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Friday, 5 June 2020

A grain of sand?

As I read on in "Burmese Days" I am getting to know the character of  Elizabeth a bit better. It seems that Orwell is using her to express some of the prejudices that he saw during his time in Burma. The impression you get is that she thinks everything white and British is superior to everything else. When taken to a local Burmese festival she is made welcome by the local people and they even bring on the star act early especially for her; when taken to a Chinese shop she is made welcome by the owner who brings out the best tea to share with her. In both cases she is repelled by what she sees and experiences and walks off in disgust, no thought for others or the welcome she was given. This attitude is not just reserved for those she meets in Burma, it seems when in Paris she had just as much contempt for all foreigners.

It is also an attitude expressed by other characters especially when there is a move to allow a non European to become a member of the exclusive European Club. Those with power and privilege are often resistant to any changes that might reduce this.

As Orwell is publishing "Burmese Days" Niebuhr is making social comment as well on these lines.
He talks about human anxiety playing a role in human action. Anxiety about what might happen to you can lead to actions that are not always good. He also says that those who want to challenge social injustice and change the world for the better should expect opposition from those who might lose out as a result. In order to get change some form of confrontation may well be necessary as those with power are not just going to hand it over. In "Moral Man and Immoral Society " published in 1932 he observed:
" the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so". 1

It seems that the question of prejudice and equal rights is just as much an issue today as when Orwell and Niebuhr were writing back in the 1930's.  Many across the world have been appalled at the death of George Floyd and protested in various ways against the injustice and prejudice they see and feel.

If Niebuhr is right then opposing such injustice and prejudice will bring its own opposition and even confrontation of some sort.

We might feel that there is not much we can do about all of this; we might feel that our actions are like a grain of sand on the seashore, easily washed away by the prevailing tide. This might be true but it could also be true that from such grains castles of hope are built.

Gracious God
Today we pray for all those
across the world who are suffering 
from injustice of any sort.

We pray that your spirit of
love will work in the hearts
of all people, so that all people 
can live in dignity with respect
for each other.

We thank you for the diversity
of culture and life across Your world.
Help us to rejoice and celebrate this.
In those times when we fall short
in showing Your love, forgive us 
and open our eyes afresh to the truth 
that we are all created in Your image.


1. Niebuhr R, Moral Man and Immoral Society ( Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1932) 253

Friday, 29 May 2020

Science and other stuff

This week my reading of Orwell and Niebuhr has taken a bit of a back seat as I decided to finish "The Language of God" by Francis Collins, a book I came across last week. Collins is basically expressing the view that a person can believe in God and science, including evolution.  I have to say that being brought up in a fairly liberal minded home, where my dad was a scientific officer for the health service running a hospital laboratory, there has never been any doubt for me about this. As I read the words of professor Collins I found such a view reinforced. What I did find particularly encouraging was his acknowledgement of the sincerity of those who might not agree with him. I do wonder whether some of the divisions in our world sometimes are the result of people insisting on their viewpoint being accepted above all others, rather than acknowledging others may stand on other ground, which for them is equally valid. The question may be how do we all find common ground in such situations without compromising our position? John Wesley's sermon on "A Catholic Spirit" explores this. For an example see:

I have not completely neglected Niebuhr and Orwell. I have done a bit of reading about Niebuhr as well as what he wrote. In the 1920's and 30's he was critical of the Protestant churches liberal position and preaching of a social gospel. It seems that his point is that it was not a very realistic position as it suggested human progress would continue to be positive and with the help of reason humanity would solve all of its problems.  I think there is something in what Niebuhr is saying that is worth pursuing. In our present situation what is the message the church should be giving? How can we express a hope in the future, because of our hope in Christ, that is realistic and meaningful to all people and not wishful thinking?

Finally, in Burmese Days the arrival of Elizabeth looks like stirring up things in the British Community. When asked were she has come from she replies Paris. Immediately it is thought that she has led a somewhat glamorous life. When Orwell back-fills the story we discover it is anything but. Sometimes it is easy to jump to conclusions about people based on where they come from, conclusions that are not always borne out by reality. Listening to peoples story with more care may help us all avoid this.

Loving God
We thank you for science
and scientists, especially at this time
when they are working so hard to find 
ways to overcome the coronavirus.
Guide them and protect them in all of their work

Help us to appreciate the majesty of your creation through science
To see your hand in those discoveries 
that tell us more about our world and ourselves.

We pray for your wisdom in all our relationships;
in times when we might disagree
in times when we are tempted to judge others by where they come from.
Help us to show your love to everyone and even be prepared to change our views 
when we are guided by your spirit to do so.


Friday, 22 May 2020

Every good deed?

In the opening chapter of Orwell's " Burmese Days" we are introduced to U Po Kyin, a local official who has  gained his position, power and wealth often by unscrupulous means. Being a Buddhist he believes in reincarnation. What he returns as will depend on the life he has lead. Is he worried about this in view of all the bad things he has done? The answer is no. He will use the wealth accrued to pay for the building of lots of pagodas just before he dies. These good deeds will outweigh all the bad deeds previously committed and he should be assured of not being reincarnated as a slug.

This got me thinking about the reasons we do good deeds. At the moment there are many helping as volunteers in all sorts of ways and this is helping many people in all sorts of ways. I would be surprised if such people thought that they were building up some kind of positive balance sheet for the hereafter, so why are they doing it? 

Just recently Dr Francis Collins was awarded the Templeton prize as reported in this article:

After reading the above article I bought his book and I am now reading this too. Early in the book Dr Collins talks about the Moral Law as explained by CS Lewis.  This tells us that humans, no matter where they are, somehow know the difference between right and wrong. Even if we do not always adhere to this through selfish choices; even if there are differences about how this is responded to; there is still an appeal to a higher standard.

So perhaps when we are doing good  things, sometimes for complete strangers,  this is our response to the moral law.  Has God put in place this law along with all the other laws that hold the universe together? Is there something within us that makes us respond in certain ways? Is this is a reflection of our maker?

Without doubt there are still people who act in ways that are purely selfish. This is perhaps one of the consequences of free will as we are free to choose good or evil. There are also those who do good for what they can get out of it in the form of status or some type of feeling that they are a good person. This may not always be a bad thing if others are helped, but I do wonder whether is should be the motivating factor.

Perhaps when humans do good in a truly altruistic way it is then that we can truly catch a glimpse of the face of God.

Gracious God

You sent your son Jesus
to be our saviour and in him
we have a model in how to
do good.

We thank you for all those
who are volunteering at this
time to help others. May your
hand of protection be over them
and those they are helping in these
challenging times.

Help us to know when and
how to help others;
Place in our hearts the desire
to do all the good we can
in ways that bring glory not to
us but to you.


Friday, 15 May 2020

Down and Out with Orwell in London

I have just finished reading George Orwell's " Down and out in Paris and London". In the second part of the book Orwell find himself homeless in the London area. As I read of his experiences a range of thoughts go through my mind about charity and the church. There are a number of occasions when Orwell goes to a church for a free meal, usually tea, bread, or the like. Once fed there is the expectation that the homeless stay on for some type of religious service, in one case the men are even expected to kneel down and pray. Orwell comments that this type of charity is not really liked by the men. There is a resentment at the expectation that they should be grateful for the charity offered them. Now Orwell is not really critical of the church people giving out the charity as he sees good intent in what they are doing, but as the old saying goes "the way to hell is paved with good intentions".  It got me thinking about the reasons people have for giving to charity, or doing charitable works. If as a Christian I am trying to follow Jesus as my model for life then I should try to help people when I can. But when I am doing this I should not expect anything in return, even if sometimes the experience is disappointing. When Jesus healed ten leapers only one returned, and that, a Samaritan ( Luke 17: 11- 19). I sense a note of disappointment, even sadness in what Jesus says: "Were there not ten cleansed?", but even so the other nine still were healed. So I wonder if we are going be involved in any type of charity, especially with people who do not always fit in with societies expectations, we should do so as a sign of our love of God and our fellow humans, not for some sense that we have done good.

At the time of Orwell there were still workhouses and attached to these were "spikes", places were tramps could stay overnight. These were very institutionalised. When you went in you gave over all your belongings, including clothes and put on some type of uniform. The standard bread and tea, sometimes cocoa was given and you were allotted a cell or bed in a dormitory.  In the morning your belongings were returned and after a breakfast and inspection by a doctor (apparently to check for smallpox not to help with any ailments), you were given some bread and cheese and sent off on the road again. By law you could only stay at a spike once a month, twice at some London ones. Registers were kept of all who stayed.  Such places are long gone but homelessness is not. The issues homeless people face may be different to the tramps Orwell got to know, but it seems that almost a hundred years since Orwell wrote about these things, people still find themselves "on the road".  In thinking about the situation in his time Orwell saw providing work for the tramps as a way to help resolve the situation. He suggests that they work on farms attached to the workhouses to grow their own food. This could also help improve the status of the tramps and even help them eventually settle down.

Today there are many marvellous charitable organisations that provide a home and training for people in need and who for all sorts of reasons have become homeless. As a result many lives are changed for the better.

Dear God

We pray for all those who seek
to offer help to those in need.
Let our charity be given with 
an open hand and heart.

We pray for all those who are
homeless today, 
for whatever reason.
Keep them safe on our streets, 
especially from coronavirus,
and let them find the help
they need, not what others
want to give.

Help us all to care for 
each other in these 
difficult times.


Now off to Burma with " Burmese Days"!!

Friday, 8 May 2020

VE Day, but not as we planned it.

Today we commemorate VE Day but because of the present lock-down not in the way that many had planned. No big street parties or celebrations on The Mall. Seventy Five years ago my mum and her friends made their way up to the centre of London to be part of the crowds celebrating the end of a war that had cost so much, now sixteen she was ten when it all started. Today in the square where we live neighbours are putting up bunting and getting ready to come outside at 4pm for a socially distanced
" Stay at Home " celebration Street Party. Basically we will sit in our front gardens with a cup of tea and a sandwich and wave at each other, with some suitable music arranged.

There can be many reasons why there are wars. One is the pursuit and abuse of power. I have just started to read "Moral Man and Immoral Society". Published in 1932 in it Reinhold Niebuhr explores the use of power and coercion between individuals and groups in society. It is the time of the depression and the rise of nationalism in the form of Fascism and Nazism.  As I think about these issues the question arises how far should power in the form of force be used to oppose something that is evil? In his early life Niebuhr had pacifist tendencies because of his Christian faith, however his views changed when he saw what Germany, the land of his forebears, had become under Nazi rule and he became an advocate of American intervention in the war.

When faced with evil or an immoral society what should our response be as Christians? This is a question that I believe we can only answer for ourselves. What I also believe is that today we give thanks for all those who stood against evil, some making the ultimate sacrifice, so that we are free to ask such questions and come up with different answers.

Loving God

On this day of commemoration
we give thanks for all those
who opposed evil
so that we may be free.

We pray for peace
where there is war today;
We pray for the wise,
not selfish, use of power

Help us to use the power
we have to bring harmony,
not division.

Bind our world
together in a common bond
of love so that conflict may
be a thing of the past and
Your Kingdom may come.


Friday, 1 May 2020

To make an end is to make a beginning

In 1928 Reinhold Niebuhr left Detroit to take up a teaching position at  Union Theological Seminary in New York. He had been a minister for thirteen years and in " Leaves form a Notebook of a Tamed Cynic" recorded his experiences and thoughts of that time. In his last entry he speaks of the challenges of being a Christian in an industrialised society. He has seen what has happened to the ordinary worker who becomes unemployed  and the real hardship it causes. He has spoken out again what he sees as the injustices in the society he is called to minister to. In what he writes I sense a real struggle  in trying to live a Christian life and an honest acknowledgement of how so often reality does not match our ideals. That said the question is how do we live as Christians in that reality?  In 1928 the world economy is booming, people are getting rich as big industries grow. Before leaving Detroit  Niebuhr comments:
" If the Church can do nothing else, it can bear witness to the truth until such a day as bitter experience will force  a recalcitrant civilisation to a humility which it does not now possess".
Within a year there was the Wall Street Crash.

It was as the Great Depression was beginning that George Orwell left Paris to take up a job offer in London. On arriving he discovered that the people he was going to work for had gone "abroad" and he could not take up the job for another month. He was now unemployed, homeless and will little money on the streets of London..........

Trying to live out a Christian life it seems to me is just as difficult in today's society as it was for Niebuhr. Some of the challenges Christians face will be the same as his , others different. How far do we strive for the idea and how far work within the realms of reality? The plight of Orwell is still one many are in today. As economic forecasts look dim, just as in 1929, we may once more be facing challenges of working out what society means and where economic ideas and practice fits into it all.

T S Elliot wrote;
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make  an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Dear God

In these times of uncertainty
help us to discern ends and

Give us the courage to move on
when it is the right thing to do;
to challenge injustice
when it is the right thing to do;
to be still in your presence
when it is the right thing to do.

We pray for all who work
to make our society a better
place for us;
especially at this time those in
the care and emergency services.
Keep them safe and valued.

We ask this in the name of Jesus

Friday, 24 April 2020

In the company of a plongeur and the tamed cynic

I have reached Paris on my journey with George Orwell, but not the Paris of museums ,chic street cafes and the Eiffel Tower. No this is the Paris of the backstreet hotels where bugs parade across the walls and restaurant basement kitchens where conditions certainly would not meet a modern one star let alone five. It is 1928/9 and Orwell is so poor he has pawned most of his possessions and got a job as a plongeur, a dish washer and kitchen hand.  In those days pawning seems to have been common. I remember being told about my Nan taking my grandfathers best suit to the pawnbrokers each Monday and then retrieving it on a Friday. I always wondered what would have happened if she did not have the money to do that!! Well Orwell finds himself working all hours of the day seven days a week in a new  restaurant set up by a Russian. He gets the job through another Russian friend called Boris. In the end he describes the job as being like a slave. He then asks the question does this modern slave actually do anything of use? " Is the plongeur's work really necessary to civilisation?" What the plongeur does is so others can have some experience or luxury, in this case eating in a restaurant.

At the moment places like restaurants cannot open. Perhaps we can spare a thought for those who work in the hospitality industry for whom things are uncertain because of this. Perhaps also we might try to be aware that there still is "slavery" like the type Orwell describes and much worse, including in Britain.

In " Notebook of a Tamed Cynic" Reinhold Niebuhr comments on his early life as a minister in Detroit in between 1915 and 1928. At the time Detroit was growing into a great industrial city based on the car industry. Niebuhr raises questions about the conditions of those working in this industry and what the Christian response should be. He gives thought to what the church is doing about important issues of the day and how effective it is in living out the Christian message. The interesting thing is that almost a hundred years later what he is saying I find still relevant and thought provoking. Even some of the issues and concerns about the state of the church and its future seem to be the same.

As food for thought I leave you a phrase Niebuhr uses :

"The representatives of God are seldom divine and the minions of Satan are never quite diabolical".

Gracious God
Today we give you thanks
for the gift of work.
Work that can give meaning
as well as reward.

We pray for those who have
challenging jobs, or who find
themselves exploited through
the greed or indifference
of others.

We pray for justice in
the workplace for all people,
so that all can work with dignity,
to build a better life for themselves
and world for us all.