Thursday, 28 July 2022

The village crisis and the wise woman

This is a story I've used in countless places and contexts now. It seems to be immensely generative in drawing out wisdom from those who hear it. I learnt it from Cormac Russell, who's been a wise teacher and mentor to me for many years. I think Cormac traced its roots back to West Africa. But as with many oral traditions, there may have been some things changed and forgotten along the way. I was asked recently for a text of it, so here's how I'm (currently!) remembering it...

A village had been hit by a crisis that was threatening to overwhelm it.

The village elders got together, and decided that what they needed to do was go and ask the wise woman for help. So a delegation went to the wise woman's hut, a short walk from the village itself, and asked her to help them. She agreed, and told the elders to gather the whole village together under the big tree. And so the elders hurried back, and did as she told them.

When the wise woman arrived, she looked around at all the villagers, and then spoke. "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know," she said to them. "Do you know what I'm going to tell you?"

The villagers were a bit puzzled, and one by one they shook their heads and said, "No. No, we don't know. That's why we asked you to come here."

"Well," said the wise woman, "then I'm afraid I can't help you." And she went away.

The elders were frustrated. This was not what they'd been expecting. They put their heads together again, and decided to try again. So the delegation went back to the wise woman, and asked her to please come back and address the village again. "We really need your help," they told her. And so she agreed.

Again, the elders went back, and gathered the whole village together under the big tree, and the wise woman came and spoke to them again. "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know," she said again. "Do you know what I'm going to tell you?"

Now this time, the elders had given the villagers a stern talking to. "This time, give her the right answer!" they had said. And although the villagers were still pretty sure the answer was "No", they guessed the right answer must be "Yes". So with a mixture of shakes and nods of their heads, they replied to the wise woman, "Yes. Yes we do!"

"Well in that case," replied the wise woman, "you don't need my help!" And she went away again.

By this time, the elders were pulling out whatever remained of their hair. The crisis was big, and urgent, and they desperately needed help. What were they going to do?

Eventually, one of them came up with a cunning plan. And a third time, the delegation went back to beg the wise woman to return to the village. And a third time she agreed. And a third time she came and addressed the whole village under the big tree.

"I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know. Do you know what I'm going to tell you?"

And this time, the villagers had all been thoroughly briefed on the cunning plan. So half the village said "No". And the other half of the village said "Yes".

And the wise woman paused, and looked around, and a smile came over her face. And slowly, quietly, she spoke.

"Well in that case," she said, "talk to each other!" And she went away, and was never seen again.

I wonder what wisdom you hear in that story...

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Being held: choke-holds, strongholds & cracked vessels

This is a summary of Al’s sermon on Sunday 8th May – the day of our (Hodge Hill Church's) Annual Meeting. The readings were taken from Wil Gafney's "Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church" (Year W, Easter 4):

Acts 2:22-24, Psalm 9:9-14, 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 and Luke 7:18-23

It’s not often we get four readings to reflect on, but today there’s an important thread running through them, which I want to help us explore together: what does it mean to be ‘held’?

Being ‘held in the power of death’

Beginning with the reading from Acts chapter 2, we have a little snippet of a much longer sermon that Peter is preaching to the Jerusalem crowd at Pentecost.

“This Jesus… you crucified… but God raised him up… because it was impossible for him to be held in [death’s] power.”

Here ‘being held’ means being trapped: Jesus is literally pinned down (in crucifixion), sealed up (in the tomb). Death is all-encompassing, overwhelming, a brutal, vice-like choke-hold.

We have seen and heard of far too much of this kind of deathly holding. People trapped in war zones, hiding for fear of their lives. People fleeing death and destruction, seeking safe refuge, and instead being locked up in detention centres. The choke-hold on a black man’s neck, squeezing out the last gasps of breath. The hold of the slave ship, stripping human beings of their dignity, reducing them to mere cargo to be transported, or thrown overboard if deemed ‘dead weight’.

We have known personally the choke-hold of grief at the loss of a loved one. We have all lived through the confinement of ‘lockdown’, with its restrictions on what we can and can’t do, the way it cut us off from each other, trapped inside those who were ill or physically most vulnerable, and trapped us too in the tensions of impossible decision-making: what should we do, and what shouldn’t we?

And we know too, if we look a little further within ourselves, how fears and anxieties about the future can hold us in their grasp. When we fear change, feel like we have to defend our own agenda; when we’re tempted to dig our heels in, stick up our defences, or return to what’s most familiar to us, just as Peter did, going out fishing after the overwhelming tragedy of the crucifixion.

Yes, we know something about being held in the power of death. And to this grim reality, Peter preaches resurrection as liberation: the stone rolled away, the tomb broken open, the scarred, breath-less body raised up and breathing with new life. This is the good news of Easter: that the power of death could not hold Jesus, doesn’t have the last word, isn’t the end of the story – not for Jesus, and not for us and our world either.

Being held – as loving safety

In Psalm 9, we hear a totally different kind of ‘being held’:

‘The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.’

Here, when everything feels like it’s falling apart, when we feel like our life is in free fall, it is God who holds us together, upholds us in her strong and gentle hands.

I’m sure we’ve all known something of this kind of ‘holding’ too. In our times of crisis or grief, fear or despair, we’ve been held. Held by God, and often held too by friends, family, neighbours, our church community. Held in love, and care, and prayer. And this kind of holding, too, we’ve known through the hardest times of the COVID pandemic. We’ve known ourselves as a church community here, held together as we’ve cared for one another, on the phone or on the doorstep; as we’ve prayed, together, apart; as we’ve held one another in prayer even when we’ve not been able to see each other, or hold each other in a great big hug. And in all of this holding, we’ve been held by our loving God.

But being held by God is the complete opposite of being trapped, stuck, choked. Being held by God means being free, it goes hand in hand with seeking God – a bit like (if you can imagine it) playing hide and seek with a ‘hider’ who both manages to be mysteriously hidden, and yet also sticks tight by your side the whole time…! And so as God has held us together through the challenges of the past couple of years, God’s Spirit has also led us on a journey, of ‘going deeper’ into the mysterious life of God, through our Trees of Life resources, and through everything else that we’ve encountered and discovered and learnt along the way.

Being sent – with good news

The gospel reading from Luke talks not of being held, but of being sent. John’s disciples come to ask Jesus if he’s the one they’ve been waiting for, and Jesus responds not with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but with a question back to them: “what have you seen and heard? Go and tell John those things.” When we seek God, when we open our eyes and ears and hearts to what might be happening around us, we have caught glimpses of the kin-dom of God springing up, we’ve sensed the Spirit on the move, the good, resurrection news of life and love and liberation taking flesh.

And over the past couple of years, we’ve seen and heard plenty of that: in our own lives, within our church community, in our wider neighbourhoods and the wider world. Very often, these things have been small, and fragile; they’ve come slowly, not quickly. Maybe some of the glimpses have been fleeting, and others longer lasting. But just reflect, for a moment, on where you’ve seen and heard life and love and liberation happening in or around you…


So Jesus sends John’s disciples to ‘go and tell’ what they’ve heard and seen. And he sends us too. To tell the stories, share the glimpses, with others. This is what has sometimes been called ‘evangelism’ – however misused that word has often been. Discovering the good news together. Sharing what we’ve seen and heard, and naming it as the movement of the Spirit, the springing up of God’s kin-dom, the taking-flesh among us of Jesus’ resurrection life. And we share this treasure, not because it’s good news for some ‘them’ out there – but because it’s good news for all of us, together. We share in places like the Pantry and the coffee morning, the Open Door drop-in and the Community Iftar, not because we just want to help others, but because we know, as the saying goes, that my liberation is bound up with yours – that what is good news for you, is good news for me, that when we share together, we are all fed.

A treasure held – in ‘clay jars’

The golden thread running through our readings finishes with the 2nd letter to the Corinthians:

‘we have this treasure in clay jars… so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’

Sharing the good news of life and love and liberation is absolutely not a ‘we’re alright now we’ve met Jesus’ kind of story. The treasure we’ve discovered, received, is rarely big and shiny, robust and ‘successful’. And that, thank God, is not what we’re called to be, either – whether individually, or collectively as a church community.

If we’re called to be ‘signs of God’s kin-dom’, then we’re called to be imperfect, broken signs – what Paul here calls ‘clay jars’. Because we’re human, and limited, and fragile, and cracked. Because our flesh, our bodies, are fragile – and so are our lives. And that is how God made us. And God has called us ‘good, very good’.

We’re not called to be a big, shiny, robust and ‘successful’ community. We’re called to be a community that is in touch with our wounds, our scars. A community which is honest about who we are, and how the world is, in all its messiness. And that it’s only ever in the midst of all of that, that God’s light and life and love and liberation comes to dwell. In the midst of all of that, in us.

Many of you have seen the cracked communion dish, that we’ve used every Sunday since the beginning of Lent this year. It was broken in the break-ins last December, and has been mended by an artist who used the Japanese kintsugi method: not sealing up the cracks so that they can’t be seen, returning the dish to how it was before; but filling the cracks with shiny gold cement, making them more visible, not less, bringing out a new beauty in the dish that it didn’t have before, and that it can only have because of the cracks. The communion dish is a symbol of who we are, and who we’re called to be, each of us, and as a church community together.

I want to finish with some words from the Jewish song-writer Leonard Cohen:

            Ring the bells that sill can ring
            Forget your perfect offering
            There is a crack, a crack in everything
            That’s how the light gets in

(from Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’)

Monday, 20 December 2021

Singing Magnificat in the compost heap: a sermon for Advent 3W

'Magnificat', by Ben Wildflower (Ben Wildflower Art)

This is the rough text of a last-minute sermon, covering for a colleague who had Covid. I preached from bullet-point notes on my phone, so said more than I can remember here. But it went something like this. (The readings are from Wilda Gafney's 'Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church', Year W, Advent 3 - Judges 13:2-7, Luke 1:46-56 - with a focus on Mary's Magnificat.)

The words of Mary's Magnificat found their way into the liturgy for Evening Prayer used by countless churches across the world. You might come across them sung with perfectly enunciated syllables by professionally-trained choirs in grand cathedrals, and the chapels of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, among the rich and powerful and privileged.

The words of Mary's Magnificat were also banned from being sung in church during the British occupation of India; banned by the repressive government of Guatemala in the 1980s, when the words became a popular song among the country's poorest; and banned by the military regime in Argentina, when the words started appearing on posters around the country's capital, the work of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children had all been 'disappeared' during the country's 'Dirty War'.

Mary's song, too often domesticated by our churches and our religion, is a song of revolution, of a world turned upside-down. It is a song that should shock us, if we pay careful attention to what Mary sings.

* * *

'Here I am,' says Mary to Gabriel, 'the hand-maid of the Lord'. A word that sounds quaint and oldy-worldy; pointing us perhaps to a dignified humility. Until, that is, we encounter Margaret Atwood's novel 'The Handmaid's Tale', where the word describes the role assigned to women in a dystopian near-future, dehumanised and reduced to nothing more than biological reproductive machines. When Wilda Gafney translates the Greek word in Luke's gospel as 'womb-slave', the shock value is stirred again. And for those who have known slavery, in their own life-experience or in the experience of their ancestors, the resonances are inescapable. In saying Yes to God, Mary chooses for herself a solidarity with the enslaved and oppressed and humiliated of the world.

Mary knows humiliation, of course. She is part of a humiliated, oppressed people. And the role she has been given, and taken on, and its increasingly inescapable visibility and physicality (her filling womb, her swelling belly), and the unbelievable story that goes with it... these are the makings of social shame, of an outcast... and so when Mary sings she sings out to God her own humiliation and that of her people, their hunger and longing for freedom... and she sings out too - echoing the song of her foremother Hannah - of all the women who have gone before her, who have been demeaned and diminished, treated as property, rendered voiceless, labelled 'barren' or 'whore' or worse... Mary sings with all of them, out of the humiliation that they share... 

And I'm pretty sure each of us knows something of that experience too, of being humiliated, shamed... something of what it feels like, in our bodies, minds and spirits... Mary sings with us too, out of our humiliations...

And yet, there is a boldness too in Mary's song, as she sings out her role, her calling, the world-changing vision and hope-made-real she has taken on bodily. If the Mary who sings here is a slave, then she is a slave of no one but God. God the compassionate, God in who carries in her womb the whole world (the Hebrew word for compassion and the Hebrew word for womb coming from the same root). God who is, herself, in the process of becoming human flesh and taking on the life-labour of the oppressed, the humiliated, the slave. This relationship between God and Mary, then, is nothing like any Master-slave relationship as we know it, but a partnership, a solidarity-in-fragile-flesh.

And Mary sings of a world that is about to turn, a world that is already turning. And those world-turnings are much more than a childless woman having a baby. They are the turnings of lives and a world...
- from shame to blessing
- from coercion to consent
- from exclusion to inclusion
- from powerlessness to agency
- from unheard voices to bold singing
- from hunger to being well-fed
- from oppression to freedom
- from nobodies to somebodies (the title, and this is no coincidence, of a book by our friend and teacher, the Black Theologian Professor Anthony Reddie - Mary's Magnificat is a song of racial justice too)

* * *

And pay attention to what justice looks like in Mary's song: she sings not just of the hungry fed and the lowly lifted up, but of the mighty brought down from their thrones and the rich sent away empty. This is true justice, God's justice - the kind of "levelling up" that our governing politicians are surely not remotely willing to embrace.

Is it a simple reversal, simply turning the whole power structure upside-down? With the rich and powerful humiliated, and the 'meek and lowly' exalted to positions of wealth, power and privilege? What does Jesus mean, in the Beatitudes, when he tells us the meek will inherit the earth?

If we had been following our usual lectionary today, we would have heard the prophetic challenge not of Mary but of John the Baptist: "you brood of vipers", he spat, calling out the hypocrisy, greed and selfishness of the powerful, and their indifference to the poor and marginalised. The turnings of Mary's Magnificat will indeed bring the powerful down to earth, and probably with a bump. But I'm not sure that means that they simply take the place of the previously-humiliated in an eternal gutter. And I think there are at least two clues that point us in a different direction...

First, let's remember where, and with whom, Mary sings her song. She has travelled into the hill country, to find sanctuary with Elizabeth, her cousin, her 'kinswoman'. She is in a place of safety, in a relationship of solidarity, of shared experience, of kinship. And the kinship and solidarity between these women, is the fertile womb of a kinship and solidarity between their children, John and Jesus, who will call their hearers to repent, to turn from their destructive ways, and to turn towards kinship, as children of God.

And our second clue is again in the roots of the words at play here: because both 'humiliation' and 'humble' are rooted in humus... the leaf-mould, the compost, where all that is hard is broken open and broken down, where all that is alive is being decomposed, where everything that is rejected as waste finds a home and brings its unique contribution, where richness comes with a powerful smell, where the creepy-crawlies that are so often despised are the ones who do the vital work, where new life comes not beyond the shit, but in the midst of it. 'Down to earth' is the only place that we and all others should be. This is where we are pushed to acknowledge that our kin include all kinds of creatures and things that we have been doing our very best to avoid and ignore. This is where Mary's Magnificat comes to life: in the middle of the compost heap, God calls us to hear her song, and to follow her lead towards kinship, solidarity and hope.

Glory in fragility: a sermon for Midnight Mass

'Nativity', by Carol Aust (Liturgical Paintings | Carol Aust Fine Art)

This is roughly the sermon I'll be preaching at Midnight Mass at Hodge Hill Church this year. I never usually finish preparing so early - but we're sending out our 'worship at home' packs on Wednesday (as we have done every week since March 2020), so I had to get my act together. I cried writing this, and I may cry delivering it. I don't often weave the stories of my nearest and dearest into my preaching, but this time it felt right to do so, in the spirit of the message itself. 

It was our first baby. Janey had been pregnant about 18 weeks – some time after the first scan, not long until the second. But something wasn’t quite right. Janey had been bleeding a lot, so we phoned the hospital, and they called us in to check her over. I vividly remember the short car journey together to Birmingham Women’s Hospital: mostly in silence, but we both knew what we weren’t daring to say. I remember us going into a small cubicle with the obstetric nurse, her friendly warning that the gel would be cold on Janey’s tummy, the foetal heart monitor making contact, and then the wait… the silence… the long, increasingly uncomfortable silence, as we listened for any sound… I remember Janey and I looking at each other. I remember realising I was holding my breath, for what felt like an eternity… and then there it was: the quick, steady pulsing of a baby’s heart. The sound of a tiny human life. Fragile life, and yet clearly more resilient than we had feared.

13 years on, the day before the end of a year marked by a global pandemic and recurring lockdowns. But it’s snowing, so our family of 4 and some of our best friends are out hunting snowy slopes for sledging fun. And then in an instant the screams of laughter turn into shouts of fear, and in another instant I’m down the slope and bringing our 9-year-old daughter back to consciousness and holding her, desperately trying to keep her awake. The waiting, this time, is for the paramedics, who take close to an hour to find us. It feels much, much longer than that, and it is terrifying. In the hours, days and weeks that follow, there is more waiting, as immensely skilled medical professionals do their work of looking and watching and treating and checking, and surrounding us with their care. And around the four of us, and around the professionals, there is a wider circle, of family and friends, neighbours and church community and a jumble of wider networks of connection, with us, holding us, in love, and prayer, and practical care and support. With us, holding us in our fragility, of body, mind and spirit; with us, holding us and upholding us, and not letting us go.

* * *

All of us know something of that fragility of body, mind and spirit, whether it’s become inescapable for us through some of life’s more traumatic events, or through illness, or ageing. In our relationships beyond our own families – in our church community, in our community-building work in some of our neighbourhoods here, and in other places too – loved ones have died, people who’ve been hugely active have had to step back from things, relationships have come under strain or have broken, much-valued aspects of community life have been put on hold, or have slipped away into more and more distant memory, hoped-for developments have been stalled, pretty much everything is smaller, and more difficult, and more precarious, than we’d like it to be.

We know what fragility feels like, how in a moment we can suddenly be plunged into it, how we can try our best to defend against it, to build in strength and resilience, but discover, often very slowly, that fragility is just a part of reality that stubbornly refuses to go away. And as human beings together, we are learning, some of us very slowly, that the world in which we all live and in which we are entangled and inescapably interdependent, is also a fragile ecosystem that won’t just endlessly tolerate our extreme activities of extraction, consumption, pollution and destruction.

Fragility marks reality, and there is no erasing or escaping it. But to tell ourselves we ‘just have to deal with it’ would be too cold and hard. And unjust – because fragility is more unavoidable part of daily life for some people than for others. While holding it at bay is like holding back the tide, some people have the privilege of higher and stronger flood defences against it. So we need a wisdom in dealing with fragility that is rooted in justice: grounded in a hearing and seeing of all God’s children, all God’s creatures – so that no cry of pain, or fear, or loneliness, or hunger, or suffering goes unheard. We need a wisdom in dealing with fragility that is patient: that knows that when we rush, we break things – and people, and ourselves – and that fragility in all its forms needs of us a slow, attentive carefulness. And more than either of these, we need a wisdom in dealing with fragility that has love woven through it: a love that can be tender with the small and the wounded and the hurting; a love that can plumb our shared depths with empathy and compassion; a love that hopes, believes, rejoices, fiercely, in the beauty and abundant possibility that is to be found in the midst of the fragile; a love that is with us in the midst of fragility, that waits and watches with us through the darkest nights, a love that holds us and upholds us and will not let us go.

And that is what the good news of Christmas is. The birth of Emmanuel: God-with-us. The Word and Wisdom of God who spoke creation into being, who brought all things to life… becoming fragile flesh and blood, becoming a fragile human baby, and in the process not becoming any less God, but if anything becoming even more God. ‘The glory as of a parent’s only child’: as if the glory of God is glimpsed most fully in the fragility of creaturely flesh – that is exactly what the good news of Christmas is. If God-in-Jesus is Saviour – which we claim he is – he doesn’t save us from our fleshly fragility, but in it. He saves us by being with us in our fragile flesh, with us in our tears and brokenness and suffering and fear, and with us too as light: light that helps us more clearly see God’s presence in our midst; light that helps us more clearly see each other, as human and creature-kin; light that helps us more clearly see, in our fleshly fragility, the beauty and hope and abundant, divine possibility that are some of the meanings of the word glory.

* * *

And we have seen that glory…

…in a youth worker patiently journeying with a young woman over many years: being with her through the anxieties of pregnancy and the steep learning curve of motherhood, as she discovers what it means to be a ‘good-enough parent’; being with her as she begins to discover that parenthood need not be the only thing that defines her, but that she can find her own voice, find her confidence to travel, find her horizons widening – even as far as the other side of the world… a youth worker who can journey with her, and then cheer her on from a distance as she begins to journey with and mentor others, as she has been journeyed with and mentored herself…

And we have seen that glory…

…in a pantry volunteer who takes time and care, every week, to greet the nervous, jumpy woman with a big smile and a cheerful ‘hello!’, and who always stays alert to that day when the woman is ready to sit down and talk, and share something of what’s going on in her life right now; not to ‘fix’ her, but so that she feels heard, maybe for the first time in a very long time – so that she knows that there is someone, maybe many someones, who are with her in the struggles; that she’s not alone…

And we have seen that glory…

…in those who will show up to the last-minute, chaotic memorial service of someone they barely knew, but because they want to support the friend who is grieving the most; and they know that being there, just being there, will mean the world to him…

And we have seen that glory…

…in those who will muck in together to sweep up the glass from the break-in, for the first, and the second, and the third time, and turn it from a wearing attack into an opportunity for laughter, and camaraderie, and supporting those who are feeling down, and remembering what faith and hope and love look like…

And we have seen that glory…

…in grabbing a spade and getting stuck in to some hard ground, side by side with neighbours from half a dozen different countries, from toddlers to pensioners, to turn a neglected communal garden into a space of beauty, a space for play and rest and friendship…

And we have seen that glory…

…in coming together to sing carols outside the house of someone who’s finding it increasingly difficult to get out beyond her own front door, but who knows that she’s still part of a community of love and care and prayer, and that even when we’re separated, and even when that separation hurts on both sides, we are longing and loving and praying together, with her prayers as valued as any others…

And we have seen that glory…

…in the midst of a protest against the global catastrophe that is climate change, calling for radical, courageous change from governments as well as individuals… walking with a few banners through central Birmingham, but joining in solidarity with walkers and banners and voices from across the global South, who are already measuring the effects of climate change in terms of land and lives lost forever…

And we have seen that glory…

…in a hospital chaplain sitting quietly with an anxious dad, while their daughter is in surgery; a dad suddenly, unexpectedly thrown by the moment the general anaesthetic made his child’s eyes close as if they might never again wake up; a chaplain with the gift of just being there in the right place at the right time, and knowing what to say, and when he needs to not say anything at all…

And we have seen that glory…

The glory of God-with-us, where the word ‘God’ is important (obviously), and the word ‘us’ is important too – but so is the small, apparently insignificant word ‘with’. ‘With’ is the good news of Christmas. ‘With’ is what we’ve been waiting for through Advent, what we’ve glimpsed by candle-light in Advent’s stories, what we’ve whispered and prayed and sung every time the words “O come…” have passed our lips.

“Rejoice, favoured one! The Most High God is with you,” said the angel Gabriel to Mary.

It is with her cousin, Elizabeth, that the frightened Mary finds sanctuary for the early months of her pregnancy, as together they began to make sense of the new life that was stirring inside them.

For Joseph, it is staying with Mary, even though her child is not his, that is his God-given calling.

And now, God-with-us, full of grace and truth and radiant with glory, comes to be with us in an animal feeding trough in an irrelevant little town in an occupied country on the edge of the Roman Empire…

…and God-with-us, full of grace and truth and radiant with glory, comes to be with us in the small and fragile, the messy and chaotic, the overlooked and ground-down, the weary and tearful, in our time, in our places, in our communities, in our homes, in our hearts.

And if our eyes are open enough, if the waiting of our Advent – however long this Advent might have been – has helped develop our night vision, helped us see even when it’s really dark, then we might just catch a glimpse of the glory of God-with-us – in each other, in our midst, in the world, in ourselves – tonight, and in the days and nights to come.

“O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

'The God who Sees' - a sermon for Advent Sunday

Advent Sunday sermon, 28/11/21 @ Hodge Hill Church


(image: icon of Hagar, by Revd Charlotte Gibson)

“Every year, the island was a little less. ‘Look,’ my father would tell us, distracting our teenage minds from bathing in the rock pools, ‘Can you see where the waves reach? One day, all of this will sink beneath the sea.’ Standing in front of the ocean as a child, then a teenager and then an adult, I was always possessed of the feeling of potent destruction contained in the waves, of the enormity of that which is to come.”[1]

The words of theologian Anupama Ranawana, remembering her childhood in Sri Lanka. Her father invited her to ‘look… can you see…’ – and she invites us, in turn, to open our eyes: to what is happening all around us; to what we have lost, and what we are in the middle of losing; to what remains; and to what is to come.

The writer Ben Okri, just last week, urged his fellow-writers – and I think he includes all of us who tell stories, all of us who pay attention to the world we’re living in – to nurture an attitude that he calls ‘the creativity at the end of time’. This is what we need, he writes, when we find ourselves ‘[f]aced with the state of the world and the depth of denial, faced with the data that keeps falling on us, faced with the sense that we are on a ship heading towards an abyss while the party on board gets louder and louder’. ‘There is a time for hope and there is a time for realism. But what is needed now is beyond hope and realism.’ What is needed now, he argues, is for us to ‘be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine’, ‘a special kind of love for the world, the love of those who discover the sublime value of life because [we] are about to lose it… this most precious and beautiful of worlds’.[2]

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

Later in this service, as our Confession during this Advent season, we will use words written by African-American biblical scholar Wilda Gafney, to lead us into a time of silent watching and waiting together:

            There will be no candle of Hope this year.
            Hope is no longer enough.

            There will be no candle of Peace this year.
            For there is no peace without justice.

There will be no candle of Joy this year.
There are too many empty places at the table
to rejoice.

But there will still be Light.
Light that shines in the darkness,
illuminating injustice and indifference.
Light that exposes the casual violence
that steals, kills and consumes God’s children.
Light that shows up
where even we are complicit.

This Advent, we have work to do.
Stay awake to injustice.
And stay awake to justice, and to love,
wherever they may be found – lest we despair.
Stay awake.[3]

In the last few years, the word ‘woke’ has been turned into a term of casual dismissal, used to patronise and demean those who call out injustice. But its original meaning, a meaning we need urgently to hang onto, is, as Wil Gafney reminds us, simply about staying awake, staying alert, watching for the light, and paying sharp attention to what the light reveals. This is precisely the work that Advent summons us to. To open our eyes wider, to open our ears wider, to open our hearts wider, to the deep realities of the world we are living in.

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

‘Now the messenger of the ALL-SEEING GOD found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur…’

‘Then the messenger of the FOUNT OF LIFE said to her,

“Look! You are pregnant and shall give birth to a son,
and you shall call him Ishmael (meaning God hears),
for the FAITHFUL ONE has heard of your abuse.”’

‘So Hagar named the LIVING GOD who spoke to her: “You are El-roi” [the God who sees me].’ (Genesis 16:7, 11, 13)

Hagar, the slave-woman of Abram and Sarai, is running away from her abusive owners, when she runs into the path of the Living God. And the Living God sees her, and hears her, and knows what she is going through – and Hagar names God ‘El-roi’ – ‘the God who sees me’.

‘I feel seen’. It’s a phrase that has become quite common in recent years. What does it mean? What does it feel like? In a world where all too often we feel divided, distanced from each other; where so many feel overlooked, silenced, pushed to the edges; where the curse of isolation and loneliness can weigh heavy even on those who have busy working and social lives, ‘I feel seen’ means there is someone who knows what we’re going through, and names it – and in that naming, we know we have a place.

Hagar is seen – by the God who sees. And her mistreatment and abuse in slavery is seen too. And with her, all the abused, invisible, overlooked, silenced, oppressed, exploited, marginalised ones of the world are seen. All those of our kin, human and other-than-human, who have already been lost – grieved or ungrieved – are seen. And with Abram and Sarai, all those who are complicit in, or indifferent to, or passive in the face of the abuse and oppression and exploitation – their actions and inactions are seen too. We are seen: as the mix of victim and perpetrator, bystander and survivor, that we are, by the one who, as the 1st Letter to the Corinthians puts it, will ‘bring to light the things now hidden in darkness’.

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

And this is the God whom Mary wrestles with. When the messenger of God who comes her way tells her to ‘rejoice’, Mary is ‘troubled’. When the angel announces that she has ‘found favour with God’, Mary wants to know ‘how’, exactly. How does this messenger claim to know her body, and what is to happen to it, better than she knows herself? And the angel directs her attention in two directions: firstly, to the Holy Spirit, brooding over her as she brooded over the waters of creation; and secondly, to Mary’s kin – to her cousin Elizabeth – who, like Mary, is discovering, as the poet and artist Jan Richardson puts it:

‘that radical hope is found at the boundary where the outrageous gives way to the possible. A child given to her aged kinswoman? The courage to say yes to Gabriel’s invitation to her, an unwed woman? Well, then God might as well have turned the world into one where all things are possible! Even justice. Even freedom. … Hope starts small, even as a seed in the womb, but it feeds on outrageous possibilities. It beckons us to step out with the belief that the action we take will not only bear fruit but that in taking it, we have already made a difference in the world. God invites us, like Mary, to open to God’s radical leading, to step out with sometimes inexplicable faith, trusting that we will find sustenance.’[4]

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

So where does Anupama Ranawana’s childhood island, and the rich world’s consuming indifference to climate catastrophe, and Hagar’s desperate escape from abuse, and our government’s deadly hostility to asylum-seekers, and the casual white supremacist violence that continues to kill and incarcerate black bodies, and our neighbours who will go hungry and cold this winter, and the broken windows of our church building, and Mary’s courageous yes – where do all of these meet?

They meet, ‘beyond hope and realism’, in the light of a flickering candle flame, where we begin to face the depth of the truth of things, on the common ground of love. ‘There are some things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried’, said the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. It is only through the tears that God sees us. Only through the tears that we will begin to see each other.

I want to leave you with a poem, a prayer, a plea, from a Palestinian Israeli Christian, a professor of Biblical Studies at a college in Nazareth, Yohanna Katanacho – its title, ‘Cry with Us’. Let these words be a call to a kind of spiritual discipline this Advent.

This is a season of weeping and mourning, but it is not void of hope.
Our tears are the bridge between brutality and humanity.
Our tears are the salty gates for seeing a different reality.
Our tears are facing soulless nations and a parched mentality.
Our tears are the dam preventing rivers of animosity.
For the sake of the mourning men, cry with us to reflect your amity.
For the sake of the poor children, cry with us demanding sanity.
For the sake of lamenting mothers, refuse violence and stupidity.
Love your enemies and cry with them is the advice of divinity.
Blessing those who curse is the path to genuine spirituality.
Pouring tears of mercy and compassion is true piety.
Pray with tears, for the sake of spreading equity.
Followers of Jesus: crying is now our responsibility.
But don’t cry for your friends only; but also for your Enemy.[5]


[1] In Hannah Malcolm (ed.), Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church (London: SCM Press, 2020) p.199.


[4] Jan Richardson, Night Visions: searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas, pp.56-7

Saturday, 24 April 2021

#LamentToAction: making the invisible, visible


‘From Lament to Action’, the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce published last week, is a specific, limited and vital contribution to a much longer journey – for many members of the Church of England, a hugely painful, costly journey – of wrestling with institutional racism in the Church of England.

It is not the role of this report to present the evidence of institutional racism. The pile of previous reports published over more than 30 years, and countless testimonies over a much longer period, have done that. That case has been well and truly made – and merely affirmed and underlined by Archbishop Justin’s declaration at General Synod in February 2020.

Neither is this report the definitive statement of what needs to change and how. The Racial Justice Commission that will be set up in response to this report will take on this mantle, across seven areas of ongoing work: Theology, Slavery (including Monuments), History and Memory, Culture and Liturgy, Complaints Handling, Participation, and Patronage.

Critical to that ongoing work is a theological conversation that neither begins nor ends with this report. Racism is not just about hurtful words and actions, or about excluding certain people from voice, participation, agency, power and position. Racism affects, infects, how we see the world: what and whom we notice, what and whom we hear, what and whom we believe and trust, what and whom we value and receive as God-given gifts and challenges. To the limitations and distortions of our perception by racism, the Christian gospel responds with imperatives: to follow Jesus in the way of truly loving and embracing our siblings and neighbours; to be led by the Spirit into the fullness of truth; to see and hear with clarity; to know, even as we are fully known.

Critical to the work of change, then – and central to ‘From Lament to Action’ – is the process of making the invisible, visible. To do this, the report foregrounds two significant clusters of recommendations for action: quotas, and education.

Quotas first, then. These range from co-optees onto General Synod and participant-observers in the House of Bishops, to participants in the Strategic Leadership Development Programme and shortlists for Senior Clergy Appointments, from the appointment of non-residentiary canons to membership of PCCs. Quotas are often critiqued as a ‘blunt instrument’. Within hours of the report’s publication, some early objectors have suggested that they may be impossible to implement in some areas, highlighting the uneven demographics across England. To these objections, I want to offer two initial responses.

Firstly, that we in the Church of England urgently need to rediscover a theology of the interconnected, interdependent body of Christ: across geography, as well as across the ethnic diversity of our membership. Augustine Tanner-Ihm’s experience of being told, by a senior Church figure, that he was not – because of his skin colour – an appropriate ‘fit’ for a predominantly white working-class parish tragically illustrates how institutional racism and a ‘parochial’ (in the worst sense) ecclesial mindset go hand in hand.

Secondly, building on this first point, what the report’s quota recommendations embody is a practical outworking of a much deeper desire: that we, collectively as the Church of England, really do want – really do deeply desire – more UK minority ethnic / Global Majority heritage people and voices in our churches, clergy, leadership, decision-making structures and theological education institutions. Of course, with any proposed quota, there will be failures to achieve the aim. But better that we ‘fail towards’ (to use the philosopher Gillian Rose’s phrase) such goals with passionate intention, and in such failure recognize our wider ongoing failures to achieve God’s just shalom, than express vague, gradualist aspirations towards ‘more’ and ‘better’ that are absolved of any sense of urgency. There is an analogy here with CO2 ‘net zero’ targets: set ourselves a 2050 goal as more ‘realistic’ and we will inevitably overshoot it; set ourselves a more ambitious 2030 goal and we may still fail to achieve it by that deadline, but we will almost certainly be a lot closer to doing the urgent work we need to do – and the ‘failures’ along the way will reinforce the urgency of the task.

Another area where there has been some resistant pushback has been around education – at all levels from church schools to local churches to Theological Education Institutions. Recommendations include formally adopting and resourcing the annual Racial Justice Sunday (which ecumenical partners have been doing for years!), racial awareness training for volunteers in children’s and youth work, anti-racism learning programmes for PCC representatives on recruitment panels, and, within Theological Education Institutions, intercultural placements, celebrating diverse saints and martyrs, drawing on liturgy and theology from the breadth and diversity of the Anglican Communion, diversifying the theological curriculum and course bibliographies, and requiring ordinands to participate in either an introductory ‘Black Theology’ or ‘Theologies in Global Perspectives’ module (both already-established modules within the Common Awards programme) within their ministerial formation.

Resistance here seems to come from either a deep-seated suspicion of such learning and training, or from a concern that it is somehow a ‘zero-sum game’ by which including some aspects of learning and training will exclude other aspects – or both. But the questions here are surely similar to the question of quotas: to whom do we look for our learning and formation? what questions are we wanting to consider, and which are we wanting to avoid? In short, who would we rather remained invisible, inaudible, and to whom are we willing to pay attention? Historically, English theological education institutions have paid overwhelmingly more attention to the voices of white (and male) European or American theologians. These voices have been treated as the weighty theological ‘centre of gravity’, to the exclusion of the gifts of theological wisdom and challenge from those with darker skin, those from other geographical locations, and – critically – those who have experienced the Church of England’s entangling of mission, Empire, colonialism and whiteness from the receiving end – with all the enduring material and spiritual effects of that entanglement.

To be sure, there is more work to do on this disentangling – and the Racial Justice Commission will continue to pursue these questions. But to refuse to pay attention to the questions, and those well-established theological traditions that have been asking them for decades, if not centuries – that is surely the kind of complacent obliviousness that lies at the heart of the Church’s institutional racism, and which the Spirit is summoning the Church, corporately, to now acknowledge, repent, and begin to free itself from.

Friday, 19 February 2021

A close-up encounter with Wintering

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago. It was raw. Too raw. An attempt to tell a story in public that I realised, very quickly but not quite quickly enough, I was not ready to share. A story of my daughter's sledging accident and its aftermath for us as a family, and for me in particular. A reflection on trauma, and an attempt to link it with the wider, collective trauma that we're all living through right now, the experience of the COVID19 pandemic, however different our experiences of it are, depending on who we are and where we live.

This is not quite a second attempt. I'm not going to share any details of the accident or its after effects. Not here. What I realised, very quickly, was that sharing trauma in public inevitably resonates with - and surfaces - the trauma of others, and that the responsible, caring human being in me then wants/needs to respond to that. And that I didn't - and still don't - have the capacity to do that carefully enough.

Instead, I'm going to share, in a very piecemeal way, what I've been learning through these last few weeks since 30th December. It is not likely to be articulate. It almost certainly won't be coherent. It may not even make sense. But that, in itself, is one of the things I'm learning to live with, and embrace.

I'm learning, then, that in the midst of desperate crisis, part of my brain goes into overdrive planning - down to small details - any number of possible futures, including the very worst case scenarios. And that even when, later on, some of the scenarios are decisively ruled out (by skilled, experienced medical professionals, in our case), they take much longer to ease their grip on my mind, heart, imagination, soul. That there is, strangely, a journey of grief to be gone through - even for a death that has not, thank God, happened, but has still, in some sense, been lived.

I'm learning, that when confronted with the real possibility of death and loss, there is a shift of perspective that means that some things - bodily damage, maybe even irreparable damage - feel much less tragic than they would have done 'before'. 'It could have been worse' has real, weighty meaning to it.

I'm learning that comparison is fruitless, futile and unhealthy. So often in the past, as the pastoral carer, I have gently sought to steer others away from phrases like 'but of course there are so many people worse off than me'. It's meant well, part of putting things in perspective (as I've just owned for myself), but it also seeks to minimise what is genuine pain, struggle and challenges. It's often accompanied by 'I shouldn't grumble'. And yes, grumbling is not necessarily helpful to anyone. But articulating pain, sadness, grief or anxiety - without minimising any of it - is profoundly necessary. What you're going through does matter. What I'm going through matters. I need not apologise for it. And I really don't need to try and fit it on a scale, comparing it against other people's experiences and struggles, to assess whether it is 'more serious' or 'less serious' than theirs. It is what it is, and what it is, is hard, if not impossible, to quantify. Even the attempt to quantify is to deny something of the complexity, and the elusive mystery, of the experience of trauma, pain, and grief.

I'm learning that it is exhausting. And that it lasts. That there are adrenaline-fuelled times of busyness where 'this thing' is front and centre of our attention, and in the attention and care of others. And that there is plenty of less-eventful time, ongoing, where it slips a little to my periphery, and lurks there. And that less-eventful time is no less demanding. And that the 'lurking' means that it can jump into centre-stage again in a moment - the unexpected 'triggers' that throw you back into the body-and-mind-churning intensity of the event itself.

I'm learning that there are times when I want to talk about it, need to talk about it, even if that, too, is exhausting. Often, in those first few weeks, in the middle of the night when no one was up or around. But also in the middle of a busy working day, when something quite different is the focus of attention or conversation. And that it is sometimes hard to know who I am or how I am without this thing as the central, shaping reality.

I'm learning that the question, 'how are you?' can often be too big to answer meaningfully, and that to answer it at all, it is often helpfully reduced to something like 'how are you doing today compared to yesterday, or right now compared to earlier today? are you on an up, a down, or a plateau with energy levels or emotional work?'

I'm learning that saying 'I love you' to my kids, to my wife, has taken on a whole new depth of significance when that 'I love you' also means 'I don't want you to die', 'I'm so glad you're still alive', 'I'm so thankful we've shared this together - and that we're continuing to share it together'.

I'm learning that love also comes in the form of boxes of chocolate, Christmas cake in the post, and meals - particularly meals - delivered to the doorstep. That these are not 'token gestures' but real, tangible acts of love that are received as love and as, quite literally, the things that keep us alive.

I'm learning that the prayers of others feels as tangible, and as life-sustaining, as chocolate, cake and meals. That for the pray-er it may feel like a barely-noticeable drop in the ocean, but that for the prayed-for it literally feels like what is holding us together, up-holding us, keeping us going. And that personal texts, WhatsApp messages, Facebook comments and Twitter responses, however brief, from both intimate friends and near-total strangers, genuinely do make that difference.

I'm learning that the community of faith, and the community of neighbourhood, come into their own at times like these in ways that I've known, in my head and my heart, for years and years, but have never quite felt with such intensity as in the last few weeks. That these communities are genuinely full to overflowing with love, and care, and gifts that are poised to be shared, and when shared bring life. It truly does 'take a village'.

I'm learning that collaborative ministry faces its acid test in times like these, and that when it's there it is priceless. Colleagues - ordained and lay, named roles and not - who can see what needs doing, and get on and work together to do it. Who can move the pieces of the jigsaw around, changing the picture a little, but making it no less beautiful while this particular piece of the jigsaw is absent for a while. Who can liberate me from the burden of worrying about stuff that doesn't need worrying about - because someone else is taking care of it. Liberating me from the illusion of being a necessity, when in fact I am but one contribution among many.

I'm learning that the ministry of presence, of simply hanging around, being there, 'being with', for hours on end, is just incredible. The ministry of the chaplain, who also happens to be a friend. Who was there when what one or more of us needed most, alongside the immense medical expertise of the Children's Hospital, was someone to be with us. Most sharply, during COVID, when as family we were not able to be with each other. But even COVID aside. Someone who has seen it before, who understands something of what is going on, but isn't there to 'do' anything, to 'fix' anything, but just to share generously in the currency of time, smiles, laughter, games, listening, encouragement, affirmation, tears, and silence. In the times when we were feared the worst. In the times when we were bored, or hungry. In the times when we had to let go and wait. In the times when the news was good and hopeful. In the times in between where we're just getting on with life.

I'm learning that my ability to write any new theological words has been profoundly restricted, slowed down, put on hold, while 'this thing' slowly works its way into everything I thought, and wrote, and believed, and practised before now. And that I need to be patient with that, to let it take as long as it takes and not to rush it. That it stubbornly refuses to be rushed.

And I'm learning that what we've been going through, what we're continuing to go through, is, in author Katherine May's words, an experience of 'wintering' - unchosen, and yet needing to be embraced.

So I'm going to finish, for now, with some fragments of Katherine May's stunning book ('Wintering'), and a poem or two which resonate deeply both with her words and with our ongoing experience...

'Life is, by nature, uncontrollable. …we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life.' (p.263)

'Sometimes, the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one: we need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while when we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on in there; that sometimes everything breaks.' (pp.267-8)

'I recognised winter. I saw it coming (a mile off, since you ask), and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it, and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I’ve learned them the hard way. When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable, and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed, and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air, and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself: what is this winter all about? I asked myself: what change is coming?' (p.269)

'At its base, this is not a book about beauty, but about reality. It is about noticing what is going on, and living it. That’s what the natural world does; it carries on surviving. Sometimes it flourishes – lays on fat, garlands itself in leaves, makes abundant honey – and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living. It doesn’t do this once, resentfully, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. For plants and animals winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans. To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. … we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. … Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time… But one thing is certain; we will simply have different things to worry about.' (p.269-70)

'we must emerge slowly from our wintering. We must test the air and be ready to shrink back into safety when blasted by unseasonal winds; we must gradually unfurl our new leaves. There will still often be the debris to shift of a long, disordered / season. These are the moments when we have to find the most grace: when we come to atone for the worst ravages of our conduct in darker times; when we have to tell truths that we’d rather ignore. Sometimes, we will have to name our personal winters, and the words will feel barbed in our throats: grief, rejection, depression, illness. Shame, failure, despair. ... And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.' (pp.272-3)

Lines for Winter, by Mark Strand (in Neil Astley (ed.), Staying Human, p.68)

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself -
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

‘Winter’, by Nicola Slee (in Nicola Slee, Praying Like a Woman)

Where the wood is dry
Where no green things lie
Where the wild things fly
There am I

Where the stream is still
Where the wind is shrill
Where the ice forms chill
There am I

Where the ground is hard
Where the earth is scarred
Where the path is barred
There am I

Where no leaf is seen
Where the year is lean
Where the grief is keen
There am I

Where the blood runs slow
Where no waters flow
Where the hope is low
There am I

Where the dark is strong
Where the night is long
Through the winter’s song
There am I