Middle-ground and sin or why I love ‘Bread Church’

Bread Church – or Bread for the World as its properly called – is a new service that we started in September. We have only met twice but it is already a highlight of my month. It is very simple – we meet, we make bread, we talk, we laugh.  When there is a pause in the baking process those of us who want to pray do so, and then we eat.  We are gathered for 2-3 hours and we are a diverse bunch drawn from different faiths and none, different ages, ethnicities, classes and with a very varied level of ability in the kitchen. I have now definitely earnt a reputation as the cack-handed curate!

At a meeting about cohesion on Wednesday one of the issues raised was that although religion thought it was promoting cohesion it was actually dividing people. Alongside this, and partly as a consequence of this, there are very few places that all people can belong without either keeping some part of their identity hidden or without risking outright rejection. For example, many religious groups would exclude not only on the basis of creed but also on sexuality and for many, gender may be a barrier to full participation. Coffee shops/cafes subtly separate us by class and wealth, other centres and activities are only really open to certain ethnicities: for example, pubs and restaurants are often not comfortable place if you have dietary requirements or alcohol is prohibited. In Jerusalem in May I heard it said that the only two places you see co-existence are the zoo, and the hospital.  I wonder how different Birmingham really is.

Bread Church meets in a building attached to the church and that might put some people off but looking round the room on Sunday I felt a twinge of delight as I saw people mixing that would not normally get to spend time together. There was so much laughter in the room, real conversations and very, very good food accompanying the chapatis and rotis we made.

At a study morning earlier today the speaker, Bishop Graham Tomlin, talked about some of the changes that the Reformation had wrought in the Church, 500 years ago. He said that there was a theological shift from a religion in which a person looked inwards and tried to accumulate enough points to get to heaven to a religion which turned the believer to being outward-focussed, facing God and neighbour, as Jesus commanded us to be.

I wonder if as a church we have recently begun to turn in, in that way. We have started to worry about what we need. We are anxious that not enough people are coming to church and there won’t be enough money to keep it all going. We want people to join us, become like and believe the same as us.

Bread Church was prompted by a conversation in which someone outside the church mentioned to our vicar (a fantastic baker) how much she would like to make bread. It was not started to meet our need for church growth or to bring in young people – although it is growing and young people come and enjoy it. It came about because the church was already turned outwards and engaging with neighbours from different faiths. Instead of asking what do we want, the church asked what would you like to do. Instead of worrying about what we need as church to survive, the church responded to the request from a neighbour.This shift has meant that people inside and outside church happily give up around three hours on a Sunday afternoon with enthusiasm and no sense of compulsion.

Bread for the World is not ‘the answer’ to the city and the church but it is a small contribution to the flourishing of life together, the growth of community and the establishment of middle ground. It makes me wonder if perhaps Bread Church and spaces and places like it are a ‘foretaste of the heavenly banquet.’

 

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Finding A Voice

Tomorrow I am having my first singing lesson – 40 years after being told that I couldn’t sing and I should no longer be in the Primary School choir. It is a common experience – so many people tell me they can’t sing and have similar childhood stories. I empathise with them and joke about my nervousness that my singing voice will be caught on the microphone and  empty the church in an instance.

But over the decades I have heard other voices. Voices that say that everyone can sing and it’s a matter of confidence and technique. So two and a half years into my curacy, after dodging leading choral evensong and obsessively checking the on/off switch on the mic I have decided that I can sing, I just need to learn how. So tomorrow I am having my first singing lesson.

Finding a voice was an important phrase for me in my ordination story. Working in PR I felt I was giving my voice away to more powerful people in statements and press releases. I lost confidence in owning my opinions and truths and learning to preach has been a part of finding my own voice again – this blog has probably also been part of that.

I thought maybe that was enough – if I could preach and teach, surely it does not matter that I could not sing. But recently I was asked when I last tried to do something that scared me, when I last risked failure and as I realised I had been playing it quite safe the challenge of learning to sing started to take root.

Churches in my tradition hold a beautiful service on the evening before Easter, the Easter Vigil. The service starts in darkness, then the Easter candle is lit from a bonfire outside church and carried into the building. It is the job of the deacon to announce the resurrection of Christ – singing the words ‘The light of Christ’. Following this announcement the deacon leads the rejoicing of the church in a (long) song of praise called the Exsultet.

Last year I spoke the words, the year before the priest sang them for me. This year I plan to sing them. I hope I will manage all of it but I will have a trusty singing friend on standby just in case. This year the Easter vigil falls on my birthday, March 31st. After 40 years of saying ‘I can’t’ I thought the biggest gift I could give myself was saying ‘I can’ or at least ‘I will try.’ So tomorrow I am having my first singing lesson, I have got five months to find my voice – good job I trust in a God of miracles, a God of resurrection that can bring a hesitant and timid voice back to fullness of life.FullSizeRender (2)

America vs England – a rough and superficial comparison following a week long visit.

When my phone rang on my birthday and I was asked if I wanted to go to Denver as part of an exchange focusing on countering extremism my response was both yes and no. Of course I wanted to visit another country with a great bunch of people but I have never really considered that anything I do focuses on countering extremism. But I said yes, setting off with some trepidation- unsure what I have to offer.

I am so glad I did. I learnt a lot, laughed a lot and came back with some wonderful new friendships and strengthened relationships. I still can’t believe that a working trip, exploring a serious issue could be so much fun.

I am still no expert on countering extremism but  I continue to be inspired by one of the phrases I remember from my recent trip to Israel which was spoken, I think, by a Palestinian politician. He said: to fight extremism you have to strengthen the moderates. I think this is true in many ways and applies to religious as well as political life. I often wonder how we make ‘middle-of-the road’ Anglicanism look so boring. And, while it would be naive to think we do not need a Counter Terrorist Unit and appropriate support and safeguarding for those at risk from violent ideologies, my time focused on countering extremism has convinced me that we need to continue to strengthen the moderates. If the world can be viewed as a sandwich, we need to work together to ensure the filling is as thick and as tasty as possible and the edges are getting further apart and thinner and thinner.

This does not mean the middle is a homogeneous mush of blandness – but it is individuals, groups and communities who see the worth in one another and are committed to a greater good. People from many different political backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds who love their neighbour, their city and look for goodness, justice, mercy and generosity in their private lives and public systems.

That is it about countering extremism – below are my musings more generally after the week’s visit.

So back to America Vs England: Patriotism

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If I were an Americans writing this blog I am pretty sure that I would have added -‘a person who loved their country’ into the last paragraph. Flags are part of daily life, swearing allegiance is normal and patriotism is not problematised. Many causes and campaigns happily use the stars and stripes in their campaigning – eg Hate Has no Home.

Do we have something to learn? Could a strong, positive national identity actually help us develop into a more inclusive and integrated society?

Mental Heath

A Denver participant on the exchange joked that Americans would see a therapist if an episode of their favourite soap was rescheduled. We generally think that that obsession with therapy is a bad thing but we also saw some good sides to this national hobby particularly in relation to refugees.

Refugees

I remember feeling truly ashamed of our country when I discovered that creating ‘a hostile environment’ was a deliberate policy developed by Theresa May. In contrast we saw city departments dedicated to the welcome of migrants, free mental health services provided by post-graduate students at Denver University, a ‘resilience centre’ offering drop-in mental health support to refugees, asylum seekers and others affected by trauma. ‘Undocumented’ people have access to education and entrepreneurship amongst refugees is encouraged and supported by local government. This seemed a lot, lot better than the situation we have in the UK. I perceived that refugees were trusted and their trauma recognised while their potential was welcomed – this may not be all the time and everywhere but it was good to see and contrasted starkly with some British attitudes.

Guns

Were a complete nightmare. Their acceptance was astonishing. They made policing difficult in a myriad of ways. They took lives in collateral damage. They were permitted everywhere. Declaring a college a no-gun zone was deemed ‘unconstitutional.’ Young people living in poor areas were shot and feared being shot. Security in many buildings was tight. We never want to have a gun culture like the US. It feeds off and creates layers and layers of distrust and fear. (My American Godmother and others like her also think it is bonkers and the constitution is being poorly interpreted.)

This picture is not from America – it’s from Yorkshire!img_9573.jpg

Drugs

Like guns, cannabis is legal in Colorado. This has raised some $5 billion in taxes and caused a population explosion of young entrepreneurial hipster-types. The money is funding schools and non-profits. However no-one is sure what the shadow side really is. There are rumours of a cannabis-inspired homicide and a fatal accident in which a young man jumped off a balcony. Cars are being driven (and guns used) by people who are high. Cannabis use is sometimes linked to psychosis. It is hard to control the strength of the products being sold – especially edibles. Good or bad – no-one seems to know.

White Supremacists

As is being currently demonstrated in Charlottesville, America has a problem with White Supremacy. In Denver, two or three generations ago, many civic leaders had been Klansmen. White supremacist movements and organisations continue to flourish in Colorado. Some of these have a Christian-based identity. This was deeply unsettling. Racist ideologies also flourish in the UK. Does the church have a role to play in interrupting such narratives here? We do know that far right groups in the UK connect with far right groups in America.

One man challenged us by saying that displaying images of a white man and naming him the son of God/God was an act of White supremacy. (He also said to have images of a black man on the cross and name him God would be an act of Black supremacy.)

Many far-right groups also support a virulently anti-LGBTI agenda. Many of these are churches and religious institutions. Clergy are protesting at Charlottesville today, the Bishop of Wolverhampton has declared a Britain First demo to be blasphemous – with whom should the church be working here to counter racist ideologies and other hate-fuelled beliefs?

Church

The Episcopalian church in the USA has certainly distanced itself from homophobia in recent years and I am sure there is much we can learn from them on this and other issues too. The church in Denver appeared to be engaged in projects to support people living in poverty and we attended an interfaith event hosted by Denver Cathedral. But instinctively, I felt grateful for the parish system that roots and grounds us in a community. We, Anglicans in England, need to make sure we do not lose that or we could risk being a gathered club for people who happen to like worshiping in the same way as us and believe the same things as us. Some churches successfully navigate this without a parish system but I think a commitment to all people in one neighbourhood is really important. We are shaped by our context and in turn we hope to shape our context. We engage, hopefully, with the people who live close to us and we seek to reflect the diversity of our community in our congregation.

Manners/Humour

It seemed as tho’ people in American (when they had not been replaced by i-pads) were happy to serve food and drink and generally meant it when they said things like ‘Good job’ or ‘You’re welcome.’ Hospitality was generous and commonplace – especially at breakfast. We particularly liked coffee-boxes. Communication, on the whole, felt less complicated than the UK. Satire, particularly Trump satire, was everywhere.

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Other random things – pedestrian lights don’t beep (bad), snacks are healthier and more interesting, cars are everywhere, the grid system keeps things moving and is so simple it is nearly confusing, Denver has an amphitheatre that is a gym by day, bars shut early (bad) and the hotel had a bagel-cutter (essential).

I leave you with this:

Love wins

 

A Day to Remember

The United Kingdom has found a new saint. Someone who is recognized as having lived in such a way that we want to be like her,  someone whose words and deeds are full of a practical holiness. A woman who was martyred  for her beliefs, a woman who is being quoted by many, whose life is being celebrated on her particular saint’s day, a woman who did not seem to profess a faith in God but who believed deeply in humanity.

Jo Cox had a vision for a just, connected, welcoming and loving society.  She campaigned tirelessly for the oppressed and stood in solidarity with those suffering from injustice. Her life, her beliefs, her unstoppable spirit are an inspiration to many of us – and perhaps to those of us who believe in God – they speak to us of God’s love, God’s kingdom and God’s call to service.

The nation does not need to wait for the Church to tell us that Jo was a saint and declare the 17th of June to be her day. It has happened already. The One Love concert in Manchester did not need a priest or an evangelist to talk about God in a meaningful and accessible way. In fact, last week I found myself using the words of Justin Bieber to talk about God in church in a way that might make sense to those who are not used to sermons, preaching and long services. I hope his words continue to make sense as the tragedy of Grenfell Tower unfolds.

This is what he said:

“I’m not going to let go of hope. I’m not going to let go of love. I’m not going to let go of God. Put your hand up if you’re not going to let go. God is good in the midst of the darkness. God is good in the midst of the evil. God is in the midst, no matter what’s happening in the world, God is in the midst and he loves you and he’s here for you.”

 

Inside and outside the church, inside and outside of what is called religious faith, God is revealing God’s love by raising up people who can talk about love, people who stand up for justice, people who truly love their neighbour as themselves.

People who live as if there is a God of love, as if their own needs are not paramount, as if death is not the end of life are incredibly inspiring. We can all probably name a few people like that. I hear quite a few people who do not profess to believe in God asking why are there not more people like that in our Churches – it is a good question. These people embody God’s love and help other’s believe.

The Catholic church apparently has 810 people it recognizes as saints and one of the things I like about the Anglican cycle of daily prayer is reading about the saints and martyrs celebrated on a calendar each year. Today (June 18th)  the church remembers Bernard Mizeki and you can read a wonderful blog about martyrdom here.

But perhaps some of those people are worth more attention than a couple of paragraphs, once a year.

Yesterday my daughter asked me about St Francis and his relationships with animals as she crammed for A’ level RE. I told her that he preached to birds and then we explored a bit more deeply. St Francis is one of my favourite saints. I think he and Jo Cox would have found a lot in common and in his interaction with a wolf, I found a wonderful model for reconciliation.

In short – there was a wolf that was killing people and terrorising the town. The people did not have capacity to kill the wolf and they asked St Francis to help. He went to the forest, found the wolf and listened to it’s story. (The wolf was injured and couldn’t catch its normal prey so had resorted to humans). St Francis explained the pain and damage the wolf was inflicting on the town and the wolf became remorseful. After a time of prayer, St Francis proposed to the wolf that it should stop killing people,  if they agreed to feed it and the wolf agreed. They return to the town together, the people hear the wolf’s story, agree (after a struggle) to forgive it, keep it fed and it lives with dignity in the town. I have missed much in this retelling – a wonderful, longer version can be found here.

The Church believes in this kind of reconciliation – as do many other people. The world needs this sort of reconciliation.  All sorts of people are being branded wolves, they never have the chance to explain that they are injured, fearful, confused, in need. Conflict is a part of every aspect of life – we need to make reconciliation as common-place.

On Tuesday I heard this quote from Archbishop Justin Welby:

“If the Church is not a place both of conflict and of reconciliation it is not merely hindering its mission and evangelism, appalling as such hindrance is, but it is a failing or failed church. It has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls.

We must be reconciled reconcilers. When that happens we are unbelievably attractive, distinctively prophetic, not because we all agreed but because we disagree with passion in love.”

Reconciliation takes the courage to step into someone else’s shoes and see the world from their eyes. It takes the humility to realise that the whole truth is not contained in one point of view. It takes the commitment to advocate for the other and to risk a potentially hostile response. It takes the love to risk losing your life that others might gain their life.

Jo lived with buckets of empathy and passion. She was killed. Martin Luther King lived with vision and commitment. He was killed. Jesus gave up his life for others. He was killed.

These people remind us of the cost but their legacies remind us of the gain. Can we take the risk to become reconciled reconcilers? Can we be people who can really bring people together and help them see what they have in common. Moving beyond shared lunches, picnics and iftaars will we reach out to those  people right on the margins, to hear the stories of those people who are being excluded and to advocate for them, to be changed by them and to risk our comfort for the sake of others?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With thanks to the Women of Jerusalem

This one has got me. Usually when something violent happens in Europe I have a calm voice in my head which asks why one life nearby is worth more than one overseas. I ask why a White life is more valuable than a Black life. I ask why I feel I should be exempt when millions are affected by violence on a daily basis.  I ask why Facebook pictures are updated in solidarity with France but not with Yemen, why we don’t respond to the daily loss of life in civil wars across the world, why refugees drowned in the Mediterranean do not warrant our grief or attention.

This may make me cold and uncaring up to now, or it may be that my sense of justice has been trumping empathy – whatever it was, today is different for me. My daughter is going to Manchester University in a few months, Ariana Grande played in Birmingham last week, my younger son is just the right age to go to the gig.  Today, in my guts, I know it could have been one of them and it could have been me who had her heart torn out in grief and her guts wrenched with the ‘fierce pain of loss’. My Christian, liberal, humanitarian, principles are in danger of being overwhelmed by the visceral response I have to the idea that someone could deliberately harm my lovely, generous, kind and compassionate children.

Last week I was in Jerusalem traveling with Christians and Jewish people to explore the conflict in Israel-Palestine.  It was a profoundly moving and hopeful visit. Some of the women with whom we were traveling shared what it was like to live in Jerusalem at the time of the Second Intifada. They had experiences of losing family and friends. (As do Palestinians)  They knew what it was like to turn up at a bus-stop minutes after someone had been stabbed and to know it could have been them. They had experienced going out to dinner to find the restaurant had been blown up and friends were no more.

We met women who have lived through this but have given their life to peace, justice and shared society. Women who are waging peace, fighting injustice in court, collaborating for equality and reaching out in friendship, trust and love.

I am so grateful to you that I have had the chance to hear your stories. I am so grateful to have seen hope and perseverance in people who have chosen not to hate. I am so grateful that amidst conflict, people of peace are unbowed and unbeaten. Today I have found hope in a surprising place and defiantly, with my friends from different faiths and backgrounds, I will continue to believe in the power of kindness, compassion, hospitality and ultimately the power of love over death.

This attack in Manchester seems to have been designed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of ordinary people. We can choose defensiveness and division or we can choose to stand together, work together, pray together and love together until the day we see peace in our times.

Becoming – my new favourite word

Up until now I think my most overused word is ‘together’ – I think I am going to replace it with ‘becoming’. Here are three reasons why:

Today, I was overhearing a session with women who have experienced domestic abuse of various kinds. The depth of pain was really moving, the courage inspiring, the hope and determination humbling. But many of those women were very clear that although they were survivors – they are still becoming survivors. They had much to work through and much to regain but they knew they were on the way. They spoke about joy, laughter, the beauty of the world and the goodness of people as discoveries they were making. These women were being supported by Breaking the Silence – a fantastic local Birmingham charity.

Last Wednesday I was at a screening of a wonderful film called Why Can’t I Be Sushi? Through the eyes of two young girls it explores the issue of the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam and asks if it is possible to be simply Muslim – neither Sunni or Shia or both Sunni and Shia. Some of the scholars claim this is just not possible – because the groups hold conflicting beliefs it is not possible to identify with both. In the Q & As after the film a young student suggested that the word becoming might make all the difference. He said: if we were to say we were becoming Muslim and we were not definite yet about all aspects of the faith – could we then hold the different beliefs in tension. Hmm.. I thought, perhaps that could help us Christians too approach areas of doctrine and practice over which we disagree.

Last night in church we were discussing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new book, Dethroning Mammon.  The book poses a huge challenge to Western Christians who are by and large part of a system that encourages us to spend money, save money and invest money before we think about giving it away. Many of our systems gear us up to earn money, to buy what we need to live independently and then to spend more money on greater independence. For example, the richer we become the further our house is from our neighbours, the less likely we are to travel by bus in a shared space, the larger our garden the less need we have of a park. We have no need to borrow anything, we buy the services we need and pay professionals to advise us on our fitness levels, our diet, our emotional wellbeing and our beauty regime.  As we get richer we may choose to purchase our education and our healthcare separately from our neighbour.

Mammon tries to keep up all apart and Christians aren’t excluded. Perhaps we are becoming Christians.

It’s nearly Lent and we are starting to think about repentance and penitence. During the Ash Wednesday service we will be marked with a cross and exhorted to turn away from our sins and follow Christ. If we were already fully Christian – surely we would have already turned from our sins and already be following Christ. Our liturgy understands that we are becoming. Even more than that, perhaps we are becoming together.

Remembering the holocaust

Last night I was asked to speak, after an incredible testimony from Dr Martin Stern, a holocaust survivor, at a meeting of the Birmingham branch of the Council of Christians and Jews. The night before I had been asked to speak at a protest against the Executive Orders banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the US and the ending of the refugee resettlement programme. There were many themes that resonated between the two gatherings. You can read my reflections on the protest here.

This is what I said last night:

I grew up in a vicarage with parents who were keen for us to know about our heritage. I was told as a small child that I am a quarter Jewish, an eighth Irish, and eighth Scottish, an eight welsh and three eighths English. It was always in that order. My Mother’s father was a Jewish man called Lewin Phillips, his parents lived in Frederick Road in Edgbaston and he was a teacher. He had converted to Christianity at Cambridge University and died when my Mum was three – he was in the RAF and died on a bombing raid. My Mum always remember receiving a Christmas present from him after his death. I know very little more about him except he is remembered as a lovely, kind man, a devoted husband and a dedicated father. I also know that very few people attended my Grandparents weddings – neither families being happy with the match.

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My mother with her parents Lewin and Ursula

My family formed me into an active left wing Christian who campaigned about apartheid, went on anti-nuclear marches and saw politics as integral to my faith. Eight years ago, when I was working as the Director of Communications for the Diocese I received an invitation to go to Israel Palestine with Christian Aid and I leapt at the chance.

We stayed in Bethlehem and Nazareth, visiting the holy sites, tourist sites as wells as NGOs, schools and hospitals in the West Bank. I loved my visit, I especially felt at home in Bethlehem and I was impressed and inspired by some of the people I had met and the projects I had seen. However I did feel that part of the story was missing and I regretted that we had not had the opportunity to meet some ordinary Israelis and hear more of their perspective on the conflict. So when I returned I met Ruth Jacobs who then ran the  Israeli Information centre in Birmingham. Ruth encouraged me to think about my Jewish roots, and I began to learn more about the Jewish community in Birmingham – through interfaith dialogue, attending events in Birmingham synagogues and building friendships.

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My ordination followed and then I saw the opportunity to join the Clergy study tour to Yad Vashem – I think the reasons I wanted to go were both personal and political.

So at the very end of October I arrived in Jerusalem for the study tour organised by the Council of Christians and Jews  based at Yad  Vashem the holocaust memorial museum just outside the city in Ein Karem. The name Yad Vashem means a ‘place and a name’ is taken from a verse in the Book of Isaiah: “Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).

The museum includes the valley of Destroyed Communities which represents Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones and contains the names of every Jewish community in Europe affected by the holocaust, the Children’s memorial remembering 1.5 million children who were murdered, the hall of memories  and the  memorial hall which contains ashes from the crematoria at Auschwitz.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that Yad Vashem broke my heart as the reality of six million murdered people hit home and vague statistics assumed their rightful humanity. I am the sort of person who cries at the news but to confront both the depth of evil and breadth of suffering over a ten day period wrought a deep transformation.

The course was carefully structured to give us a three day ‘break’ in the middle where we could reflect on what we had heard and let it settle before our final three days at the Yad Vashem.  In those three days we visited Galilee, explored Jerusalem, went to church and synagogue.

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Lectures at Yad Vahhem  gave us a historical insight into the Jewish life and culture of Eastern Europe before the Shoah we had the chance to think about the theological origins of Judaism, the contemporary conflict and the politics of Zionism. Lectures were interspersed with visits to the museum itself and the surrounding exhibitions and concluded with an incredible testimony from an 89-year-old survivor who spoke with such bravery and resolve.  She spoke of her experiences as a young woman living in Hungary and then being deported during the end of the war – the details of her testimony gave us a shockingly clear picture of the brutality of the camp and the climate of anti-semitism that grew up in Europe, leaving her and her family without a place to call home, even after liberation.

Staying in Jerusalem was an interesting experience in itself although opportunities to get to know the city were slightly limited by the intensity of the course. It was brilliant that our time included a Shabbat service at a local synagogue and a meal afterwards with a Jewish family. Our hosts were very open and had invited friends to join the meal. It was clear that there was not political agreement around the table and issues of religion and faith were also hotly debated. It was brilliant too to see the Jewish faith practiced at home and the way children were included in Shabbat.

Since returning many questions that have been buzzing round my head including how far did Christian beliefs contribute to an environment in which virulent anti-semitism could flourish?  What drives humans beings to so fear the ‘other’ that they want to kill them? What makes someone a perpetrator, a bystander or a rescuer and which would I be? How do we, as parents and religious educators, nurture character so we have far more rescuers and far fewer bystanders and perpetrators?

Reading around this I have come up with three ideas suggesting how we might prepare ourselves to have moral integrity in a crisis

They are:

Firstly: We need to draw from our faith and then be ready to rely on God. There are resources available to us when we are beyond our own human resources. But we make ourselves ready to receive from God by rooting ourselves in the practice of faith.

John Weinder – a rescuer of Jewish people – says this: “My family was Dutch and Christian. Even when we were quite young my parents always encouraged us, my sister and me, to read the Bible and to believe that love was the aim of our lives. My mother and father taught us that Moses got the instruction from God that tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves and we also knew from the Bible that Jesus Christ  who was himself a Jew, had said that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Both at home and at school, our education was directed toward love, compassion and service to others.’

Secondly – and I don’t think this contradicts my first point – we need to not belong to anything so  completely that we stop listening to our own soul and conscience. Researchers found that Christians who rescued Jews all shared a sense of separateness or individuality. They were people who were not unduly influenced by their social environment. They were people who were motivated by moral values that did not depend on the on the support and approval of others. They were usually at peace with themselves and with their own idea of right and wrong and their character had been formed by a long-standing commitment to protect the needy.

Thirdly – we need to remember. To remember means literally to put back together. At Yad Vashem the purpose of the museum is to restore humanity to those who had everything taken from them. We need to remember that humanity is capable of great evil and cruelty and that  goodness in the private sphere is not enough to stop political evil from taking root.

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Understanding what happened to Jews in Europe on a deep level is terrifying. My own family in England have had an unbroken history in Birmingham that spans several centuries.  This picture of a girl in Poland taken between the wars looks like a photo of my mother as a small girl. They share a heritage, they share the same time in history but their futures were worlds apart. What happened in Europe was cataclysmic. Neighbour turned against neighbour. Cultures and communities were destroyed. Hate and fear fuelled a murderous system. Seventy years on it seems impossible to believe it could happen again yet the signs of xenophobia are becoming more and more visible.  With policies banning refugees from America and anti-Muslim legislation is passed, as anti-semitism grows and the refguee crisis in Europe shows no signs of lessening once again I feel we are being asked – as individuals and as a Church – will we be perpetrators or bystanders or will we embrace our calling to be peacemakers.

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I want to leave you this evening with a poem – this is inscribed into a wall by the Memorial to Deportees It reminded me of the simple fact that humanity is one family  and our conflicts are often caused by sibling-like rivalry. The poem is called Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car and was written by Dan Pagis and is simply this:

here in this carload

i am eve

with abel my son

if you see my other son

cain son of man

tell him  i…

Ministering Together

Interfaith work was recently dismissed in a report on integration as ‘saris, samosas and steel drums for the well intentioned’. In Birmingham we find it is so much more as people across the city are regularly coming together, motivated by their faith, to care for people who are facing some kind of hardship. In the last few weeks I have been part of  interfaith groups of people  who have  hosted a party for newly-arrived asylum seekers, taken aid to the ‘jungle’ in Calais, wrapped gifts for refugee families, fundraised for a women’s refuge and today we were distributing food hampers to elderly or vulnerable residents in Balsall Heath.

The distribution was sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover and enabled by Balsall Heath forum a small organisation, itself facing cuts and challenges, that manage to keep in regular contact with the 14,000 people who live in their local neighbourhood. They know the people who are ill, who has been a victim of crime, who is a frail elderly person living alone and who is making the grim choice between heating and eating. Many of the residents had been contacted to let them know the hampers would be given out on December 19th and they were very pleased to see us. As we delivered the parcels we had the chance to chat with people and find out how they were doing. It was clear that behind each door, behind each face, was a world of experience, stories, wisdom and grace.  As one volunteer said during the feedback – we were blessed by the residents, it felt like it was far more beneficial for us than it was for them.

Chatting to the organisers afterwards, their combination of intricate knowledge of their neighbourhood and their deep compassion reminded me of parish life in a small village in the 1980s – when my father was a vicar. While he only had about 1,500 parishoners there was no-one he did not know or nothing that he did not care about. Nowadays the priest looking after those three tiny villages must have another five or six churches in their patch. But knowing people (whether or not they go to church), caring for them in need and enabling others to do the same must surely still be at the heart of the ministry of the Church of England.  Now we have the chance to do it hand in hand with people of different faiths, ethnicities and culture – and I think it means a lot more to all involved  than saris, samosas and steel drums.

 

 

 

Thank you for being an answer to prayer – 30 years later

I don’t think very much. Well I mainly think by talking and I talk quite a lot so maybe I do get to think a fair bit.

Last Monday evening I was speaking to a small group of wonderful women who are one of the Mother’s Union groups that meet at St Peter’s Church in Hall Green, where I am the curate. I had been asked to talk about the work I do outside the parish and I rambled on, as I always do, about the importance of bringing people together. I got passionate about friendships that bridge all kinds of difference and tried to explain with a diagram of boxes and lines. It looks like this:

diagram

What this flurry of lines and scribbles is meant to represent is the boxes of our fragmented society criss-crossed by friendships. The vertical lines indicate the boundaries of ethnicity and faith that can mean we live parallel lives and the horizontal lines indicate the boundaries of class, economics and education that can separate us further. While the lines  of friendship that connect people vertically and horizontally  (i.e. – they either bridge economic difference or religious/ethnic difference but not both) are important I think friendships that bridge both economic and ethnic difference – the diagonal lines – are the most important to build strong, trusting and equal communities.

This has become for me the theoretical understanding of what we are trying to do both in our interfaith work at St Peter’s and through the Near Neighbours programme.

However for me this is much more than theory or work. These relationships have changed my life, transformed my thinking, inspired our family and deepened my faith. I suddenly realised – thinking aloud at the Mother’s Union – that they were an answer to prayer.

In 1989 I co-ordinated an evening on Understanding Islam while I was at university. The speaker, a godly, wise and compassionate Christian priest spoke about the importance of understanding one another and appreciating different faiths. When he had left some of the students with whom I was leading the week’s mission, prayed that this man might become a Christian. I left the meeting deeply saddened and went to my little bedroom/study and prayed that God might show me a Christianity that was free from the prejudices of class, race and privilege. Of course nothing happened instantly but I never forgot that prayer even though I thought it might be impossible to answer.

But with God, nothing is impossible – even though you miss it by thinking that it is.  Driving home a couple of days ago I realised that the answer was emerging: the precious network of friendships that so deeply enrich my life are God’s response to this prayer. The insights I hear, the challenges we face together and the thinking aloud that happens when we are in a room together is beginning to answer my prayer of 1989. There are so many of you answering that prayer that I can’t personally thank you. I hope you know who you are..

 

 

 

Remembrance – reflections from Yad Vashem

A few people have asked me for reflections from our recent trip to Yad Vashem – the holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. Today I preached at the Remembrance Service at St Peter’s – the readings were from Malachi and Luke.

Malachi 4:1-6

4See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

 Luke 21:5-19

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Sermon

Both of today’s Bible readings remind us that there will be times of catastrophe. Times when it feels like the world is going to end and there is little or no chance of survival. For many, this is how it must have felt in the World Wars. When I visited the jungle in Calais, some refugees felt the evictions and bulldozing were the end for them. This time a year ago people on an evening out in Paris experienced a night of horror, lives ended with shocking brutality. Some people in America feel their world is changing beyond recognition now while others feel like there is a positive movement of change.

As many of you know – I have been in Jerusalem for the last two weeks studying the holocaust and for the Jewish people those terrible years certainly felt like the end of the world as they faced horror upon horror. In our Luke reading, written after the destruction of the temple, once again the Jewish people – including those who followed Jesus – would have felt that their world had ended.

Today’s readings offer people in the midst of the storm of life something to hold on to. A sense of order in the chaos and the hope of justice in the devastation. The idea that it is possible to maintain through endurance some kind of integrity. And with that comes the idea that God has not abandoned his creation and remains somehow present in the worst horrors we can imagine. Gisel, an 89 year old survivor of Auschwitz concluded her 2 hour testimony by saying to us – God was with me, through it all. God is the greatest thing in the universe.

Times of war, famine, danger and persecution show our humanity in its purest form. When life is easy and unchallenging we can all seem like pretty decent people, minding our own business, earning a living and bringing up our families.

When our lives are threatened and the structures disappear the reality of our human state is writ large. Again in Calais I saw this – generosity alongside abject poverty, violence lurking alongside altruism, protectiveness alongside survival instincts.

In war times we hear similar stories – stories of courage, friendship, sacrifice and leadership set in a world of violence, hardship, terror and uncertainty.  We see in short, life in death and we see God’s presence in the actions of our neighbours.

After the devastation of the holocaust, many people have asked ‘where was God’ and many people both Christian and Jewish have lost their faith. The theologian Dorothee Solle says: “God was very weak at that time, because he had no friends in Germany. According to the tradition, God has no other hands than ours, and during the Shoah, God was very alone. God is indeed in need of humans.”

I would say God had a few friends – there were of course those who supported and rescued Jewish people across Europe – people of no faith, Christians and Muslims.

Eva Fleischner writes: “We should not think of people who helped Jews during the holocaust as heroes or saints, not only because they would refuse this label, but because it would let us off the hook too easily ….these are flesh and blood creatures who embody the potential for goodness that exists in all of us.”

At the end of the today’s reading from Luke, Jesus promises his disciples that by endurance the disciples will gain their souls or perhaps their lives. Those who rescued the Jews are examples of people who have endured and remain with their soul or their life. They are commemorated at Yad Vashem where I studied as the Righteous among the nations.

In a book I was reading while I was away the main character is involved in a car crash as a passenger in a taxi in Bombay. After a while a mob forms and begins beating the driver who caused the accident. Greg, the narrator of the book, is horrified by his own inaction. He says: “Sometimes what we call cowardice is being taken by surprise while what we call courage is simply being well prepared.”

So how do we prepare ourselves to endure, how do we prepare for times when courage is needed.

I would like to offer three ideas:

Firstly: We need to draw from our faith and then be ready to rely on God. In the Luke reading, Jesus promises the disciples that God will give them the words they need when they are under the most extreme pressure.  There are resources available to us when we are beyond our own human resources. But we make ourselves ready to receive from God by rooting ourselves in faith.

John Weinder – a rescuer of Jewish people – says this: “My family was Dutch and Christian. Even when we were quite young my parents always encouraged us, my sister and me, to read the Bible and to believe that love was the aim of our lives. My mother and father taught us that Moses got the instruction from God that tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves and we also knew from the Bible that Jesus Christ  who was himself a Jew, had said that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Both at home and at school, our education was directed toward love, compassion and service to others.’

Secondly – and I don’t think this contradicts my first point – we need to not belong to anything so  completely that we stop listening to our own soul and conscience. Some commentators say that Jesus in the Luke passage is interrupting the people who are too bound up in the importance of the temple. He is trying to point them beyond the institution to something deeper. Equally researchers found that Christians who rescued Jews all shared a sense of separateness or individuality. They were people who were not unduly influenced by their social environment. They were people who were motivated by moral values that did not depend on the on the support and approval of others. They were usually at peace with themselves and with their own idea of right and wrong and their character had been formed by a long-standing commitment to protect the needy.

Thirdly – we need to remember. To remember means literally to put back together. Today we remember those killed in Paris exactly a year ago and we mourn the senseless loss of life when hatred stalked the streets of a neighbouring city.  At Yad Vashem the purpose of the museum is to restore humanity to those who had everything taken from them. Today we remember those who gave their lives in the service of the nation, whose lives were cut short, sacrificed for our safety. This time last year Bob (from our congregation) told me the story of four young engineers who were killed when a landmine caught in a tree in Sparkhill exploded as they sought to diffuse it. Hours before they had diffused a bomb buried 22 feet down in the garden of a nine-year-old boy – that boy is now 85 and  continues to thank them for saving his life.

In our worship, week by week, we remember Jesus who modeled for us unquenchable love – love that is willing to lay down its life for its  friends. In our remembering of divine love we are made fully human – capable of endurance in times of conflict, of loving in times of hatred, of living when death is all around. And so, with gratitude for those we remember today, let us live with love burning in our hearts and, whatever is happening around us let us never forget that love is what makes us human, love is what makes us like Jesus.