but could it also not be the case that this was the necessary preparation for the task that God had in mind for him? I think that this is quite likely.

So we have on the one hand, an image of a man raised in the household of the royal court or of a senior official, who murders another official and flees to the desert, returning some forty years later to lead a very large group of people into the wilderness and establish successfully a completely new theology. A superhuman task if ever there was one - yet this very ordinary, somewhat flawed man fulfilled his calling and died, we are told, on Mount Nebo at the very borders of the Promised Land. Yet the other image we have of this man is of a giant who strides up across the desert leading this rebellious people, ascends Mount Sinai. and returns, his face permanently aglow, from a face to face session with God, armed with the rules for the foundation of the Jewish Faith. The foundations, in fact, of the Christian Faith. A contradiction in terms on the one hand, and a confirmation of God’s enabling power on the other.

A remarkable story, a remarkable man - yet, not that markedly different from you or me. And so the final enigma is this; could we exercise some of the same gifts for God as he did and achieve the same results if we were put to it? I rather think we could, because if it was for God’s purposes, we would have God acting in us as He did though Moses.

Peace be with you always.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:02 AM

October 07, 2004

A Strange Silence........

Church Mouse had anticipated that she would have received some kind of material from the veld of South Africa by this point in time, but the jungle drums are strangely silent. Hopefully there will be some kind of despatch from the field, soon.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:20 AM

October 06, 2004

Care in the community, or careless of the community?

The news that a mentally unstable man is being sought for the murder of four women and several other serious attacks highlights the insanity of the "Care in the Community" programme which is anything but what it says! The evidence continues to mount that dangerous schizophrenics should not be allowed to live in uncontrolled and insecure "homes", yet mention changing the Mental Health Act and you have a storm of protest from the Liberal Left who evoke images of the draconian regimes of the 18th and 19th Centuries where people with nothing more than a mild depression were deprived of life and liberty for years at the behest, quite often, of their families.

In a reaction to that regime, we now have the Asylums shut and the inmates living in homes on their own quite often in the community. The danger with this regime is that the Act quite clearly says that someone committed, even after committing a crime, must be released into the community as soon as their condition is "controlled" and they are assessed to be no longer a "threat to others". What this marvellous piece of legalistic garbage does is allow the touchy-feely brigade to make the assessment and then to abandon these very unstable individuals to their own devices to continue their own medication regimes in their own way. The social workers who are required to look after them are hamstrung by other legislation which prohibits them from "forcing" a patient to take their medication, so you soon have the situation where the person is less and less controlled.

Paranoid schizophrenics are also noted for their extreme cunning, and there are many papers on how well these sufferers are able to hide their insanity from all but the most highly trained Doctor. So pity the poor health worker who is required to check on the patients' daily medications, can't make them take it, can't demand to witness their taking it, and so must take the word of a possibly dangerously cunning person that they have taken it.

Let us be very clear, the vast majority of the people this Act was meant to free from the Institutions are no threat to the public and probably never will be. The small minority of really sick individuals - and here I must ask myself about the mental health of those who cut peoples heads off in the name of religion - are the ones for whom the drafters of this piece of legislation must take a strenuous exception. Paranoid Schizophrenics are a danger to themselves and to everyone they encounter - especially if there are factors which may be interfering with the effectiveness of their medication. It should not be left to the panels of doctors, social workers, and do-gooders to decide if they are "controlled" and allowed to re-enter the community. It must be subject to strict controls and to strict review. The Act does make provision for a person to be "recalled" if they fail to follow their medication regime - trouble is that by the time the authorities realise this, someone else is dead, someone else is injured, and the patient has absconded!

It is high time that this ridiculously ineffective regime was changed. The patient has as much right to the protection afforded by a properly controlled environment and medication regime as the public has to expect that they will be protected from attacks by people who are mentally unstable. I doubt, however, that this problem will receive anything like the parliamentary attention that the safety of foxes has received as long as this government is in power!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:33 AM | Comments (1)

October 05, 2004

Letters from the early Church

Being on leave, I shall not be preaching at the Abbey during my absence, so I am, instead, posting an article written some time back which has not been published here previously. As you will see by the title, it goes into some parts of the Bible seldom described or used as a foundation for a sermon but which make for interesting reading to help give greater understanding of the New Testament when reading the Bible.

To read it in its entirety, click on the "more".

Letters from the early Church

The formative documents which framed and still frame much of our belief.

The familiar is often something we tend to overlook when we pick up a copy of the Bible, and those, who, like me, have grown up with the familiar round of “Epistle and Gospel” will know what I mean when I say we have heard the epistles “to death”. We have heard the BCP cycle so often we can almost recite them along with the readers. Perhaps for this reason alone, we need to change the cycle and put the letters to the developing Church back into context.

Why have I started my look at the New Testament with the Letters? Surely the Gospels come first? Well, yes, they do, but only in the order of the Canon as it was set by the Council of Nicea and others. The Gospels were almost certainly written later; the letters came first, treatises on conduct, worship, organization, doctrine and theology, written to guide the new faith of converts and fight the schisms already evident among their followers. They take up fully a third of the New Testament and frame much of what we believe today and form the basis of a great deal of our theology and the ethics of Christianity. One interesting aspect of them is that they also give us some insights of how the first Christians saw their age and their expectation that they would see the Second Coming and last judgement.

St Paul is the author of the majority of the letters, and we know this because he put in a greeting and a closing salutation to them in his own name, sometimes even on the originals, scribbling additional comments, observations, and injunctions in the margins. James wrote two, Peter two, John three (although some scholars feel this may have been one letter altered to suit different destinations), and Jude one. We do not know who the author of the letter to the Hebrews was, but we do know roughly when it was written.

Chronologically, 1 Thessalonians was the first to be written in around 48 AD, although some argue that Galatians may have been written earlier, it is generally agreed that the latter was more likely penned in 55 AD. 2 Thessalonians followed swiftly on the heels of the first with the letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Romans following between 52 AD and 55 AD. The letters to Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Titus, and Timothy all followed between 61 AD and 65AD. Hebrews was written around 65 AD and most of the letters written by James, Peter, and Jude were penned between 60 AD (Peter and James) and 80 AD (Jude). John wrote all three letters sometime after 90 AD. It is widely believed (and the evidence supports this) that the Gospels did not make their appearance until around 80 AD, and these were originally collections of stories written down for local consumption by those around the Apostles.

The letters are very much the product of the life of the early Church, addressing the variety of matters impacting upon the message, their worship, their beliefs and their status in the community. Not much change there, then! Since the letters are addressing issues that are still pressing upon us two millennia later! What the letters show us more than anything else is that the teaching of the Church was, and still is, dynamic. In a changing world, the underlying principles may not change a great deal, but as people's understanding changes we must also adapt our understanding if we are to make sense of God’s purpose as expressed in our faith.

Scholastically, the letters may be divided into several “groups”. In the Pauline groupings we have the “first letters” - 1 and 2 Thessalonians- then, the “Gospel” letters - Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans - followed by the “prison” letters - Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, and finally, the “pastoral” letters to Timothy and Titus. Hebrews is on its own, and there is some argument as to where it was aimed. The final group of letters is also the whole sweep of the later Apostolic letters, and these are called simply the “general” group, so-called because they were written to be copied to all the communities of the Christian Church. In a sense these are pastoral letters meant to bring together all those who shared the message of the Gospel.

The authors of the letters all draw richly on the Old Testament and upon a number of other “common” sources, some of which are contained in the “extra canonical” books I discussed in an earlier article. Some seem to draw upon, or perhaps are themselves part of, a “proto-gospel” literature. Personally, I would dearly like to see some of the letters that were written TO Paul and the others, as I suspect that these might add something to the way we understand the responses. Since that is most unlikely to occur, we need to rely upon other sources of information to try and glean the background to what Paul and the others were addressing.

From all of this we can safely say that the letters were all written during the latter half of the first Century with the earliest being written some 20 years after the Resurrection. To interpret them properly we need to understand the world to which they were written and then to draw the parallels with our own society in order to see what they say to us today. As ever we need to remember that society moves on and what may well have been relevant and right in the first Century may need to be adjusted in the light of modern knowledge and understanding of the world and people today. So, where do we begin?

Let us look first of all at the setting. The early Church began in a decidedly pagan world. The dominant religions of the Near and Middle East were of Greco-Roman origin, but there were also influences from the Far East, and the further East one traveled the stronger these influences became. Greek or “Hellenic” philosophy was also having a major impact upon Judaism, as witnessed by the Sadducee school of thought, and there is some evidence that Mithraism and some of the Eastern “Mystic” religions were making inroads as well. Into this there was now launched the new “Christian” philosophy, and we must not forget that the term was intended as an insult originally. Be that as it may, it is certain that some of these found their way into the formative thoughts and concepts of the newly formed Church. Indeed, the letter to the Hebrews shows a remarkable similarity in its arguments to the best of those of the Hellenic schools of philosophic debate. Even this early there were arguments about the nature of Christ Himself - was He a human with Godlike powers or a God with merely the appearance of being human? To adopt the latter position, one has to deny that He died, or that He could suffer as a human, and this calls into question the crucifixion and the resurrection! No wonder St John almost foams at the mouth over this issue.

There were also more serious matters to consider. Almost the only meat available for food was purchased in the market places in the cities - and that came from one exclusive source. You’ve guessed it, the pagan temples! It was the product of animal sacrifice, for the budding Christian, meat tainted by having been offered to a false God, and the money from its sale flowed back into funding the Temples and the debauched communities that they encouraged. Added to this was the practice of encouraging the worshippers in the temples to “drink the blood of sacrifice” - quite literally in some cases - and to see the temple gods and goddesses as being quite as valid as any other. Some of the philosophies that went with the worship in these temples conflicted dramatically with the basic message of the Christian teachers and the entire ethos of the Judeo-Christian school of ethics and morality. Small wonder Paul and the others went to such lengths to discourage their followers from having anything to do with the pagan rituals, feasts, or festivals.

Judaism, by contrast, was the most ethical form of religion anywhere. It was precisely this that had begun, long before the beginning of the Christian mission, to attract proselytes to Judaism from among the Gentile communities. An example of such a family is contained in the Gospel account of the Centurion and his servant. Throughout the Middle East there were already Gentile families who followed the Jewish religion, even though to the stricter members of the Jewish nation such as the Pharisees, they could never be fully “Jewish”. It was among these proselytes that Paul won many of his early converts and it is in the thrust of the argument put forward in Hebrews that we can see the case being made that Judaism has its spiritual fulfillment in Christianity.

Against this background then, the letters follow three main “themes”. Firstly they set out a vision of God - a Holy God, who expects holiness from His people. He is the pattern for their behaviour. It is He who controls the world, but there is a more characteristic view - which sets this vision of God completely apart from any similar pagan philosophy - that this Holy God is also the Father. A loving God who seeks to reconcile His wayward children with Himself. This intensely personal view of God is one shared by all the letter writers and it has no parallel anywhere.

The second theme is on the nature of Christ. Here the position gets more difficult, but is equally unequivocal. The early Christians expressed their view of Christ in a number of different ways, and this is reflected in the letters. Hebrews describes Him as wholly God and wholly Man, thus He is able to represent His people as their High Priest before the throne of the Almighty Father. Throughout the letters a variety of titles are used to describe Him, from Jesus, Jesus Christ (a Greek rendition of the Hebrew for “Messiah”) and Christ Jesus (one of Paul’s variants!) to Lord Jesus Christ, an acknowledgement of His sovereignty over us all. In essence, as seen by the writers of the letters, through Christ God the Father brings salvation to mankind. Jesus Christ is therefore the supreme expression of God’s love for His creation.

The last theme is simply put - Humanity and its salvation. The world is corrupt and in thrall to evil - through Christ there is a new start, a way to bring a new era and bring about a new creation in which humanity and God can be reconciled. Here there is no more room for the old ways; it must be a new and willing start to prepare the way for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan. There is no more room for the immorality of the old ways; all must now be in accord with the new laws of love and holiness in the grace of God.

In closing this short look at the letters to the young churches, it would be remiss of me not to point out that almost all the writers had, by the time they started writing them, been practicing their “new” religion for some time. They had had time to mature in their faith; even St Paul had spent some time in Tarsus teaching and debating but also growing and maturing. By the time they started to write they had some pretty clear ideas to put forward, and the rest, as they say, is history.

If you are looking for background information on this period there are a number of sources. Probably the easiest, provided you don’t mind the fact that the facts have been “spun up”, are the books by Taylor Caldwell, “Dear and glorious physician” and “Great lion of God”. Although these are novels and therefore fiction, the author has in fact captured the morality and spirit of the period extremely well. Good recent histories of first Century Rome will also help, and if you can get a good translation, the letters of Pliny can fill in a number of gaps. If you search for them there are also books on the worship of the Greek and Roman Gods, and there are also works available on Mithraism and the Mystic Religions of Persia which were also influential at this time.

As with the prophets, the letters can be uncomfortable at times, but then they were uncomfortable reading even when first copied. I hope that you will find them enlightening, thought-provoking, and above all faith-building.

May the Lord give us all the grace to grow in understanding and in faith.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:02 AM

October 04, 2004

Justice anyone?

The Lord Chief Justice has a very strange concept of the way in which crime should be punished. In fact he doesn't seem to think it should be punished at all! His recently published "guidance on sentencing" - which is more or less binding on any court below the House of Lords - suggests that a murderer who pleads guilty and show remorse should receive only a ten year sentence - and be considered for parole as early as possible!

It doesn't seem to occur to his Lordship that this is a real insult to the bereaved of the murderer's victim, and to the victim themselves. After all the bereaved have been deprived of a loved one, the victim has been deprived of life - but the murderer should be allowed to enjoy his or her liberty because they pleaded guilty. He seems to have missed the point that most of these vicious and dangerous people have only entered a guilty plea because they have no choice - the evidence is too compelling for them to try and argue their defence! This is surely the end of justice. If ever there was proof that the victim is now the criminal and the criminal the victim, this is it! The Home Secretary is said to be incandescent about this, but is seemingly powerless to reverse the Lord Chief Justice's undermining of Justice and the meaning of it. I could suggest one thing that Parliament could do to put a complete stop to this idiocy among the Judges - simply make all the current "maximum" sentences minimum sentences. And change the parole criteria so that murderers and drug dealers have their options for parole reduced to having to serve as much as possible of the sentence!

As a lawyer friend of mine once remarked - never look for Justice in a British Court, she left years ago. It is now just a grand game between opposing counsel - and the victim is ignored. It seems the Judges have ceased to be the referees and have decided to join the Defence team in every trial.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:10 AM | Comments (1)

October 03, 2004

A lesson in humility?

The Monk is required by his employers to do some consultancy work in the International arena. Now there are some places I would like to go, and there are some places I enjoy going, too, but then there are also some I frankly would not mind missing entirely! Why, then, do I always get to go to those?

The last week, two days were spent in somewhat time-consuming journeys to London to visit a certain Near Eastern Embassy in order to obtain a visa to go to that country to do some work. Their Government has commissioned it, their Government is paying for it, their Government has even arranged for the Visa to be issued - but, the system has to be followed to the letter. I must present myself at the Embassy in person, sit in a queue for several hours while a single clerk deals with the several dozen applicants, supplicants, and other assorted individuals with equal disdain, and finally - "come back tomorrow for your passport and visa!" One can only assume that this is a small "power play" designed to show all comers, particularly us nasty Western Oppressors, that this clerk has complete power over you.

Well, the Monk will have to attend confession and do penance. He adopted St Paul's stricture on dealing with those who are rude, unpleasant, or hurtful - he was nice to the man. He went out of his way to appear polite, obseqious, and humble - and enjoyed every moment of watching the guy get more and more uncomfortable. Oh dear, such a little thing - and so much fun. Definitely a serious penance required!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:12 AM | Comments (3)

October 02, 2004

Cheese, Glorious Cheese [and mushrooms]........

Whilst The Monk is on his extended leave, lost in the tall grasses of the veld, it is once again left to Church Mouse to help fill the gaps, which she is happy to do in his absence.

Church Mouse had such fun with that very old recipe for using the extra cheese she had been given a while back that she thought you might enjoy hearing of another recipe using both cheese and the beautiful wee mushrooms that are now springing up overnight in various reaches of the Abbey Lawn and grounds. She gathers them on her nightly rounds before the daytime staff come to trim everything away. Do enjoy this Mushroom Pasty if you are of a mind to try something a little different.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:08 AM

October 01, 2004

Tax and spend returns ....

The old joke used to be that the Chancellor had a simplified new Tax Return Form in mind. It only had four questions:

Where do you live?
How much do you earn?
Where do you keep it? and
Do you want to give it to us in cash or cheque?

That joke seems to get closer to the truth every time Labour or Lib Dem (and who the heck can tell the difference these days?) politicians opens their mouths. It's always in the interests of a fairer, more open, more equitable society, of course. It will pay for improvements to health, education, "services", or whatever is the current buzzword, we are told. Yet somehow it never quite seems to work that way, does it?

Recently it was reported that Neil Kinnock was retiring from the European Commission, and the photo showed his huge smile. Given that the man has never held a real job and is now retiring on a pension that you and I will pay for, he has reason to smile. My own pension is likely to be one tenth of his, and I would claim to have spent most of my working life actually in the service of the people and the country. But then, I got it wrong right from the start - if I wanted an easy life and the fat returns for minimum investment and work - I should have entered politics. I probably wouldn't have been able to live with my conscience but, hey, if you get rich enough on other people's hard work and taxes - even the most sensitive conscience has its price! Feathering of nests has now become the priority of our Illustrious Parliamentarians, and it's thee and me that are suffering. So much for all the cant and the piety of the conference speakers!

Interesting, too, the range of things that are being touted in this "conference" season. All at our expense, of course! Don't the politicians ever stop and think or even better - listen? I suppose not; after all, it's not their money, it's ours - and we are stupid enough to keep voting for this shower of complete idiots. Oops, that's an oxymoron - they can't be idiots - they make us pay for everything including their jollies! That takes cunning; hmmmm, maybe I better review my stance on entering politics - I could do with the lifestyle and the income - not to mention the pension. And the rest of you oiks can pay for it!

Right, vote for me next May!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:47 AM