Saturday, 24 April 2010

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable

The Printers’ Patron? ... William Caxton in a stained-glass window in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There is a popular hymn written in 1974 by Leonard Smith, Our God Reigns, and it has these well-loved opening lines:

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him
who brings good news, good news,
announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness:
our God reigns, our God reigns.


Lenny Smith in his life story represents an interesting diversity – a diversity that we could find here this morning too. He is a writer who comes from a mixed Catholic-Protestant background. But he also had many sad life experiences in his early adulthood. He was forced to give up studying for ordination, and before he was 30 he had been sacked as a teacher on no less than four occasions.

Just before penning these words, Lenny was a deeply depressed and unemployed schoolteacher who had given up all hope in life. And then he came upon that beautiful, poetic and visionary verse in the Prophecy of Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns”
(Isaiah 52: 7).

Good news is not necessarily bright, happy news. Good news is truth. Good news is news that inspires and empowers people, and allows us to make decisions and to take action.

Good news is not the same as news that seeks to disguise or distort the truth.

Journalists love the old joke about the two main state-owned Russian-language newspapers in the days of the old Soviet Union: Pravda (Правда) and Izvestia (Известия). The word pravda in Russian means “truth,” while izvestia means ”news.” And so there was a popular saying among Russians about these two newspapers: “There’s no truth in the News, and there’s no news in the Truth.”

For generations, the staff of The Irish Times have been involved in proclaiming news – not always news of happiness, but always seeking to proclaim the news, and to bring the truth, whether it appears to be good news or not, to the nation.

News and truth are not always palatable. But they cannot be ignored.

Is it any wonder that the word Gospel in its original New Testament Greek, ευαγγέλιον (evangelion), means not “Holy Word,” nor “Sacred Writ,” but “Good News.” When the angel appears to Mary, when the angels appear to the shepherds, when the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in scattered churches across the Mediterranean basin, they all say not that they have a book of the Bible to read, or a holy story to tell: they say they are bringing good news, proclaiming good news.

No wonder Victorian newspaper proprietors chose the image of winged messengers for the titles and logos of their newspapers – Herald, Mercury, Guardian ....

And when those who seek to proclaim the truth and the news from the mountain tops – or these days, from the pages of our newspapers – fail to maintain the values of truthfulness, they lose credibility and our newspapers lose credibility. When they seek to bring only what passes as good news, what in fact is soporific news, when they try to “spin” difficult news on behalf of vested interests, the truth suffers, and the people suffer too.

Empowering, truthful news is, in the end, always good news, because it allows people to act morally and to act with purpose. And so truthful news is always good news, is always what people like you and me must be prepared to see as having Gospel-like qualities to it.

Truthfulness is so important in the Gospels that at his trial Jesus startles Pilate by telling him: “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18: 37).

Pilate is so taken aback that he asks that very fundamental question we all need to ask ourselves constantly: “What is truth?” (John 18: 38).

Long before this, Jesus had told his disciples: “The truth will make you free,” or “The truth shall set you free” (John 8: 31).

Those who tell the truth bring good news, no matter how unpalatable it may be at first reading. Those who tell the news as it really is empower people, give them the truth that can set them free.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, those of us who are engaged in the religious exercise, as priests, pastors, theologians, spiritual guides and advisers, must wake to the fact that those who bring us the news are engaged in an essentially religious exercise of allowing people to be who they are truly created to be.

The messengers of good news, those who proclaim the truth, are truly engaged in one of the most noble, one of the most blessed tasks in life, a task that is life-enhancing, life-affirming, in partnership with the act of creation.

And so it is truly important to remember them for that – whether they ever had any religious values themselves, or not, is not the point.

The great German theologian Karl Barth once said in an interview in 1966:

“The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.”

Some years earlier, in 1961, he discussed journalists and their place in the world in an interview with Time magazine. He said that newspapers are so important that “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion … Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit.”

Barth recalled that 40 years earlier he had advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.”

His advice was taken to heart by so many in later generations that Billy Graham often preached this way, literally, with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. John Stott, the famous evangelist, told theology students constantly to keep these two before them: “The Word and the World.”

When the late Stephen Hilliard was leaving The Irish Times shortly before his ordination, Ken Gray said at his presentation that he was moving from being a column in the Times to being a pillar of the Church.

Some time later, shortly before his death, a tired and weary Stephen called around to my house. At the time, I too was thinking of ordination. And I asked him how life had changed for him.

“Oh,” he said, “not much.”

“Too many late nights?” I asked.

“Not so much that,” he said, and then he quoted that old adage attributed to both HL Mencken (1880-1956) and to Mr Dooley, the character created by Peter Finlay Dunne (1867-1936): “I still have two responsibilities, to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

It’s a clever old aphorism, but it’s still true. And when we stop keeping these values before us, then no-one will any longer appreciate us, not just for bringing news, but for empowering them, for enabling them to make key decisions, for keeping before them the essential values that we all share, irrespective of our religious values.

And so, this morning, I give thanks to God for all who have worked hard over the generations to bring truth and news to people through the pages of The Irish Times:

● journalists who wrote and who created the ideas;
● photographers who showed us what it was truly like;
● printers, who made it possible for those words and images to be seen and read;
● advertising staff, advertisers and sales teams who made it financially possible to continue doing this;
● lawyers who fenced against those who would have silenced us;
● the messengers, the cleaners, the canteen staff, security, the management, switchboard operators, the drivers, the maintenance workers …
● the readers …

Everyone who did their job was engaged in holy work, a holy task, a sacred undertaking, everyone who placed their trust in us, everyone we depended on … they all made this a more blessed task, and a more blessed world.

May they ever be remembered, and may they receive their reward in glory, Amen.

The interior of the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was a contribution to a memorial service for deceased members of the staff of The Irish Times in the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, on Saturday 24 April 2010.