Sunday, 25 June 2017

Holding off Tiamat - the gift of "taking time"

"I decided to try and have the house clean and organized by Easter. One of our interns told me of a Jewish friend who explained keeping kosher as participating in the act of creation. According to the friend, order in the kitchen keeps chaos at bay. In the Genesis account, God wrests creation from watery chaos or tehom, a close relation to the ancient sea monster, Tiamat. So I'm battling Tiamat in our closets and under our furniture. Tiamat wreaks havoc in my date book, too. I'm in an ever-losing battle trying to wrest time to clean, pray, write, be with the children, be with Gregorio, be a pastor, pay bills, shop, cook, enter stuff into the computer to be more organized, etc. Then, when I try to remember everything I am supposed to be doing, I forget. Sometimes we find ourselves in ridiculous positions. Shall we make love or vacuum? The dust balls multiply."

(Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, p.231)

We regularly battle Tiamat in our house too (I'm not going to comment on the state of our dust balls). In fact, holding off the forces of chaos feels like not just a regular Barrett family challenge, but something very familiar to my friends and colleagues in their daily work in our neighbourhood, and to many of my friends and neighbours here too. So much is good here, hopeful and inspiring. But so much is also fragile, just one minor event away from being stretched to breaking-point, overwhelmed by the pressures and daily injustices of life.

This is not a book review (or perhaps it is the first in a series which, together, might constitute something like one). But it is inspired and energised by Heidi Neumark's brilliant book, which with breathtaking poetry and raw honesty weaves together the narratives of her ministry and family life, of Transfiguration Lutheran Church of which she is minister, of the wider neighbourhood of South Bronx in which they are passionately entangled, and of the story of the Christian faith, enfleshed most vividly through the cycle of the liturgical year, from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, into Lent and Eastertide up to Pentecost, and then expanding out into the generous territory of Ordinary Time before the cycle begins again.

We talk a lot in Hodge Hill, as we attempt to describe what we're about here, of seeking to "make space" for neighbours to encounter each other, especially across our differences - spaces for people to be heard to speech, to discover their passions and gifts, to share something of themselves, to grow in confidence and connections, to feel a real sense of belonging. Spaces, in short, for community to grow and flourish.

There is much in Heidi's book about space. One of the threads woven through the book is that of the construction - the painfully slow, often precarious construction - of a new "Space for Grace" on the side of the existing church building. But the book is also profoundly about time: in particular, the way the Christian year re-shapes the passing of time, and in the process enables profound (if often also small) transfigurations to happen. This different way of "taking time" is, perhaps, one of the most significant factors in enabling Heidi, her congregation, and at least some of her neighbours, to hold off the forces of chaos which the monster Tiamat wields.

Heidi's book left me wondering whether the ways we Christians in Hodge Hill "take time" might not, together, be one of the most significant things about who we are, what we do, and the particular, distinctive gift we might have to offer our neighbours. Part 2 of this wondering (when I get the time in the next little while!) will explore some of those time-taking ways for us here, and what difference they might just possibly make...

Friday, 23 June 2017

"More awake": receiving the gifts of my Muslim neighbours

As my Muslim neighbours approach Eid, I find myself more deeply thankful for them and their faithfulness than ever before.

I am thankful for the countless stories I hear from my non-Muslim parishioners, often people living on their own, of Muslim neighbours who regularly call at their door with gifts of food - for the abundant generosity and neighbourliness of those small actions. And I am thankful for my Muslim friends who bring my own family immensely generous Christmas presents, every year - rejoicing in the celebrations they know we Christians are preparing for.

I am thankful for those in my own neighbourhood who, working with the wonderful 'Meet Your Muslim Neighbours' organisation, have begun to open up local places of worship to curious visitors, with warm and welcoming hospitality, and have sought to share their love for their faith in ways that are clear, accessible and humble - a way of sharing from which many of us Christians have a lot to learn.

I am thankful for the recent Easter Day invitation from a local Muslim councillor, to walk with her one of the high streets of our area, expressing together our solidarity as neighbours and people of faith, where the media and far-right groups have sought to spread suspicion, hatred and division. I am thankful for that privilege, on Easter Day of all days, to have been able to give and receive the greeting, "peace be with you", in English and in Arabic ("asalaam-u-alaikum"), and to have known that the God we Christians have met in Jesus - the God my Muslim friends worship too - was yet again present in our midst.

I am thankful for the incredible witness to faithful nonviolence of Mohammed Mahmoud, the Imam at Finsbury Park mosque. In the midst of the van attack that killed one, injured many more and brought terror to the crowd of worshippers, Imam Mahmoud protected the attacker from a crowd who were, understandably, shocked and angry at what had just happened. "No one touch him - no one!" Mahmoud shouted. "By God's grace we managed to surround him and protect him from any harm," he said later. There are tears in my eyes even as I write those words.

I am thankful for those Muslims who, eating at 2am before their daily Ramadan fast began, were awake when the Grenfell Tower blaze started, and ran up and down the tower knocking on doors and alerting people to the imminent danger. Most others would have been sleeping at that time in the morning. In the midst of this desperate tragedy, who knows how many lives were saved because of these men and women, whose faithful habits of prayer enabled them to be alert to the needs of their neighbours.

And I am thankful for the invitations that have come my way this Ramadan, from Muslim friends and neighbours, to break fast together at the end of these long, hot summer days that have - all too often recently - been filled with tragic and disturbing news. I am thankful for the overwhelming, gracious, gently hospitality, the joyful welcomes and the most beautiful meals. I am thankful for the 10-year-old boy who showed me how to cup my hands in prayer, at the right time, who answered all my curious questions and was equally curious about the job that I did. I am thankful for the conversations about fasting, and the testimony's to its power to heighten all the senses, to make the fasting person more awake, more alert to God's presence in the world around us, and in their neighbours, and to enlarge the space within them for compassion. I am thankful for the reverence that my fasting Muslim friends have for the simple fact of food and water, and for the deep thankfulness to God that it renews within them. I am thankful for their invitation to me to join them as they pray - to watch them line up, side by side, and use their whole bodies to express their longing for God, their praise of God, their commitment to seek God's will with all that they are. And I am thankful that their prayers have re-kindled in me a similar longing, and praise, and commitment.

I am thankful for the privilege of being invited into spaces that are not mine, as honoured guest (not because of my own status, but because of their abundant hospitality). I am thankful for the privilege that many of my brothers and sisters in faith are beginning to count me among their friends. I am thankful that we are discovering together, as Jo Cox put it, that we have so much more in common than that which divides us. I am thankful that the shared moments of the past few weeks promise to be only the beginning of journeys of deepened relationship, deepened understanding, deepened shared commitment to community-building and justice-seeking together.

As we approach Eid together, I am deeply thankful.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Doing theology after Grenfell Tower?

How must we do our theology after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower? And by 'do', I mean live, and speak, and act, as much as read or write.

This must, surely, be a turning point. A moment which will not let us leave things as they have been. A moment which finds the 'status quo' not just wanting, but bankrupt.

This is about builders, and property management companies, and local Councils, and national government, and political and economic systems, and our all-pervasive, taken-for-granted worldviews. But for those of us who are Christians, it must also be about us. How do we live out our faith, how do we do our theology, after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower?

To ask about "after", though, begs questions about "before".

In the wake of the fire, I am profoundly thankful for the response of Christians (among countless people of all kinds of faith and none) in the Kensington area, not just meeting people's basic needs, but on the streets offering listening ears and prayers. Revd Gabby Thomas, a nearby curate, articulated a sense that local people have perceived the church, in the midst of this disaster, as "a body of people who cared about the injustice they [the victims] had suffered and would stand by them", providing also "a public space for lament and prayer", "a space to ask the questions, to name the injustices and to shout to God". For all of this, I give deep and heartfelt thanks. And as part of the body of Christ beyond Kensington, their calling there resonates deeply with our calling here in Hodge Hill.

But what about before? What about before the fire? The question that seems to echo around the charred ruins and far beyond, getting louder every time it is repeated, is this: how were the voices of Grenfell Tower residents not heard before? The cries for help and for justice, the warnings of catastrophe, were being voiced years ago, but seemed to fall on deaf ears.

This is not a judgment on the local churches of Kensington. But it is a judgment on the Church as a whole. I'm not asking "where were you?" - I'm asking a devastated, heart-broken, guilt-ridden "where were we?". How can we do theology "after", hearing for the first time - and tragically too late, for so many of them - the voices unheard "before"? What do those voices call us to do, or to be? What kind of vocations do they summon from us?

They call us to be present. But present where? On the estate, as much as in the city centre. In the tower block, as much as in the church. Because God is to be found at the edges. We're called to passionate, long-term living-alongside, not to make occasional forays in the name of 'mission'.

They call us to listen, before we speak. Where we are the ones with more power and privilege, let's put a brake on our need for new 'initiatives', so that we, first, can be challenged and changed by our neighbours. Let's hear their cries and their struggles (as well as their joys and delights) so that it's them that determine our agendas.

They teach us to lament: how to lament, and what to lament for. In 'hearing to speech' their cries to God, we learn how we should be praying.

They call for researchers: those dogged seekers after the longer, deeper, wider story; those who with their carefully-crafted tools are able to trace the workings, structures and flows of power; those who can show us where and how things are complex, and how a decision made in one place can affect the lives of many people elsewhere.

They call us to confess - clear-sighted confession, emerging from our lament, schooled by our neighbours, clarified by those who've done the hard yards of research. Confessing our complicity, not to be paralysed in it, but to change.

They call us to invest ourselves differently: our time, our energy, our money, our attention, our passion, our worship, our talking, our action - all of these, in a million tiny changes, tip the scales of justice.

They call us to accompany our neighbours to the 'centres of power' - political power, cultural power, financial power, ecclesial power - to present their own insights and challenges, with their own bodies and in their own words - with us cheerleading from the sidelines and resisting 'doing for'.

They call us to put our bodies in the way - on the streets, at the council offices (not inside them, deploying our privilege in polite board room chats, as if we alone can make all the difference), in the protests, in the public squares - halting 'business as usual', issuing the challenge, and anticipating the raucous, multi-coloured street parties of the kingdom of heaven.

They call us to join a movement that is bigger than any of us, and our organisations and institutions and Churches - but which finds its way through the cracks in those, topples their pillars and breaks down their dividing walls; a movement which connects London to Birmingham, Kensington to Westminster, Hodge Hill to the City, Ladywood to Lambeth Palace. The movement is one that unleashes timid voices, and enables people to hear and understand across language barriers; it sets hearts on fire and justice rolling down like mighty waters.