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…..’





Judgement Day

I can still remember where I was sitting when I first heard the idea, over 10 years ago, that judgement is not necessarily linked to punishment. It was one of those light bulb moments which made God look different, the world look different and my understanding of myself look different. It burst a bubble of fear that punishment was somehow inevitable, that the only thing that could happen after judgement was sentencing.

And so 10 years later I can say without too much fear that I think we are being are judged. We are being shown they way things are. A spotlight is being shone on us. Not to punish us but to ask us to respond. Not to make us wallow in guilt but to enable us to face the truth.

And in the tradition of all things Christian and preachy I think this is a threefold judgement, delivered by 17 million people on Friday 24th June 2016.

It was a judgement on us as a nation. It revealed to us the flaws and fractures that are criss-crossing British society. It showed a gulf in the dreams of young people and the vision of their grandparents. It showed a divide between people of  different backgrounds – between graduates and non-graduates, between haves and have-nots, between those who feel like they have some power and those who feel they have been ignored continually, berated by the chattering classes and conned by Etonian politicians and bankers. It expressed an anger of unattended hurt, unheard anxiety and unallayed fears. It also reminded us that some people in the UK want to care beyond Europe and voted to leave in order to build closer links with Asia, Africa and the Americas but their voice is barely heard. It may challenge those of us who voted remain to enlarge our vision, broaden our identity and increase our generosity.

It was a judgement on us as a Church. The Church of England is an established church, the church of the nation whose clergy  have responsibility for the wellbeing of the souls of every person who dwells in this land. Our leaders came out as supporting remain but we did not capture the imagination of the people of our country. Maybe we did not dare to suggest to our congregations that their faith should impact on their politics. Did we allow people to think how their beliefs might shape their votes?  Did we give room for people on both sides of the debate to talk to each other about their convictions? Can we do it now?  We have amazing resources and connections in this country. How are we going to use them well? How will we speak to idealistic younger people? How will we hear the voices of people who feel they have no power? How will we connect with people from across the economic spectrum? How will we encourage leaders that are not from middle-class backgrounds? We have been judged – we can’t ignore these questions.

It was a judgement on me as a human being.  I have about 400 friends on Facebook and I would like to think they are a pretty diverse bunch. But before the referendum I did not read one comment from a friend arguing the leave position. I am still to have a face-to-face conversation in which someone has said they are pleased with Friday’s result. One of my friends simply posted today: “I live in a bubble” – and so do I. I like bubbles – I like them in hot-tubs and I like them in prosecco but I realise I cannot live in one. If I stay in my bubble I will never understand half of my neighbours. Then it becomes too easy to categorise and dismiss them, to accuse them of ignorance and xenophobia and to denigrate their decision. I need to make some new friends. I need to hear some different opinions and some new voices. I need to burst my complacent bubble and really learn who is my neighbour.

As people who claim to follow Jesus, we may need to be friends with people who cannot yet be friends with one another, messengers of peace to people who do not yet speak to one another and agents of God’s love to people who have been hurt by one another. God is our judge but God is also our stregnth, our hope and our redeemer. God can burst our bubbles and Jesus shows us how – loving and listening, building a diverse bunch of followers into a close-knit group of friends, challenging without rejecting and constantly refusing to take the easy route of hatred, violence, contempt and disdain.





Why I Welcome Ramadan

Five minutes ago I walked into the house. Its ten to ten at night and my youngest son shouts from his bedroom – there are samosas on the table. And there are.  Crispy vegetarian samosas – one for each member of the family – and they are still hot.

These samosas, along with all sorts of other delicious meals and snacks, have been arriving in Ramadan most days for the last 10 years or so. They are cooked by my neighbour who began her fast today. In the last few years we have shared much more than food over the fence – we talk about prayer, parenting, how faith affects our daily life and weather, washing and children.

As an interfaith worker, I am invited to join my friends as they break their fast in mosques and restaurants, in community centres and banqueting suites. I go as often as I can and I have learnt from this hospitality to invite my friends to come with me to church at Christmas or Easter.

Last year, at St Peter’s Hall Green, where I am a curate, we decided to offer hospitality in our church building and we were delighted that about 80 people came together to break the fast – sharing an Iftaar meal.  This year we are accepting the hospitality of a local community centre and working with them to offer hospitality to some of the people living in Birmingham who are refugees from Syria and to women who do not come from Muslim families, but have converted (reverted) to Islam and often break the fast alone.

As a church we are learning about the dimensions of both offering and receiving as we explore hospitality together and learn how to build bridges with our neighbours from different faith communities.

For me, the hospitality of being both a guest and host is at the heart of the Gospel.  Jesus knew how to be a good guest – I would have loved him to be at my wedding when the wine ran out – and a great host, washing the feet of his tired and dusty guests. The hospitality of God offers us fullness of life on earth and the promise of eternal life. The Holy Spirit built community at Pentecost that broke through cultural and ethnic divides and continues to draw people together both inside and outside the church.

Hospitality turns the stranger into a friend; it opens the door to reconciliation and urges us to see the world through the eyes of another.  It might start with a samosa but it could end by opening our hearts, minds and spirits to love our neighbour as our self.

This blog was written  on Monday (6th JUne) for the Church Of England blog

Rethinking decline

A couple of weeks ago I was at a Christian-Jewish study day during which a rabbi suggested that when God promises land, that promise may be conditional on moral behaviour and right relationship with God.

At first I didn’t think much about this. As a Christian I don’t feel as if I have been promised any particular part of the earth.  Our scriptures remind us that we are citizens of heaven or called to seek the reign of God that doesn’t have a geographical location.

Over the last few days  this idea has been swirling around my mind as I have started to think what it might mean to me as a Christian. While theoretically the Church is not associated with any part of land it has, for much of its history, had territory. Since the alignment with the Roman Empire the church has gained and lost ground. Since the days of Henry VIII this little island has been considered a Christian country.

But research being quoted this week shows that certainly in this corner of creation the Church is losing territory.  Far fewer people than ever identify as Christians – in the UK the percentage of people describing themselves as non-religious rose to 48.5% in 2014 whereas the number of people describing themselves as Anglican plunged from 44.5% in 1983 to 19% in 2014.

Church leaders, statisticians and strategists have been aware of decline for decades now. We have theorised and blamed – blamed the culture, the fragmentation of society, rampant consumerism, the media, new moral codes and changing family patterns. We have blamed our worship, our clergy, our buildings and our leaders. But have we looked at our behaviour and our fundamental relationship with God?

I remember the writer Elaine Storkey saying about 20 years ago that the Church cannot recruit unless we have the moral high ground and I have been mulling that over ever since. Do we think God has anything to do with either our growth or decline or do we look simply to modernisation and mission initiatives?

This week we have been told it’s mission or extinction for the church. But might it be repentance or lose ground? I love the Church of England deeply – it has nurtured me from birth and I have seen its kindness, its beauty, its humanity and its love. But I know it well enough to know it is flawed. So flawed that according to recent research published in the Invisible Church study there are thousands of people, possibly millions, who love God, want to follow Jesus, read their Bible and pray but can’t or won’t go to church.

I don’t think God is punishing the Church with decline but I think it is possible that there is a judgement happening.  Judgement calls us to examine ourselves, to change, to look honestly beyond the gloss and spin and to try and see truthfully.

Nor do I believe that God is abandoning the Church. If the Church, as I know it, does decline, I believe that there will be new shoots of faith emerging. In fact there are already shoots of growth both inside and outside the established Churches and denominations.

One of those shoots of growth that is blossoming across denominations is in the astonishing rise in Christian social action. Might there be a church emerging that sides with the poor, that is in solidarity with the oppressed, that risks the work of reconciliation and stands defiantly against greed and exploitation.

Most mission initiatives try to make it easier for people to join the church but I think if we made it harder, perhaps really hard, we might see growth that is far deeper and more transformative than we could imagine, as, really believing in our calling to follow Jesus, we begin again the ground of the Kingdom of God .

Who is your enemy? A note to the posh among us….

At different times of my life, different parts of the Lord’s Prayer have been extremely important to me. (At the moment it is: ‘On earth as it is on heaven’ but that is for another time. About five years ago it was ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’  It struck me that if we did not have people to forgive we were probably not doing the Christian thing right. We weren’t trusting people enough, letting people close enough to us, risking enough or being generous enough.

I was reminded of this again today at a meeting of Christian leaders in Birmingham who had gathered to discuss the subject of ‘reconciliation.’ We got on to talking about enemies,  in particular loving our enemies,  and many of us around the room (but not all of us) concurred that we didn’t have many, if any, enemies.

This might seem like a good thing. It might even seem like an admirable, Christian thing, but it is worth remembering that Jesus did have plenty of enemies and we were challenged about whether we are doing enough truth-telling in our churches and in our neighbourhoods.

What also emerged out of the conversation was that we might not think we have enemies but we might be regarded as enemies by certain people.  This was bought home to me recently by a meme circulating on Facebook about Jeremy Hunt at the time of the doctors’ strike.

Frankie Boyle

While I am not as posh as Jeremy Hunt and I failed my Oxbridge interview, my background is not that dissimilar to his. (A good friend recently described me as ‘salt of the earth posh’) Many of my school-friends are from this background and many of them (not all) are wonderfully compassionate people who have plenty of empathy. But this meme was liked and shared by people I like and I realised that my friends from teenage days and I are regarded by many as an enemy.

In journalism you can commit a group libel if you say something that incriminates a small cluster of people meaning individuals can be identified. I guess this kind of enemy-creation is a group thing. And it’s entirely understandable. But what it means to me is that I have enemies – I can be judged for things outside my control. Things like my Government’s foreign policy, the actions of my ancestors, my accent or my skin colour. Some groups of people have known that for ever.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Writing as someone from a privileged and central position in society, this now offers me a new challenge. Who are the people who might have reason to be angry with me beacuse of my privilege? Who are people who have suffered at the hands of people like me? Who are the people who have been excluded where I have been included? These are the people I am called to love. I have been spending the last 5 years of my life banging on about making friends with people but now I think I will go out and look for my enemies – and when I recognise them, I hope I will be compelled by the love of God among us to seek justice with them with a renewed vigour and urgency.

The problem with lust

I have to own up that lust is not something I have ever thought very much about. It’s not talked about much in polite circles. It seemed to me to be odd that the passing awareness that someone was ‘easy on the eye’ was a cardinal sin. I was dimly aware that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says it is a problem – although not so much for straight women.

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5 v 28.

I found myself wrestling with this verse last week after agreeing to preach on the 7th commandment at a family-friendly evening service at St Peter’s. I really should know my Bible better. I wished I had realised as the rota was being prepared that the seventh commandment is about adultery. Maybe I would have found something else to do that evening.

So how to make adultery all age relevant? We got to a good start with them main reading which was the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel Chapter 11. Studying that reading and thinking how David displeased the Lord I saw a pattern emerging that made me wonder if lust had been misunderstood.

If you read the chapter you will see that David regards everyone in it, women, men and children, as objects that can meet his needs. Bathsheba is there for him to sleep with, he then tries to manipulate her husband Uriah to cover up his wrongdoing, Joab his commander is used for David’s ends, he even attempts to manipulate the identity of the unborn baby in the story. “And the Lord was displeased by what David had done.” v 27.

So in our service we talked about the difference between people and things. It might seem obvious that people are not things and things are not people but it seems too easy for us to turn people into things for our own use. And perhaps that is what it means to look at someone lustfully. We stop seeing in them in their entirety, created by God, with their own will, desires, conscience and soul and we start regarding them as something that will do something for us. Something that will make us feel better, make us look good, earn us money or get us out of trouble.

This attitude lies at the root of some of the besetting evils we see today. A few weeks ago there was a horrific picture circulating on the internet of the bodies of a woman and child tossed into the sea having had their organs removed by traffickers. I can’t get the image of the crude stitching across their torsos out of my mind. The humanity of these people had been completely disregarded – it is a picture that makes me want to weep.

We know it happens. It happens when people are trafficked, when children are exploited, when frail elderly people are abused and when women are raped. It happens particularly in wars. It happens when people misuse their power over other people. It happens when groups of people are constantly vilified and demonised in public discourse.

But it can also happen in ways that are less easy to spot and in ways that make us realise that we ourselves are not without sin. I do not know who made my clothes yet it is likely that someone was exploited in their making. That person’s life is diminished for my convenience. We have all seen children suddenly being friends with the child who is having a party or as parents we have felt frustrated when our children have ‘shown us up’ simply by being children.

Driving to church today, preparing to deacon at the Eucharist, it dawned on me that while sin turns beings into objects, for us the sacrament of communion turns objects into beings. In one of the versions of the prayer of consecration, used at St Peter’s on a Wednesday, the bread and wine are referred to as ‘thy creatures.’

Love too carries the same power. My parents told me a beautiful story last week about going on retreat together. If you know them, you can imagine them telling this story over the phone, both chipping in from different receivers.

They told me that they had just come back from a retreat  – the first one they had been on together for more than 50 years. When they had gone on retreat in the early days of their marriage it had been a disaster. My mum had sat on her top bunk reading her Good Housekeeping magazines while my dad had joined in the prayers and study of the retreat. By the end he was furious that she wouldn’t join in as fully as he expected her to while she felt she needed a good rest and didn’t see why she couldn’t take time out in her way. They agreed they would not go on retreat again together.

This time it had been different. Fortunately they didn’t have bunks! But Mum still has Good Housekeeping and again she took the time to read and sleep. So nothing has changed my Mum admitted cheerfully. But then Dad added: “Well it has, because I didn’t mind a bit this time.”

Over the 50 years my parents love for each other has deepened to the point where they no longer see each other in any way as objects to meet their own needs. Now they are two human beings who are delighted when they see the other flourishing.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber talked about having an I-it and and I-thou relationships. I-it treats the other as an object, I-thou treats the other as a sacred human being. Some people bury their humanity so deeply it is hard not to regard them with a closed I-it gaze. But Jesus on the cross remains in an I-thou relationship even with those who are killing him. He prays for their forgiveness even as he breathes his last breath. He sees their humanity despite their brutality. Last night a Christian from Mosul told us how she had returned to Iraq and one-mile from the ISIS front-line she had prayed for the people who were destroying her country and persecuting her people.

Today’s set reading for Anglican churches,  from John’s Gospel reminded us that we are called to love one another as Jesus loves us. If we really love one another, the world will see something different.I believe Jesus holds the whole of creation in an I-thou gaze. That might sound easy but just try for a day to recognise, respond to and acknowledge the humanity of everyone who crosses your path – I think your day might look quite different. And next time you appreciate, without objectifying, a fine specimen of God’s creation – I don’t think you need to feel guilty.

Apologies for the lack of photo with this blog…not sure what was appropriate!!!