Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Artificial Compassion?

Professor Noel Sharkey is a world authority on robots.  His fascination with what has become known as ‘artificial intelligence’ began in the 1980s and it was a great day for him when eventually he was able to program a robot to walk in a straight line down a corridor.  Things have moved on considerably since then but there are some developments which are causing Professor Sharkey some concern.  In a recent radio interview he spoke about robots being used for elderly care in Japan and more worrying for him drones being used to drop bombs on Afghanistan.  

That robots could be used more and more in warfare and perhaps even develop the ‘intelligence’ which enables them to make life and death decisions is certainly a deeply troubling idea.  This is what we saw in the Terminator movies.  There is no doubt that there is a movement towards this and it is one that Professor Sharkey believes should be halted.  Surely, though, there must also be a concern with regard to the use of robots as carers.  

However sentimental it may sound the weak and the vulnerable need the sound of a human voice and the touch of a human hand.  That you matter to someone is a powerful message to receive.  Think of what it meant to lepers in Jesus’ day to actually have him touch them.  They were a people who had to live apart from the main stream of human society because of their disease.  They have been described as ‘the living dead.’  But Jesus spoke to them, touched them and healed them.  I doubt if I am alone in knowing the difference a kind word and a loving touch can make.  

But there is something else to consider in this.  If we shift our responsibility to care then we are denying ourselves the opportunity to fulfill our humanity.  God has established in Jesus the pattern of a humanity that He wishes for all of us and time and again in the gospels we read of Jesus having ‘compassion’ on troubled people.  This is a word which to some extent has been emptied of its meaning but essentially it means standing alongside people in their pain to the extent that you are actually sharing it.  This is costly in so many ways and it is understandable if we reach out for an alternative or even turn our backs on the suffering.  But Jesus calls us to face the suffering of the world and to respond with compassion and in His life and teaching he shows us how.    

The hero of one of His stories cared for a victim of robbery and violence whose plight other people had ignored.  He treated the victim’s wounds, paid for his board at an inn and pledged more money for his care if it was needed.  He went way beyond what anyone would expect from a total stranger and what a difference his compassion made.   

It is truly amazing to see the advances that have been made in the development of ‘artificial intelligence’ and the benefits that have come to the worlds of medicine, engineering, science and entertainment.   But there can never be ‘artificial compassion.’  That is our gift to give.  

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Springtime In Our Souls.

Unlike other Christian traditions we Presbyterians are not required to stick rigidly to the Christian Year and yet many of us have found value in observing seasons like Advent and Lent as well as the major seasons of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.  Our Advent and Lent services in St Paul's have been well supported over the years, giving us an opportunity to reflect on some of the more challenging aspects of our faith.  In the end the whole purpose behind these seasons is that we emerge from them with a firmer grasp of the faith and a deeper commitment to the life of discipleship.

It is not automatic of course.  Mere participation is no assurance that anything will happen in our inner being.  We cannot work up or force a blessing from God just by adhering to certain spiritual practices.  Elizabeth Jennings has a poem called ‘Making A Silence’ in which she reflects that certain silences can be commanded like the silence that is needed for a child to sleep or for a sick person to have rest.  There is also a silence that happens naturally when everyone else is asleep ‘And you can feel the stars/And mercy over the world.’  In the end, though, there is the greatest silence of all:

‘But the greatest one of them all
Is a gift entirely unasked for,
When God is felt deeply within you
With his infinite gracious peace.’  

What she is thinking of here is a silence which cannot be created by us and does not happen naturally but is the work of the Holy Spirit, a gift from God.  That can come to us at anytime, unsought and unanticipated.  People have told me of times when challenging experiences brought them to the very end of themselves and yet they felt a sense of God’s peace at the very core of their being.  It seemed to come as a gift for that moment.  

This does not mean that nothing is demanded of us in the spiritual life.  It is possible for our inner being to be so cluttered with self-centered priorities, deadening routines and pressing duties that we are no longer turned wholeheartedly towards our God.  That’s when we need to consciously create space for God to do a new thing in our lives.  It is His gift to give but we must be eager to receive.  Jesus said: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks,  the door will be opened.’  (Matthew 7: 7-8)  

Even Jesus needed space for his soul to breathe.  Luke tells us that there came a time in His ministry when there was considerable pressure on Him to preach and to heal but ‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.’  (Luke 5: 15-16).  So we need to find times for prayer, reflection on the Word, and worship with fellow believers in order to keep a tight connection with our God.  I hope the coming season of Lent will bless us in this way and that there may be Springtime in our souls.    

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Where Are We Now?

It was my eldest son who greeted me with the news that Bowie had just released his first single for ten years.  Now 66 (yesterday was his birthday) there have been some concerns about his health in recent years so it was good to hear that at last something had emerged from the silence.  

The first impression is that he sounds fragile, almost like a sad, old crooner but that tone brilliantly carries the song.  He is revisiting places familiar to him when he spent some time recording in Berlin:  ‘A man lost in time . . . Just walking the dead’.  It is the memories which give rise to the refrain: ‘Where are we now?’  

It is poignant, haunting, strange and the appeal of the refrain is almost heart-breaking but there is a spark of light in the climax:

‘As long as there's sun
As long as there's rain
As long as there's fire
As long as there's me
As long as there's you’

I suppose that is what you have to be content with when you have not been caught up in the hope that Christ brings.  As long as the world keeps turning and we can reach out to one another then that is what matters.  There is something deeply moving about that but I am glad that we have not been left to create our own meaning.  I believe that has been given to us in the life and ministry of Jesus.  He has shown that there is a Deep Story unfolding in human history.  God is working out His purpose which will be seen in a great climax which the followers of Jesus called the New Creation when everything which has ever made us cry will be swallowed up in the love, justice and peace of God.  Men and women can step into that purpose and be part of the New Creation now, living according to the values which will in the end be triumphant.  

‘As long as there’s sun . . . rain . . . fire . . . me . . . you.’  But there is more - thank God.  

Thursday, 3 January 2013

An Unexpected Journey.

Having declared my immunity to the Tolkien bug on more than one occasion I still allowed myself to be conveyed to the cinema to see the first installment of The Hobbit.   I am still not totally enchanted but there is something timeless and appealing about the basic plot.  A very conventional and settled life is suddenly disrupted by a call to go on a journey which will involve personal challenge, perhaps even danger, but in the end there is the promise of great benefit coming to a large number of people - or rather, dwarves, hobbits etc.  

The subtitle of the movie is An Unexpected Journey and when you examine some of the greatest stories of faith you will find that an unexpected journey is involved.  You can start with the ‘spiritual father of us all’, Abraham, probably leading a comfortable life but unexpectedly hearing the voice of God to go on a journey to a  land which will be the base for the descendants of Abraham, destined to become ‘a great nation.’  

There is also Moses, raised as an Egyptian prince yet becoming aware of his Hebrew roots and eventually being called to lead his people on a journey of liberation out of slavery and into the Promised Land.  

In a sense the earliest followers of Jesus were called to a journey.  There is something quite dramatic about the way Jesus seems to break into people’s lives while they are going about their daily business, fishing, collecting taxes, even in the case of the Pharisee Saul on his way to arrest Christians!  He calls them all to follow as He seeks to build His kingdom.

As we face the future together we have to be prepared for The Unexpected Journey, the call to go into an area of service, perhaps previously unknown, but a need is presented and the pressure to meet the challenge is not easily resisted.  It is always daunting but like Abraham, Moses and the early believers we have the promise of God’s presence and His resources as we go forward.  David was asked to go on many unexpected journeys and there were times when he was stretched to the limit but he was still able to say:

You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning;
My God turns my darkness into light.

With your help I can advance against a troop;
With my God I can scale a wall.

Psalm 18: 28-29.

May this God be with you on all your unexpected journeys in 2013 and beyond.