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.

slide1

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.

slide2

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.

slide5

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.

slide6

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.

slide7

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.

Reflections from the Calais ‘Jungle’

This weekend I have felt heartsick. I have been (even more) addicted to my phone – watching and reading every bulletin that comes out of the Calais camp. Just a week ago we were there – only for two hours, but in that short time we saw humanity writ large and I feel like I left part of myself in the makeshift town of thwarted aspiration, resilience, community and conflict.

The three of us that literally popped over to Calais on a Sunday afternoon were asked to reflect on our visit for the Church of England Blog – I was reluctant given how many other people have a far more profound connection but we gave it a go. On the day we dropped off our suitcases and rucksacks the particular warehouse we visited had already had 30 loads of aid dropped off. We met people who have donated a year of their time, others who have left jobs and families. These people were doing all they could to be with those who were risking their lives to get to the UK. In both refugee and volunteer was hope and despair, weakness and strength, compassion and irritation, fear and love  – humanity writ large. And that humanity has got under my skin. Our blog is below:

Sitting in a meeting, planning what we, a group of friends from different faiths who live in South Birmingham, could do to support people living in the Calais ‘jungle’ I glance at my phone. There is an appeal for suitcases and rucksacks as thousands of people prepare for an eviction.

I had no idea that two weeks later I would be sitting in a café on the camp, eating a delicious meal of Afghani eggs, spinach and chicken having delivered around 100 pieces of luggage, tents, sleeping bags and some winter clothes to a warehouse in Calais.

The aid was donated by two churches, one Anglican church where I am a curate and one free church where another member of the group, Fred, worships.  The loaded minibus was lent to us by Birmingham’s Central mosque, where one of our friends, Abdullah, has many connections.

We only spent about two hours at the camp. We met people there and at the warehouse who had given days, weeks, months and even years to be with and build relationship with this fragile community.

I have talked political footballs before but never have I seen it.  The anxiety and grief is almost tangible among the people in the camp. As we sat with volunteers from the youth service, a stream of young men came and asked for some kind of certainty, hungry for hope, unsettled by the threat of eviction.  Bulldozing the jungle is not only about moving people’s location – it is about taking away the infrastructure that offers flimsy support, severing relationships that offer some comfort, breaking up communities of people who have roots in the same countries and disrupting the work of schools, libraries, warehouses, faith groups and humanitarian workers.

I was not expecting to spend time at the camp but Fred had a contact there, a young woman from his church, who is working with the youth service.  Fred says:

‘We met  Dannie who has been working in the Jungle as a volunteer for several months in the grandly titled role of Female Minors Education Co-ordinator for the Refugee Youth Service, teaching English to refugee children. We thought we would give her some encouragement, some warm socks and some lactose-free milk as a treat, and in return she took us into the camp and shared something about life there, enabled us to feel the atmosphere and meet a few people, both residents and volunteers. It cannot be overstated how tough life is there and how tense the atmosphere is, with a permanent under-current of violence and oppression where extremely impoverished people anxiously await details of the arrangements for the closure – no one expects a positive ending and there are few causes for hope and optimism.

‘Dannie  is an extraordinary young woman in her early twenties who saw reports of the camp from her home in Birmingham, responded by making a few visits with donations and then signed up as a volunteer. The experience has inevitably changed her. It was really humbling for three middle aged people to have their safety in the hands of this diminutive young woman who understands how the camp works, knows the unwritten rules, is alert to the danger signals and yet retains an obvious warmth and compassion in her relationships. She is not unique and there are many like her, particularly women, who invest their energies and skills and an enormous amount of emotional energy in the people they support, particularly the young. As the tension builds the camp residents expect them to know what the authorities have planned but they know as little as anyone else.

‘When asked how long she will be there, Dannie replied ‘For the duration whatever that looks like!’ – a challenge to us day trippers who merely had to drive for a few hours back to our safe homes in the Midlands, a journey closer than travelling to Cornwall. I am left celebrating that there are courageous people who are willing to draw on their faith to stand and work alongside those who need them most and lamenting that this is travesty is happening on our doorstep and nothing  suggests that there will be a positive resolution.’

For Abdullah the collaboration across faiths and the relaxed friendships within our group are a sign of hope – in a situation when hope is at short supply.

He says :‘We wanted to respond -this led to a last minute scramble for minibus, all types of bags and tents – But how would this be possible in only a few days?

‘It was all possible because Central Mosque allowed us use of the mini-bus, the amazing Christian community stepped in and collected a van load of bags and tents.  All that was left to do was delivering the aid in the name of God and humanity to the persecuted and less fortunate.

‘The journey across country and into Calais was made by me, Jessica and Fred, a group of cross faith friends who wanted to make a difference and bring hope.  It was a fantastic journey which took us from one country to another within a day, into the unit in on the outskirts of the town and finally into the jungle which was both charming with a community atmosphere, but also could become sinister and edgy at the drop of a hat as we were about to find out.

‘The amazing volunteers at the warehouse were from all over the world and they all helped to unload the bags, and while making us tea told us of horrific stories of neglect and suffering the refugees faced on a daily basis.  They were amazing, but even more amazing was Dannie, the young  Christian volunteer who wears her heart on her sleeve, and when taking us into the heart of the jungle was shown amazing affection by the residents of the camp.  The community spirit in the jungle was clear to see, but nothing would be possible without the amazing volunteers who are doing all they can to make their lives more bearable in the face of such difficulties and adversity.

‘As we drove back I felt in more connection with my Christian brother and sister, Fred and Jess, and I saw the same humanity in them that I feel in my heart as a Muslim.  Then why do we try and separate and differentiate?  I know that through conversations and dialogue we can overcome so much, and truly understanding what each other stands for can definitely bring us more closely together.

‘I do not know what will become of the amazing refugees living so desperately, yet smiling, and how they will cope with losing the place they have made home.  The jungle is a thriving community and its inhabitants have made it as close to normal that you can get in such circumstance.   But what now?  So many questions, but we have decided as brothers and sisters from other faiths that we will continue our mission in coming weeks, months and years to reach out to those less fortunate, and spread the word of God through our actions.

‘May we all get to know one another as much as I have got to know Fred, and Jessica, and I pray for everyone to live in peace and harmony.’

Our little group, Balsall Heath Solidarity, was planning a longer trip to volunteer at the warehouse in December. We would be people from Jewish, Muslim and Christian backgrounds aged from 17 to mid-50s but of course we have no idea if we can go and what will be there by then. But what we do know is that people who we are told are ‘other’ from us can become our good friends. We can share sorrow and joy together as we did in that minibus. We can laugh and weep together. We can be inspired by the faith of the other and celebrate our differences.

The young men we met in the camp are no more ‘other’ than my neighbour in Balsall Heath. The 13-year-old who has experienced unspeakable traumas on a perilous journey has the same emotions as my son.

As Christians we believe we will be judged on how we responded to people who have no clothes, who are hungry and thirsty, who are strangers or imprisoned. (Matthew 25 31-46). The faith communities must continue to campaign, the people must pray and we must learn in our neighbourhoods the practice of our faith in hospitality and generosity.

Jessica Foster with Abdullah Rehman and Fred Rattley.

Be perfect – or be merciful?

The Bible verse, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5 v 48) has been a stand out verse for me through most of my adulthood. It may be that it fits so well with our zeitgeist. Perfection is touted by cosmetic companies, young beautiful bodies are airbrushed to sell products, kids can score 100% in a literature GCSE or A Level (and feel disappointed with 98%!) and social media allows us to view the edited showreels of a myriad of lives leading us to believe that our friends and neighbours and celebrity role models are  living a more perfect life than us. I realise I have written about this and this verse in a blog nearly two years ago

A few months ago, in Richard Rohr’s daily newsletter, he claimed that this verse has been poorly translated into English and should read, Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful. When I read this I literally felt the weight of expectation lift. I hardly dared believe he could be right but a cursory google reveals that many people agree – it should mean love impartially as your Father loves impartially. And in the context of loving your enemy this makes a lot of sense.

I think the Church as well as the world lives with the weight of trying to be perfect and I think it is limiting us. If we are trying to be perfect we will burn out by trying to meet everyone’s expectations. We will never say no to any demands however unreasonable they may be. If we are trying to be perfect we can never allow ourselves to fail. This means we cannot risk anything and so we cannot innovate because whenever we try anything new there is a risk of it failing. If we are trying to be perfect we can never be vulnerable. Being vulnerable means honestly admitting our imperfections and limitations and working with them.

I had no idea how it would feel to lose a parent and grief has left me vulnerable. I keep saying to myself ‘you are really not yourself at the moment.’ But of course that is ridiculous. I am myself but a different version of myself. One that finds sermons harder to write, that has less capacity, that is more tired and less good-humoured.

My good friends have pointed me to two TED talks by Brene Brown that my earlier version of myself might well have dismissed. She talks about vulnerability as the birthplace of creativity and the beginning of honesty. She also talks about shame and how the feeling of being not quite perfect haunts us and makes us feel unacceptable. Being vulnerable encourages empathy and empathy defeats shame. The links are here for shame and here for vulnerability.

I have been reading Jonathan Sack’s book Not in God’s Name which sheds some wonderful light on stories from the Hebrew Bible. He reminds the reader that God constantly chooses the vulnerable, who are not necessarily the weak. For me this was most clearly illustrated by the story of Jacob who is renamed Israel after a wrestling match with God and restored into right relationship with his family – but only after receiving an injury from an angel. In my training for ordination too, many people spoke of being called following or during  time of breaking and remoulding. I know I have felt closest to God in times of illness, failure or sadness.

As a Christian, I am of course aware that the crucified Jesus we worship was vulnerable but I am not sure how comfortable we feel with that vulnerability. We prefer perhaps images of power, victory and glory. Somehow we have turned the image of a suffering human enduring torture into an image of power and sometimes of partiality.

Loving impartially makes us very vulnerable. We are much safer if we take sides, we feel stronger when we can judge others and we feel better about ourselves if we can dismiss those who make us feel uncomfortable. I love the 5th chapter of Matthew but when I hear verse 48 I think I will hear Be vulnerable as my Father in heaven is vulnerable and rather than being bound by perfection I will be free to take risks, love courageously and present myself to the world more honestly.

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Success is not on a CV

Just over a month ago I wrote a blog about my Dad, my polestar. It focussed on what he had done in his life and read in some ways like a CV of his work and interests. But Dad did not climb any church heirarchies, he didn’t see these decades of creativity as a success and he would have been amazed to know his obituary would appear in the Church Times.

Since Dad died, just over five weeks ago, my Mother has received a steady stream of cards and letters full of stories of the way in which Dad has touched people’s lives in numerous ways. These are not, generally, stories of organisations founded, books published, promotions or career success. They are all stories of relationship, encounter and character.

They are stories of dropping in to visit someone (albeit wearing a cycle helmet back to front), delighting in lending someone threadbare socks when their designer kit had got soaked, making drinks for an unexpected guest in a silk dressing gown, gentle mentoring with right word at the right time or a lifetime of steady friendship.

There are words that re-occur in the letters and cards: holy, humble, human and hospitable and time and time again people refer to the beautiful relationship that my parents had forged together which inspired others and bought comfort and security to those around them.

Many of the cards mention Dad’s love for places in which he has lived, the vision he would have for a place and his belief in the inate worth of all that God has created. I think both his love and vision were born out of his commitment to prayer- he faithfully made time to read, meditate, study and reflect early in the morning and had a steady pattern of prayer throughout the day.  Someone commented that he taught them to pray just by the way that he prayed.

Dad showed me so much in life and of course I miss him keenly every day. But in his death he has shown me perhaps more. Success cannot be quantified, it has nothing to do with career progression, titles and honours. It is not even about original ideas, initiatives and programmes. It is certainly not about being perfect – and of course, like any child, I know my parent’s failings.

“Tony always sought to build rather than destroy,” “You always felt better for seeing him,” “He was full of wisdom and compassion,”His smile was heavenly.” These are not the phrases found on a successful CV, this is what people say about you when you seek to live, loving God and loving your neighbour. This is the success I am seeking. I need to start by being less busy, perhaps less CV-focussed and finding my time of day to pray.

Our Father – who art now in heaven

On Monday my father died. We were there and it was peaceful. It was probably as good as it could be. But as one of my friends commented to another – Jess has lost her polestar. It’s true – I could navigate by my father’s life.

I don’t know who was my father’s polestar but from his earliest life he has travelled in the same direction. As I lay thinking about him in the hours after his death I thought of the decades he has spent working for peace – peace that is dynamic and energetic, peace that includes justice, equality, wholeness for all and care for all creation.

Last month I spent a weekend with my parents and my sister. He told me for the first time about being at Cambridge in the early 1950s. He said he was saddened by the divide between grammar school boys and public school boys like himself. He tried to invite people from grammar school to socialise in his rooms but he found they wouldn’t come so he went to their rooms instead. He noticed that at meals in his college the public school boys and the grammar school boys sat together so he decided to sit with a different group of people every night. He said that by the end of it he often sat alone in the dining room!

He did his national service in the navy but turned down a role as an officer to spend time on the ‘lower deck’ – it was a formative time for him but not an easy one. In the 60s he won my mother over, became interested in communities and worked for Christian Aid – trying to end global inequality and support the development of the global south.

I got to know him in the 70s. In 1972 he founded Little Gidding Community – based on the priniciples of prayer, hospitality and care for creation. There he welcomed anyone who needed a refuge – a practice he continued for the rest of his life. In about 1978 when he was chair of governors at the local primary school he set up a twinning scheme with a school in Bedford. It was through this scheme that I made my first Muslim friend – I remember her climbing trees in our garden and me being give ice cream and fizzy drinks at her home.

In the 80s we moved to the Peak District and he help to found a Housing Association so that people born in this beautiful part of the world could afford to live there. He also championed rural theology, concerned that the issues of the countryside would be forgotten as the church focused on the urban environment.

Later in life he took on a church that was in a tradition that did not favour the ordination of women – by the time he left, with his support and encouragement, two women from the congregation had been ordained. He campaigned at the G8 summit in Genoa, built links with Denmark and the Folk High School movement, helped to run the Lifestyle Movement and campaigned for Caroline Lucas – doorknocking in Brighton before the 2015 elections.

Just a year ago, to celebrate his 80th birthday,  he walked 80 miles in about 10 days – raising £17,500 for Freedom for Torture. We didn’t know then that he had already had a small stroke. He biked, he rowed, he listened, he encouraged, he smiled and twinkled, he made time for people and he danced (oh, the embarrassment) whenever he could. He loved my mother absolutely and in every way, despite their differences.  The relationship they forged together, through grace and determination, is simply beautiful.

The tributes, cards and messages are pouring in. He touched many people’s lives and people are glad they had known him.

There was a Desmond Tutu meme floating around the internet recently that reminded me of my Dad.(How I wish I had shared it and tagged him in it) It said something like; “To be Christ-like is not to be flawless but it is to be someone who brings out the best in the people around them.”

Dad did that for people, whether they were old friends or people he had only just met For me, its been a joy to have known him all my life. Of course, I hardly told him that. He encouraged me in my career as a journalist, gently steered me out of unhelpful relationships, brought humour to every family gathering, rejoiced with me when I was ordained deacon….the list could go on for ever. But above all he lived his own life to the full and by doing so he was my polestar. Because of him, shaped by him, influenced by him I will continue to do what I do and I pray the wisdom, prayerfulness, patience and practice of unconditional hospitality may follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Could Judas be in heaven?

It is apostle time of year in the Church of England at the moment. On Wednesday it was St Peter and then today it is St Thomas’s day. While these were two holy men they are perhaps remembered for their weaknesses.  Peter’s best known moment is  his denial of Jesus, Thomas’ is  his refusal to believe in the resurrection.  But Jesus reaches out to both men in their weakness and restores them to faith. Both of these stories speak of Jesus’ compassion for his friends, his infinite forgiveness and patience and his determination to maintain his friendships with his closest companions. These stories bring us comfort, encourage us to forgive ourselves and allow us to trust that despite our imperfection we can be counted as followers of Jesus.

But with Judas things are a little different. Despite the fact that Judas was called as an apostle, spent time with Jesus and was part of his inner circle we seem to believe that his sin was not forgiven, despite his repentance,  after betraying his friend for 30 coins there is no reconciliation. His story ends with him hanging himself.

I have to admit I did not have many quiet moments on my recent ‘silent retreat’. I could not stop myself being involved in the planning and preparation for the launch of the Love Your Neighbour campaign last Friday. But in both the Eucharist services I went to, one word jumped out at me as if it were spoken in neon. It is contained in a sentence I have heard at every communion I go to – it is simply this: ‘He took the cup and said: “Drink this all of you..”‘ The words Jesus said to his disciples at the  Last Supper.  My word was ‘all‘.  And for the first time I realised somewhere deep, that ‘all ‘included Judas, already known by Jesus as his betrayer, who was sitting round the table at the Last Supper. If Judas the betrayer had been included in this meal of communion, which we call a ‘foretaste of the heavenly banquet’, could it be possible that he was included in heaven? Could there have been a reconciliation and restoration for Judas as there was for Thomas and Peter?

If you grow up as a Christian, Judas is really only seen as a pantomime villain, but of course there is much more to him that the whopping mistake he made. And even his mistake can be looked at with fresh eyes.

Over the years I  have found the enneagram really helpful for thinking about myself and other people. It divides people into 9 types which can then be seen on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy. I think that Judas shares my type – a number six that looks for security and will try to find ways of making the world safe by being part of structures, institutions and clinging to certainty and power. Judas’s preoccupation with money and his desire to be part of the establishment showed his lack of trust in the Jesus’s loving, generous and dynamic movement. Judas wanted certainty and security through wealth and association with the powerful. This is a dynamic which drives much of how we live (and vote) today.We have come to believe that by having more and being more powerful we are saved – we are sold an illusion of safety and security. I think I have always known that in some ways I am like Judas and therefore his final estrangement from God is troubling. He made a hideous mistake – his weakness and fearfulness triggered his greed and he sold his friend. But can God’s love reach into his darkness, the regret, the hell he found himself in and restore him? Is there a possibility of absolution for Judas? Could he now be reconciled to Jesus and feasting at the heavenly banquet?

The gospels don’t tell us much about the apostles. They are almost like figures in a morality play and perhaps in some ways the represent our own attributes, failings and strengths as we journey in faith. The doubt of Thomas represents a necessary step into deeper faith, Peter reminds us that we can get it very right and very wrong virtually at the same moment and Andrew reminds us that sometimes the most important thing we can do is enable others and then step into the background.

We doubt any of them are flawless yet they all have things to teach us. Judas acts as a warning but perhaps too his story reminds us that the very worst of us and the very worst parts of us can be included. ‘Drink this all of you…..’