Living with a prayer plant

September 23, 2020

A few months ago, I received a lovely surprise: a plant through the post. I remember opening the cardboard box desperately trying to remember if I had recently ordered something! I unwrapped Maranta Leuconeura, also known as the Prayer Plant. The next day was quite traumatic: I discovered the leaves were in a serious droop. A quick check of my Prayer Plant found the soil to be moist, so it wasn’t due to a lack of water. A frantic search on the internet discovered that this was normal ‘behaviour’. During the day the leaves of Maranta Leuconeura droop downwards, but at night they lift up and even fold. To some this has looked like the closing of hands in prayer, which explains its common name.

However, I’m not too sure about that description. I guess it’s all about your perception of spiritual matters, as it seems to me that the ‘prayer’ happens the other way around. When my plant droops during the day, it looks like it is in the middle of humble supplication. As I received this gift during the UK Lockdown, it almost seemed as if the plant was interceding during the worst moments of the Covid-19 crisis.

My Prayer Plant reminds me of another gift; this time of a picture given to my Mum. It is a print of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Heinrich Hofmann. I need to be honest: I don’t like it. I don’t think it is my Mum’s cup of tea either, but it was gifted by a friend who passed away some years ago. The picture reminds Mum of her friend. Why don’t I like it? Well…it’s all a bit too nice. The picture shows a Jesus who is serenely praying, completely oblivious to all that is going on around him. One version of this event records Jesus as being in anguish.[1] Hoffmann’s depiction doesn’t feel real, that this really is a man coming to grips with the knowledge that he will soon be executed. Perhaps, again, it all comes down to my perception of spiritual matters. Do accept my apologies if you think Hofmann’s painting is a masterpiece!

Personally, I much prefer to study my prayer plant than to look at Hofmann’s painting. My drooping plant does look like it is wrestling with mighty issues in prayer, humbly looking to God for his action in a troubled world. It also gives me a picture of what Jesus may well have felt like in the Garden of Gethsemane. My plant gives me hope, because it reminds me that prayer can sometimes feel difficult; that there is too much on my mind, which I am struggling to express. Seeing Jesus troubled in the Garden of Gethsemane reminds me that God is not oblivious to the suffering of humanity. Though our troubled thoughts may overwhelm us, God is still on our side, listening to our anguished cries.

Sometimes, a low mood tempts me to ignore prayer. Thankfully, my prayer plant reminds me that my intercessions are not hindered by how I feel. Whether I droop in difficult supplication, or lift my arms in thankfulness, Maranta Leuconeura reminds me that all prayer is worth pursuing.

Ian Woodley info@because.uk.com

[1] The Gospel of Luke 22:44

The peace in your hands

September 21, 2020

Today, is a day of peace. The UN’s International Day of Peace, in fact. But what’s this got to do with you?

Established in 1945, after the near-total destruction of the civilised world, one of the UN’s fundamental purposes was to keep peace throughout the world – to stop conflict. Indeed, the UN General Assembly unanimously voted this 24-hour period to be one of “non-violence and cease-fire.” The agreement to lay down arms is certainly a way to peace.

But is true peace an external reality? Is real peace just no bullets or bombs?

‘Shaping Peace Together’ is this year’s theme. We are told to celebrate today by “spreading compassion, kindness and hope in the face of the pandemic”[1]. This is where peace can sometimes be ironic: enemies often unite when there’s a greater enemy! That’s the selfish nature of the beast. This year, the pandemic has meant politicians, nations and people who would not always be on each other’s Christmas card list have had to pull together for their collective prosperity and survival.

A common enemy has been one of the driving factors in last week’s historic Middle East peace deal. The significance of two Arab gulf states – the UAE and Bahrain – signing an agreement to normalise their relationships with the State of Israel cannot be overestimated. But the accord is one that helps protect all states against the major regional threat of Iran. Interestingly, the first direct flight from Israel to the UAE, symbolising this agreement, had the word “peace” written on the plane in English, Hebrew and Arabic. A moment Jared Kushner called, “A new script for a new Middle East.”

The promise of protection from an enemy and increased trade is a way to peace. But is there a more sustainable, lasting way to peace out there?

Maybe to achieve a true script for peace we first have to understand the script of war and conflict. I once read a script about the reason why war and conflict exist which suggested peace and war are in fact internal realities first and foremost. “Where do wars and fights come from among you?”, one biblical writer asks, “Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”[2] I can’t say I understand all this is getting at but to me it suggests real peace is more about the individual than the collective. More about the internal than the external. Less about agreements between governments and more about agreements with yourself.

This echoes a truth that almost all religions and philosophies understand, that war and peace begin from within each of us. And the human heart has a great deal of trouble gaining, and more importantly, maintaining that peace.

So how do we win the war in our members?

This is where the Hebrew word for peace “shalom” can help us. There is more to it than meets the eye. This word does not just mean the cessation of conflict but the internal wholeness and well-being of an individual. It is from this completeness and soundness of mind that peace can be cultivated. So where do we get this kind of shalom?

Hebrew was the language used to write the majority of the Bible. And it is from the theological development of these Scriptures that suggest that this special peace is offered by God, through a relationship with Jesus – he makes us a more complete, contented person. If you want to know more about this peace, then we’d love to hear from you.

Richard Fowler info@because.uk.com

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

[1] https://www.un.org/en/observances/international-day-peace

[2] The Bible, James 4:1-3

Faith, hope and love

September 18, 2020

In the UK, an influential parliamentary committee recently described one government department as drawing up immigration policies based on “anecdote, assumption and prejudice”.

If a committee were to look at your life, what would they find? What are the three principles that underpin your decisions and actions?

This is something the early Christian writer Paul, a follower of Jesus Christ, wrote about. His conclusion was that there were three guiding principles that should underpin our life: faith, hope and love. Faith in the goodness of God shown in Jesus, hope in his power to make all things right, and a love that overcomes all adversity.

As we face the challenges of life, choose to engage in faith, hope and love.

The greatest of these being love.

Gavin Henderson info@because.uk.com

Historic Journeys

September 4, 2020

Over the last few days, I’ve been reminded of two historic journeys. This September marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower setting sail from Plymouth taking 102 passengers to America to start a new life. On Monday, Israel’s airline El Al made its first-ever flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, which is seen as the beginning of a thawing of relations between the two countries.

Journeys often mean new chapters in life which can present challenges as these two journeys did. It takes courage to step out of our comfort zones and set out on a journey, especially one of historic proportions.

When my children were young, and I took them on a journey, they were always concerned with the destination – ‘are we there yet?’ was a familiar refrain. We humans always want to arrive. But for the Christian, the journey is an integral part of God’s will for our lives. He can use it to teach us to trust him, to refine our character and equip us to help others on their journey.

Why not consider journeying with God? It will take you out of your comfort zone, it will be challenging as you set out on a new adventure, but you might just become a history maker in the process.

Barry Robinson info@because.uk.com

Because Magazine September / October 2020

September 3, 2020

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Because Magazine September / October 2020

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Human upgrade

August 31, 2020

The next step in human evolution has just been unveiled by that boundary-pushing, cavalier-like entrepreneur, Elon Musk.

The brain-hacking device demonstrated this week in Gertrude the pig puts us one step closer to merging man and machine. The brain chip sends wireless signals when neural activity is detected from the snout when sniffing.[1]

Neuralink, the new start-up from Musk, has applied for human trials next year!

Musk’s ambition is to create “superhuman cognition”, allowing people with neurological conditions to control phones or computers with their mind. But, more ambitiously, he wants to merge humans with technology to combat artificial intelligence that could destroy the human race. I’m starting to get flashbacks to Matrix!

However, this is where many had been predicting we were headed, including best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari. This is the point he makes in his captivating book Homo Deus (God-man). He shares tomorrow’s history today by suggesting, “we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model”.[2] He goes on to predict the emergence of new techno-religions “promising salvation through algorithms and genes”.

But in this ever-increasingly complex and unstable world, could there be another way to salvation?

I was reminded of another way to human transformation during the recent UK’s 75th anniversary celebrations of the surrender of Japan, ending World War ll. On the day of that surrender, the famous US General Douglas MacArthur gave a speech: “Men since the beginning of time have sought peace…Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war”, ending the speech with a solution: “It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh”.

Throughout the ages, the human race has seen the need for its own upgrade. So is this techno-upgrade to a superhuman just another reincarnation of old ideas spoken of by sages and prophets from past centuries?

Some would say, yes. And many of those would point to the Christian message as an embodiment of this evolutionary need.

The Christian story tells us that humans were created with the potential to communicate with something beyond the material. Even more so, we have the potential to become more than the material, transcending the limitations of our flawed character, sickness, suffering and even death. One biblical writer says this about our body, “it is sown in weakness but raised in power. It a sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”.[3] We just need an implant – an upgrade – to get there.

This upgrade is a spiritual one. The kind of upgrade suggested by MacArthur. No AI needed. If you want to know more about this upgrade, then we would be happy to hear from you.

Richard Fowler info@because.uk.com

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-53921596
[2] Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Hariri, published 2016. Page 409-410.
[3] The Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:43-44.

What’s this “moral” stuff?

August 26, 2020

The UK’s Prime Minister has said that it’s the “moral” duty of parents to send their children to school. The context is, of course, the Coronavirus crisis, and the thought is that, if we follow the science, then it’s safe for children to go back to the classroom.

“Moral” is an interesting choice of words, especially when it comes from the mouth of politicians, some of whom have demonstrated a questionable morality in their public and private lives. It implies a sense of right and wrong, and that parents should be held responsible for the choice they make. In a society that pays little attention to traditional concepts of morality, such as lying, cheating and infidelity, is it now up to the government to determine what our moral duties might be?

Fascinatingly and, perhaps, surprisingly, the Christian Bible does not mention the word “morality” in most of its translations. Not even the word “ethics” is used in the sense we understand it today. Morality implies a recognised and recognisable distinction between right and wrong options, between good and bad behaviour. Thus, from the viewpoint of many who do not accept the idea of God or of a higher spiritual power, it’s a moveable feast, a culturally variable set of values that have relevance only in the communities that promote them.

What if, however, we had it all wrong? What if there is a God who defines right and wrong conduct, and who knows what is the best pattern of behaviour for us? That is the Christian view. Even though “morality” is not a word found in in its pages, the Bible is full of moral instruction and advice, the most memorable of which is that our actions should illustrate that we love and care for one another. And this love is not a duty. It’s expressing the very character of God who gave humanity the gift of love.

Perhaps, instead of saying “moral” duty the government should have said that, given all the available data, they think it’s the best idea to send children back to school. I don’t know. I’m not a politician (thankfully). Maybe “best idea” sounds too weak.

But both you and I do have moral responsibilities, and they begin with loving one another.

James Henderson info@because.uk.com

 

player.finishing.cheat

August 17, 2020

These three words are the unique address I’m writing this blog from.

Locations are important. Whether it’s a 999 call, trying to find friends in a crowd, or, on a more humorous note, when MMA star Khabib Nurmagomedov infamously said to Conor McGregor, ‘send me location’, knowing a location can be the difference between life and death.

What3words is an app that means you will never be lost again. The app has divided the entire surface of the earth into 57 trillion three-metre squares and given each square a unique three-word address. Player.finishing.cheat is the location I’m sitting in right now. I wonder what your location is?

Indeed, from the beginning of time we’ve tried to master pinpointing the location of something or someone. I find it curious that this was even the case in the Christian story of beginnings. It tells us that the very first question God asked a human was ‘where are you?’ That’s a strange question for an all-knowing God! The story goes that after the first humans’ mistake in paradise, they hid from God because they were ashamed. This certainly can pass for the first game of hide and seek ever to be played. But the God of creation came looking, He wanted to find them; he wanted a relationship.

Whether we are religious or not, I think there is an archetypal reality nestled in this story. Throughout life do we not sometimes feel lost? Maybe hiding from something? Maybe God? Or might we even be looking for him?

I don’t know what brought you to this blog or why you are reading it. Maybe you are searching. Maybe you feel lost. Maybe God is looking for you? I don’t know. I don’t need to know. But I do know whatever the reason, if we feel lost, we don’t need to stay lost.

We have a three-word location which means we can reach out to God about where we’re at in life. We can send God our location. It’s only three words. It starts with:

“Father in heaven…”

Then just give him your message. He will hear.

Richard Fowler info@because.uk.com

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

Non-stop shielding

August 3, 2020

Shielding has just ended for over two-million people in the UK. If you’re one of them, you may be relieved at the prospect of normality returning. Or you might be feeling vulnerable.

Shielding during this pandemic has been about protecting the most vulnerable in our communities. There’s even something reassuring about the word itself. A shield keeps us safe from danger. Metaphorically, we all need a shield.

Last week’s Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha (meaning “Festival of Sacrifice”) reminded me of another kind of shield. The festival is a celebration of a peculiar, if not painful, event in the life of the spiritual father of the three major world religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All three look to the patriarch Abraham as a great man of faith. But even he had to be shielded.

One of the most well-known encounters Abraham is said to have had with God is in a vision where God tells him “I am your shield”.[1] Interesting shield! But what would it be like if God was our shield?

Maybe we grew up in one of the above religions but drifted from the faith in direct proportion to how many times God didn’t come to our rescue when we really needed him. If God was a shield, then why did faith feel like no shield from the worst of times. I’ve felt that, too. And ironically, so did Abraham.

The Festival of Sacrifice[2] is a celebration of a story about Abraham’s most heart-wrenching moment. Abraham had two sons – Ishmael and Isaac. He loved both of them dearly but Isaac was the one son born by his, until then, barren wife – they had waited 25 years for this. So Abraham saw Isaac’s birth as a miracle. But then God requested something unreasonably drastic. God asked Abraham to take Isaac’s life! For any modern reader, this story sounds barbaric. So when I think about the story, I ask myself, how was God being a shield in all this?

I guess I’ve come to see divine shielding a little differently now in my 4th decade on this earth. I once thought if you believed in God, he would protect you from anything going wrong. How the Abraham story ends has taught me to see divine shielding in a more grown-up way.

When Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, God told him to stop. Phew, that could have been messy! But jokes aside, God gave Abraham a way out from the test. God provided a ram to sacrifice instead. And for me that’s the point of the story. It’s not a story that tells us God shielding stops bad things happening. It’s a story that tells us that God’s shielding will help provide a way out, a way to cope. That’s why Abraham names the very location, “The-Lord-Will-Provide.[3]

God’s shield protects us in pain, not from pain. Shielding that is never taken away.

[1] The Bible, Genesis 15:1
[2] The Islamic version of the story has Ishmael as the son who God asked to be sacrificed, whereas the Judeo-Christian version, Isaac is the son to be sacrificed.
[3] The Bible, Genesis 15:14

The Mask

July 29, 2020

In times gone by when I heard the term ‘The Mask,’ my mind immediately thought of Jim Carry’s film of the same name. Carry plays a hapless bank clerk who finds a magical green mask that transforms him into a mischievous troublemaker with superpowers. More recently, ‘the mask’ has taken on an entirely different meaning as should I venture out on public transport or into my local supermarket my first thought is ‘have I got the mask with me?’

My green mask doesn’t transform me into a comic hero, nor does it give me extraordinary powers, rather it is intended to offer some form of protection against transmitting or picking up the Coronavirus.

I must admit that wearing this mask makes me feel like someone I’m not. After all, I’ve always associated wearing a mask with a bank robber, or someone holding up an off licence, or a mugger in a dark alleyway. As I walk into Tesco’s with only my eyes visible my instinctive reaction is ‘this makes me feel like a criminal.’ I haven’t been transformed into a criminal by simply wearing a mask, but it feels like this is the persona I’m presenting to the world.

Interestingly, throughout antiquity, so far as we know, all the actors in Greek tragedies, comedies and satyr plays wore masks all the time they were on stage. The mask signalled the act of impersonation as they were transformed into the character they were playing. An actor often played multiple roles within the same play by disguising himself with a series of masks. He might come in from one side of the stage wearing the mask of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, and hence a sad mask as he delivered solemn and sorrowful lines. Then later he would appear from the other side of the stage wearing the mask of Thalia, the muse of comedy, and hence a smiling mask as he delivered lines designed to make people laugh.

The English word ‘hypocrite’ originates from this theatrical context. It came into English from the Greek word hypokrites, which means ‘an actor’ or ‘a stage player.’ This Greek word is made up of two Greek words that literally translate as ‘an interpreter from underneath.’ In other words, the Greek actors interpreted the story from underneath their masks. Over the years hypokrites and thus hypocrite has come to refer to any person who is wearing a figurative mask, pretending to be someone or something they are not. They are just acting. They are just being two-faced.

The founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, had some strong words for the hypocrites of his day: ‘Woe to you…hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’[1] Jesus was calling out those who didn’t practise what they preached, who said one thing but did another.

If I am absolutely honest, I have to own up to varying degrees of hypocrisy, where I’ve put the mask on to hide what’s happening inside and to transform me into a different persona on the outside. Usually, it’s done to present me in the best possible light so that I look good to other people. However, if I am going to be a follower of Jesus, and an authentic one, then I need to take off the mask of hypocrisy and live by the beliefs I profess.

The next time I go on public transport or into Tesco’s and I diligently put my green mask on, I’ll be thinking about the persona I’m presenting to the world. It won’t turn me into a superhero, but it will help me to think about my authenticity as a Christian.

Barry Robinson info@because.uk.com

[1] The Bible, Matthew chapter 23, verses 27-28, (NIV)

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

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