Sunday, 25 December 2011

Changing the world from a tent… (Midnight Mass sermon 2011)


(I’m going to begin and end with poems by other people.
All the muddled stuff in the middle is my own. So...)

‘This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.’

(BC–AD, by U A Fanthorpe)

A tent
appeared, in the middle of this church
just before Advent,
the sign over its opening,
to the Kingdom of God’.

If you’re going to turn the world
you could do worse than begin
with a tent.

From Egypt’s Tahrir Square
to Wall Street
and the City of London,
tents have been springing up:
canvas occupations
of places
the powerful thought they had
under control;
makeshift villages
where only tanks
or tourists
or money-changers
on fantasy salaries
were supposed to feel at home;
where the rich got richer,
where power concentrated,
where the poor were sent away empty
and brushed into the shadows,
suddenly had tents
popping up
and minds
opening up
and questions
bubbling up
and hope
springing up
that there is
despite the evidence –
an alternative
and we can
imagine it
and even
begin to live it
here and now
from our village
of tents.

We have had toddlers
in our tent here.
Busy making
their own little world,
from the order
and conventions
and sometimes
disapproving looks
and anxious parental whispers
of ‘grown-up’

And we should not
have been

Isaiah for one
caught a glimpse
of wolves and lambs,
calves and lions,
babies and snakes
playing together,
and led by a little child.
A recipe
for parental anxiety
if ever there was one.

And Jesus,
told his followers,
arguing again
about who would be the greatest,
that unless they became
like little children
they would not even enter
the kingdom of heaven.

If you’re going to turn the world
you could do worse than begin
with a tent.

Or a stable.

We have had a stable here too.
With a real baby -
a girl -
and battle-hardened
who had to bend low
to get through
the stable door
have been dumbfounded
by children
by awe
and wonder
and peace
and a sense
that something exciting
and different
was happening
and that they
the children
and even the teachers
were somehow
part of it.

And we should not
have been

If you’re going to turn the world
you could do worse than begin
with a tent.

Or a stable.

Or a seed in a womb.

deep inside her
a new song
bubbling up
a new hope
springing up -
despite the evidence –
a new world
opening up
where the little ones
had been raised up
the hungry
filled up
and the rich
and the powerful
tripped up
brought down
sent away
emptied out.
And so Mary knew
and sang
and set out
and now
here we are
at the opening
the threshold
the doorway
to the Kingdom
of God.

The womb
the stable
the tent.

a big space
a big idea
a big project
least of all
a big society.

A little space
no bigger
than the eye
of a needle.

A little space
where heaven
and earth,
and future,
and new,
in wordless,
A little space
with cows
and sheep
and weary shift-workers
and tired travellers
and a teenage mum
who knows
the world
has just turned
and has dared
to open herself
to be part
of it.

‘It’s a long way off,’
said the poet
of the Kingdom,
‘but inside it,
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

(RS Thomas, ‘The Kingdom’)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Graceful Death, Big Society, and the mundane littleness of love

I'm a wordy person, but sometimes the words take a while to come. We went as a family into Birmingham yesterday to see 'A Graceful Death', an amazing exhibition of paintings by the extraordinary Antonia Rolls. At its heart is a set of paintings of the last few weeks, days and final day of the life of Antonia's own partner, Steve - and of herself, as she begins the journey of loss and living 'after Steve'. The exhibition has since grown to include others who have been near the end of their lives, and those who they have left behind.

Looking at the pictures, and reading the stories, was a profoundly moving experience. The gracefulness - and in some pictures, golden glory - of the journey through death, somehow shines out of, and surrounding, the inescapably tissue-delicate fragility and raw vulnerability of the dying person. And in the pictures of bereavement, the absence, the isolation, is stark. A triptych of pictures moves from Antonia sitting on one of two chairs, near a pair of Steve's slippers, to two empty chairs with the slippers, to just the slippers on their own, in one corner of a gaping, empty space.

But it was a tiny, simple diptych that lodged itself in my head and heart. One of Antonia's self-portraits: on the left, a solitary, lonely figure; on the right, the same, but with a teapot and a cup of tea. A mundane moment, physical action, of familiarity and continuity, of survival and self-care, of resilience - even of hope, as Antonia describes it herself.

Why was I so drawn to this one? So seemingly trivial, unemotional, alongside the much bigger, more dramatically profound, images of dying and death itself? Perhaps a bit of a personal connection - most of my own encounters with death are in conversations with bereaved family-members; 'what do i do now?' is often one of the questions I'm trying to help them wrestle with; and yes, we do get through a fair amount of tea, as we talk through everything from the emotionally cataclysmic to the most mundane detail.

But I want to speak up here for the vital importance of the mundane detail in the bigger picture.

On the road between our house and church, there is a house with a garden wall. A man - white, possibly Eastern European, in his 60s, quite possibly single - is out there most days, if it's dry, patiently restoring the wall with a painstaking attention to detail. A true labour of love. I've passed him many times, on foot or in the car. I've smiled. But it was only recently, with Rafi on his bike, that we stopped, because my 3-year-old son decided to, to admire the man's handiwork. And it was only when we stopped, and tried to begin a conversation, that we discovered that the man was deaf. So with makeshift sign language, we told him we thought his wall was great. And the broadest of smiles cracked across his face. From impressionistic labels and background scenery, that man began to emerge for me as a neighbour I could learn to love.

“In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” Mother Teresa hits the nail squarely on the head. We can only ever love, not in big generalities, but in and through the little details of life. And it's the little details that nurture and sustain our relationships, and nurture and sustain us when those relationships are lost or broken.

In a seminar this week, on 'Urban Ministry in a Climate of Austerity and Unrest', there was hardly any talk of 'big projects', and much talk of small 'micro-actions' of enacted hope, of 'everyday faithfulness', of 'mundane holiness'. This is the domain not just of the possible, the realistic, in these tough times, but of the vitally necessary. What we need to keep going are relationships of trust, friendship, love. Real, genuine community. And that's where 'Big Society' is fatally flawed. Because it's not about 'big', it can't be. We should have learned by now that 'big' is to be treated with serious suspicion. We are learning now that 'big' does anything but love - quite the opposite, in fact. We need to re-focus on 'little'. And that may well often start with a cup of tea...

Monday, 31 October 2011

Occupy, St Paul’s and the theo-politics of space

I honestly don’t know whether to be delighted or despairing. I suspect I’m a fair bit of both at the moment.

On the one hand, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bishop of London, and – implicated through inextricable association – the whole institution of the Church of England (of which I am a part) have embarrassed themselves in the most public way, and seem intent, in a bizarre frenzy of self-destructiveness, to continue to do so. On the other hand, in the last week or so I’ve seen, read and heard more thoughtful, appreciative engagement with the Christian faith, and faith-full, politically-engaged theological reflection in public, than I can remember for a very long time (I’ve pasted links to some of my favourites below).

It’s gone some way beyond asking ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, and references to the over-turning of the money-changers’ tables in the Temple – although it has been encouraging in itself to hear those flying around as common currency, from the Today programme to Question Time. With the promise of a ‘protective ring’, bodied by Christians, to surround the Occupy camp should the Cathedral- and City-sponsored heavies arrive to evict them, the revelation that there is a diversity of opinions and commitments within ‘the Christian community’ has also been something to cheer. And more than these, the members of OccupyLSX have surely achieved one of their first goals – to shift the sovereignty (divinity, even) of ‘the Market’ into the open, into a space where it can be questioned, challenged – even, quite properly, ridiculed.

And it’s ‘space’ – as Madeleine Bunting highlights in a brilliant Guardian article – that is one of the crucial issues in it all. Where Market ideology has been firmly in the grip of ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) for a generation, she argues, the Occupy movement “want to create the space to think of alternatives”. “Their first agreed principle is that the current system is unsustainable, undemocratic and unjust,” and that means “taking key symbolic public space … to use it for conviviality, living, learning and participation. That’s no easy task in a city designed to facilitate only three activities – working, transport and shopping – with as little human interaction as possible. Metal fencing is springing up around even small public spaces in the City of London to preclude new camps. The protesters’ aim is to open up space, physically and socially, for people to connect and thereby open up space in people’s imaginations.”

But, dear Lord, isn’t that close to the heart of what the Church should be about? From the inept and, frankly, arrogantly self-absorbed actions and pronouncements from the Bishop of London and ‘within’ St Paul’s – at least, to be charitable, as they have been reported to us mere mortals – it would seem not. Or at least, they seem interested in the idea, but imagine they have the monopoly on it. Witness these great words from Bishop Richard Chartres: “The original purpose of the protests, to shine a light on issues such as corporate greed and executive pay … these are issues that the St Paul’s Institute has taken to heart and has been engaged in examining… If the protesters will disband peacefully, I will join the dean and chapter in organising a debate on the real issues here under the dome. We will convene a panel … and will invite the protesters to be represented… Our message [is] simple: pack up your tents voluntarily and let us make you heard.” (There was also, later in the week, a subtly sinister ‘or else’, as the Cathedral launched legal action to evict the camp.)

I’ve mentioned Michel de Certeau before on this blog, but now has his moment truly come. De Certeau, a postmodern theorist of the city, makes a vital, and incredibly helpful, distinction between ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’:

A strategy ‘postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats … can be managed’. … A tactic, by contrast, has no place of its own. It always lives in another’s space, and must abide within another’s rules. It has no general strategy, but makes ad hoc engagements as occasions arise. (de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, pp.35-7)

Get it? The powerful work with ‘strategies’, the powerless with ‘tactics’. McDonald’s use ‘strategies’ for world domination, Al-Quaeda have to rely on ‘tactics’ (thanks to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for that one). ‘Tactics’ is what Occupy are about (and UK Uncut, for another example, in a myriad of imaginative ways), ‘strategies’ are the preserve of governments, and, it seems, London’s Diocesan and Cathedral hierarchies. And Jesus? Yes, silly question…

“Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:12-14)

The Church, unfortunately, has always felt the lure of strategies, even while it has believed itself to have been intently following the master of divine tactics. It’s the temptation of power – something, the gospels tell us, even Jesus knew about all too well. It bedded down so much that it became synonymous with the faith itself: ‘Christendom’, we called it. And my beloved Church of England, caught up, as it always has been, in its entanglements with the State and its heady (pointy-hatted) trappings of hierarchy, is more prone than most Christian communities to such temptations.

But is it irredeemable? I wake up some mornings, at the moment, and my embarrassment at the institution within which I am a minor cog is so intense that my imagination wanders towards self-righteous denunciations and even more heroic acts of departure – but I am, to be utterly pragmatic, aware that a parish priest in Hodge Hill is rather less in the public eye than a Canon of St Paul’s, and that the symbolic value would be quite minimal. De Certeau suggests that the ‘strategic’ places of the City are transformed through the humble ‘tactical’ act of walking. And none other than one of the present Pope’s favourite theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar, argues that “[t]here exists no other form of ‘abiding’ … than that of walking: ‘Anyone who says that he abides in him, must himself walk in the way that he walked’ (1 John 2:6).” But simply walking ‘out’, walking ‘away’, surely has pretty short-term effects within the bigger story.

Maybe, just maybe, in the tented village of Occupy LSX we might catch a glimpse of what the Christian community does well, when it is at its best. Occupy is resisting, not by walking, but by staying – ‘abiding’, we might say. And that’s what the Bishop of London really didn’t get when he dismissed them with something along the lines of “OK, you’ve made your point, and it’s quite a good one, but now go home, thank you”. We Christians – we Anglicans – know about ‘staying’, ‘abiding’. It’s in our DNA. As local Christian communities, we commit ourselves to this patch of earth, here (we sometimes call it ‘parish’), and to seeking and serving God in it for as many centuries as God gives us. As Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, reflecting on de Certeau, we need to be very careful, in our desire to ‘flee’, that ‘adaptability’ doesn’t become ‘accommodation’, “a kind of otherworldiness which hands this world over to the governing powers of the prevailing regime”:

In the culture of modernity, which seeks to ‘disembed’ us from all traditions, which turns us into portable units of consumption, it may be that sinking roots deep into the earth, cultivating a sense of place, refusing nomadic existence … these are the most profound forms of resistance. (‘Walking in the Pilgrim City’, New Blackfriars, Nov 1996)

But we Christians – we Anglicans in particular – also need to recover a gospel sense of homelessness, of profound discomfort with the established order of things, and with ‘strategies’ of all kinds, whether within or without the Church. We need to recover a proper humility, that acknowledges the sheer and inevitable ineffectiveness of most of what we do (and quite rightly so, for we are not primarily about effectiveness, but faithfulness), our own susceptibility to mixed motives and abject failure, and the inescapable truth that there are many beyond the Church – or even camped on its steps – who are ‘getting it right’ even as we are bungling and bickering. And we need to make a move back to the edges, to the neighbourhood of Jesus, which is the neighbourhood of the marginalized in dispossessed, the neighbourhood in which the Word of God has taken flesh and pitched his tent (John 1:14). These are the kinds of places where we most desperately need to stay – for the sake of the Kingdom, and for the sake of our own souls. “Homelessness,” Bauerschmidt suggests, can be a curse for the Church, but also a blessing, “because it relieves the Church of any absolute need to defend a particular territory or structure, giving a freedom to live the Gospel of peace…”

Now, where’s my tent…?



Some of the best reflections, from the past week…

Paul Hackwood, Chair of Church Urban Fund:

Jim Wallis, of Sojourners:

Two brief and brilliant pieces from my friend Rachel Mann:

And from a Macclesfield vicar:

Bishop Alan Wilson:

Stephen Tomkins, on whether the C of E is inside or outside the Establishment:

This from the Independent:

And these various pieces from the Guardian…

Madeleine Bunting:

Andrew Rawnsley:

Marina Hyde:

Maurice Glasman, on Occupy’s emerging focus:

Andrew Brown:

Marina Warner (on Mary as the patron saint of ‘Occupy’):

And this interview with Giles Fraser:

Monday, 26 September 2011

‘Broken Britain’ and the holy ground of community – a sermon

(preached 28/8/11)

Readings: Exodus 3:1-15 (burning bush), Romans 12:9-21 (how to do ‘love’ in Christian community), Matthew 16:21-28 (Peter gets ‘Messiah’ all wrong)

A few years ago, before Janey and I started having children and could go on holidays to far-flung places, we spent a week in Sharm-el-Sheikh, and one day, having perused the tourist guide books, we took a taxi ride into the Sinai desert. After a couple of hours of driving, we arrived, in the middle of nowhere, at the small, walled monastery of St Katharine’s. And with hundreds of other tourists just like us, we were given the guided tour. We rounded a corner, and there, said our guide, was ‘the bush’ – the bush out of which God spoke to Moses. I have to confess to having been a bit underwhelmed. Firstly, it wasn’t burning; and secondly, it seemed to be a very well-maintained creeper, climbing up the monastery wall, fenced off carefully, with information plaques in countless languages explaining its significance. In short, it was more than a little domesticated.

More often, I suspect, the times when we have found ourselves standing on ‘holy ground’ have not been the places the guide-books have signposted us to – they have been much more unexpected, coming to us in our peripheral vision, beckoning us to turn aside from our busyness and give them our attention. And so the bush, so the story goes, beckoned Moses when he was out in the middle of nowhere, looking after his father-in-law’s sheep, on the run from the Egyptian authorities for murder. Often it’s when things are tough – illness, bereavement, redundancy, relationship break-up, some of the other real struggles of life – that we suddenly discover (or with hindsight realise) that we’re standing on ‘holy ground’. Sometimes it’s got something to do with the place we’re in. More often, it’s about the relationships of the moment – with family or friends, church community or neighbours – even, and perhaps more often than we expect, with complete strangers.

But these spots of ‘holy ground’ are not often ‘easy’ places to be. Someone who knows that better than most is Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities for people with profound physical and mental disabilities, their families, and their ‘assistants’. Vanier describes 4 distinct stages of ‘entering community’…

  • first, there is an initial JOY – when the warmth and love is exhilarating – and people begin to lift their masks and barriers and become vulnerable to relationship with others
  • but quickly, this joy can become TERROR – as the vulnerability of relationship reveals our wounded emotions, the difficulty of living with others (‘especially with some people’, says Vanier!) exposing ‘our limitations, our fears… our poverty and our weaknesses… our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies…’, our ‘inner monsters’, that we can more easily keep hidden when we don’t have to relate to other people the whole time
  • and our immediate REACTION, Vanier suggests, ‘is to try to destroy the monsters, or to hide them away again, pretending that they don’t exist. Or else we try to flee from community life and relationship with others, or to assume that the monsters are theirs, not ours. It is the others who are guilty, not us.’
  • but finally, slowly, pains-takingly, community can become a place of safety and ACCEPTANCE – ‘At last some people really listen to us; we can, little by little, reveal to them all those terrible monsters within us, all those guilt feedings hidden in the tomb of our being. And they can help us to accept them by revealing to us that these monsters are protecting our vulnerability and are our cry for and our fear of love. They stand at the door of our wounded heart… Community life with all its pain is the revelation of that deep wound. And we can only begin to look at it and accept it as we discover that we are loved by God in an incredible way. We are not awful sinners, terrible people who have disappointed and hurt our parents and others. An experience in prayer and the experience of being loved and accepted in community, which has become a safe place for us, allows us gradually to accept ourselves as we are, with our wounds and all the monsters. We are broken, but we are loved. We can grow to greater openness and compassion; we have a mission. Community becomes the place of liberation and growth.’

The passage from Romans that we heard earlier is talking about a similar kind of ‘broken’ community. It’s concerned not just with how to ‘get along’, but points us to begin to discover community as holy ground through, and not ‘in spite of’, the brokenness and vulnerability. ‘Be patient’, and ‘persevere’ are, perhaps, the key words.

And this, as Peter discovers (and Moses too, come to that), is ‘the way of the cross’. It’s not about ‘getting it right all the time’, a way of painless victory, of one success after another. It’s not about ‘fixing’ brokenness with ‘targeted interventions’ with the right ‘expertise’, let alone some kind of tough, ‘zero tolerance’ approach to failure, as current government rhetoric seems to argue. It’s about discovering community as ‘holy ground’ through, and not ‘in spite of’, the brokenness and vulnerability, the monsters and the failures.

For Moses, this means accepting both his murderous past history, his ‘anger issues’, and his present overwhelming sense of inadequacy. For Peter, it embraces his blundering mistakes, his endless capacity for putting his foot in his mouth. And it’s possible because “‘I am’ will be with you” – ‘I am’ who has heard our cries, who knows our suffering, who sees our monsters; ‘I am’ who knows us and loves us; ‘I am’ who, knowing us through and through, still sends us with a mission: to ‘Go… tell… set free…’

There’s a little ‘PS’ to this sermon, from my wise friend Rachel Mann. Writing days after the riots and looting a couple of weeks ago, she said: ‘Concerning the rioters and looters my instinct is not to punish with ‘extreme prejudice’, but to suggest that – alongside custodial sentences – they be exposed to the reality of living in monastic settings – Buddhist, Benedictine, whatever, I don’t mind. Absurd as this may sound, there is no doubt that the world of the monastery is a world where folk have to learn to get along with each other despite vast difference and simmering anger, and in which ‘what we own’ is much less significant than ‘who we are’. Take the piss out of me if you like, but given thirty years of failed government schemes and rampant consumerism, I suspect that in many cases it may yet be worth a try.’

How is this kind of community beckoning us, here, in Hodge Hill? And how might we open it up to those who need it most?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Our emerging vision…

OK, so fine words maketh not a church, but often they’re a start at shaping what we’re about – and even more importantly, opening ourselves up to let God shape what we’re about. So here’s what we in Hodge Hill have just agreed to adopt as our ‘strapline’ and purpose statement as a church… (I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, or your experience of similar journeys elsewhere…)


in the love of God with all our neighbours across Hodge Hill

‘Growing... a diverse, all-age, journeying community of friends and followers of Jesus a partnership of Christians from different church traditions – Anglican, URC, Methodist and others seeking to live lives (a ‘Rule of Life’?) of:

  • listening and learning,
  • worshipping and praying, [‘attending to God’]
  • working and caring, [‘tending the world’]
  • rest and recreation, [‘tending our selves’?]
  • hospitality and healing [‘attending to others’]


...we recognise, and seek to express, God’s love in:

  • compassion,
  • generosity,
  • trust,
  • friendship
  • and hope

‘with all our neighbours...’

...we recognise signs of God’s kingdom in the life and work of our neighbours – of all faiths and of none

...we will not do alone what we can do in partnership with others

‘across Hodge Hill...’

...across the diverse neighbourhoods of Hodge Hill (including Firs & Bromford estates, Bucklands End and Hodge Hill), we seek to nurture God’s love through:

  • Neighbourly presence – growing community from the ‘grass roots’, beginning with our relationships with friends and neighbours
  • Partnership projects – working with partner organisations to address particular issues or needs
  • Community ‘hubs’ – working with partner organisations to develop safe and welcoming ‘centres’ of community

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

How do we respond? (A sermon after the ‘riots’)

In the face of the events of the past week, how do we respond? Our faith demands we ask the question – not as Daily Mail readers or Guardian readers, but as Christians. And our faith will not allow us to lock our doors, board up our windows and hide safely inside – it compels us to open our doors wider, to look outwards, in fact, to go outwards to seek to work out how we ‘do our faith in public’ now.

There’s a natural first response, and it’s the right first response for us. It’s to lament– to seek to voice our shock, our anger, our grief, and to join our voices with those others who lament today: for destruction and lost livelihoods, for the death of loved ones.

And bound up in that first response for us is a second obvious one: to pray– for all those who’ve been affected; for those who’ve been seeking to re-establish calm and order and clean up the mess; for those in authority, for wisdom in choosing their words and making their decisions; and, of course, for those who have been involved themselves in the rioting and looting…

And beyond lament and prayer…? As Christians, we are driven back to our Gospel: where is the ‘good news’ to be found?

And our lectionary, as so often, comes up trumps, offers us the right story at the right time. Today, we encounter Jesus and the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28).

Jesus is on a journey here – both literally and metaphorically. He is far from home, the other side of the lake, ‘the other side of the world’, in the district of Tyre & Sidon. Seeking a bit of calm, perhaps. But a woman finds him, pursues him, shouts after him. A parent, a desperate parent. “Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me! A demon controls my daughter. She is suffering terribly.”

And Jesus responds. With silence. He ignores her completely.

She tries again. And this time, Jesus responds with indifference. “I was sent only to the people of Israel. They are like lost sheep.” He washes his hands of her. ‘Nothing to do with me’ he says.

A third time, and she’s begging on her knees in front of him. And Jesus says “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.” Jesus calls her the woman a dog, less than human, not one of ‘the children’. Vermin.

There is, thank God, a fourth stage in this encounter. The woman persists: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their owners’ table.” And finally, Jesus catches a glimpse of this woman, this ‘other’, as a fellow human being, a child of God; finally, he hears her desperate cries for help; finally, he opens up to respond to her with compassion. “Woman, you have great faith! You will be given what you are asking for.” But it’s taken time – even for Jesus, it’s taken time – to get to this point. He’s had to go on quite a journey.

And so must we. Our faith demands it of us. In a very different context, in 1960s America, Martin Luther King said this: “at bottom, riots are always the language of the unheard.” As everyone from politicians to archbishops have said this week, this is not about condoning the destruction and the violence. But we need to start listening today – amid the destruction, the violence – to seek to hear the cries of the unheard.

Listen to these four voices then, from the London Borough of Hackney:

  • "There's two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we're being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it's the West End, we can't afford the rents. We're the outcasts, we're not wanted any more. There's nothing for us."
  • "Youths are frustrated, they want all the nice clothes. They ain't got no money, they don't have jobs," a 41-year-old youth worker said. "To live, to have money in their pocket, they have to thieve, they have to rob. The people that run this country, they got money, they are rich, they got nice houses. They don't care about poor people."
  • "Everyone's heard about the police taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example," the youth said.
  • "The only way we can get out of this is education, and we're not entitled to it, because of the cuts. Even for bricklaying you need a qualification and a waiting list for a course. I signed up in November, and still haven't heard back," one young Kurdish man said.

What we have seen this week are not ‘isolated incidents by a minority’ – not, as David Cameron would have us believe, ‘pockets of society’ that are ‘sick’. The events of this week have laid bare a sickness in society as a whole – in all of us…

  • The multiple pressures on families today – on working parents, on those who can’t find work, on the single parent who struggles to do everything, on the poorest who battle to make ends meet
  • The breakdown of community – where neighbours don’t know, let alone trust and support each other, where children and young people are ‘someone else’s problem’
  • The long-term neglect of our poorest neighbourhoods, including those in our own area, our own parish – and the cuts that will simply make things worse
  • And then… the ‘state religion’ of consumerism that says ‘I shop, therefore I am’; an economy that depends on us ‘buying now, and paying later’; a system designed to foster our discontent and our constant desire for more ‘stuff’
  • And an inequality, where the richest 10% of our society are a hundred times – a hundred times – richer than the poorest 10%; and that says to the poorest, ‘you don’t have, therefore you are not’
  • A breakdown of trust in key institutions – where police officers are paid by newspapers, politicians claim expenses for non-existent houses, and bankers pay themselves ridiculous bonuses while their workers are getting laid off
  • And a society where young people are dehumanised and demonised – as ‘hoodies’ and ‘feral rats’, long before the events of the past week; where so many of our young have no place to call their own, no future to look forward to, no self-worth, no hope, nothing to lose…

Listen again to Martin Luther King: “There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it." Prophetic words, from over 50 years ago.

So how do we respond? We are driven back to our Gospel again… but let’s first spend a moment thinking about jazz.

In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.

The Canaanite woman is an improviser ‘par excellence’. She won’t be put off by Jesus’ persistent blocking, and when he calls her a dog she says ‘Yes, but…’ Even the dogs get crumbs of bread. She takes Jesus’ indifference, resistance and hostility, and daringly, creatively, turns it into a life-giving, healing ‘Yes’. And in doing so, she reflects a God who, as we see in the cross and resurrection, does likewise: takes our indifference, resistance and hostility, and daringly, creatively, turns it into a life-giving, healing ‘Yes’.

So how can we do likewise? Well, in the last few days, we have been offered glimpses of what such daring, creative ‘overaccepting’ in the face of destruction and violence might look like.  The ‘riot wombles’, the multi-coloured army wielding brooms and mugs of tea, a great symbol of down-to-earth practical support, togetherness, ‘Englishness’ even. So too have been the Sikhs and Muslims in our own city, who’ve come out to protect not their own, but each other’s places of worship. And more than any, perhaps, Tariq Jahan, just hours into the grief of losing his own son, calling not for revenge and reprisals, not for more violence, but for calm, for peace, for solidarity together, as parents, as people of faith, as citizens of one city.

Our own journey towards daring, creative ‘overacceptance’ starts with these examples.

We can join in the positive action – the clean-ups, the peace vigils – where we can – and where we can’t, we can give thanks for them, because gratitude, as we are discovering here, is the first step towards generosity.

We can, and must, come alongside the young people of our area – and we can, particularly, through our partnership as a church with Worth Unlimited at The Hub – through the work that Paul, Matt and Tim do, and volunteering ourselves in simple practical ways, whether through making tea or chopping up fruit, like Phyl – to listen to young people, hear their voices, their stories, their struggles, and begin to see them more clearly as human beings; to ‘invest’ in them our time, our trust, our friendship.

We can, and must, lobby our politicians – for investment in our poorest areas, in the most marginalized members of our society – in things like mentoring programmes, employment opportunities, support in education and within families.

But more than any of these, perhaps, we need to become, as a church, a different kind of community to the society that has been laid bare this week. A community of radical welcome, of radical listening; a community that values people not for what they have, or what they’ve done, but as beloved children of God; a community of young and old together, dedicated to peace-making, healing and reconciliation; a community, as our own vision proclaims, seeking to nurture compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope. Those five words have, this week, become more important than ever.

Can we even come close to being that kind of community – one that might make a real difference to those who come into contact with it? Dare we? Beginning today?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Making Easter faith visible – some quotes

(from an article by Kathy Galloway, ‘Hope in a time of war: a religious perspective on peacemaking’, Annual Public Lecture of the Movement for the Abolition of War, London, November 11th 2008)

and see also

The Japanese-American theologian Kosuke Koyama writes:
What is love if it remains invisible, inaudible, intangible. ‘Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ The devastating poverty in which millions of children live is visible. Racism is visible. Machine guns are visible. Slums are visible. Starved bodies are visible. The gap between the rich and the poor is glaringly visible. Our response to these realities must be visible. Grace cannot function in a world of invisibility. Yet in our world, the rulers try to make invisible the alien, the orphan, the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned. This is violence. Their bodies must remain visible. There is a connection between invisibility and violence. People, because of the image of God they embody, must remain seen. Faith, hope and love are not vital except in what is seen. Religion seems to raise up the invisible and despise what is visible. But it is the 'see, hear, touch' gospel that can nurture the hope which is free from deception.1

Bearing witness is about more than just making violence visible. David Stevens, the Leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, writes, (Christians) are called to make this reconciliation visible – visible in terms of a quality of relationships, visible in terms of openness and hospitality. It is a visibility which serves the same purpose as Christ’s visibility, namely, to reveal God and God’s reconciling love. This is true holiness and is the ministry of reconciliation.2 Bearing witness is also about making reconciliation visible, about making alternatives visible.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
April 1996, East London, South Africa
On the first day
after a few hours of testimony
the Archbishop wept.
He put his grey head
on the long table
of papers and protocols
and he wept.
The national
and international cameramen
filmed his weeping,
his misted glasses,
his sobbing shoulders,
the call for a recess.
It doesn’t matter what you thought
of the Archbishop before or after,
of the settlement, the commission,
or what the anthropologists flying in
from less studied crimes and sorrows
said about his discourse,
or how many doctorates,
books and installations followed,
or even if you think this poem
simplifies, lionizes,
romanticizes, mystifies.
There was a long table, starched purple vestment
and after a few hours of testimony,
the Archbishop, chair of the commission,
laid down his head, and wept.
That’s how it began.3

1. Kosuke Koyama, from an address given at WCC General Assembly, Harare, 1998.

2. David Stephens, from ‘The Land of Unlikeness: Explorations into Reconciliation', The Columba Press, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2004

3. Ingrid de Kok, from 'Terrestrial Things: Poems', Snailpress, Plumstead, South Africa, 2002.

What do we do now?

(notes from a sermon preached in Hodge Hill, 8th May 2011 – on Luke 24:13-35)

In Jewish tradition (in the Talmud), as the Israelites escape through the Red Sea and the waters come crashing down on the Egyptian army, the angels of God burst into songs of praise and celebration. And God silences them: “the works of my hand are drowning in the sea, and you would sing in my presence?”

There has been cheering, singing and flag-waving outside the White House this week, and claims inside it that ‘justice has been done’, because a man has been killed. Assassinated, it seems, quite deliberately. But what has really changed? Al Qaeda lives on, and martyrdom is in their bloodstream. There are threats of revenge attacks already. And what has the USA communicated clearly to the world? That whoever is strongest, wins. The spiral of violence continues. What do we do now?

Much closer to home, in Comet Park, just down the road from where I live, £30,000 of new play equipment was installed, some 6 weeks ago, after a long battle by local residents to get the money and see the results. On Palm Sunday, one of the three pieces, a big climbing frame, was completely destroyed by fire. Last Thursday, the huge 12-seater swing was totally destroyed in a similar way. Destruction seems to have won the day. What do we do now?

The two disciples walking back home to Emmaus are on no gentle afternoon stroll. They are going home because it’s all over. The one they followed, placed their hopes in, has been brutally executed by the authorities. Now they are running for their own lives. Their words to each other are full of fear, grief, and perhaps more than anything, crushing disappointment. “We had though he was the one…” But now he’s dead. It’s all over. What do we do now?

And then someone joins them on the road. A stranger. A strange stranger, by all accounts – one who seems to have missed the recent headline news, but has some challenging things to say of his own. And here’s a small miracle: these crushed, grieving, fearful ex-disciples dare to let this stranger walk with them, open their hearts to him, listen to his strange words, and invite him home to eat with them. This is brave hospitality in deeply troubling times.

And what do they discover? Their stories, as well as their bread, given back to them, broken open, re-told as if a different world had just dawned…

Firstly, that the judgment of the authorities, the ‘powers-that-be’ was wrong – that not justice, but scapegoating, had just happened: that getting rid of the troublesome one to make everyone else feel better; that division of the world into the ‘baddies’ and the ‘goodies’, that turns out to be a lie.

Secondly, that violence, and the powers that rely on death and destruction, don’t have the last word. However much the Empires and the lynch mobs may want to believe they can make full stops, dead ends, they’re deluding themselves. Here is a witness that says “it was inevitable… but…”.

But thirdly, and crucially, this victim returns without the faintest trace of victimhood, resentment, blame or vengeance. He is completely free of that whole destructive game. He returns to those who had given up on him, and to those who had betrayed, denied, judged and executed him too, breathing peace, gratuitously offering new life: ‘open your eyes, turn around, begin again, trust me, love me, follow me…’

This is why we need seven weeks of Eastertide, and year after year of repeating it. It’s barely believable, so alien to common sense, what is being given back to us here: our imaginations are being broken open, slowly but surely, to learn to live this different story.

We follow Jesus by following in the footsteps of those Emmaus disciples. Easter faith begins with a receiving what the risen Jesus offers us. But as Christ’s body, we, the community of Christians, aren’t just passive recipients – our actions and words and ways of living are also deeply shaped, ‘patterned’, by those of the risen Christ himself:

  • coming alongside the grieving, the disappointed and the fearful – in gentle humility, as guest
  • listening to others tell their stories, ‘hearing into speech’ the laments
  • finding God’s grace and imagination to gratuitously ‘give back’ what we have heard, what we have been offered (by our neighbours, even by our ‘enemies’), peacefully, creatively, within a bigger story, in a way that doesn’t close down, but opens up new life between us and beyond us
  • in the journeying, in the listening, in the re-telling, in the breaking of bread, making love visible, to ‘see, hear, touch’…

This ‘making visible’, this ‘telling’, this ‘bearing witness’ is perhaps the core ‘resurrection practice’ for Christians. It begins, often, with lament: making visible, heard, the suffering, the anger, the pain, the crushing disappointment, that is so often hidden, silenced; ‘watering the cracks in dry ground’ with tears shed and shared. And somehow, this lamenting makes space to make visible something new – something creative, hopeful, peaceful – reconciliation, restored community, new creation.

At dusk on Easter Eve, in Comet Park, half a dozen of us from church gathered for our Easter Vigil, making a circle of makeshift seats in the ashes of the burnt-out climbing frame, with lanterns to help us see each other’s faces as the sun went down. We had come armed, with ‘seed-bombs’, the weapon of guerilla gardeners – clay, compost and wild flower seeds – designed to bring splashes of colourful new life to otherwise inaccessible patches of waste ground. And we’d come with stories of hope to share – to remember the possibility of new life, even in the darkness of night. We’d planned to be here several weeks before the fires, but it felt all-the-more right to be here now.

And as we gathered, so too did a group of young people. Muslim young people, as it happened. They had come to the park to play, but they were intrigued by us – not so young, and here with no doubt strange accessories and strange purpose. We tried to explain. And the seed bombs we’d planned to spread around on our ways home, we shared with them, and they went away, with just a little hopeful excitement, it has to be said, that they might be able to grow something, from an unpromising grey ball. We went away, of course, with the great privilege of having made some new friends. One of the stories we told that evening was of a sunflower which once grew on a bomb-site, which was trampled into the ground in a fit of mindless, angry destruction – but which, entirely unexpectedly, a year later, was to leave a patch of waste ground covered in bright yellow life.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Judgment, resurrection and reconciliation

‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.‘ (Nicene Creed)

These two eschatological clauses of the Nicene Creed name the two traditional dimensions of the transition from ‘this world’ to ‘the world to come’: ‘the last judgment’, and ‘the resurrection of the dead’. Miroslav Volf, in a carefully argued article, claims that these two — at least as traditionally conceived — are necessary but not sufficient to transform ‘the existing world of enmity into [in Jonathan Edwards’ phrase] a world of love’.[1]

Volf’s argument begins with Augustine’s conception of the ‘peace’ of the world to come (distilling the eschatological visions of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) as being the ‘perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God’.[2] If, for Augustine, ‘the last judgment’ is about separating ‘the good’ from ‘the bad’, and ‘the resurrection’ about ‘clothing’ weak flesh in immortality, then, Volf argues, ‘either only those who are already fully reconciled in this world could be admitted into the coming world’, or a third dimension to the ‘eschatological transition’ is needed: ‘reconciliation’. The first option, he suggests, is excluded by Augustine’s belief that complete peace is impossible in this life, and so it is the second (not explored by Augustine) which needs developing.[3]

Turning to Luther, who integrates ‘judgment according to works’ into the wider, ‘overarching judgment of grace’, Volf argues that, while ‘the final justification of the ungodly’ would, on its own, ensure that we would meet in the world to come even those whom we have not considered particularly lovable in the present one’, it would not, on its own, mean that we loved them. For that to happen, we would also, in some ‘carefully specified sense’, ‘need to receive ... “justification” from each other’, and more than that, we would ‘need to want to be in communion with one another’. In other words, ‘[t]o usher in a world of love, the eschatological transition would need to be understood not only as a divine act toward human beings but also as a social event between human beings; more precisely, a divine act toward human beings which is also a social event between them.’[4] This Volf terms ‘the final social reconciliation’: ‘the Holy Spirit’s perfecting of the inter-human reconciliation which God has accomplished in Christ and in which human beings have been involved all along in response to God’s call’.[5]

[1]M. Volf, ‘The final reconciliation: reflections on a social dimension of the eschatological transition’, Modern Theology 16:1 (January 2000), 92.

[2]Augustine, The City of God, XIX 17 (quoted in Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 92)

[3]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 92-3

[4]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 93 (my emphasis)

[5]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 106. Volf’s work of ‘careful specification’ is worth spelling out in a little more detail here. ‘The divine judgment,’ he says, ‘will reach its goal when, by the power of the Spirit, all eschew attempts at self-justification, acknowledge their own sin in its full magnitude, experience liberation from guilt and the power of sin, and, finally, when each recognizes that all others have done precisely that... Having recognized that others have changed — that they have been given their true identity by being freed from sin — one will no longer condemn others but offer them the grace of forgiveness.’ Reconciliation will have finally been achieved when ‘one has moved toward one’s former enemies and embraced them as belonging to the same communion of love.’ (Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 103; 104, original emphasis)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

‘To Live in Peace’ – part 3 – ‘Dynamics of Community Rebuilding’

OK, third instalment now, and possibly the last, summarising what Gornik outlines as “some basic dynamics that guide community development”…

One: Neighbourhoods Require Care and Stewardship

(Roberta Brandes Gratz) “Cities do not deteriorate overnight and, similarly, are not reborn overnight. Quick-fix responses at best camouflage problems and at worst exacerbate them. Cities respond most durably in the hands of many participants accomplishing gradually smaller bites, making small changes and big differences at the same time.” (149)

‘urban husbandry’… “Instead of replacing things… strengthening what is there, allowing an incremental pace and an organic process to emerge from the bottom up, not the top down… celebrat[ing] those efforts that are small and more community-grounded and honest.”

“A well-defined concrete geography or focus area… enables those involved to set measurable goals and objectives and establish a clear, holistic vision. Just as importantly, a focus area limits the options that can be attempted. It sets the agenda, which means that the unrealistic goal of trying to do ‘everything everywhere’ is eliminated.”

“the relationship of the church to the community is best described by the word covenant. A covenant is a free commitment that says, in effect, ‘Whatever happens, no matter what, we as the church will stay and deal with it.’ This means that the church takes a vow of stability, that it is committed to being a church of the community.”

“the importance of small-scale projects and micro-narrative approaches” (150)

Two: Rebuilding Moves Between Lament and Celebration

“Just as the urban cry of Lamentations precedes the rebuilding of Jerusalem in Nehemiah, so tears and shared pain must precede the joys of rebuilding in the inner city. … Just as reading the laments of Scripture can enable us to ‘read’ the laments of the inner city, so the laments of the inner city can inform our reading of Scripture… The urban laments of our day can be seen and heard everywhere…”

“rebuilding can be considered ‘embodied worship’… Celebration is crucial to fulfill the aims of community redevelopment, for it sustains and keeps in focus the end of community rebuilding, which is the glory of God.”(151)

Three: Change Percolates from the Bottom Up

“The community’s impetus for change, its interests, its language, and its sense of pace must lead. Drawing on a community’s journey of survival, courage, self-care, and even anger is a starting point… For the church, this means passionately loving the community in all its beauty and hurting with it in its brokenness, as well as trusting in the genius and ideas of the community and drawing on its spirituality and depth of commitment, recognizing the community as people created in God’s image. For the church, believing in the community also involves a Pentecostal belief in the gifts and capacities of the people of the community. All members of the community – not just a few ‘leaders’ – have an important contribution to make to the rebuilding effort. Every person has gifts, and every gift is a grace for the common good…” (151-2)

“as history shows, women’s experience and leadership are especially important… The Christian story also reminds us of the leadership role of children and young people… God’s chosen way of redeeming the world – working not from the top down but from the bottom up, through Christ – unleashes power from the ‘edges’ of society through women, children, and the poor. Here is where we must look for the lived stories and theologies for the urban future, giving testimony to the way of salvation…” (152)

(John P. Kretzmann & John McKnight) “four main assets can be identified in any neighborhood: (1) the capacities and gifts of local residents, (2) the power of local associations and organisations, (3) the potential of local public institutions, and (4) the diverse streams of local economic activity, including the neighborhood’s land and other physical assets. Community change, they argue, really can begin from the inside and move out… Moreover, focusing on what God is doing in the community rather than maintaining a consuming focus on ‘needs’ aids in the prevention of burnout, personal and communal.” (153)

“authentic community transformation will not only engage wider economic and political issues but will also provide opportunities for the rich and powerful to be involved and spiritually challenged” (153-4)

“the community must not be reduced to one ‘stakeholder’ among  many, but must instead be the subject of its future” (154)

Four: Community Organizing is the Basis of Empowerment

“By mobilizing people to unite around what they value and hold most important, community organizing creates the space for the people of the community to define their issues, address shared concerns, confront the principalities and powers, hold public institutions accountable, determine their own future, and create their own institutions.” (154)

“Community organizing is a discipline that is learned – it demands skills that include dialogue, listening, deliberation, and negotiation… Organizing is about learning and applying what is learned. And then its task is the celebration of success. Thus the continual dynamic is reflection – action – celebration.” (154-5)

(Robert Linthicum) “Empowerment… takes place when the people of a community name the hostile forces that are harming them, decide what strategy and steps to take to challenge them, and then organize action that brings about change. A process of continual reflection and action is essential, because it yields new ideas and insights… The analysis of harmful forces must include social, political, economic and religious realities. Such analysis… yields not only physical and material alterations abut also an affirmation of human dignity and the seeds of spiritual renewal in the community. Upon this basis, church and community are able to form the creative and critical partnerships necessary to attain a more just and whole neighborhood.” (155-6)

Five: Community Development is a Vision of Justice and Joy

“Driven by a vision of community rightly ordered, a vision rooted in the biblical concept of Jubilee, Christ-centered community development is particularly committed to the most vulnerable. With a Jubilee perspective, community development offers not charity, relief, or advocacy but the resources for people to achieve healthy families and sustainable community. This vision emphasizes responsibility, accents assents (economic, physical, social, and spiritual), precludes displacement, and does not measure results apart from people. The Jubilee is a vision of justice and joy unmatched in contemporary community development theory and practice.” (156-7)

The End Result: The Composition of a New Story

“Community development is a storied activity, and the best community developers are storytellers and narrative theologians. Thus it is crucial that the church begins with and holds in great respect a community’s stories, both individual and collective. Hearing these stories is a process of discovery that ultimately can lead to forming a new and shared story. One of the primary roles of the church is to draw attention to the larger story of God’s presence, salvation, and new creation. In this story, a community moves not just in a different direction but also towards God’s future of reconciliation, justice, and joy in the city. Because of grace, Christians know that the human story is always open to new endings. However, a new direction for a community does not result in the removal of the fetters that constrict the community. A new community story does not always erase the subjecting forces of oppression but finds a way through the maze of oppression to begin to establish a new vision and reality of what is possible. Most importantly, the story of the community belongs to the community and is not imposed from outside.”

“This story, which is about communal transformation, cannot be ‘written’ overnight. ‘When we talk about community transformation,’ Robert Linthicum observes, ‘we are talking about a conversion process in an entire community. It is most often not a sudden conversion. It is a slow, driving process causing an entire community to change their way of understanding themselves.” (158)

“To bear testimony in public settings – to vocalize in word and song how lives, families, and communities have been healed – and to interpret these testimonies as stories of divine power express the encounter with the Spirit. … It is when community members hear each other testify to the changes in community life that God’s work can be discerned.” (158-9)

Monday, 21 February 2011

‘To Live in Peace’ – continued…

Some more notes and quotes from my book of the moment (see post below)… This gets to the heart of it for me: Gornik argues that Jeremiah’s ‘proposal to the exiles’ in Jer.29:5-7 offers “an overarching wholistic vision for the city”, offering a basis on which to explore presence (“a theology of context”), prayer (“a theology of spirituality”) and public activity (“a theology of mission”)…

Presence: Dwelling as Neighbours and Friends

“To share as neighbors and friends in the everyday experiences of life, to invest as neighbors and friends in the development of others is both the extension and the foundation of shalom. It means to reject – as individuals, families, and churches – withdrawing into privileged social and economic enclaves inside and outside the city.” (115)

On social capital in inner-city neighbourhoods…

“the more people build and remain in relationships of reciprocity, particularly in local institutions and associations, the greater the increase in trust that builds among them”

“while there is no question that local institutions in the inner city have been harmed and that the social fabric has been torn, every neighborhood also has considerable strengths, capacities, and reserves of mutual responsibility and caring. Indeed, without strong relationships of caring, survival in the inner city would be impossible.” (116)

On ‘neighbouring’, ‘hesed (‘faithful commitment’) and friendship

“Neighboring [for the people of Israel, as in the book of Proverbs] entailed the daily work of building a just and supportive community characterized by trust. ‘Without such trust … a healthy social environment could not be established, and where there was no such feeling of interdependence and solidarity (hesed) the very foundations of morality would be undermined.’ In hesed, the mutual commitment to the flourishing of others, we find the glue of community.” (117)

(Walter Brueggemann) “The Deuteronomic tradition presents society as a neighborhood and enjoins attitudes and policies that enhance neighboliness. Deuteronomy insists that economic life must be organized to ensure the well being of widows, orphans and immigrants. This response to dislocation insists that maintaining a public economy of compassion and justice is a way to move beyond despair.”

“A relationship with Christ, as the parable of the Good Samaritan expresses, is defined not by being a neighbor in the passive sense but by finding ways to cross boundaries and to be a neighbor to the afflicted in ways that advance their flourishing.”

“a deeper goal of relationships is friendship… Friendship that is in imitation of Christ’s friendship with women and men is both something of the peace that God desires and the relational bridge to the peace of the city.” (118)

Prayer: the Urban Future Belongs to the Intercessors

(Walter Wink) “Even a small number of people, firmly committed to the new inevitability on which they have fixed their imaginations, can decisively affect the shape the future takes. These shapers of the future are the intercessors, who call out the future, the longed-for new present.” (118)

“For Wink, prayer constitutes resistance against the powers. When Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, which recognizes the authority of God over the powers of the age, the hope of the kingdom over the fallen world, they declare resistance and a counterview of the city.”

“Prayer is the cry from the depths to God, a plea that the world be different, that our children not die before their time, that our homes be decent, and that our hearts be made new.”

“When justice is required, when the daily struggle for life seems overwhelming, Jesus teaches us to pray and not give up in the face of oppression.” (119)

Public Activity: Putting Faith into Action

“To seek the peace of the city means that Christians are to be active participants – not spectators – working to bring alternative forms of urban life into being. Seeking the peace of the inner city therefore enjoins activity that enhances the social, physical, aesthetic, and economic world in which we dwell.” (120)

“In seeking the peace of the city, we do well to avoid beginning with complex plans and major proposals. Certainly community plans are important, but they should emerge out of genuine local ownership and responsibility. Responding to real needs, they will have an ad hoc, organic character. This means that what the church is called to do and how it should go about answering that call will not always be clear. The church is to bring its faith into the messy world of the city because it is called to ‘look… to the interests of others’ (Phil. 2:4).” (120-1)

The difference of peace-making

“The social and economic violence that created the inner city is not overcome with the simple announcement of a counter-narrative of peace, but rather requires the hard work of forging concrete new beginnings of shalom.” (121)

Peace-making without manipulation

“’serving’ others can get in the way of building community. All too often… human service ends up being about our own needs and desires, not the underlying human fabric of a neighborhood. … Whenever a church defines a community and its needs apart from the people of the community, a manipulative process is set in motion, one that often serves only the extension of the church’s own interests, goals, and power. Language, agenda-setting, and unconsciously held notions of superiority are common conductors of a manipulative process. … Inner-city neighborhoods are skilled in discerning between the well-intentioned and the self-serving. By necessity, they know and signal that they know the difference between sincere yet fumbling efforts (made by the church that is honestly attempting to be with the community) and insincere yet ‘professional’ attempts of ‘service’ (made by the church claiming to be ‘for’ the community). Inner-city residents are highly gifted in the art of discernment; they have often watched people trying to import their agendas. … My experience is that inner-city communities do not judge as harshly the stumbling yet humble. Indeed, they are quite likely to show an amazing grace in response. But to that which is self-serving and manipulative in the name of ‘service’, these communities react in ways that protect their own interests. At times it may seem like a community ‘buys in’ to a development plan or a religious project, but in subtle ways usually invisible to outsiders, resistance to such manipulation is constantly taking place.” (122-3)

“the church’s goal is to be God’s peace in the broken places and to bear witness to the kingdom of God. It sides not with the privileged and powerful but with those the world counts as nothing. This is the politics of Christ and the cross.”

“Miroslav Volf has called such an approach the ‘soft difference’. Developing this insight in an important reading of 1 Peter, he writes, ‘I do not mean a weak difference, for in 1 Peter the difference is anything but weak. It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. The difference that joins itself with hardness always presents the other with a choice: either submit or be rejected, either ‘become like me or get away from me’. In the mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for a soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which 1 Peter repeatedly encourages his readers to assume (3:14; 3:6). People who are secure in themselves – more accurately, who are secure in their God – are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even ‘without a word’ (3:1).”

“Not only should urban faith be soft, gentle, and humble in its witnessing and often non-conforming difference; it must be alive in practice. … Oriented to the plight of the non-persons in the urban world, Christianity is to offer living expressions of its hope founded and centred in Jesus Christ.” (124-5)

Making a difference

(Nicholas Wolterstorff, addressing children’s ministers) “It is your calling to struggle to make the world a place in which their innocent, vulnerable playfulness is appropriate… Be under no illusion that your efforts will bring about the holy city for children. But likewise, do not despair of making a difference. For it is God’s cause; and God will take both your fumbling and your skillful efforts and use them as building stones for God’s holy city.”

“Faithfulness toward the advance of more whole communities, not the development or promise of perfect ones, is the measure of peacemaking.” (125)

“Nourished by the guiding image of shalom, not the logic of the market, in a neighborhood where God’s peace runs like a deep current, weary families would find new strength and joy. Every gift would be appreciated and called into service. Those able to work would have employment that both served the common good and provided a living wage. Miserable housing would be a thing of the past, replaced by homes offering beauty and safety. Vacant land would be turned into gardens filled with flowers and vegetables, reclaimed for local economic development, or designated for affordable housing. Children would attend schools that nurtured the whole person, mind and spirit, enabling them to navigate the world successfully. Streets would be safe, and the innocent would not fear those who protect. No more would the emergency room be a doctor’s office, for quality health services would be personal and available when needed. An atmosphere of neighborly commitment would reinforce bonds of trust. And by virtue of all of these things being signs of shalom, at the center of this experience would be the acknowledgment of God as the giver of this gift, the One in whose service human beings are called to live responsibly. This is how the neighborhoods of the city should work.” (125-6)

“To be peacemakers in the … inner city is the opposite of giving in to apathy, of razing neighborhoods, of imploding buildings, of excluding the poor, of insulating oneself from risk. To seek the peace of the city is to have a vision of friendship and community and a commitment to justice, joy, forgiveness, and salvation. It is to engage in kingdom work in the city based on a distinctive understanding of what it means to be the people of God, an understanding that expresses itself in love and sacrifice in service to others, especially the most vulnerable. … As a model of God’s new urban social order, the church signals an alternative to all forms of exclusion.” (126)

Sunday, 20 February 2011

‘To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City’

(Mark R Gornik, Eerdmans, 2002)

This is a brilliant book. It unfolds a ‘shalom-focused’ theology through the very concrete practices of being church, building community, and rebuilding the streets of Sandtown, an inner-city neighbourhood in Baltimore. There’s some great and inspiring stories, some subtle and in-depth analysis of the issues social and political, some thorough theological reflection (it’s the most readable and comprehensive summary of the Biblical theme of ‘shalom’ I’ve come across, I think), and some helpful bits of ‘categorisation’ (I’m someone who does actually enjoy ‘3 words beginning with the same letter’ lists, if they’re backed up by real substance) as Gornik outlines the approach of his grassroots, activist, radical Christian community.

I think I might share some quotes here over the next little while, and see how far we get. My hope is that there’s some stuff in this book that might spark and/or feed a valuable conversation here in the UK, Birmingham and beyond, among those of us who live and work in inner-city and outer-estate areas…

On oppression and injustice…

(Quoting Iris Marion Young): “oppression reveals itself in five faces: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. … In Sandtown, and in the inner city generally, all five faces of oppression can be seen at work in the racial and economic construction of space and the burdens of existence.” (51)

(Quoting Nicholas Wolterstorff): “God’s love for justice is grounded in his love for the victims of injustice. And his love for the victims of injustice belongs to his love for the little ones of the world: for the weak defenceless ones, the ones at the bottom, the excluded ones, the miscasts, the outcasts, the outsiders… God’s love for justice, I suggest, is grounded in his special concern for the hundredth one.” (51)

“[D]oing justice in Scripture is not the abstract balancing of ‘rights’… but the ‘restoration of that community as originally established by the justice of God; it is a community of equality and freedom from oppression.’” (62)

“One of the marks of a Christian response to the inner city must therefore be its direct and meaningful response to the closure of everyday opportunities and the closure of future horizons.” (59)

On ‘shalom’ and peace-making…

(Nicholas Wolterstorff again) “Shalom in the first place incorporates right, harmonious relationships to God and delight in his service. When the prophets speak of shalom, they speak of a day when human beings will no longer flee God down the corridors of time… Secondly, shalom incorporates right harmonious relationships to other human beings and delight in human community. Shalom is absent when a society is a collection of individuals all out to make their own way in the world… Thirdly, shalom incorporates right, harmonious relationships to nature and delight in our physical surroundings. Shalom comes when we, bodily creatures and not disembodied souls, shape the world with our labour and find fulfillment in so doing and delight in its results.” (100-1)

“sin is the vandalism of shalom… [S]halom is God’s urban renovation project, the restoration of a defaced urban existence. It is the reversal of human alienation from God, from creation, and from one another. Because shalom is the end of poverty, injustice, and exclusion, to seek the shalom of the city is to work to reverse the effects of sin … on the city and to proclaim the news of One who comes in peace.” (103)

Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the peace [shalom] and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for if it has peace [shalom], you too will have peace [shalom].” … “There could be no separate peace for God’s people apart from the general condition of the city as a whole; the two were bound together. … Jeremiah is advocating a ‘nonviolent social resistance’ that emphasizes trust in God’s sovereignty, hope in God’s future, the practices of nonviolence, and the everyday acts of cultural production… this project of God’s is the renewal of community.” (103-4)

“Urban settings are full of different power interests, competing ideas, and conflicting demands. Peacemaking, and in particular loving one’s ‘enemies’, not only puts the church in a different light in relationship to its neighbours but is also a means of social change. … If Christ is the peace that forms the church and determines its identity, then the church as a peaceable community exists for the city. The church is a body renewed by Christ to represent hope for a broken world. Committed to reconciliation and the practices of repentance and forgiveness, it should not fail to recognize the possibility of peace for the inner city.” (109)

(Wolterstorff, again!) “Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be divine gift and not merely human achievement, even though its episodic incursion into our lives now also has a dimension of divine gift, nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for. We are not to stand around, hands folded, waiting for shalom to arrive. We are workers in God’s cause, his peace-workers. The missio Dei is our mission.” (110)

On the church…

The church “as a community of grace… welcome… reconciliation… and sharing…” (76ff.)

The church as “in the community” (but with no real attachment to its neighbourhood), “for the community” (but not grounded in the experience of the community, and treating the community “as the other and as helpless”), or “with … and of the community”, becoming “one with its neighbours in the struggle”… “Here the church and the community work in mutuality for reasons that grow out of their common history and their shared future. The church brings its faith commitments both to the questions that are asked and to the actions that are taken. It is involved in the mix, flow, and fray of community life, not isolated and removed. The church discerns its life in the life of the community. Such a church rejects a privileged moral, social, or even epistemological position… It does not see itself as a saviour, for it knows too well its own frailties and weaknesses. Rather, by way of the cross, by way of sharing suffering and hope, sorrows and joys, a church of the community pours itself out so that God’s shalom can be more deeply experienced.” (113-4)


More to follow soon! If this resonates for you, why not join in the conversation…?

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Christmas in January?

The further into gloomy January we get, the stranger the looks you get if you wish someone a ‘Happy Christmas’. But is the Christian tradition of celebrating the Christmas season for 40 days an anachronistic eccentricity, or does it hold within it something prophetic, counter-cultural and life-giving?

Think of the presents. How many are unwrapped and, if we’re honest, ‘shelved’ or discarded by the end of Christmas Day itself? Let alone if, for whatever reason, we’ve not been able to wait, and have opened them before ‘the day’ has even arrived?

If we’re to do Christmas properly, I reckon we need time and space to unwrap our presents slowly, turn them over in our hands, explore them, play with them, savour them, put them to work and discover what ‘more’ they will give us.

Calling Christmas itself a ‘gift’ is pretty clich├ęd these days, but I think the analogy is worth running with. We need a good amount of time and space to even begin to ‘unwrap’ the gift of divine incarnation, let its truth sink in, inhabit, learn what it might possibly mean to us in this particular here-and-now – and to the ‘others’ of our neighbourhood and world that we are confronted with or try to avoid.

Re-discovering the art of celebrating the gift of the coming of the light and incarnate presence of God needs a generous, spacious season. And it goes hand in hand, I’m sure, with re-discovering the waiting and longing and staring into the darkness that Advent offers us.

So, how on earth could we do it, when it sounds so strange even to our own ears?

Can we possibly, for example, hold off on the family and neighbourly gatherings to give and receive presents, until Christmas Day itself has arrived, and let it continue in the weeks that follow? So that, instead of a mass of waste paper by Boxing Day, we can enjoy unwrapping and delighting in presents in the presence of those who have given them – wherever and whenever (between 25th Dec and 2nd Feb) we manage to meet with them? (As an economic spin-off, it also means that many presents, if they are bought, can be purchased in the post-Christmas sales, and money saved for other kinds of generosity or necessity.)

Can we possibly hold off on many of the parties and opportunities for feasting, until ‘the day’ and the gloomy January days that follow, stubbornly saving the lights and the candles and the fun and laughter for the time when the rest of the world looks greyer than ever? And then, rather than trying to ‘do it all in a day’, take our time over the feasting, so that we are energised over 40 days, rather than bloated and exhausted within 8 hours?

And can we spend that generous time singing carols and telling the story, in 100 different ways and contexts, as we celebrate it not as a one-off event long-gone, but as an ongoing reality that begs room in the narrowest corners of our life and our world, and in those corners offers a spacious invitation to come and find our true home?