With thanks

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I do not often write personal posts, and this is one of the few, and it is not about me but about a friend whom I shall call R. R is one of the brightest men I know. He served his country in the armed forces for some years before moving into civilian life and taking a PhD, after which he entered the academic world where his life-experience put him, it would be fair to say, somewhat at odds with the usual ways in which academics do things. R liked to see results, he liked to be know why we were doing things and wanted to be able to calibrate the results; where was the data? Intellectually he was entirely untouched by groupthink. In a collectivist profession, he was an individualist. In the end he tired of it and went to do other things with his life. This was, I thought, academic life’s loss. On a personal level, because it meant I saw less of him, I was upset; though from his point of view, I could see, entirely, why he’d done it.

One of the areas where we had respectful disagreement (R was a gentleman to the core and had no other sort of disagreement) was my Christianity. He could see, historically, what Christianity had contributed to the history of Western Europe and to its value system, but beyond that, it eluded him. He was not an atheist who felt any need to attack or undermine Christianity, or who felt hostility toward it; but nor could he see why anyone might be a Christian.

Imagine, then, my surprise, a few days ago, to receive from him an email telling me that he had converted to Christianity and was now, with his family (a wonderful wife and two marvellous children) attending an Evangelical Alliance Church near to where they live. We have not, yet, had an opportunity to talk about this, but he thanked me, inter alia for recommending this site, and says he has found it very useful as a new Christian. My delight is threefold. R is simply one of the best men I know, a man of searing integrity who would rather suffer financial and personal loss than compromise his integrity. He is also a man who has his own ‘thorn’ as St Paul called his own ailment. So that He should have found Christ is simply a source of huge pleasure. It has been transformational, he says, and there seems to me a rightness in that. It is right that such a man should, in the encounter with Christ, find his world transformed. And that thought that this place has been useful to him, is all the justification I ever needed to keep running it.

So, R, welcome, and I know I speak for all the shades of Christian witness present here, in expressing joy that you have passed from darkness into light. My pleasure for you and your family is unbounded, my old friend, and I look forward to our being able to expand our conversations into this new area for us.

Legitimacy?

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Democracy, of all systems of government, rests most on the presumption of legitimacy. That is not to say that all governments do not so rest, but there is a crucial difference between the sort of legitimacy a Monarchy has and one a democratically elected leader has; although there is also a crucial similarity. Even a monarch who claimed to rule by divine right actually ruled only as long as his rule was tolerable. So, King John, like his Norman/Angevin predecessors, ruled by right of inheritance from William the Conqueror. In theory there were no limitations on his power; but the way he used that theory created the conditions in which such limitations were formulated and, ultimately, imposed upon him. This was done not by ‘the people’, but by the people who mattered – the nobles and the Church. None of John’s successors was able to turn the clock back. Where, in continental Europe, the fledgling parliaments of France and Spain were stifled, in England the attempt to do so led Charles I to his execution. Voltaire once defined Russian Tsarism as ‘autocracy modified by assassination’, and something similar, if less dramatic is true of all systems of government. If the governed find them intolerable, ways will be found to depose bad rulers.

In democracies legitimacy is assured through electoral processes. Those processes will throw up results that at least half the electorate will not have approved, either because some will have voted for the losing side, or others could not be bothered voting. This often leads to some bitterness and silliness. The whole ‘birther’ thing with Obama would be one example. But one never saw those pursing that line demonstrating in Washington, blacking access to the inauguration or calling for the results of the election to be cancelled, or for ‘direct action’ to thwart the outcome of the electoral process. For that, we had to wait for an educated liberal elite to lose the election to someone whose views they found so abhorrent that they took it upon themselves to advise the electorate that in view of their silly error, they, the elite, needed to set things right. Since it was, in part, this attitude which led to the result they deplore, this seems the sort of error you need to be extremely smart to commit.

It is very hard to see how, next time a liberal President is elected, his supporters can criticise their opponents for protesting. On a very basic level, Trump’s critics are giving their opponents a lesson in how, when their turn comes, they can stoke the fires of division. To respond, as I know some will do, with the retort that ‘Trump started it’ is, I fear, childish. If you consider yourself part of an elite so much better able to judge who should rule your country, you should demonstrate that by being smart enough to accept the democratic verdict and work in the usual manner to ensure your side does better next time. Both with Trump and with Brexit, the other side fought very poor campaigns and made their cases badly. It would, of course, take courage to admit that and it would take time and energy to ensure it doesn’t happen again – and my advice to those on the losing side (such as myself) would be to up their game and stop whining.

Waiting for the Kingfisher.

In our search for meaning we may not have any clearly defined concept of the symbol “God.” I don’t think that matters. As T S Eliot has said “the meaning is in the waiting.”

It’s not that God is dead, but the older we become, greater is the depth of his mystery. It becomes all the more important  to spend time in silent prayer which is waiting upon God.

“Prayer is like watching for the kingfisher,” writes the poet Ann Lewin.

Kingfisher in flight

  • Prayer is like watching for
  • The kingfisher. All you can do is
  • Be there where he is like to appear, and
  • Wait.
  • Often nothing much happens;
  • There is space, silence and
  • Expectancy.
  • No visible signs, only the
  • Knowledge that he’s been there
  • And may come again.
  • Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
  • You have been prepared.
  • But when you’ve almost stopped
  • Expecting it, a flash of brightness
  • Gives encouragement.

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It’s easy to be caught up in movements of spiritual enthusiasm, but if we’re honest these are often ego trips.

The Holy Spirit requires space and time in our often fragmented existence.

Thomas Merton in one of his letters makes the comment – “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an even greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”

Believing or disbelieving isn’t the point.  Even to say we don’t know is equally unsatisfactory. Each of us is adrift over a sea of nothingness. It’s akin to being the survivor of a ship wreck drifting on a piece of wood fastened to nothing. We have to trust the current that we are drifting in the right direction. Trust is the operative word.

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We must surely be aware of a mystery at the very heart of existence?

As Christians We find ourselves fastened to the Cross, bound in an incomprehensible way to Jesus, fastened to him, but adrift over the abyss.  I sometimes wake in the night aware of life’s insecurity and my frailty.

. Each man in his darkness goes towards the light” wrote Victor Hugo.

The life of everyone us has a meaning which escapes him or her. Each of us, despite difficulties, vacillations, and failures moves from a confused darkness towards the peace of the Kingdom.of God. The day shall finally come when, as it is written in the Scriptures, God shall wipe away all tears. Our life appears to be like a novel, but God finds the title.

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Twilight and sunset at Hayle.

45, and Counting

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And so for the forty-fifth time, we in America will pass the presidency to a new man. That man is Donald Trump, it hasn’t mattered since 8 November whether you (or I) think that is the greatest thing ever or the worst. As I say so often, reality is real. He joins an uninterrupted line that stretches back to George Washington. That is, I believe the longest continuous government in the world, quite a record for a bunch of men who rebelled against the greatest empire in their world, and when they managed to win, designed a government from scratch.

This has been a divisive election, the whole world knows that, and there are a lot of what can only be called sore losers around. This too is nothing new. My friend, juwannadoright, wrote of another one, we both remember.

It was Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961 and I was very sad.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy was going to become President of the United States, succeeding Dwight David Eisenhower in that position.

My parents had both supported Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election and were disappointed in its outcome.  Nevertheless, like most of those in the country, they accepted its results and hoped that the new president would be good for the country.  Kennedy’s election was not the source of my sadness.  It was that we were losing Eisenhower.

I never knew either of my grandfathers.  But when I watched Ike on our Dumont television, he always impressed me as the kind of person who, if I were able, I would adopt as my foster grandfather.  He impressed me as calm, reasoned and a person who had control of every situation using his extensive life experience as his guide.  I felt safe with him running the country.  That was true despite the fact that many of our public buildings hosted “Air Raid Shelter” signs on their facades and that we conducted regular air raid exercises at school.  The cold war with our recently former ally, the Soviet Union, was in full bloom.

The presidential election of 1960 had not been without controversy.  Nixon carried 26 states to Kennedy’s 22.  But Kennedy won the nationwide popular vote by slightly more than 118,00,  rather remarkable considering that at that time there were 17 million more voters registered as Democrats than there were Republicans.   Kennedy overwhelmingly won the electoral college garnering 303 votes to Nixon’s 219, a margin of victory not very dissimilar from the margin that Trump had over Clinton in the 2016 election.  Ten states were decided by fewer than ten thousand votes each.  It was the closest election since 1916 when incumbent President Woodrow Wilson defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes.  Despite a number of state recounts affirming the results, there were those who considered Kennedy’s election “illegitimate.”

She’s right, I remember it too. My parents supported Kennedy, but I remember it was a bit reluctant. They were New Dealers, like so many that lived through the Dirty Thirties and the Second World War, but they were also staunch Protestants. They would never have thought of discriminating in their personal lives against Catholics, but the history of our churches would have entered their minds. But it didn’t work out all that badly, although Kennedy’s inexperience did end up costing America both life and treasure. That’s the way of the world.

Unless we’re very lucky, Trump’s experience may be similar. Obama’s certainly has been, compounded by his seeming inability to learn from his, let alone others, mistakes. There are rumors of protests, well, there usually are, although they are spiced this time with threats of violence. Protest, as always in America, is fine, Violence, as always, is beyond the pale, and no doubt will be met accordingly. And no matter what anyone says, this is not the most divisive time in our history, that was 1861-65, and I pray we never again see the like.

Ronald Reagan, in 1977, gave a speech that summarized many of the problems we face. He said.

But how much are we to blame for what has happened? Beginning with the traumatic experience of the Great Depression, we the people have turned more and more to government for answers that government has neither the right nor the capacity to provide. But government, as an institution, always tends to increase in size and power, not just this government—any government. It’s built-in. And so government attempted to provide the answers.

The result is a fourth branch added to the traditional three of executive, legislative, and judicial: a vast federal bureaucracy that’s now being imitated in too many states and too many cities, a bureaucracy of enormous power which determines policy to a greater extent than any of us realize, very possibly to a greater extent than our own elected representatives. And it can’t be removed from office by our votes.

Hat tip to Steven Hayward at Powerline for that.

That is indeed much of our problem, as it is for others as well. The bureaucrats, however necessary they may be, have grown out of control, of the President, of the Congress, and especially of the People. That is a problem we must solve, our very freedom depends on it. Steve in his upcoming book says this:

“That bureaucratic government is the partisan instrument of the Democratic Party is the most obvious, yet least remarked upon, trait of our time.”

He’s correct, and it would be just as pernicious if it were the Republicans. Somehow, a solution must be found. But not today.

Today is a day to reflect on what we have created and sustained in America. A land that started as a subsistence farming strip along the Atlantic ocean has transformed itself into a free land that is by quite a lot the most powerful country the world has ever seen.

Congratulations, Mr. President and may God bless you and the United States.

[crossposted from nebraskaenergyobserver]

ANGELS

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I was asked recently what I considered to be one of  the greatest enemies of Christianity to-day.  The inquirer was surprised by my answer. He thought that I would mention Islam or scientists such as Richard Dawkins. Well he was mistaken.

The real enemy of the faith is the rejection of the supernatural, of the vast company of Angels and Saints, the unseen presences, that surround us at every turn of our lives. Faith minus the supernatural, miracles, and wonders that defy explanation, isn’t Christianity.

Asked if I believe in Angels I reply by saying that I affirm them and trust to their action in my life. You cannot read the Bible without accepting these messengers of God who connect our lives with the eternal spheres.

There is a world of the beyond that is within our everyday world. It is objectively there, but few to-day discern it since they have lost the faculty that recognizes and affirms it. Expressed simply, the angelic world opens up at the very edges of this world and calls for a certain kind of imagination that accepts on trust the witness of Holy Scripture.

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Two passages from Holy Scripture are particularly relevant. The first is Jacob’s Dream (Genesis 28:12) “And he had a dream, and behold a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven and behold the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

The second is related to it and is from John’s Gospel, 1:51. “And Jesus said to them. “Truly truly, you shall see  the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

The poem by Francis Thompson says it all.

The Kingdom of God

O WORLD invisible, we view thee,

O world intangible, we touch thee,

O world unknowable, we know thee,

Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

 

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,

The eagle plunge to find the air–

That we ask of the stars in motion

If they have rumor of thee there?

 

Not where the wheeling systems darken,

And our benumbed conceiving soars!–

The drift of pinions, would we hearken,

Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

 

The angels keep their ancient places–

Turn but a stone and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,

That miss the many-splendored thing.

 

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)

Cry–and upon thy so sore loss

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder

Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

 

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,

Cry–clinging to Heaven by the hems;

And lo, Christ walking on the water,

Not of Genesareth, but Thames!

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The Pillar Saint of Syria.

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One of the most evocative and spiritual churches I have ever visited is at Kala’Sim’an. It is assuredly one of the grandest and remarkable buildings in the Middle East. Its massive and its construction is neither Roman or Byzantine. It is built in a style that is unique to Syria. When the church was built and Evagrius visited it in 560 AD, Antioch was still a great and magnificent city.

The Church is just a few miles north of Aleppo. I was almost alone there at the time and the church was deserted.  One of the most unexpected features of the church is the stone platform on which St Simeon Stylites’ pillar was built. It is still in the same position as when the church was constructed.

Evagrius clearly believed it was haunted. He was sure he saw a ghost that took the form of a moving light in a gallery around the octagon. In those days the building was complete and a very popular place of pilgrimage.

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When I surveyed the massive edifice it was almost unbelievable to imagine that such a place with its attached monasteries, elaborate hostels, in fact an entire town devoted to pilgrims could have grown up around the memory of a man who had spent his life on a pillar.

It is with difficulty that we can even try to understand the mental attitude of the fourth century. It was a world in revolt against materialism. After three or four centuries of persecution the Christian Church had emerged into the light of day. In the sudden release from oppression many Christians expressed their faith in a number of eccentric ways.

The Desert Fathers, of whom Simeon Stylites was one such, expressed in his own uncomfortable way the ascetic movement that was sweeping over the East. The Deserts of the Middle East were filled with men and women who wore hair shirts and who lived on bread and water. Most of these hermits lived to a ripe old age.

Thousands from the cities flocked to consult St Simeon Stylites. He was a real POP STAR of his day and more impressive than our pop idols. His message was of course the Eternal Gospel as preached by our Lord. In a sense St Simeon together with all the Desert Fathers and Mothers was the embodiment of the message.

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The photo above is of the sanctuary. I knelt on the steps and in my mind’s eye imagined the glory that must have confronted the faithful in the fourth and fifth centuries. I took lots of photos including the three used for this article. .

In earlier days I trekked all over the Middle East. The Church at  Kala’Sim’an has left its impression on my mind deeper than anywhere else. In such a place, the pilgrim, and I’m a pilgrim, is able to become attuned to the past and the power of the Holy Spirit in the present.

When Two or Three

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“Where two or three are gathered together, there am I in their midst.” – Jesus.

Acts 2:46 – has an important commentary on that text.

And day by day continuing in one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.

The rituals of our daily lives do not work through novelty or by seeking to raise our emotional temperature. What they try to effect is the constancy of a sustaining rhythm.

Our life in the Church is sustained and consolidated when we take to heart the Lord’s promise in Matthew’s Gospel. “For where two or three gather in my name, I am there among them.” (In their midst.)

In other words – The process of becoming who we are can only be perfected in relationships. The Gospel suggests that relationship is at the heart of who we are, and who God is. We are made for each other, and we are made for God

The Early Church took that promise literally

As Christians living to-day, we need to take that same promise literally. Christian life is not only sustained by private devotions, prayer, justice and virtue. Christian life is also maintained in a community by gathering ritually around the Word of God and through the breaking of the bread.

Origen, one of the early Church Fathers said –

“We are said not only to drink the Blood of Christ when we receive it according to the rite of the mysteries, but also when we receive his words, in which he dwells, as he said himself:

           “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”(John 6;33)

 “In truth before Jesus, Scripture was like water, but since Jesus it has become for us the wine into which Jesus changed the water.”

We can therefore say, already in Scripture there is an aspect of incarnation. Scripture embodies the Word, and the incarnation of the Word completes the transformation into Eucharist of the hearing or reading of the Word.

True Christian thought is Eucharistic.  The Eucharist of the mind – God must be loved with all one’s mind – prepared us for the nuptial encounter of the sacrament.  And the sacrament in its turn enlightens the mind.

Christianity has sustained itself for two thousand years. How has it done that?

In answering that question we can uncover a secret well worth knowing. Faith sustains itself through ritual gathering around the Word of God and the breaking of the bread.

Like a family that keeps itself from falling apart by saying: “We will all be at home by regular times. We will all eat Sunday Lunch (Dinner) together and we will all be together in the living room at least once a week. We will all do this, because if we do not, we will eventually fall apart and die as a family.

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As a human family needs to sustain itself by set straight-forward, repetitive, predictable, unexciting rituals, so too the Christian family without ritual gathering, we will like any family, fall apart.

We are living in an age when it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain faith and to sustain community. There can be no better advice that that of Jesus himself.

“For where two or three gather in my name, I am there among them.”

Ritual worship and faith are different sides of the same coin. The act of worship dovetails into faith and faith into worship. The very heart the Eucharist is thanksgiving to God through Christ in the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Divine Forces that we encounter in the Eucharist are infinitely loving and personal. We are taken into the Blessed Trinity and share the life of the Kingdom. The Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom, of heaven and the abiding presence of God in our present life. We neglect it at our peril.

Gather around the Word of God and break the bread together. We do not even have to understand what we are doing. We do not have to be brilliant, imaginative or stimulating.

We have to gather in his NAME around the simple clear ritual he gave us. HE PROMISED TO DO THE REST.  

 

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Ordo Sacer

We depend upon a presumed order. The “spectacles” as Kant describes them are a set of presuppositions that determine how we make sense of the world we inhabit. As empiricists, we rely on the belief that objects are the same from one experience to another, but we do not know that to be the case. For all we know, the world is recreated every time we open our eyes.

The current spate of anarchy threatens this way of life. Indeed, anarchy itself, on the reading of evil as an absence of good, can hardly be described as a way of life. This anarchy stands in direct contrast to the sacralised order presented in the Bible. Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2 characterises the Antichrist as riding on the wings of anarchy. Christ, by contrast, is characterised as the agent of order. He abolishes the chaos of this present evil age and brings about a new Eden, one better than the last.

But men love the darkness: our deeds are evil. Long ago – though not so long compared with eternity – this wickedness brought the Flood upon itself. God spared the righteous to restart the world. We need not quibble about whether this flood was global or local; the principle is the same on either reading: corruption brings judgement. God promised never to flood the world in that way again; He set His rainbow in the sky as the sign of His covenant with the descendants of Noah.

That rainbow appears again in the Revelation of Jesus Christ, where the scene is once again one of judgement. The angels blow seven trumpets and pour out seven bowls of wrath. The earth is restored, and trees grow whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. This cycle of judgement and restoration is central to the Biblical concept of the “Day of the LORD”.

The Cross is also at the centre of this concept. On the day of Pentecost, Peter spoke the prophecy of Joel about the darkness and celestial signs that would precede Christ’s Coming, and before those the pouring out of the Spirit, which the crowd gathered in Jerusalem had just witnessed. But on Good Friday too the sky was darkened and God’s wrath was poured out on His beloved Son. “He was chastised for our iniquity.” The wrath was followed by restoration and renewal, the Resurrection.

Christ is the saviour and restorer. He is the Wisdom of God by whom the world was made. There can be no order apart from Christ: in Him we live and move and have our being.

Return&Answer. תשובה ב עברי: Teshuvah

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RETURN & ANSWER

Scoop made a comment on my post Endurance that has set me thinking. Here is his comment.

“But God awaits our return; there is no reason to despair of such problems. In time all these things will also pass and faith will endure to the end.”

We do not have to discover the world of faith. We have only to recover it. It is not a terra incognita, an unknown land. It is a forgotten land, a “Palimpsest.”

A “Palimpsest” is a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.

God is a palimpsest not a tabula rasa.

It is something reused or altered, but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

We are created in God’s image. God is our archetype. Despite our sins his image is still there hidden by our self will.

Every one of us has metaphorically stood at the foot of Sinai and beheld the voice that proclaimed “I am the Lord Thy God.”

Alas, it is the evil in man and the evil in society, silencing the depth of the soul that block and hamper our faith.

In the wonderful parable of the Prodigal Son his coming to himself and recognizing his need for God is his return to him. Our thinking of Him is a recall. It’s an attempt to draw out the depth of our attachment to him. The fact that the prodigal decides to return home to his father is a return to God.

I love the Hebrew word for repentance. תשובה ב עברי. (Teshuvah) It means Return. Yet it also means Answer.

Return to God is an answer to him for God is not silent.

“Return O faithless children, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 3:14)

A voice cries in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Isaiah 40 :3 is repeated in the Gospels.

The stirring within man to return to God is actually a reminder by God to man. It is a call that our physical sense does not capture, yet the spiritual soul in us perceives the call.

God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. It is only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes do we acquire the ability to grasp the theme. I remember practising a difficult piano piece.It was only after much toil that the composition began to make sense as a whole. TESHUVAH.

Endurance

ENDURANCE.

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Church of St Serge in Maaloula now in the hands of Islamic terrorists. .

I was in Maaloula in 1987 and prayed in that beautiful Church.  One shudders to contemplate what has happened to the Syrian Christian Community in that town.

“Keep Watch,” is the constant message of the Gospels. We live in a world that is falling apart. In such a world we must endure the long haul.

The Ancient Israelites endured life in the face of the great civilizations of Assyria, Egypt and Babylon.

The early Christians endured life in the break – up of the Roman Empire by the Barbarian Hordes, the DARK AGES.

The Middle Ages, likewise, were times of great upheavals of which the Reformation was the tragic  result.

Now there is Britain and Europe possibly  facing  the break-up of our Civilization of which two world wars were the start.  Brexit worries me. We in Britain are  now confronted with a very uncertain future.

The advance of militant Islam, overpopulation, global warming, America under Trump, Russia under Putin, and the growth of Chinese imperialism are forces with which we will have to reckon.  Syria is a key player in the Middle East that may yet evoke a third world war.

Jesus tells his disciples that they must endure under persecution, times of change and the break-up of great empires…Wars and rumours of War.

We are not to anticipate the end time. All his disciples need to know and that includes us is that “a new age” has begun in Christ.

Jesus tells us that we must learn to KEEP WATCH in the time between the times. “Be still and know that I am God,”

The Gospels remind us that we are living in the Light that Jesus is present among us, that he is continually coming into our lives.

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Palmyra as I saw it in 1987. Much has now been destroyed.