Some Home Truths About Greece and the Euro by Bill Peddie

Those who are surprised how far Greece appears to have fallen in its ability to weather their current economic crisis are either new to the scene or have very short memories.

If we were to cast our minds back to Greece entering the European union in 2001 we might for example remember that Greece did not enter the Euro Zone with a recent tradition of wealth or stable production. For the last few centuries, Greece has had a reputation for being a small agrarian nation with strategic geographical and historical importance and little else. Although there is a comparatively wealthy elite, it is also a nation gripped by tribalism, xenophobia, characterised by superstition and provincialism and with virtually no tradition of modern industry or balanced economic sophistication. Older readers may remember Greek shipping magnates operating huge fleets of old leaky cargo boats and fuel tankers, while property millionaires enlarged their fiefdoms. As an aside, when my wife and I visited Greece as tourists in 2007,property developers were apparently setting fire to ancient protected forests to gain access to previously inaccessible land while angry protests in Athens appeared to be unsettling the tourists. The fact that Greece continues to export vast quantities of olives to Germany, where German industry extracts the oil and makes a substantial profit on exporting the oil says a good deal about the two nations’ respective attitudes to development.

There has been no shortage of intelligent suggestions about remedying the damaged economy yet each reform suggested has been strenuously resisted by private interests and the publically owned energy sectors.

Although there was some support in 2000 from the main European nations for incorporating Greece into the European Union, it was always going to be a mixed blessing at best. Substantial Greek debts at the time dating from the 1999 Greek stock market crash and the numerous financial scandals which emerged in its aftermath meant that only the intervention of Goldman Sachs’ enabled a clever and complex restructuring of the equivalent of $10 Billion debt swapped for a lower interest Euro debt. The extent of the real debt remained essentially hidden from the key decision makers when Greece entered the Euro Zone in 2001.

When the Wall Street crash of 2008 sent the World economy into a tail-spin the cracks in the Greek economy widened and by October 2009 the Greek government was forced to admit they had been misreporting the size of their deficit for years. The backlash from the lenders was immediate. Other European banks got rid of their Greek bonds and distanced themselves from Greek interests. Promised loans were reduced or denied and by 2010 Greece was on the edge of bankruptcy.

Because the Euro was being positioned as a stable international currency and the European Union as an organization which enabled its member states to grow and prosper, the so-called troika of the International Monetary Fund ( IMF), the European Central Bank and the European Commission then combined to offer two substantial bail-out loans totalling 240 Billion Euros. Unfortunately by the time this bail-out package had been assembled, most of the money had to be set aside for repaying loans to the increasingly edgy foreign debtors (only 20 Euros out of each one hundred Euros was available for growing the Economy) . In addition the standard internal adjustment used by nations in trouble, namely devaluing the currency, was not available in that the Euro was a common currency.

One result was that foreign banks divested themselves of Greek bonds and assets, unemployment has steadily increased to more than 25.5%, pensions started to drop in value at the same time the age for pensions increased (currently set at 67), while the debt to GDP ratio increased until it reached 177%. The Greek Syriza-led Government was elected on a policy of securing sufficient bailout to retire half of their Government debt. Perhaps understandably the other Euro Zone countries which hold a good portion of the current debt see absolutely no future in increasing their loans when there is no sign that Greece even has the ability to manage the current deficit.

The Greek Government is correctly pointing out that since the current austerity measures are causing much hardship, to implement the Euro Zone demands for more austerity would cause much social damage. Already largely as a result of the high unemployment of young people, the disenchanted young are turning to drugs while HIV is rocketing. Unfortunately the increase in drug use comes at the very time when a cash strapped government is withdrawing funding for programmes to rescue young people from addiction. The British Medical Journal reports a significant increase in Greek youth suicide. The present crisis is serious and may yet result in the total collapse of the Greek economy. In this last week the run on bank funds has meant that many are denied living incomes. For example for a good many, the 60 Euro a day for the elderly barely covers the cost of medication because the Government no longer has the ability to subsidize essential drugs. The wider economy is also suffering in that businesses who depend on banks for paying their bills have in effect frozen the money and as a consequence businesses are experiencing an acute cash crisis.

The Euro Zone now has a series of difficult decisions to make. To allow the Greek economy to collapse may in reality cost more than subsidizing the bail-out in that the Euro will be perceived as less safe and devalue as a consequence. Since the Greek economic woes on paper at least are less than 1% of the total economic concerns of the Euro Zone, devaluation of the Euro may pose a bigger risk, and radically affect every trading partner with European markets. One the other hand to allow Greece to get away with their threatened default is also unpalatable in that others (perhaps Portugal and Italy) might follow suit.

Regardless of the current outcome, Greece itself faces some urgent problems. The genuine areas of potential growth require a radical restructuring. Two areas which seem to show promise is developing Greece as a shipping hub, and rather surprisingly, encouraging further development of the surprisingly lucrative petroleum products trade.  Some need rather more urgent attention.  For example tourism is one of the few bright spots in the economy yet in effect encouraging protests and closing ATMs is the very thing to drive tourists away.  The alternative of expecting tourists to arrive carrying cash and having them wander the town amongst poor and desperate people is hardly calculated to encourage tourism development.  Allowing the rich to hold the rest of the economy to ransom is currently inappropriate while encouraging the radical protest parties like Golden Dawn and Syriza to impose solutions focussing on narrow sectors of the economy seems calculated to further undermine the European experiment.

(Comments would be welcomed)

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Lectionary Sermon for 5 July 2015 on Mark 6: 1 – 13

The previous Chapter of Mark provides a context for today’s gospel reading. Jesus has demonstrated his powers and his disciples have now gone with him to see how he manages these powers in front of his home crowd.

The rejection that Jesus then suffers in his home village provides the setting for sending out the disciples. The underlying theme is one of expecting rejection and in case anyone misses the point, in the next chapter Mark talks of the fate of John the Baptist.

Nazareth was a small town that doesn’t quite make it into the Concordance of the entire Old Testament. It was an insignificant hamlet of mud houses on the side of a hill and a population of a few hundred at the most, only getting the slightest passing reference in the gospels – totally ignored by the writers of the Talmud and the Mishnah – and nor was it mentioned by contemporary historians of the time like Josephus. Mark portrays it as a community apparently unable to accept anyone like Jesus could possibly amount to anything at all.

Mark seems to be cautioning his readers that if Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist are to have their words trampled even amongst their own community the strong implication is that if this is what the disciples see happens to their leaders, they should not expect everyone to accept what they will say, no matter how true and how dedicated they might be.

If dedication was sufficient the saints of old should have had no problems. Some of the early saints often took notions of self denial of luxury and comfort to the extreme. For example some refused the comfort of cleanliness and absolutely refused to wash under any circumstance. Others not only denied themselves nice clothes but would actually sleep in very uncomfortable places with no bedding at all.

By this measure, the one called St Simeon of Stylites must have been holy indeed. His body “dripped vermin as he walked” wrote one admirer of his day. He was also one of the original pole sitters. He had a high small (4 square metres)platform built (originally 4 metres high and later 15 metres high ) on a pillar – the Greek for Pillar is “Style”) and according to the contemporary writers of the day, he managed to perch up there day and night for 37 years, unable to enjoy the luxury of sleeping too soundly lest he might fall off. Small boys would be sent up with small parcels of goat milk and flat bread. During the day his followers and those simply wishing to see such a Holy man would come to look up and wonder. Some amongst them would call out their problems while St Simeon – unwashed and unshaven would call back down his advice.

A Methodist writer, the deaconess Rita Snowden once recounted the story of a young boy, fascinated by such saints, who announced one morning to his mother that he too was going to be a saint just like St Simeon of Stylites. He placed a kitchen high stool in the middle of the kitchen floor, climbed up and announced he was there for the next few years. His mother, perhaps used to small children simply ignored him for the first few minutes. However it was an inconveniently placed stool and after having to step around him a few times, when it came time to mop the floor Mum basically told him to get lost. “ Outside and play!” she said. “I have work to do”. “ It is very hard to be a Saint in your own kitchen!” said the indignant young saint as he climbed down off his perch.

Jesus encountering frustration at being an unrecognised prophet in his own country is no more than many would have expected from observations in their own experience and from learning of countless similar situations back through history. Those of us who claim to follow a religion might do well to reflect on why society encourages such behaviour.

Religion doesn’t just exist to serve interests like truth and enlightenment and nor in practice do societies welcome a religion only for its call to the finer principles like compassion, love and justice. Communities are interested in living in stable and protected situations and often turn to religion to help establish traditions which preserve a predictable order where everyone can know their place, where conformity brings social support and where there are clear hierarchies of control.

Although we tend to automatically assume prophets are those who foretell the future, in fact the prophets, particularly those of biblical times, for the most part were simply those who described what they saw in the present, and the strongest of them thundered about what they saw had gone wrong. This often involved conveying uncomfortable truths about wrong actions, about intolerance, and about selfishness.

What those prophets said would often imply that those in control were not doing what they ought to be doing. Since such a version of prophecy was typically forced before the attention of a ruler with power of life and death over his subjects, some of the more outspoken prophets came to a predictable end. Prophets who were otherwise ordinary members of the community would be particularly suspect. You have probably heard of the tall-poppy syndrome. It is human nature for a community such as ours to find individuals who behave like that as a potential threat and if they are already familiar to the point of seen as no better than the rest of us, we might even feel outraged that they are getting above themselves and consider they have no right to speak of judgement.

Perhaps it was always so.

My own particular favourite prophet was a little known prophet Micaiah the Son of Imlah. (not to be confused with Micah) . The story of Micaiah is recorded in 1 Kings 22:1-12 . In 1 Kings 22:3-4 the King of Israel (identified later in the text as Ahab in 1 Kings 22:20) goes to Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, and asks if he will go with him to a neighbouring kingdom Ramoth-gilead which was under rule by the king of Aram. Jehoshaphat seems a little uneasy and asks that Ahab, check out what the Lord would think – presumably by asking his consultant prophets.(1 Kings 22:5). King Ahab then calls on his prophets and asks if he should go into battle against Ramoth-gilead. The prophets who according to the account numbered 400 seemed anxious to please the king and told the king of Israel to go into battle, stating that the Lord (Adonai) will deliver Ramoth-gilead into the hand of King Ahab (1 Kings 22:6). Jehoshaphat still seems uneasy and asks if there are any other prophets of whom to inquire the word of the Lord. Ahab mentions Micaiah the son of Imlah, but expresses dislike for him because his past prophecies have not been in favor of his actions (1 Kings 22:7-8).

Nevertheless a messenger is sent to bring Micaiah to the king to give his prophecy. Just in case he should get any silly ideas, the messenger tells Micaiah to give a favourable prophecy to Ahab (1 Kings 22:12-13).
Micaiah tells the messenger that he prefers speak whatever the Lord says to him (1 Kings 22:14). Micaiah appears before the king of Israel, and when asked if Ahab should go into battle at Ramoth-gilead Micaiah initially tries to avoid personal danger and responds with a similar prophecy to that of the other prophets. Ahab then further questions Micaiah, and insists that he speak nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord.

Micaiah this time gives a true prophesy, in which he illustrates a meeting of Yahweh with the heavenly hosts. At this meeting Yahweh asks who will entice Ahab to go into battle so that he may perish (1 Kings 22:19-20). A spirit comes forward, and offers to “be a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets” (1 Kings 22:22). In other words Micaiah is obliquely claiming the prophecies of the other prophets were a result of the lying spirit. The King was outraged. Unfortunately for Micaiah, as a result of this unacceptable prophecy, Ahab ordered Micaiah imprisoned until he returned from battle (1 Kings 22:27).

Perhaps secretly concerned about the prophecy, Ahab disguised himself in battle rather than lead his troops openly as their king. Despite the disguise Ahab was killed in battle after being struck by a randomly shot arrow which lands between the plates of his amour. Micaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, contrary to the word of 400 false prophets, all of whom encouraged Ahab to attack with a prediction of victory.

Prophets even today should not expect reward for telling it like it is. It is clear for example that the growing gap between rich and poor is likely to have disastrous results. Yet anyone who agitates to rearrange a nation’s finances to give a better deal to the poor at home, and those living in poverty overseas, will be firmly discouraged. The preservation of the tax loopholes for the rich and the miniscule proportion of virtually all wealthy nations’ contributions to genuine overseas aid with no strings attached are clear evidence that such advice is routinely ignored.

However today’s gospel reading also makes it clear that the prophet or disciple is to share the truth regardless of potential rejection.
I suspect many of us prefer to keep our heads down most of the time.
We should be under no delusion that it would have been easier to be a disciple in Jesus day.

In those days of subsistence living, it would have been great sacrifice for a family to have the bread winner become a disciple or missionary. And nor would the message have been more acceptable. But that isn’t the real challenge they were being asked to face. Of all the things that Jesus was asking them to do I guess there was one part that would have brought them face to face with reality in a new way. Look what they were asked to do.

After seeing what had happened to Jesus, they were being asked to take the message without their leader’s presence to be missionaries on their own with no guarantee that they would be accepted. If it were you, what message would you be taking – or putting more directly which message are you currently taking – to your community? And to tell you the truth, this is not simply an academic question. The gospel has many dimensions and because we all have our own particular focus it is fair to ask which part of the gospel we are individually intent on living out as our mission.

Typical Church members of mainstream churches may feel comfortably insulated from a realization that they too might have a mission which might have a call on everyday life and which might have little to do with what typically happens in the comparative safety of a weekly Church service. Nor is it the sort of thing the preacher can work out on our behalf. If ministry means ministering to needs, the choice of which needs will call on our particular gifts at our particular stage of life will have as many different answers as there are Church members.

Many sermons may well have a structured arrival point. This is not one of them. Since Christ does not confer power or position so much as he offers opportunity, the conclusion to this particular sermon is not so much an arrival point as it is a challenge to choose our own next stage for our journey. Choose well, for no-one can journey for us.

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Musing about Science and Religion

Words like “science” and “religion” do not have widely agreed meanings and connotations. What we think the words mean and how important they are to each one of us reflect different cultures, histories and differing relative dependence on the understanding of the two streams of thought and practice. This means that different supporters of different aspects of science and/or religion find it hard to communicate their respective views to those who come with a different background.

One common misunderstanding is to assume that there are no common features in the styles of thought required by both types of discipline.

To take one obvious similarity is in the notion of testing faith. An important part of experimental method is taking an aspect of the underlying knowledge, and testing it against what can be demonstrated by observation or by manipulating one or more variables. This is not unique to science.

For example one dimension of Christian faith is to set up assumptions about the age and provenance of key documents. By analysing the accuracy of translation, the age of the document (eg carbon dating) and comparing it with related documents eg looking for closely related stories from earlier documents from different civilizations, we can start to make reasonable assumptions about the originality and unique nature of a religious story. Using such techniques, religious scholars have discovered stories and religious instructions in the Bible which have antecedents in Babylonian and Egyptian literature.

Specifically a number of the 613 commandments in the Old Testament have parallel commandments in the Code of Hammurabi while the story of Moses being discovered in the Bulrushes by the Pharoh’s daughter is virtually identical to the earlier story of Sargon being discovered in the bulrushes. Using a scientific approach has also helped scholars discover signs of subsequent editing. For example an earlier version of the Gospel of Mark (identified by the style and shape of the Greek letters) was shown to end before Ch 16 which was apparently added more than a century later.

Other ways of testing faith by the application of science include checking out the historical results of prophecies and testing the effectiveness of healing prayer.

It is frequently asserted that science and religion have different methodology in that science usually focuses on reason, empiricism and evidence, while those following a faith are supposed to emphasise revelation, the identification of sacred articles of faith and metaphysical assumptions.

It should also be acknowledged that many scientists hold to established theory if they focus mainly on empiricism and in practice are often more concerned with the application of tested theory to standard measurement eg the techniques of dating a fossil or using known chemical pathways to make an anti-cancer drug. In addition there are whole vistas of science where assumptions are largely metaphysical eg speculation about what goes on in a black hole or a multiverse.

The second common misunderstanding about both science and religion is that it is assumed that the leaders of the discipline – ie the great theologians and scientists responsible for the breakthroughs are typical of those who see themselves as followers of the respective studies.

If we start with typical scientists, it is comparatively few who can take the credit for the spectacular advances. The rest are accepting commonly accepted theories worked out by others and in some cases holding to old theories tenaciously in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Since many scientists are involved in applying others’ theories to their measurements, and since many followers of religion are following faith structures shaped by others, the perception that typically scientists discover new knowledge is probably no more likely to be true than the claim that the religious derive their faith from a personal journey of discovery from the scriptures in their original languages.

When it gets down to congregation members or members of the general public, there are unresolved disputes between assertions from the followers some forms of religion on one hand and on the other, those who claim scientific knowledge yet who are similarly yet understandably poorly informed. A general school education is rarely good enough for the high school leaver to have more than a rudimentary understanding of current scientific knowledge which seriously handicaps those seeking to defend a poorly comprehended form of evolution against an onslaught from a Bible literalist who wants to defend a 6000 year old Earth and Universe implied by a literal reading of the book of Genesis – yet with an equal ignorance of techniques for working out the age of the Universe, dating fossils or tracing genetic histories.

It is nevertheless interesting to note that an advanced academic qualification is often shown to be inversely associated with a fundamentalist unquestioning faith. For example when different faiths are surveyed for an association with level of education those like the Unitarians who are often associated with a questioning approach to religion have a much higher percentage of members who have completed a college education when compared with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who score low in the number of graduates.

An added complication is that because since scientists like all members of the community have their thinking shaped by their personal understandings and background experiences, it is common for scientists to confess a personal religion and increasingly common for the followers of a religion to be familiar with advances in science. It is by no means unusual for scientists who are making the most useful advances in science to be comfortable with acknowledging their religious beliefs. Sometimes otherwise qualified scientists appear strangely naive in their superstition and beliefs. On one hand we think of Newton whose rigorous study of the laws of motion making huge progress in physical science while at the same time writing mysterious and now acknowledged meaningless tomes on astrology and alchemy.

Conversely, it is often the top religious scholars who appear familiar with advances in science. Certainly the considerable proportion of Nobel Prize winning scientists who are listed as having Christian beliefs should cause us to doubt the notion that religion has nothing to do with academic rigour, application of logic empiricism and evidence.

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Lectionary sermon for 28 June 2015 on Mark 5: 21 – 43

Does Jesus Cure Cancer?
I can remember a few years back in 2012 the Advertising Standards Authority taking issue with a church billboard in the New Zealand city of Napier. The Equippers Church, which from their beliefs I understand to be a conservative evangelical church, had placed a billboard with the message “Jesus cures cancer”, and a few days later to underline the message, the tally number 6 was on the board identifying the number of cancer sufferers associated in some way with the church and who had been cured by Jesus.

The Standards Authority pointed out that since the six apparently thus cured had also been receiving conventional medical treatment, this was misleading at best and dishonest at worst. Further, since cancer cells have a nasty habit of reappearing sometime many years after treatment, the medical profession is normally reluctant to announce a cure for any cancer patient suffering a form of terminal cancer, preferring at least in the short term to use the safer statement of “in remission”. Whether or not those leading the Church, which had only been in existence for a few years, were entitled to their certainty about the cure, let alone its cause, is enough of a moot point. However, in fact the Advertising Standards Authority was expressing concern for a different reason. Their argument, in part, was that non-Church members who had family members currently suffering from a form of terminal cancer would be upset by the notice since many would find themselves unable to access the same healing and may be angry that the implication that they were not doing everything possible for their family members.

I am therefore wondering if the casual use of today’s Bible reading from the gospel about the healing of Jairus’s daughter might also be called unwise advertising at the very least, if not actually intentionally misleading.

Since churches specialising in faith healing often make public claims about their achievements, and in particular we find some of the televangelist healers routinely advertising their success stories, you may wonder why I even raise the question. In partial answer perhaps we should first ask why this healing story even found its way into the New Testament, particularly when Jesus had specifically instructed his disciples to say nothing. There is also some additional irony that in from all the readings that might have been selected to be read in public from the lectionary, today’s reading from the gospel includes the very account which Jesus did not wish to be shared.

Jesus’ healing acts are often used as passing examples of the miraculous evidence showing that Jesus demonstrated the power which entitles him to be called the son of God. To use the descriptions of healing events in this way I would suggest is to cheapen their meaning and move away from his central teaching about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.

We also need to be clear in our minds about distinguishing what we would like to believe and what leaves open the possibility of different interpretation. If is difficult to be certain about death without modern medical training, even the certainty that Jairus’s daughter was actually dead when Jesus arrived may be unjustified. Since we have only the hearsay account – and one not approved by Jesus we are a long way from the point where we might set up our own billboard saying “Jesus brings dead children back to life”.

Anyone who has anything to do with the hospital system will know that what seems miraculous happens from time to time even when no miracle is invoked. Most families for example will have had one or more relatives who were diagnosed as being in effect at death’s door and sometimes with the relatives summoned to make their farewells – only a few days later to find the one supposed at death’s door, sitting up and apparently in excellent health. When I was a child, suffering as it turned out from appendicitis, I had my own near death experience complete with the dark tunnel, roaring noise and sensation of moving towards the light. Two days later I was playing cricket in the backyard.

Yet there are also unaccountable tragedies. There is no apparent faith-based safeguard for children who step out in front of a car, children who drown in a stream or swimming pool, or for that matter, those who contract an incurable cancer or a chronic condition like cystic fibrosis. A parent who watches their child die before them from one of those causes will be understandably inconsolable. To blithely tell such a mother about someone else’s miracle cure – or that Jesus has just saved someone from a similar condition to the one which has just taken her child, is both crass and inexcusable.

Assuming the gospel account is accurate reporting, we can only speculate as to why Jesus told his disciples to tell no-one that Jairus’s daughter had been brought back from death at his touch, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he thought the news could easily have been used in an insensitive fashion. For example it might raise the question such as why was Jesus there for Jairus and yet not there to intervene for my still-born child? Given that many families are not so lucky would be naturally upset to learn that such intervention was not available to them, we too need to be cautious about how we trumpet such miracles.

But there are additional possible dimensions to Jesus’ admonition. Why for example do we find ourselves trying to follow Jesus’ teaching? If it is simply because we are awed by his power, then his example is so far beyond what we can experience for ourselves that we are relegated to passive admirers and observers rather than active pilgrims. In any case, the few healing miracles we do have on record don’t all speak of a deliberate power. The middle part of the reading refers to that other healing. When Jesus was still on his way to meet Jairus’ daughter he encounters a crowd. A woman who for years had suffered from recurring haemorrhages was in that crowd, touched Jesus, and was healed without his knowledge or intention. He not only was aware of her touch, he talked then of power being taken from him. As John Pridmore puts it, “Power drains from Jesus, because his ministry is the self emptying of the Son of God”. Rather then, this is not so much the story of power wielded but rather of power exhausted. Might it not then be that the call to mission is the call to follow Jesus’ example and give of ourselves rather than behaving as if the expectation is that we are tapping into some easy source of show miracles.

The other learning about that other healing event involving the woman with the haemorrhages was to remember that Jesus called the woman out of the crowd. Did you notice he then called her “daughter”. Whereas we might be tempted to see those who Jesus ministered to as incidental props – those who are merely there so that Jesus might demonstrate his powers. Not for Jesus. Jesus sees the unnamed person as one genuinely worth recognising. This, I guess we should contrast with the travelling healing shows of some of the populist faith healers (called by some of their critics “the God pumpers” ) who often appear to cause the collapse of those who come for healing by a single touch. Yes those touched may indeed appear to be “slain by the Spirit” to use the healers’ terminology – but there is little sign that the healer is stopping to engage them in conversation, let alone finding a need to treat them as separate from the crowd, or for that matter allowing them to make a genuine call on the faith healer’s energy and power.

Perhaps this is the key for guiding our behaviour. My guess is that few would find themselves in the position of faith healers in the sense of being able to find the right actions and words to make a genuine difference in the case of an otherwise incurable disease. Yet making a difference to the well -being of the mind and attitude of one who is unhappy, whether the unhappiness is caused by circumstances or disease is much closer to being within our reach. The feeling that others care, that there is someone sincere in their understanding is very readily sensed.

We might also remember that there are two sides to this healing. Yes we do need to identify the one who can help – but we also need to turn to that person. This is not necessarily going to be easy. For the synagogue official to recognise in Jesus someone who might help his dying child would have required humility and courage. Jesus was not seen as particularly friendly to orthodox faith so for Jairus, the ruler or keeper of the Synagogue and its practices, to run and prostrate himself in front of Jesus to plead for his help would have had considerable and sacrificial personal loss of face. Since Jairus with his position in the synagogue would have been wearing a long robe, I have this mental picture of Jairus gathering up his robe in a most undignified way in order to run to Jesus.

Certainly too, courage was shown by the woman with the haemorrhage who would have known that custom meant that while she had that condition she should not be seen in public, let alone be seen to be touching a religious leader. She had to risk a good deal of herself before she could be restored.

For his part, that Jesus was prepared to put himself out to walk some distance to the bedside of the daughter of the Synagogue official, Jairus, showed that Jesus cared. That he was also able to notice the one who touched him in the crowd for healing amongst the throng of the crowd and furthermore, speak to her as a person who mattered, not only shows what Jesus was prepared to do but also models for us how we too should be prepared to show genuine care and put ourselves out for those who seek our help no matter how undeserving they might appear to be.

In my introduction I suggested that the thoughtless use of today’s gospel might lead to the same effect as false advertising. Now I want to point to a more positive approach. While it is true that the listing of miracles tempts us to present the faith as a series of gee whizz events which cheapen and mislead, a closer look at today’s stories reminds us that sacrifice – both on the part of those seeking and the one who responds does bring us to the essence of true miracle and wonder. Faith is not in giving the correct answers to a list of questions, yet faith does begin to find meaning in being prepared to trust ourselves to the care of one another and the acceptance of help from the one we trust enough to follow.

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Lectionary sermon for 21 June 2015 (Year b) on Mark 4:35-41 and 1 Samuel 17 (1a,4-11,19-23,32-49)

Believe it or Not
Sometimes I suspect the main reason why the congregation looks to the pulpit is to check if the preacher is delivering the sort of message or the sort of sermon they want to hear. What you overhear over the tea and coffee at the after service morning tea is usually enough to determine if the preacher had been a fundamentalist, a feminist, a Bible literalist, or a John Spong or a Loyd Geering type liberal? They may even go further and try to decide if the message was boring or if you are lucky even a bit inspirational? This morning I want to suggest there might be a more important question.

At the beginning of May I went somewhat reluctantly to a Rotary Conference at Wairaki. Somewhat unusually for me as a born again cynic, I believe I came away from that conference actually inspired. The speakers were well chosen and most of the messages challenging and thought provoking. When I returned to my Rotary club, they asked me how conference had been. I thought I had an obligation to pass on some of the challenge – so I chose to illustrate with a couple of the best speakers and tried to convey what they had said and what they were challenging us to do. I even thought I managed to convey my feelings that I was pleased and surprised by what I had heard. But then from left field there came a question that rocked me. One of the more thoughtful members asked me a question that I rather wished he hadn’t asked.

“If you were inspired” he asked. “What are you now going to do that is different?” As we reflect on the gospel story this morning my friend’s awkward question might apply.

The two stories that the lectionary challenges us to consider today may well have more than a little of the unbelievable, but I want to suggest the real reason for their value is because they touch on genuine insight into the human condition. It is a very human failing to pretend to ourselves that there is no foe and no fear we will not face – yet in reality when the challenge is significant or when danger begins to threaten, our first instinct is to do anything to make the problem go away. The message from each of the situations we are looking at today seems to be that if instead we face the problem, there is always the possibility that situation might be answered in most unexpected and positive ways.

To the modern Western mind both lectionary stories present a common problem. Since they both report events which are, at best, extremely unusual and at worst simply unbelievable, the temptation is to turn off at that point and dismiss them as being of no value fairy stories. And to be brutally honest many modern commentators would certainly argue that the stories we will be looking at are unlikely to have occurred as reported, yet even if they are only treated as parable or myth, I suggest there is something we can learn here from each.

We will start with the boating trip. On a calm day boating is a great experience. But anyone who knows large lakes or the sea also knows that if the barometer suddenly drops, or if the air is funnelled down through the ravines or valleys towards water, the wind can mount, sometimes literally within minutes, and then of course the waves build. The so called Sea of Galilee is prone to such strong sudden winds and I would imagine, particularly in those days, the traditional style fishing boats would not be particularly seaworthy or safe in such conditions. I guess that the fishing boat chosen as the vessel for the disciples trip would not come anywhere near any modern certification for sea-worthiness. We have reason to suspect from history and from the discovery of the remains of boats from that time, that it would have been an open boat, too low in the water to cope with large waves and with its planks held together caulked with pitch and in all probability held together with doubtful nails and lashed cords.

The Sea of Galilee, or more accurately the lake, has geological features that make it common for such winds to suddenly rise. I suspect this is why when we read of Jesus and the fishermen on the lake they are usually described as keeping close to the shore. This time Jesus has asked them to attempt something a little more risky – particularly at night – and that is to set out for the other side.

So now the wind rises and as the waves mount, these men – some of whom appear to have been seasoned fishermen – panic. This is more than a passing danger. Too far out to turn back they awaken Jesus apparently angry that he is sleeping instead of sharing in their situation. Then as quickly as it came – apparently in response to Jesus’ words – the storm dies.

The disciples bewilderment – and we might guess perhaps even shame for their previous panic – leaves them with the question. Who is this man and does he really command wind and water to obey? Please note in the story it is an unanswered question left hanging and we too are left with the same puzzle.

I know that when this story is debated, the first thinly disguised rhetorical question from the critics is typically: could Jesus really control nature? For the record, at least as far as I am concerned, I often align myself with such critics because I am definitely not a Bible literalist but on reflection here this is not the real point of the story.

Certainly we could explain it away saying one of the standard weather observations is that a storm quick to rise is often quick to pass, so we might well believe that such a storm would die of its own accord, whether directed to do so or not. Yet for me the real issue is that Jesus is recorded as showing calmness in the face of the storm to the point of sleeping while all about him was panic …..and ultimately, however it happened, his calmness wins through.

Some here today will have seen the essence of that same calming miracle when for example an experienced paramedic arrives at the scene of some terrible accident – and seemingly oblivious to the panic and confusion of the worried onlookers, quietly and firmly takes control of the accident scene and before your eyes you can see everyone begin to relax.

But don’t forget there is a second story.

In this scene we have the Israelites are drawn up in battle formation with their traditional enemies the Philistines facing them. Probably neither side was particularly looking forward to the near certainty that many would not survive to the end of the day. Then a possible way out….. As was sometimes the custom for survival an alternative was put to them. Send out a champion to do battle with our champion and decide the result by proxy. The only catch was that the Philistine champion was a fearsome prospect. In such circumstances would you have offered to be the challenger? I know I wouldn’t. Although I would like to think I would step up if I saw some thug making threats, in reality I am not sure I would be brave enough.

Goliath of Gath was indeed a giant. If the story is to be believed without exaggeration, then Goliath was a fearsome giant indeed……nine foot tall, if I have the arithmetic correct. But when Goliath was strutting his stuff in front of Saul’s army and no-one was prepared to fight him, there is something you may have missed. King Saul himself was also something of a giant among his people according to the Bible measuring seven foot. The fact that Saul, possibly the only one who might have had a chance against the Philistine giant, was also chicken, must have seemed on the one hand to be understandable, but on the other, acutely embarrassing to the Israelites. That the shepherd boy David was prepared to step forward in his place, armed only with a sling, was not only unexpected and brave, it was also an event which in the Bible account was a turning point in the fortunes of the two men. From that point on, David, the giant slayer who had been armed with nothing but a sling saw his fortunes increase while Saul, for all his impressive appearance, saw his status begin to diminish in the eyes of his followers.

Of course both of these stories misses something if we focus on how believable they are. I suspect more than a few here today would have reservations yet even if we do eventually decide whether or not they are a true record then, as historical accounts, they would only instruct as one- time events. If on the other hand, we can also see their symbolic meaning, then we can notice a more contemporary connection.

It is not only disciples in a boat facing the terrors of a storm or soldiers on a battlefield who can know fear or panic. Each one of us sooner or later is bound to know great sorrow or moments of panic if we are to truly live. To love is, sooner or later, to risk the loss of at least one close to us. Accidents do happen. It is not just earthquakes and fires that can catch us unawares. The dangers we may unexpectedly face may vary greatly but moments of danger there most assuredly will be. To believe that facing these moments squarely, armed with nothing more than the assurance that we can find a way through and knowing that nothing can separate us from this mysterious relationship we call the love of God gives a meaning to life which points to hope.

So what have we noted?
We read that the disciples panicked when the waves rose, yet discovered there was something about the strange nature of Christ that could calm them despite the worst the storm could offer. Perhaps the symbolism teaches us that when the panic inducing situation faces us that we too might find for us the storm abates when we turn to what in our journey we have found Christ to mean for us.

We read that when David encountered the horror of the Philistine giant Goliath he was able to prevail using only the skills he already possessed. Clearly the war between the Philistines and the men of Saul is long since over. Yet there are still bullying situations where we find people who matter to us being threatened by forces beyond their strength to overcome. Might it be that we too can find within our own feeble resources the skills to be champions on others’ behalf.

I am reasonably certain that none of us will command the weather like Jesus is said to have done, nor should we expect some David to appear on our behalf to kill the giant who threatens others, yet I believe we have potential to contribute to peace in the midst of our personal storms, or for that matter put ourselves on the line when called to do so.
Some storms have nothing to do with water… and some who face the storms or the dangerous enemies on behalf of others are not found in the pages of the Bible. One of the bravest in our time who knows exactly what it is to put her life on the line is that extraordinary Pakistani schoolgirl (Malala Yousafzai)– who last year at age 17  made it as the youngest ever Nobel Peace prize winner. She was honoured for standing up against those who used force to stop girls in Pakistan from getting an education. After receiving many death threats she continued publicizing the cause for girls’ education and even survived a Taleban assassination attempt. She refused to let the danger prevent her message getting through and continued publicizing her message in every forum she could reach right up to the United Nations.

The literalist quest to put every effort into establishing historical certainty of the more extraordinary Bible stories may well be beyond the reach of the best of scholars. Nor is there a clear answer to the disciples’ question. “Who is this man?” And what is more, living a life based on facing challenge head-on and meeting those tempest problems of doubt and worry can ultimately carry no guarantee. What we do learn from Jesus however is that just as Jesus was able to instill eventual trust in his disciples, others too have found in Christ a peace that can speak to all manner of storms and challenge. The real test will be for each of us to discover our own personal encounter with the one whose boat we claim to share.

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Lectionary Sermon for 14 June 2015 (Pentecost 3) on Mark 4: 26 -34


A Mustard Seed Faith
By tradition Jesus may have been brought up to be a carpenter, yet the parables and illustrations he evidently used suggest he was a great observer of the world around him.

I would like to suggest most of us don’t give most of nature a second thought and are certainly much more impressed by the outcomes of nature rather than the single cells and small packages of cells from which the dramatic living products of nature are produced. While most of us would be impressed and no doubt stare up in wonder at the giant redwoods in California or widen our eyes at the giant Kauri, Tane Mahuta which lives in the Waipoua Kauri Forest in the north of the North Island of New Zealand, we might walk straight past the seeds of the Kauri or redwood on the ground without giving them a second thought.

Of course we might use the technical knowledge of today’s scientists to show that Jesus was actually inaccurate when he claimed the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds. There are certainly smaller, as any orchid grower would tell you. Nor does it grow to a mighty tree. I was pleased to note that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible correctly points out, it grows into a large shrub, not a large tree as the early Greek versions suggest. Nevertheless, criticizing Jesus on the basis of modern knowledge is to miss his point. Even today seeds are indeed strange things of wonder and although each year the scientists discover more, there seems always more to discover about each tiny part of a small seed, especially the part carrying all the genetic information to grow into a shrub big enough for birds to nestle in its branches. Life itself is infinitely strange.

That seeds have this dramatic potential to grow into something complex and wonderful is essentially beyond our current understanding, no matter how much we might now know about Chromosomes, DNA and gene expression. It is also significant that it is not just the Christian faith that recognises the unexpected in the seed.

There is for example a well known Chinese story which by tradition was told by the Buddha.

There are different versions but one story goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a mother whose son became ill and died. The mother was beside herself with grief. Unable to face living with the heavy burden of sadness, in desperation she went to a wise man.

The wise man listened sympathetically, thought for a moment and said.
“I think the answer to your problem will be a special kind of mustard seed. What you must do is this.

Find some home where they have not known the grief you have experienced, then collect a mustard seed from the garden and bring it back to me. I will then show you how to deal with your grief.”

Strange advice the woman thought….but on the other hand….. he is known to be a wise man, so she set off on this unusual quest.

The first house she chose was that of a rich family, a huge house with large well kept grounds. She explained her quest to the woman who answered the door. Is this by any chance a house where there has been no such grief as the grief I have experienced in losing my son? The woman who had opened the door, burst into tears. “You couldn’t have come to a worse place. Grief? Let me tell you about grief.” And she began to explain the total tragedy her family had suffered over recent months.

The woman who had lost her son listened, amazed that someone so rich might have encountered such a disaster. On the other hand she thought to herself, perhaps my experience makes me the sort of person who might understand. So she stayed a while, counseled the sad rich woman, then when the rich woman appeared able to cope a little better, off she went on her journey again.

I think you may have already guessed. The next house was exactly the same. A nice house on the outside yet another real story of unhappy experiences – and once again she left but only after helping as best she could. And then on to the next, again a house visited by grief – and the next.
But here is the curious consequence. Gradually – imperceptibly she became more and more focused on the task of helping others and more and more forgetful of her own unhappiness.

She had started with a quest for a seed – a mustard seed and her journey brought her to the point where though her grief was still there as a memory – something else was growing in its place.

The mustard seed illustration, as Jesus told it, is also a story where the truth emerges in unexpected ways. Finding wonder in that which is tiny and seemingly insignificant is as good a place as any to start. I remember coming across my grandfather’s microscope in a cupboard one day. At my father’s suggestion I collected some muddy water from the edge of a creek that ran through a nearby park. This opened up a world of wonder for me, discovering a myriad of strange life forms in a single drop. I could now begin to understand the poet William Blake finding a universe in a grain of sand. Later I was to encounter increasingly more powerful microscopes, electron microscopes, and even weird tunneling microscopes which pictured individual atoms. And if this wasn’t enough, an introduction to modern physics brought me in contact with the science of astronomy showing the Earth itself to be a place of insignificant size when measured against the vast Cosmos, yet also a place of incredible wonder.

Next we find the puzzle of developing life. As far back as the 1950s scientists were examining what was then thought to be the primordial atmosphere, letting sparks excite a mixture of gases thought to be present when the Earth first formed an atmosphere. Amino acids formed in the scientists’ glass vessels and gradually, since then, other scientists unlocked the beginnings of the mystery of the way these molecules joined together to make replicating proteins. It is a journey of discovery, yet one where only the first tentative steps have been taken.

Something else Jesus’ parable might cause us to reflect, is that life is basically precarious and left to itself although the seed may have great potential, not all mustard seeds grow in the same way. Some seeds fail even to germinate and sometimes the shrub is tiny and misshapen. Again the kingdom of heaven image seems apt. The seed may be a gift with unexpected miracle to be released but I guess those of us who take on the role of gardeners can also have our part to play, which after all is what we do when we accept the challenge to follow in Jesus footsteps.

Unfortunately, because not everyone is keen on growth that takes unexpected turns, there is also a form of gardening which produces what Leslie Brandt once referred to as Bonsai Christians. You probably know that a bonsai tree is a miniature version of a larger tree which is deliberately altered by cutting or tying its tap root so that it can be a small, decorative addition to a cultivated garden, rather than the tree nature intended it to be. In terms of Christians I guess the tap root is the one that allows direct contact with the main teachings of Jesus. A bonsai Christian then is one that would prefer to function without the challenge. Given a call to mission, the bonsai Christian would prefer to return to the comfort of the familiar music and listening to familiar prayer. The bonsai Christian will seek the setting of the rich wooded pews, the carved Church furniture, the sonorous organ, – or perhaps seek the modern entertainment style worship of the large crowd and technologically savvy preacher who knows how to work the crowd. A religion perhaps that pampers and comforts has an attraction for the bonsai Christian rather one than challenges and even provokes. Yet is this really what we are born for?

The mustard seed must be allowed to grow. This growth may not leave us undisturbed. Like many of his parables there are also strange twists, and parts we might miss if we do not look closely enough.

For example, the part where Jesus refers to the variety of birds sheltering in the branches can be taken as first glance simply as an indication of the size of the mustard shrub, yet we should also remember that the variety of birds was the standard code of the Pharisees for referring to those who lived as foreign neighbours to the Jews. That the mustard plant is referred to as offering the birds shelter then becomes a way of saying that the kingdom of God has something to offer those of different faith, culture and race.

For the early Christians, many of whom were Jews, this would have been a significant and even disturbing teaching. In view of the way in which, even today, there is much prejudice expressed towards those of different faiths, the mustard plant giving shelter to the birds of the world is a salutary reminder. Just as Jesus on a number of occasions found ways to highlight the potential of gentiles and Samaritans, perhaps in this age of belligerent religion we too should be acknowledging the potential for a place for those who do not share our background and faith.
St Paul finds a slightly different perspective when he talks of the branch of the gentiles being grafted onto the plant to replace the branch which was dying.
I guess for many of us, our start in the kingdom may have been as small and insignificant as baptism as an infant. Yet don’t forget Jesus saw potential in the tiny seed of the mustard seed. After all, Jesus saw the potential in some remarkably unlikely followers who, as his first disciples, found themselves entrusted with the next stage of growth. Might it be that, with the help of this parable, we too might see that despite our humble small beginnings we too are needed as the kingdom continues its mysterious growth.

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The Jehovah’s Witness Phenomenon by Bill Peddie

The Jehovah’s Witnesses intrigue me. I guess I should say at the outset I suspect analytical thinkers would have a problem with multiple and successive failures in their predictions, with what I suspect is their continued misrepresentation of the theory of evolution, their self-serving “translations” in their preferred version of the Bible, and for that matter, their apparently unkind and even isolating treatment of those who amongst their membership who dare to question their doctrines. On the other hand it is hard not to be impressed by their dedication, their pacifism, their sincere and persistent attempts to evangelize and their strong communal support for those who are seen to be loyal to their doctrines. Where they are most interesting compared with other Christian groups is in the different slant they have in their chosen beliefs.

For what it is worth my personal opinion is that as for many religious sects, a good part of their real attraction is the sociological feeling of belonging to a group where a common history and distinctive – even urgent – theology reinforces a strong sense of belonging which in turn is fed by support from the group.

The sect known today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses started out in Pennsylvania in 1870 as a Bible class led by Charles Taze Russell. Russell originally called his group the “Millennial Dawn Bible Study.” Charles T. Russell began writing a series of books he called “The Millennial Dawn,” which stretched to six volumes before his death and contained much of the theology Jehovah’s Witnesses still hold. After Russell’s death in 1916, Judge J. F. Rutherford, Russell’s friend and successor, wrote the seventh and final volume of the “Millennial Dawn” series, “The Finished Mystery,” in 1917. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society was founded in 1886 and quickly became the means by which the “Millennial Dawn” movement began distributing their views to others. The group was known as the “Russellites” until 1931 when, due to a second split in the organization (and I suspect a need to distance itself a little from earlier failed prophecies), it was renamed the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The largest main group from which it split became known as the “Bible students.”

The aforementioned leader of the group Charles T Russell was certainly not a recognized scholar and appears not to have made that as a direct claim, although the jury may still be out on whether his later implied expertise in Biblical scholarship was intended misinformation or even if he might have been unintentionally self delusional. The Watch Tower Society literature now claims the Society’s founder, Russell, was directed by God’s Holy Spirit, through which he received “flashes of light“(By coincidence as it happens, my (ie the writer’s) flashes of light were diagnosed by my doctors as the beginning of a detached retina!!??), “Flashes of Light – Great and Small“, The Watchtower, May 15, 1995, page 17 That he was not quite as qualified as he claimed to be had been highlighted when one Rev. J.J. Ross of Hamilton ON wrote a pamphlet called “Some Facts About the Self-styled ‘pastor’ Charles T. Russell.” This included a denunciation of Russell’s qualifications for the ministry and even his morals. Russell reacted by suing Ross for libel.  The court returned a “no bill” verdict determining Russell had no need of a cash settlement.  According to post trial booklet authored by Ross, during the trial, Russell had claimed to know the Greek alphabet, but was unable to identify Greek letters at the top of the page of a Greek New Testament that was handed to him. Russell certainly admitted in that same court that he had never been ordained, even though he had earlier claimed to have been ordained by a recognized religious group, and acknowledged he had left school at age 14.

Although those from other branches of Christianity may be scornful of the Jehovah’s Witness numerous failed prophecies, before denouncing their faith it is salutary to remember most denominations would find it hard to justify all their past beliefs in terms of successfully tested assumptions and prophecies. At the same time, some doctrines highlight dramatic differences. For example many observers of the JW faith are concerned at their steadfast refusal to accept whole blood transfusions. Remember however this is more that they see themselves bound to a literal acceptance of instructions in the Bible and compared with other literalist groups they have merely chosen to focus on different sections. Whereas an Orthodox Jew might focus on the 613 Commandments in the Old Testament, or the Seventh Day Adventists on verses referring to Saturday worship and the Closed Brethren on verses justifying keeping themselves apart from un-believers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses choose a particular interpretation of the verses about keeping oneself from blood – and of course an extreme emphasis on the Book of Revelation.

If the reader goes to the Wikipedia article on Criticisms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there they will find the references for the following sample failed prophecies:

For a much more substantial list of failed JW prophecies which contains details of the prophecies as actual quotes together with the detailed sources the reader is invited to go to

Although I include brief commentary notes, most of what follows is lifted with some editing from the Wikipedia article. (Because many will be unfamiliar with the literature relating to end times I would like to suggest readers Google my article entitled “END TIMES: BUT THIS TIME IT’S SERIOUS …. again” which introduces the extraordinary list of end time predictions dating right back to the time of Christ). Perhaps we would gain perspective if we remembered the JW incursion into end time claims might be better understood in the wider setting of numerous prior end time claims across a number of Christian denominations). Now to some of the JW claims and their outcomes.

1877: Christ’s kingdom would hold full sway over the earth in 1914; the Jews, as a people, would be restored to God’s favour and the “saints” would be carried to heaven. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. ( We look at the situation more than 100 years later and should be clear this did not come to pass.)

1891: 1914 would be “the farthest limit of the rule of imperfect men.” Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (They were wrong.)

1904: “World-wide anarchy” would follow the end of the Gentile Times in 1914. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (There was anarchy in places but not world-wide.)

The 1914 prophecy failure was something of a shock to the membership and during 1915 a good number of the members abandoned their faith. Russell then adjusted his prophecy and focussed on the coming end to World War I.

1916: World War I would terminate in Armageddon and the rapture of the “saints”. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (The war ended rather differently.)

1917: In 1918, Christendom would go down as a system to face oblivion and be succeeded by revolutionary governments. God would “destroy the churches wholesale and the church members by the millions.” Church members would “perish by the sword of war, revolution and anarchy.” The dead would lie unburied. In 1920 all earthly governments would disappear, with worldwide anarchy prevailing. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (Wrong again.)

1920: Messiah’s kingdom was to be established in 1925 and bring worldwide peace. God would begin restoring the earth. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful patriarchs would be resurrected to perfect human life and be made princes and rulers, the visible representatives of the New Order on earth. Those who showed themselves obedient to God would never die  The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (No evidence this happened…… )

1922: The anti-typical “jubilee” that would mark God’s intervention in earthly affairs would take place “probably the fall” of 1925. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (As it turned out…improbably.)

1924: God’s restoration of Earth would begin “shortly after” October 1,
1925. Jerusalem would be made the world’s capital. Resurrected “princes” such as Abel, Noah, Moses and John the Baptist would give instructions to their subjects around the world by radio, and airplanes would transport people to and from Jerusalem from all parts of the globe in just “a few hours” cf Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22. (Making the statements doesn’t make them come true). Again the members were showing disappointment when nothing of particular significance happened on the predicted date and there was a unsurprising increase in the number of defections. Russell’s successor Rutherford (from 1916 onward) showed considerable skill in gathering together those who were left, explaining that the signs were still there for the approaching Armageddon.

1930 Judge Joseph Frederick Rutherford 60, lives in a ten room Spanish mansion, No 4440 Braeburn Rd, San Diego, Calif. Last week he deeded No 4440 Braeburn Road, and adjacent two car garage and a pair of automobiles to King David, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthae, Samuel and sundry other mighties of ancient Palestine. Positive is he that they are shortly to reappear on earth, Said he: ‘I have purposely landscaped the place with palm and olive trees so that these princes of the universe will feel at home.. (Time Magazine, March 31, 1930)

1938: Armageddon was too close for marriage or child bearing. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson H. Barbour, The Three Worlds (1907) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pages 21-22

1941: There were only “months” remaining until Armageddon cf.Charles Taze Russell, The Time Is At Hand (1891) as cited by James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, page 44. (Long months).

1942: Armageddon was “immediately before us.” J. F. Rutherford, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1920, as cited by Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, pages 212-214.(Millions now living will never die ???…or not).

And then as we now know the Second World War finished without the expected heavenly intervention.

1961: Awake! magazine stated that the heavenly kingdom “will, within the twentieth century, cleanse the entire earth of wickedness.” James A. Beverley, Crisis of Allegiance, Welch Publishing Company, Burlington, Ontario, 1986, ISBN 0-920413-37-4, page 87. (Not counting FIFA etc etc?)

1966: It would be 6000 years since man’s creation in the fall of 1975 and it would be “appropriate” for Christ’s thousand-year reign to begin at that time. Reasoning From the Scriptures, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, 1989, pg 137. (It might have been appropriate but clearly Jehovah didn’t share that view.)

Time was “running out, no question about that.” Talk by F. W. Franz, Baltimore, Maryland 1966, cited by Jehovah’s Witnesses – Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, Watch Tower Society, and by Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, pages 238-239.The “immediate future” was “certain to be filled with climactic events … within a few years at most”, the final parts of Bible prophecy relating to the “last days” would undergo fulfilment as Christ’s reign began. ( I think the term “a few years at most” is now past use-by date.)

1967: The end-time period (beginning in 1914) was claimed to be so far advanced that the time remaining could “be compared, not just to the last day of a week, but rather, to the last part of that day “Did Man Get Here By Evolution Or By Creation?, Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1967, pg 161.(Or should that now be the last but one part of the day????)
1968: No one could say “with certainty” that the battle of Armageddon would begin in 1975, but time was “running out rapidly” with “earthshaking events” soon to take place. In March 1968 there was a “short period of time left”, with “only about ninety months left before 6000 years of man’s existence on earth is completed” Kingdom Ministry, Watch Tower Society, March 1968, as cited by Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, pages 246.
(Ninety months has now passed!!! The point to note here is that by now the predictions were being done via the Watchtower Society but with no noticeable improvement in accuracy)

1969: The existing world order would not last long enough for young people to grow old; the world system would end “in a few years.” Young Witnesses were told not to bother pursuing tertiary education for this reason Awake!, May 22, 1969, p. 15
(At least they were spared student loans. I was teaching in 1969 and have to tell you some of my pupils from then now have white hair).

1971: The “battle in the day of Jehovah” was described as beginning “shortly, within our twentieth century” The Nations Shall Know That I Am Jehovah – How?, Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, 1971, pg 216. (Or was that without?………)

1974: There was just a “short time remaining before the wicked world’s end” and Witnesses were commended for selling their homes and property to “finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service.” Kingdom Ministry, Watch Tower Society, May 1974, page 3. ( as it turned out a long time to be living in a car)

1984: There were “many indications” that “the end” was closer than the end of the 20th century. The Watchtower, March 1, 1984, pp. 18-19 (In hindsight even more indications that it wasn’t.)

1989: The Watchtower asserted that Christian missionary work begun in the first century would “be completed in our 20th century” The Watchtower, January 1, 1989, pg. 12. When republished in bound volumes, the phrase “in our 20th century” was replaced with the less specific “in our day”. (Today, 4 June 2015,I as the self appointed author/commentator of this small article turned 71. “In our day” will shortly become in someone else’s day.)

With something like 100 years of repeated failures of prophecy it should be acknowledged that recent End Time articles are much more circumspect and setting likely dates is now discouraged and even mocked when other religious groups set their own dates.

I know the JW faithful are not supposed to question or risk being dis-fellowshipped but surely with so many clear failures, as outsiders, we might ask if the gift of prophecy had somehow bypassed JW leadership. As Henny Penny eventually discovered, you can only announce the sky is falling so many times before you begin to lose your audience. As an outsider I remain curious that despite the failed prophecies, those members who had expressed earlier reservations about the prophecies of the day remained dis-fellowshipped even well after they had in effect been justified by history in their doubts.

In some ways it may have been their fixation on end times which has undermined their overall effectiveness. In the US it has been reported that something like two thirds of the converted members leave the Church and we might suspect that in part it has been the disappointment of failed predictions that causes this attrition. On the other hand the sense of urgent enthusiasm for their cause draws plenty of replacement members to the organization. Theirs is not the first Church where group acceptance of dogma blinds its members to a mounting list of failed predictions. Yet one of the costs has been in terms of basic education. For example in 1969 the Watchtower released a statement saying that because the end of the world was nigh there was no point in young JWs continuing to seek a College education. The 2006 study of educational ranking of the followers of some of the more significant religions in the US (by Barry A Kosmin and Ariela Keyser) appears to indicate JW buy in to the notion that College education was no longer needed.   For example the Jehovah’s Witnesses had the lowest percentage College graduates (12%) whereas to take some other denominations: the Methodists had 36% College graduates, Presbyterians 51%, Episcopalians 56% and Unitarians 72%.

The lack of recognized scholars may also account for some problems in keeping up to date with Biblical scholarship. For example the New World Translation Bible appears to have been assembled from other versions of the Bible rather than a consequence of precise translation. The four members responsible for the “Translation” are anonymous with The Watchtower claiming that the educational qualifications of the translators were unimportant in that “the translation itself testifies to their qualifications Questions from readers, The Watchtower, December 15, 1974, page 767.

The same time Raymond Franz a former member of the Governing Body has claimed that of the four men who made up the committee, only one—its principal translator, his uncle Frederick Franz, had sufficient knowledge of biblical languages to have attempted the project “New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures”, The Watchtower, September 15, 1950, page 320. And Questions from readers, The Watchtower, December 15, 1974, page 767.

Even there, Frederick Franz had only studied Greek for two years and was self-taught in Hebrew (2007), Crisis of Conscience, Commentary Press, p. 56, ISBN 0-914675-23-0

With no experts in Aramaic it is hard to see how they could claim to have translated some parts of the Old Testament. This implies that much of the translation was done with the assistance of other translations. According to Wikipedia, Jason BeDuhn ,associate professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University, in a comparison of a variety of translations for accuracy, concluded that the NWT’s introduction of the name “Jehovah” into the New Testament 237 times was “not accurate translation by the most basic principle of accuracy”

While some of the “translation” is unremarkable, some specific JW teaching is imposed. For example the Greek word “stauros” for the cross is indeed literally translated as stake but since in Koine Greek, “Stauros” stood as a single word for four different crosses eg the Tau or T shaped cross, the cross that in religious art which is usually associated with the crucifixion, one we now call the St Andrews Cross and one that took the form of a simple stake, there is only very tenuous support for insisting Jesus was crucified on a torture stake particularly as that form was not usually carried by the condemned man. We might also note the JW Biblical commentary notes are not updated. To take one small example in 2004 it was established on the basis of the earliest versions of the Book of Revelation that the “mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation is actually 616 and not 666. JW leaders I have spoken to appear unaware of that discovery. Much criticism of the NWT involves the subtle editing of certain texts considered to be biased towards specific Witness practices and doctrines. These include the rendering of John 1:1, with the insertion of the indefinite article (“a”) in its rendering to give “the Word was a god” Romans 10:10, which inserts the term “public declaration”, which may reinforce the imperative to engage in public preaching.John 17:3, which used the term “taking in knowledge” rather than “know” to suggest that salvation is dependent on ongoing study and the placement of the comma in Luke 23:43, which affects the timing of the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to the thief at Calvary.

Since a good proportion of the JW membership attend meetings to rote learn the answers to questions needed for the propagation of the faith this does not mean learning is neglected, but on the other hand it does appear to deny adherents the opportunity to think or themselves or understand mainstream advances in science and even international scholarship in faith related topics. While it is true that JW publications include articles on general areas including science, geology and medicine, there is plenty of evidence to show that those preparing the articles are lacking in basic understanding. For example the substantial JW articles and booklets on evolution commonly assume scientists think evolution depends on chance whereas evolutionists look to natural selection of favoured forms. Because they are unfamiliar with the standard literature, such JW articles make naive claims. The Society’s 1985 publication, Life—How Did it Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? is rightly criticized for its dependency on Francis Hitching who is cited thirteen times and presented as an evolutionary scientist yet in professional life is actually a TV writer and paranormalist with no scientific credentials.

The same book makes numerous claims that scientists working in the field could refute with little effort. For example the 1953 Miller Urey experiments in which a simulated primordial atmosphere is sparked was criticised for only producing four of the 20 amino acids thought to be essential for life. In fact in the 1980 s when the previously unexamined sealed result phials which had been stored after the experiments were examined using more modern analytical methods 24 amino acids were discovered.

However the most serious problem with the Watchtower authorized text on evolution is that it totally downplays the modern methods of tracing the history of evolution via genetics by which the history of relationships in the living world are traced and mapped.

Now the tricky bit.   What should those of us who are unconvinced by some of the Jehovah’s Witness beliefs then do about it.      My personal response might surprise some.

First I think that we should admit that given the way most religions develop there will always be some beliefs that are difficult to justify.    Because many of the beliefs had their origins in a non-scientific age and because the insights from science continue to expand and clarify our understanding of the Universe and the myriad of forms of life, that some may seem to have a view which we now think is redundant is inevitable.   If we actually do know better (which will not always be the case) then it is up to each one of us to assemble enough convincing argument to bring others to our point of view.   In many cases it simply may not matter.   Knowing why the sky is blue will not change its colour.  Certainly disbelieving in evolution of humans is not where mainstream science currently takes us, but on the other hand if it is a misunderstanding, it is also widespread.

Second just as non Jehovah’s Witness forms of faith are modified over time, the JWs themselves have changed their views.   For example when it comes to End Times they are now more reluctant to encourage members to state a date or even a decade.   In this it is probably better to read up on our own faith history to learn what changes have occurred with our beliefs.

Third I think we can admire two aspects of the JW beliefs.   First they assume faith should affect life choices.   Their reasons for refusing to support war and giving tangible support to fellow believers are reasonable and their identification of the dangers of nationalism are well worth consideration.   The other aspect we should respect is that the JWs are prepared to work hard to share their beliefs with others.  The concern is not that their beliefs may be at fault but rather that our beliefs may seem to matter less.

Maybe in summary we need to explore our own faith journey and sort out the life implications before worrying about the choices made by others.

(The above article is intended as the beginning of a discussion document and it is hoped others will draw attention to aspects which need further comment.)

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