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Category - "Love":

Milk And Sugar?


A Parsee (Parsi) Family, by William Johnson, Western India ca. 1855-1862 via SMU Central University Libraries @ Flickr Commons

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for  thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13.2)

Did you see Yasmeen’s story on Facebook? She has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here:

I am British/Egyptian and currently live in Egypt. Here there are now hundreds of thousands of Syrians if not more. In the past years since the Syrians started coming here to get away from the violence in their country, I have to say people here have been impressed and humbled by how they have dealt with their misfortunes. They have been very industrious, working hard, starting small businesses and in general doing whatever they can to make a living instead of burdening society. They are well known for their cooking, especially their sweets, and many of them have opened small dessert shops and the less well-off sometimes sell their pastries ready-packaged to passers by.
Keep in mind that Egypt is a country with its own poverty problems already and we have thousands of beggars on the streets. Many of the Syrians who came could easily have joined in the throngs of people waiting for hand-outs. But they are proud, hard- working people who will not accept extra money you try to give them when buying things from them even. They want to work for what they have. They have rented the homes they are now living in too.
Before the Syrian crisis, I knew several Syrian people who are well-educated and well-travelled and some are even dual nationals. But they are very patriotic to their country and although they could have lived in western countries most chose to stay in Syria.
My point is that Syrians are only travelling to the west because they are desperate to survive. Not because they want the western way of life as some are accusing them. Their country was beautiful with breathtaking landscapes and a rich culture. Also, they are hardworking, skillful people who, if given a chance, will gladly work hard and add to society and the economy and not depend on aid.

“Like sugar in milk”

But this is of course not the first time in history that large numbers of displaced people have sought sanctuary in other lands.

Do you know the story of how the Zorastrian Parsis first arrived in India? More than 1,000 years ago, at the time of the Islamisation of Persia, Zoroastrians went in several different directions in an effort to protect their religion and culture. The ones who went to India became known as Parsis, but there are other large Zoroastrian communities on the border of present-day Iran and Afghanistan.

A Zoroastrian priest arrived with a group of refugees in what is now the state of Gujarat. The Qissa  tells how about 18,000 Parsis came in seven junks, five of them landing in Div, one at Variav near Surat and one at Cambay. They asked the local king, Jadi Rana, for asylum But the king pointed to a vessel of milk, filled to the very brim, to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept any more additions to the population. In response, the priest asked for some sugar, which he stirred into the milk, where it dissolved without trace – and without a drop being spilled. He asked the king again: “If you take us into your kingdom, we will be like the sugar in the milk: we will become one with your kingdom, and will only make it sweeter.” 

Finding the argument unanswerable, Jadi Rana stipulated only that

  • they were to adopt the local language (Gujarati);
  • their women were to wear the garments of the local women (the Sari);
  • they were to cease to carry weapons; and
  • marriages were only to be performed in the evenings (as the Hindus do).

He then gave shelter to the refugees and permitted them to practice their religion and traditions freely.

Lord Bilimoria discusses the Zoroastrian Parsis in India:

Bilimoria points out that despite their small number, Parsees have achieved international acclaim in almost every field. Among the best known are the conductor Zubin Mehta, Ratan Tata (who turned the Tata Group into a global business), former cricketer Farokh Engineer and the Indian war hero Field Marshal Manekshaw. Parsees excel in the arts too – not many people realise that Freddie Mercury was a Parsee. Bilimoria himself is best known for starting the Cobra beer company, but his first entrepreneurial venture involved supplying Indian-made polo sticks to British outlets, including the exclusive department store Harrods.

He attributes the community’s success to the way Parsees are raised. “You are brought up in this principled way. You see the charitable work that’s being done, the way Parsees not only look after each other but put back into the wider community,” he says. “You just have to go to Bombay, where my father’s family are from, and see the number of Parsee charitable buildings and communities, hospitals, schools – you can’t help but notice it and it’s been done over the generations.”



Who is to say that those who now throw themselves on the mercy of the West would not similarly sweeten our nations were we to welcome them in?

‘Favourite Heroes and Holy People’ edited by Deborah Cassidi

Heroes 001

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Viktor Frankl, from Man’s Search for Meaning

Extract chosen by Lord Sacks, former Chief Rabbi, who explains his reason for choosing this passage:

‘For me, one of the heroes of the human spirit was Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps, and helped others to survive. On the basis of his experiences he founded a new school of psychotherapy – he called it Logotherapy – the central idea of which is summed up in the title of his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl rescued people from despair by helping them find a reason to live: a task not yet completed, work still to be done. That sense of a mission not yet fulfilled gave people the strength to carry on. In the quotation I chose he bore witness to the courage of others. He also wrote of how, exhausted, starved and on the brink of death, he brought himself back to life by thinking of his beloved, his wife:

Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words,’The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

I am lost in admiration for a man who saved the lives of others by giving them hope, and who found a path to heaven at the very gates of hell.’

And I am as lost in admiration for Lord Sacks as many of his other Christian admirers. He broadcasts frequently, and there are many pieces I could offer you from You Tube. Perhaps this one?

St Paul’s Thoughts On Social Media


All Creation Sings is the blog of Gareth Hill, a Methodist Minister working at the London office of the Methodist Church as Head of Mission & Advocacy. Until September 2011 he was based in Cornwall and working to ‘do church for people who don’t do church’ on the Roseland Peninsula, just outside Truro. Gareth is a former newspaper editor and an award-winning hymnwriter. He comes from the Pontypool area of South Wales. He is as passionate about being Welsh as he is about being a follower of Jesus Christ – or should that really be the other way round 🙂

This is how Gareth introduces his blog, which I urge you to go and read. I particularly urge you to read this post, in which he imagines how the famous extract from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians might have been re-drafted to cover social media. This is the first third – it gets even better and you can read the whole thing here.

1 Corinthians 13 … the online version?

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I’ve been musing on the topic of love ahead of preaching at the weekend. The Gospel lesson is John 17: 20-26 where Jesus prays to God that those who come after him would be one, and known for their love.

It set me thinking about the many times that Internet discussions get way out of hand. So here is an adapted 1 Corinthians 13, the famous Bible chapter on love.

If I speak in the tongues of Google and of LinkedIn, but do not have love, I am a noisy ringtone or a nuisance call. And if I have blogging powers, and understand all mysteries of code and all knowledge of hashtags, and if I have all Facebook, so as to ‘friend’ many, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my PayPal balance, and if I hand over my smartphone so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.


You can read the rest here:

The image of St Paul’s statue at the Vatican is from Wikimedia

An Alabaster Potful of Essence of Spikenard

Today’s gospel reading from Mark tells us about a woman who anointed the head of Christ with balm made from the essence of spikenard, a plant illustrated  above (Nardostachys grandiflora). The version in Matthew’s gospel, like Mark’s, emphasises that this ointment was very expensive, but for Luke, the gesture was also physically extravagant as the woman first wet the feet of Jesus  with her tears and then dried them with her hair.  And John tells us that the woman was Mary Magdalen and that the scent filled the whole house. 1


So, what is the message here? Well, it has been said that:

This story tells us that whatever one Christian does in the service of God, another Christian is bound to come along and criticize it. 2

This sounds heartfelt: Emily Dickinson sounded equally heartfelt when she focused on the physical and emotional cost of producing essential oils such as the spikenard:

Essential Oils are wrung:
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns alone
It is the gift of Screws.

The same can be said of much great art. As Bill Nighy’s character said of Vincent Van Gogh in an episode of Dr. Who:

He transformed the pain of his life into ecstatic beauty.

Vincent himself said:

When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion, then I go out and paint the stars.

If there are sermons in stones, there are many more in plants:

Hildegaard of Bingen was a twelfth-century mystic, composer, and author of a theology that knitted together nature and spirit, cosmos and soul. She described the Holy Spirit as the Greening Power of God. Just as plants are greened, so we are as well. As we grow up, our spark of life continually shines forth. If we ignore this spark, this greening power, we become thirsty and shrivelled. And if we respond to the spark, we flower. Our task is to flower, to come into full blossom before our time comes to an end.
Lauren Artress,‘Walking a Sacred Path’

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.


Let every Christian be a gardener so that he and she and the whole of creation, which groans in expectation of the Spirit’s final harvest, may inherit Paradise. If we Christians truly treasure the hope that one day we, like Adam and the penitent thief, will walk alongside the One who caused even the dead wood of the Cross to blossom with flowers, then we must also imitate the Master’s art and make the desolate earth grow green. Vigen Guroian‘Inheriting Paradise’

God and Man together produce all that is in nature – God provides the seed, the earth, the light & warmth, and the rain. Man provides the cultivation – weeding and pruning, harvesting and -here- distilling into essential oil. It is a symbiotic relationship which forms a virtuous circle:

What does it all mean? Well, for Julian of Norwich it was all about God’s love:

And in this He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it.

And so we return to the story we began with, of the extravagance of Mary Magdalen’s gesture. Her response to the love of God was not to measure out her balm in careful teaspoonfuls but to pour out the whole contents , echoing the words of Isaac Watts in one of his best-known hymns: ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an off’ring far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

1 Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-11, Luke 7:36-8:3 and John 12.1-11

2. Esmeralda in ‘The Ship of Fools’

But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three…

…and the greatest of these is love.Corinthians 13.13

Although there are plenty of loving relationships between men and women described in the Bible, you could also say the first ‘battles of the sexes’ are vividly portrayed in the Old Testament. When King David danced in the street before the Lord,  the only reaction of Michal (or ‘Michelle’ as I like to think of her) was to “despise him in her heart” ( 2 Samuel 6). Delilah was very unkind to Samson and, when Herodias was offered anything she liked by Herod, ‘even unto half my kingdom’, she chose the head of John the Baptist on a platter. What lesson are we meant to draw from this? – well, perhaps that when relations between the sexes turn sour, they can turn very sour indeed, with women being notoriously vindictive.

But, while bearing that in mind, Valentine’s Day may be a moment to concentrate instead on when these relationships go well. Without human love, great art is scarcely imaginable: with it, our souls reach the greatest imaginable heights, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in Sonnets from the Portuguese:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…


Of course, reaching these heights depends on having a soul in the first place as A E Housman described:

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.
Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head!

Or, as Walter De La Mare put it:

Most wounds can Time repair;
But some are mortal — these:
For a broken heart there is no balm
No cure for a heart at ease –
At ease, but cold as stone
Though the intellect spin on
And the feat and practised face may show
Naught of the life that is gone;
But smiles, as by habit taught;
And sighs, as by custom led.
And the soul within in safe from damnation
Since it is dead.

Unrequited love is no fun for the sufferer but, as W H Auden said:

Let the more loving one be me

Possibly the nation’s favourite definition of true love is Shakespeare’s sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

So, what is love?

Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. We can only learn to love by loving.

Iris Murdoch


Love comes surging from the power of God,
Its source, its mountain spring, the human heart.

William Langland, ‘Piers Plowman
Poets down the ages, but particularly in England, have explored the parallels between love of men and women for each other, and their love for God – John Donne and Christina Rossetti to great effect, for example.


And here is George Herbert :

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here’;
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.


A medieval poet makes the comparison explicit:

All other love is like the moon
That waxeth or waneth as flower in plain;
As flower that blooms and fadeth soon,
As day that showereth and ends in rain.
All other love begins with bliss,
In weeping and woe makes its ending;
No love there is that’s our whole bliss
But that which rests on heaven’s king.
His love is fresh and ever green
And ever full without waning;
His love makes sweet and gives no pain,
His love is endless, enduring.
[Anon], c. 1350

Almost all the above examples are in verse, but here is a modern one in prose:

Brian thought of the day when they had gone walking in Winchelsea marshes. The hawthorn was in bloom…overhead, the sky was alive with white clouds gliding in the wind. Unspeakably beautiful! And suddenly it seemed to him that they were walking through the image of their love. The world was their love, and their love was the world; and the world was significant, charged with depth beyond depth of mysterious meaning. The proof of God’s goodness floated in those clouds, crept in those grazing sheep, shone from every bush of incandescent blossom – and, in himself and Joan, walked hand in hand across the grass and was manifest in their happiness. His love, it seemed to him, in that apocalyptic moment, was more than merely his; it was in some mysterious way the equivalent of the wind and sunshine…His feeling for Joan was somehow implicit in the world, had a divine and universal significance. He loved her infinitely, and for that reason was able to love everything in the world as much as he loved her.

Aldous Huxley‘Eyeless in Gaza’

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