An essential Discipleship – have we reached a Bonhoeffer moment?

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In early 2016, a group of mainly men in military-style ‘political’ uniforms marched through the streets of a town in the UK for the express purpose of intimidating the local populace and instilling fear. They swore at people in the street, confronting one woman as she walked from the local supermarket with her children, and her baby in a pram. She verbally fought back. Much of this was filmed and shown on social media. A judge would later rule that this group was in clear violation of legislation against the wearing of political uniforms, the Public Order Act of 1936 drafted following the march of the Black Shirts through the East End of London by the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley. Their wearing of uniforms was intended to intimidate the community through which they marched, to instil fear.

Cumberland Lodge, alongside the CCJ Council of Christians and Jews, has recently re-published the book Darkness Over Germany by Amy Buller, which outlines the growth of National Socialism in the lead up to WWII. At one point Buller realises there is no stopping the coming war, her concern was that after it was all over, there not be a repeat of the issues thrown up by the Treaty of Versailles that so quickly led to yet another war in Europe almost immediately afterward. Her book outlines a Germany that saw a decline in opportunities for a younger, yet better educated, generation – lack of employment and access to housing that their parents had enjoyed. There was suspicion and fear of an external enemy – communism was viewed as a threat to the status quo of an already weakened nation. With the decline of the church, communism was also viewed as a threat leading to the death of religion. And one group was targeted as supporting the spread of communism in Germany and throughout Europe, the Jews. The current parallels are chilling, as many within the Jewish communities in the UK and Europe have testified.

This growth in National Socialism was not confined to Germany, as exemplified by Mosley and the ‘black shirts’. Groups which could be generally termed ‘far right’ have come and gone in waves ever since. The rise and fall of these groups, alongside those of what could be loosely called ‘radicalised Islamic’ groups, are documented by Bonnie Evans-Hills in the book Engaging Islam from the Christian Perspective, published by Peter Lang in 2015. In September of that same year, the UN Office for the Prevention of Genocide identified two main flashpoints that could lead to violent atrocity in Europe, these were surrounding radicalisation and hate crime, alongside increasing antagonism to refugees and migrants. Even at that point, it was felt that radical Islam was on the wane, and that the bigger threat was the rise of the far right. Recent events have served to prove that point, ringing true across Europe and the United States. With last year’s events in Charlottesville, and groups of predominantly white men marching through the streets with torches and shouting ‘Jews will not replace us!’ and ‘Blood and soil!’, these same themes have been reflected in marches across Europe.

To date this trend has been popularly portrayed in the media, especially through the person of Stephen Laxley, aka Tommy Robinson, as largely white, male and working class. However it could be said these are only the foot soldiers. There is a deeper rooted source for both funding and political backing in the upper middle classes – those who to date have been in a place of privilege in society, and through the influence of multiculturalism and equalities legislation, feel they are losing ground. The leaders of groups such as UKIP and Generation Identity, form two influential generational ends of a growing movement.

As churches, fearful of their own decline in growth, concentrate inward and retreat from engaging with the growing divides in society – opportunity for finding reconciliation also dwindles, even while Jewish and Muslim organisations, those who feel most under threat, seek to reach out. But we are not there. Engaging with this trend to the far right – and what is seen as the opposite ‘antifa’ – takes perseverance, patience, and a steely courage, as well as a deep confidence in the dignity of the whole of humanity, to be able to challenge the prejudices that lead to what has become a dangerous divide. Difficult voices must be heard and acknowledged, and intelligently and judiciously challenged. Sadly, many of these groups are increasingly using the excuse of religion, or ‘Christian heritage’, to treat those whom they consider ‘other’ – or ‘not British’ – with increasing contempt. This is something the church has a responsibility to help nip in the bud in what could be called ‘a Bonhoeffer moment.’ How this discipleship is worked out, will take careful, sacrificial discernment – and Love must be the essential element at its heart.

Dangerous stages that lead to atrocity have already been passed. We know that just before terrible acts of cruelty and slaughter occur, there is a de-humanising of target groups, increase in intimidation within the media and among politicians, hostile environments are created. The ordinary individual finds it difficult to stand up to these trends. The perpetrators of atrocities are ordinary citizens, people who thought they were standing up for their country or their religion or their family and thought they were doing the right thing. They aren’t monsters, in the wrong situation they are each one of us. We know the signs, and need to take heed.

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Hate Speech & its’ Consequences – a reminder from Srebrenica

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In September 2015 the United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide held five regional consultations with people of faith and conviction that they might identify indicators of incitement to atrocities, leading to genocide. These consultations eventually led to a Global Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes, launched in July of 2017. For the first of these consultations, faith leaders and representatives of faith-based and human rights organisations gathered from across Europe to meet in Treviso, Italy. The two main flashpoints identified were the rise in tensions due to increased migration into Europe by displaced persons, and radicalisation, with concern about young persons, in particular, heading to Syria to join Daesh, and a growth in far right influence.

Much is included under the umbrella of these two issues, and as faith leaders there was concern for a better, more supportive, and humanitarian response to those seeking sanctuary on our shores. It was also considered essential to increase inclusion of women and young people in community and leadership levels, to support their participation in society. Fear over loss of identity, changing demographics, socio-economic strain, and issues around racism and social justice were considered to be drivers behind radicalisation.

We have since continued to witness an influx of the displaced into Europe, though it must be emphasised that Europe has not taken in the significant numbers that other countries in the regions of conflict have provided in the way of sanctuary, countries with far less in the way of resources, infrastructure and expertise. While it must be acknowledged that legislation such as the Dublin Regulation were developed to serve a particular purpose, it is no longer fit for purpose, and is a large contributor to the splitting up of families who are unable to re-unite in any single locality once individual members have been granted asylum status in the nations where they have happened to land. Family reunion is one of the crucial elements for healthy transition from a place of trauma to one of settlement, inclusion, and integration.

From the faith community perspective, we have witnessed an outpouring from pockets of the general public, particularly young people, in caring for those whom they see as distressed and in desperate need. But this is countered by an increase in xenophobia and sadly, post-Brexit rise in hate crime and violence as has been demonstrated in the UK, but also reflected across Europe. And it is because of this, the UN asked participants from the UK, to gather our contacts working in the areas of support for refugees, ending hate crime, and community engagement to hold yet another consultation within the UK. This was held in November of 2016, and a report submitted to UK government ministers – sadly on the day of the terror attack on Westminster Bridge. While poignant in itself to have been so timely presented, it also received little attention.

Despite Home Office research which has indicated that immigration has not had a negative impact on housing, employment, health care or social provision, and in fact has contributed positively in the way of taxes on income, a suspicion of those who have immigrated into the UK continues to grow, particularly fomented by far right groups. And our partners from faith communities in Europe report a similar rise in hate crime. Just a few days ago, Nazi flags were raised in various locations across Sweden. Hate crime is focused particularly on Muslim women. Following the terror events in London, research showed that over 70% of the victims of hate crime were young women of Muslim appearance, while the same percentage, over 70%, of the perpetrators were white men. And patterns indicate that whatever happens to Muslims, also happens to the Jewish community. Because the Jewish community is so much smaller, this receives less attention from media and politicians.

How do we get here, to the point when the that precious right we guard so carefully, the right to freedom of speech, becomes incitement to hatred leading to acts of violence – and even atrocity?

Cumberland Lodge and the Council of Christians and Jews recently re-published the book ‘Darkness Over Germany’ written by Amy Buller during the 1930s and early 40s. Buller tracks the development and rise of national socialism in Germany, speaking with people from all walks of life – from supporters of Hitler to dissenters – and the greater majority of the German populace who remained quiet witness and eventual collaborator in genocide. Buller documents a society of highly educated  young people with high unemployment and very little hope for the future, earning less than their parents’ generation, if they were able to earn anything at all. And an older generation was concerned for the future of their children. It was a fairly secular society, with religion, the Church in particular, in steep decline. Amid this mix was a fear of communism – that it would destroy the German state and culture. The Church viewed communism as the final straw that would bring about its’ destruction – and the Jews were viewed both as supporters of communism and the enemy in their midst. National socialism was viewed as bringing hope to the German nation, you could say in our current contexts, national socialism was seeking to make Germany great again.

Just as it is easier to blame others for our personal failings than it is to consider our own faults and seek to improve ourselves, as is wont in politics it is much easier to blame a scapegoat than to set about the hard work of improving a nation. And indeed that tendency can be, and is, exploited by the powerful to manipulate. I have just come from Bosnia, a visit arranged by the charity Remembering Srebenica. Our guide for the visit was Resad Trbonya, a survivor of the war in Bosnia, who served in the Bosnian army protecting his family in Sarajevo. Much experienced at sharing the events of the war and of the genocide in Srebenica, he made one poignant statement that sums up how easily incitement to hatred can lead to ordinary human beings committing atrocities. He stated that, ‘it is easy to come up with many excuses why it is alright to hate. It is easy to commit hate crimes. The difficult part is why you shouldn’t do it.’

It’s like a playground – the playground bully is easier for others to follow. No one wants to be on the receiving end. But it is much harder to stand up to them, to get people to stop the hate.

Resad was convinced that war proceeded so quickly because of the plethora of propaganda used by politicians seeking power on all sides. The war escalated very quickly from his point of view, with much of the rhetoric heating up in 1991, but by 1992 there was all out war.

Sadly even Resad repeated the rhetoric that the propensity to fight is in the DNA of the people of Bosnia. And this very claim was used by Western politicans as excuse for not getting involved in bringing about peace much sooner. I was sad to hear him say this, as it is part of that racial profiling that places a people as beyond the pale. As much as Bosnia seems at peace at the moment, a country returned to a pre-War multicultural bonhomie, Resad believes the war is still going on – even though the battle has ceased.

There are those who claim, quite rightly in my humble opinion, that the Civil War in the United States is still being fought, though the battle ceased long ago, through the continued shootings of black schoolchildren and youth – in large part by police officers.

Why am I bringing these examples as part of the UN piece of work in Europe? It is to bring home that we are a hairs’ breadth away from further atrocities if we do not remain vigilant and work hard at combating incitement to hate crime. The UN Plan of Action is aimed at leaders of faith-based organisations, but also those with a belief system that seeks to improve the lot of humanity as a whole. It seeks to ask: where do we go from here? There are no easy answers. It’s not about solving a problem and then it is done. It is a journey, it is about consultation, it is about collaboration, it is about having conversations with one another, conversations of respect and reverence for the sanctity of the human being before us, whatever their faith, or their belief, whatever their gender or tradition or culture or language.

Hasan Hasanovic was 19 years old when he survived the siege of Srebencia and the following genocide. He was in a playground playing football as a teenager when a shell exploded around them and killed all of his friends, tearing their bodies apart. He now shares his story with others, and he has this to say: ‘At the end of the war, I had to identify what was in me – I thought  it was hatred. But I cannot understand how anyone can kill or hurt anyone – even the killers. They wanted us to be like them, they wanted us to spread hatred. I decided I wanted to tell the truth.’

In each of the survivors I have met, from wars and violent conflicts in various contexts – all anyone wants now is not revenge, they want life. They just want to get on with life, to love their families, to go for picnics, to play with their children, to work and to live. They don’t want to hate any more. Hatred is a luxury for those who have something to lose. When all is lost – it is not that you have nothing else to lose, it is that all that is left is the desire for life and love.

This is exactly why freedom of speech must be preserved – to hold hate speech to account, to record the witness of survivors, to document evidence of hate crime and atrocity, to preserve transparency in governance, and to draw a line between ‘freedom of speech’ and incitement to violence and hate that leads to genocide. This involves more communication not less. Rather than a pessimism about social media, there is also a positive aspect, which enables greater interaction – an ability to receive news immediately from across the globe. This brings its challenges in that the ugly is in our face – but so is the ability to challenge. We remove that transparency to our peril. But the point is, having the courage to challenge – to find the much more difficult reason not to hate.

Choices

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‘I’m a priest, and I’m going to have to answer your question as a priest.’

‘Good, that is what I wanted.’

I was asked at the very last minute, literally, to join a panel in a conference. I had gone to listen and to learn, at a day conference on the conflict in Yemen. Different points of view had been expressed, maps shown, statistics provided on devastation, injury and death. Having spent a bit of time in various places suffering the after effects of conflict, I still very much feel I have little to offer other than a listening ear. But, here I found myself sitting on a panel, talking about a country I have never visited. Well, I didn’t even try.

What I did do was to tell a story, a story that is not mine, but one told to me – and that is the way of stories. They are meant to be told, and heard, and passed on. This is the story of a man and a woman who were living in a country not their own, but which was at war. They loved one another deeply. But she was shot on the street in front of her partner, her love. And as he watched her die, he realised, at that precise moment, that he had a choice to make – he could either give in to despair, and follow a path that seeks revenge and hatred. Or he could make a choice for Love. And in order to honour the love he had for this woman dying before him, he chose love – and the painful and all too necessary forgiveness that must accompany that love.

One gentleman told me afterward he found that ‘airy fairy’ – a phrase I confess I used myself when I was speaking. But I told him, and I also said when I was speaking, that this is the only choice we really have. It is grounded, earthy and all too real for us each and every day – although maybe not in quite so dramatic circumstances. We choose between love and revenge, when someone slams a door in our face, when someone insults us. Our response is that very choice. It is serious business, all too easy to ignore – but it is the staff of life, this bread we choose to eat.

This exchange has repeated itself many times over during this Lent. I have taken this Lent ‘off’ – for healing, for reconciliation, to find who I am, where I am, to find ‘home’, in a literal sense and a spiritual. I have not hidden from the world, rather I have been walking in it, carried into many places, sitting alongside others who have had to face that chilling moment when Death comes knocking – and each of them has chosen Love. And the choice was never easy. But it was the only choice that could allow life – even when the result was injury, loss, or death.

In the places of power I have found myself walking, and in places of poverty and pain, through red light districts and war zones – people want leaders of faith. They want us there, long for us to turn to them, to see them, to acknowledge them, to listen to their stories. And they want us to show in the manner in which we look at them that our eyes are open, and that our words are from the deepest part of our souls – that we are honest. They don’t want politicians or platitudes offered by institutions. They want a word of faith, a look of love, a warm, human touch.

For those of us called to this religious life, this entails a search into our own souls. Are we able to see ourselves for what we have been created and called to be? Are we able to face our shame – the shame we may hold for our flawed bodies, the sins we commit or think? Are we able to identify and celebrate all of these as cracks which allow the light in? Because when we do, we enable ourselves to celebrate the light that is in the souls of the broken whom we meet – and to bring joy and love and sight and life.

This is what enables all of us to live, I mean really live. And to love, love deeply.

Sometimes people have said to me they believe I must look at them as simple, worthless, because they have had so few adventures. And because of this, for a time I held back sharing stories of places I’d been and people I’ve met – and I probably will continue to do so in some contexts. I am wary of being seen as a ‘show off’ – and you can see it in the eyes of some people. Even when there is no actual rolling of the eyes – you can sense this is what people are sometimes doing inside. But if I stop telling my stories, I also stop being fully me. We are the sum of our experiences, good and bad. And the stories I tell are the stories of people, and my encounter with them. I get told stories sometimes because people want their lives to be known, they want to know they have been seen.

Once upon a time I used to weave rugs, on large 20ft looms. It was a very physical yet meditative process. For four years I gathered threads, that during the weaving process on the surface appeared to be a mess, but on the underside, and when it was removed from the loom, the beauty of the pattern became apparent. I continue to gather threads, and I weave them into a human story. Each thread, sometimes brightly coloured, sometimes dull, forms an essential part of the whole. And I have come to love the duller colours more. You see, if a rug is just made of only bright colours, it can look rather sickly in the end. It is too much. The duller colours are what set off the beauty of the bright, give them depth and vibrancy. One of my favourite pieces of writing is on Joy and Sorrow in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet – that Joy is made all the more joyful for the memory of Sorrow. And the opposite is also true, Sorrow is all the harder to bear for the memory of Joy. Each deepens and provides meaning to the other. When we deny our stories, when we try to cover over the blemishes, we lose an essential part of ourselves, maybe the better part – the part that gives vibrancy to our life.

I think what people are wanting when they invite religious leaders into a space, is to have that ‘better part’ seen, to have that part of them in which they have found shame and sorrow to be acknowledged as a vital part of their whole. There is a concept in Hinduism called ‘Darsan’ – that of ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’. In the practice of using an image of the sacred, our senses seek a taste of divinity. We long to see God. But along with this, is a longing to be seen. We long for God to see us, to acknowledge our existence.

There is a wonderful performance artist, Marina Abramovic, who invites people to sit across from her and to look into her eyes. This is an ancient spiritual practice. Religious texts claim the eyes to be the window of the soul. And that sense may have very little to do with the actual functioning of the physical eye, and everything to do with the eye of the soul, the window that allows our inner being to glimpse others, and for others to glimpse us.

Shame is the ‘sin’, if you can call it that, of being afraid to allow ourselves to be seen – by others, and by God. Forgiveness removes that sin of shame and allows the soul to walk free in the world, to not only be seen – but feel the freedom to see others, to Love.

When religious leaders are sought out, to participate in the world, is this what we are being invited to do? To see? To allow ourselves to be seen? Sometimes people believe we have the ability to see into their souls and it makes them afraid. Of course we have no such ability. We are only able to see what we are allowed. But there is a demand that we demonstrate what it is to be seen, to open the window on our souls, to be vulnerable – and to be courageous in that vulnerability, in doing so teaching others how to do the same.

We live in a world thirsty for human connection. I have the ability to connect with friends across the globe and which I value greatly, but oftentimes we are still left in our tiny homes will little human interaction or touch, or in relationships which feel surface only and lack intimacy. Looking into the eyes of someone, really looking, is one of the most intimate acts we can share. There is no physical touching – but there is an embrace and acceptance of the soul. And there are usually tears, beautiful tears, healing tears.

Within Christianity is the concept of the priesthood of all believers, and I would expand that into the sanctity of every human life, of all life, of creation. Each and every atom of the universe holds within it the breath of divinity – however that might be understood. There is a story of the late Allamah Tabatabai, a prolific commentator on the Quran. He suffered from Parkinson’s, and one of his carers asked him why he didn’t sleep more. His answer was another question. He asked, how could he sleep when he could hear the whole of creation praising God?

Each and every human being is called to be the best they were created to be, and to see holiness in others too. This is no easy task. We can spend a lifetime never realising this is what we have been called to. And we get too busy just surviving the day to day to pay attention to that holy praising. There is a longing that seeks for someone to sing that song for us – even if it is not quite our own. This is the fun of jamming, of listening to one another’s voices, entering our own and bringing life into a dissonant harmony. This is the song leaders of faith are being asked to share – to sing the song of praise within humanity, to see the better part within us and to reflect that back.

(the photo is of the piece ‘The Story of Sand’ by Ali Raza, hanging in St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace & Reconciliation in London)

Introduction to the UN Global Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and the Role of Women in Security Issues, for Themselves and Society

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A talk given at a seminar on Challenges for Freedom of conscience & Religion in Europe and… Security at the European Parliament, 27 February 2018

In September 2015 the United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide held five regional consultations with people of faith and conviction that they identify indicators of incitement to atrocities, leading to genocide. For the first of these consultations, faith leaders and representatives of faith-based and human rights organisations gathered from across Europe to meet in Treviso, Italy. The two main flashpoints identified were the rise in tensions due to increased migration into Europe by displaced persons, and radicalisation, with concern about young persons, in particular, heading to Syria to join Daesh, and a growth in far right influence.

Much is included under the umbrella of these two issues, and as faith leaders there was concern for a better, more supportive, and humanitarian response to those seeking sanctuary on our shores. It was also considered essential to increase inclusion of women and young people in community and leadership levels, to support their participation in society. Fear over loss of identity, changing demographics, socio-economic strain, and issues around racism and social justice were considered as drivers behind radicalisation.

We have since continued to witness an influx of the displaced into Europe, though it must be emphasised that Europe has not taken in the significant numbers that other countries in the regions of conflict have provided in the way of sanctuary, countries with far less in the way of resources, infrastructure and expertise. While it must be acknowledged that legislation such as the Dublin Regulation were developed to serve a particular purpose, it is no longer fit for purpose, and is a large contributor to the splitting up of families who are unable to re-unite in any single locality once individual members have been granted asylum status in the nations where they have happened to land. Family reunion is one of the crucial elements for healthy transition from a place of trauma to one of settlement, inclusion, and integration.

From the faith community perspective, we have witnessed an outpouring from pockets of the general public, particularly young people, in caring for those whom they see as distressed and in desperate need. And we feel we have not ourselves managed to respond better. But this is countered by an increase in xenophobia and sadly, post-Brexit rise in hate crime and violence as has been demonstrated in the UK. What has not been covered in the media, is that camps of women and young children have developed on the quiet. The women in the camps do not want publicity, do not want their photograph taken, do not want anyone knowing about them. This is predominantly due to security issues surrounding their safety and vulnerability to sexual attack. Women who have already suffered trauma, are fearful of attack and exploitation in the place where they have sought safety.

Despite Home Office research which has indicated that immigration has not had a negative impact on housing, employment, health care or social provision, and in fact has contributed positively in the way of taxes on income, a suspicion of those who have immigrated into the UK continues to grow, particularly fomented by far right groups. And our partners from faith communities in Europe report the same rise in hate crime. This is particularly focused on Muslim women. Following the terror events in London, research showed that over 70% of the victims of hate crime were young women of Muslim appearance, while the same percentage, over 70%, of the perpetrators were white men.

Women have become the scapegoats for societal fear when it comes to xenophobia and male aggression. They have become an outward symbol of fear and extremism – when all they are doing is wearing the clothing they have always worn. Women’s expression of faith and of themselves has become an easy, and rather lazy, means for politicians and legislators to score political points. Little girls wearing a headscarf in school have been equated with extremism, and women at leisure on a beach have had their clothing forcibly ripped from them by police. Whether it is women’s outward expression of their faith in clothing or wearing of symbols, or women wearing short skirts and revealing clothing being blamed when victims of sexual attack, or women losing their jobs because they have refused to wear short skirts and revealing clothing – there seems to be a cultural objectification of women that lays the morals, freedoms and ills of a nation at the feet of women’s choice in clothing. And there seems to be a need to curtail that choice through legislation.

Each and every session at the United Nations World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016 emphasised the necessity of inclusion of women and young people at all levels of negotiation and delivery in response to crises and aid. It was emphasised repeatedly that in any crisis or disaster, it is women and the young who are the most vulnerable to exploitation, sexual violence, slave labour, and trafficking. Children are forced to act as soldiers or slave labour, and yet it is the youth who are at the forefront when it comes to humanitarian advocacy and volunteering, providing homeless shelters, foodbanks, aid to refugee camps. Those working in provision of aid programmes contend that it is women who are at the forefront of protecting family and nurturing community, and yet have the least access to life-saving aid.

It is proven time and time again that if women are included at all levels of development and negotiation, the health, financial well-being and education levels of both men and women improve. Don’t include women – it simply doesn’t happen. Include women at all levels in conflict resolution and peace-building, and a longer-lasting, stronger peace is built. This isn’t because women have all the answers, but because women form half of our communities, half the world. There is a Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky – the heavy half.

Women are more than your sisters and mothers, aunts and daughters. They are more than keepers of the home. They are people of faith, and people of conviction, they are artists and skilled workers, doctors and cleaners and lawyers and truck drivers, they are leaders of communities of faith and of nations. But more than this, much more than this, they are human beings with their own identities – identities that are not reliant on who they are in relation to men, or who they are in relation to their job. They are people, with needs and rights and gifts to be shared.

So where do we go from here? There are no easy answers. It’s not about solving a problem and then it is done. It is a journey, it is about consultation, it is about collaboration, it is about having conversations with one another, conversations of respect and reverence for the sanctity of the human being before us, whatever their faith, or their belief, whatever their gender or tradition or culture or language. What we need, all we need – is to make a commitment to a relationship with one another – a commitment to Love.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us…

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087Earlier this year a friend of mine saw a picture I had taken and said, ‘That’s it, that’s your Christmas sermon sorted.’ I have to admit I had forgotten about it in the interim. And then a recent conversation reminded me – of a particular crib, in a refugee camp in southern Iraq. And everything about the circumstances of that picture grabbed hold of me. This was a nativity – this was THE nativity, lived over and over and over again in every generation. THIS is how the world is saved, how each and every one of us is saved, when we are able to see our own families, our ourselves, our innermost, frail selves in the child that needs to be loved, and needs the care of others. This is humanity at its most helpless. We are each of us that child, needing to be loved – and needing to love back.

Amid Mary’s outpouring in the Magnificat – her cry at the new from the Angel Gabriel that she was to be the bearer of the saviour of the world; amid humanity’s cry for freedom from tyranny, for justice in the face of oppression and crushing poverty for some while the wealthy play, comes not a vanquishing army – but a child, born into poverty himself, in a place of exile, in the basest of surroundings amongst a nation subject to the whim of rule that forces displacement of whole peoples. This is where hope lies – in the meanest of places. The only means for hope to survive is when others do what they can, with the little at their disposal, to ensure hope has a chance.

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When our group of foreign visitors, people of faith from various parts of the world, considered wise by some and foolish by others – for we entered this land of war trusting our fate to God and the hosts who sought our presence – when our group entered the container, holding eight other families, we were told to be silent, to be still, for in this tiny compartment a newborn baby lay sleeping. In hushed voices, we surrounded the tiny, covered frame and heard the story of this place, of families left bereft of home and livelihood, having lost loved ones to a terrible violence – escaping war and seeking a place of safety in the desert. A proud brother and sister, like a tiny Mary and Joseph, stood guard over where the child lay – the mother too shy to enter.

And there we stood in awe, Arab, North African, European, Asian, American, Muslim and Christian, travelling from afar and from near, in wonder at this child that lay before us. There too were the shepherds, the local villagers giving of their own homes and fields, as refuge for this holy family. Will this child survive the harsh conditions? Will this child survive the war that ravages his nation? Will this child know that it is loved, and cared for, and cherished? Or will this child instead feel the bitterness of loss, of frustration, of violence and hate?

This child presents us with a mirror on our own selves. How this child lives and grows will be in a world of our making. We cannot pluck just one child out of these conditions – we must make the conditions for all of these children better where they are, and the places where they seek sanctuary and safety, into places of welcome and healing and love; and we can in our own lives seek to treat one another as we would that tiny child. This is the hope that is set before us, it is a hope that lies within our own hands, within our own lives, and minds and hearts and actions. It is a hope God has created us to share with one another. It is God’s hope that is born in us this day.

Removing my hands from your throat

A sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains.’ A card bearing this passage, also from the Gospel of Matthew, was in my mother’s belongings. Growing up I always remember her wearing this little pendant – with a mustard seed enclosed. And she always used to quote this passage of scripture to me whenever I touched the pendant. My mother died the Saturday after I was ordained deacon, and my brother kindly brought this pendant over from the U.S. for me to have.

So you can imagine today’s passage holds special personal significance. Jesus has been asked what the kingdom of God is like – and he answers with a number of rather obscure parables. He then turns to his companions and asks whether they understood. You get the impression from the context, there is a bit of doubt cast over whether their answer in the affirmative, that, yes, they have understood, was indeed the truth – or was it one of those situations in which no one wanted to admit being the one who didn’t get the joke. So all laugh as if they understand.

These parables are given in order that we stop to think, that we not just believe we have the immediate answer to anything – that we take the time to contemplate what it is Jesus is trying to tell us.

The humble mustard seed provides today’s first example of what the kingdom of God is like – a small, seemingly insignificant bit of a seed has the capacity to grow into a bush capable of providing food, oil, shelter for the birds of the air and shade for the weary traveller. Such plants are used in deserts to bind the soil, enrich it and allow precious water to collect – all from a tiny speck.

Some of the best books I read are the ones that involve an amount of struggle – not because they are a difficult read. But rather the difficulty lies in that each page holds some wisdom that I just have to read over again, and then sit for a while blown away. One such book is ‘Exclusion & Embrace’ by Miroslav Volf, a Croat, now resident in the U.S. and a professor of theology. He introduces the book with a story about forgiveness. You see, when he was exploring writing this book, he wanted to examine whether God’s love, God’s kingdom, is exclusive to a specific group – or whether God’s love embraces all. When he was first presenting his ideas he was questioned by another theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, whether he could truly embrace a Cetnik. He describes how in the winter of 1993, Serbian fighters, the Cetnik, were the cause of untold suffering, violence and horrific deaths in his homeland of Croatia. This introduced a new and difficult dimension into his writing, and a steely determination. He looked around him and saw that violence, evidence of the terrible suffering we put each other through every day, in every land, was all around him. Could we find a way of embracing one another? Could God truly include all in his loving embrace.

One of the more difficult chapters is on forgiveness and forgetting. Forgiveness is held up as the prize, that which we aspire to when we have been hurt, and hold out to another as an act of charity. We sometimes use it to beat one another with, to instil guilt with, we use it manipulate one another – I have forgiven you, so you must be good now, you must be the way I want you to be. William Young writes about forgiveness in his book ‘The Shack’ as the moment we remove our hands from the throats of someone else and stop choking them.

But what of the moment just following that forgiveness? What happens then? What happens when we stop choking one another? How do we go on living alongside those who have hurt us? This is the quandary in places like Croatia – when it is the neighbour with whom you shared your bread, whose child you looked after, who helped you in your garden – who suddenly turns and rapes, and steals and kills. Even if you can come to a point of forgiveness, and this is hard enough, how do you go on living with them? How do you face them each day?

And this is where our parables come in. What is the hidden treasure? What is that pearl of great price – that someone would sell all they had in order to acquire it? There is a movement in the U.S. which some call the new Gnostic movement. Alongside the Bible they study a text called ‘The Course in Miracles’ – a rather complicated and obscure text about which I have many doubts. But the gist of much of what it is trying to say is that everything we do comes from one of two emotions – and only one of those emotions is real. These two emotions are Love and Fear. From where do our actions flow? Are they from Love or are they from Fear? This theory would contend that when people do bad things, they are acting out of fear – when there is really nothing to fear, except of course fear itself. So how fearful would you have to be in order to steal, to rape or to murder? How fearful do you have to be to feel you have to obtain intimacy by force, to steal, to murder in order to survive – that the lust for power is really stemming from a fear of death?  The greater the sin the greater is the fear. That amount of fear would be unbearable.

Of course this doesn’t excuse the sin, it doesn’t excuse harming anyone else. But it does give pause for thought, some insight into how a loving God would be so concerned for his wayward children. A loving Father would perceive the deep, deep-seated fear behind the actions of a tyrant.

There is a scene in the Mahabharatta, a Hindu text, in which the hero Udishterrah visits heaven and finds his enemies there, enemies who had raped his wife, killed his sons, killed his family – he finds they are there already, enjoying all that heaven has to offer. He is told to embrace them, but he cannot. He then asks to see his family and he is taken to the depths of Hell, where he decides to stay in order to be with his family. It is his inability to forgive that places him there, alongside his family who can only see the sins of others.

When all is done, the sin has been committed, there is nothing else left, in that moment in darkness and dust – when the dead cannot be brought back to life, the scars of injury cannot be healed, the pain of memory cannot be taken away. What can you do? You can remove your hands from the throat – but then you are left facing one another. This is the pearl of great price, the treasure worth giving all you have to acquire – the abundant Grace of God to forgive. In that forgiveness a transformation takes place. It doesn’t mean the transgression never happened – it doesn’t remove the scars or the pain. But it does transform them into a mark of beauty, a priceless treasure in the heart. One single moment of forgiveness, and forgetfulness, is the mustard seed that moves mountains, that wipes every tear from the eye and makes all things new. Forgiveness is the yeast that grows in the heart, spreads its leaven and provides bread of the Spirit for a whole community.

Memory is what causes revenge to be taken, revenge for sins real and for sins perceived, for everyday offensive slights, for acts of terror, or killing someone because they are different. Those who have known their death to be suddenly imminent in the midst of violence or tragedy, fly immediately past forgiveness and even forgetfulness. What matters in their last moments has not been laying hands on throats, but rather the love they hold for family and friends. Of the phone calls that take place, the messages are of one thing only. I love you. I want you to know I love you. This is all that matters. This is what God wants for us; to know that we are loved and to love one another in return.  This is the pearl, this is the treasure for which we may be asked to pay a great price, this is the yeast that leavens the heart, this is the mustard seed that moves mountains.

Amen.

Choosing Love

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Choose love, always, always, choose love. Love is not the easy choice. As Archbishop Tutu has said recently on the subject of forgiveness, those who believe forgiveness is only for the weak – have never tried it. I would say the same is true of Love. To choose love is an act of courage. It takes a belief in the self, in the strength within yourself to give and to sacrifice, and to be vulnerable; and it is a belief in the strength to receive, to love another with all that is beautiful and all that is ugly, and see only Grace.

I spent several years in a parish where many members of the congregation had been asked to leave other churches, or who were made to feel unwelcome in all those subtle ways that polite company has to let you know, your presence is distasteful to them. These members of the congregation had the courage to Love, to love themselves enough to live with the dignity of being fully and openly who they believed God created them to be – loving individuals who were meant to share that love with another. Some of them were couples who were in long-term relationships.

One of the men in a long-term relationship was a WWII veteran, awarded medals of bravery as a pilot. He and his partner had been together for over 40 years. Now this was before civil partnerships were made possible, and I believe this brave veteran died before they were able to legally celebrate their love for one another. The courage of their relationship also deserved a medal for each of them. Their relationship would have begun when it would have been illegal for them to be a couple openly. Such long-term devotion in the face of persecution is rare indeed.

And yet even during the time when I was living in Brighton, I would occasionally walk through Kemptown, an area known for its gay bars, of an early morning – and there would be police tape along the street. Some poor chap woul have been beaten up. You would have thought at the time those days were over – but they clearly were not. I would think about the time my father admitted that when he was younger, along with several others, he would go to where the gay men would hang out and they would beat them up. Gay-bashing. I don’t think he told anyone else in the family. I still choose love. I loved my father, the ugly side as well as the beautiful side that taught me to respect myself as a woman and to speak my mind. Loving him is still an act of courage. Sharing his vulnerabilities is an act of courage, to dare to tarnish the memory of him, out of the love for the shame he felt.

So here we are now, in a week within the history of the world when so much hatred of some people for other people for who they are has been made rife in the world – hating people for where they come from, where they were born, the danger they are so desperately trying to escape, for the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, their religion. In this week we remembered that Holocaust that took place in living memory of so many, in living memory of my lovely veteran, in living memory of so many other genocides, in Vietnam, in Rwanda, in Srebenica, of the countless genocides that happen every day in the violence we do to one another. In the midst of this, I choose to love.

I choose love and I challenge to love. I challenge the House of Bishops to Love. In a world where Love is so very difficult to find, so elusive, courageous love so rare, I challenge the House of Bishops to celebrate Love, celebrate Love wherever and however it happens. Let us shout it from the rooftops, let us acknowledge and respect the love one human being has for another, and let us bless it. Love is sacred, and has God’s blessing already. It is us, as church, that needs to bless, for our own souls we need to bless what God has already made sacred in the gift that is Love.

Planted in the Sea of Sorrows, to seek & bring forgiveness

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A Sermon for Trinity 19 

Readings: Habakkuk 1 & Luke 17

‘Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.’ The Prophet Habakkuk, chapter 1

This morning I checked the news, as I do before taking services every Sunday morning, and picked up the story from a journalist who was sharing the images he cannot show. All he could do was to show the images of the children who have been caught up in the violence in Syria, the wounded and the dying. What he could not show us were the pictures of the children whose bodies were torn apart, the babies decapitated by bombs and shrapnel – the horror is beyond imagining. And yet these have become the experience of a generation of Syrians, so many of them children – playing in pools of water formed in a bomb crater and thirsty for a simple toy, the tenderness of their family and friends who could be lost in any instant. How long, O Lord?! And how long will our cries continue unheard by those responsible? Or maybe they do hear? How long will we feel ourselves disempowered, unable to bring about the change that will end this misery?

I recently returned to the sea, for a time of rest and refreshment. I had forgotten how much I missed it, and the fresh air and salt cleansed my troubled soul.

In ancient tradition the sea represents chaos – deep and dark and limitless, with storms and the danger of drowning, but also the nourishment of fish and seaweed and salt, providing sustenance and taste. Healing can only take place within this sea of sorrows, within this place of fear and darkness, within this place of danger and chaos. And yet within this is also nourishment and cleansing salt.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks about the times we stumble being many – and that if we give into them, it would be better if we had a stone tied around our neck and were thrown into the sea! I don’t believe Jesus is telling us to throw ourselves into the sea to drown when we have done something wrong. Rather he is stating what it is like to discover we have caused offense. It is hard to ask for forgiveness, and until it is given, it can be as if we are drowning in a deep sea of sorrow. But he goes on to state that if we offend, we must seek pardon. If we have caused offense we should seek forgiveness. If someone repents – we must forgive!

The Gospel goes on to suggest that a tiny bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, is able to transplant a mulberry tree from the land to the sea. The eminent theologian, John Crossan, has stated that we believe scripture to have been written literally but that we are now sophisticated enough to read it metaphorically. But the reality is that scripture was written symbolically and we are foolish enough to try to read it literally. So maybe this mulberry tree thing is not about an actual mulberry tree moving into the sea.

Jesus is telling us to take the little amount of faith we have and plant it in the sea – that sea where the sorrowful have cast themselves. The mulberry tree is an interesting tree – it bears fruit that is full of iron and vitamin C, and which can be dried and saved throughout the winter. The wood is good for carving and along with the leaves is also used for making paper – paper upon which books are written. It provides food for the body and nourishment for the mind and the soul. Forgiveness, and a small amount of faith, provide healing to the broken.

And the sea, the sea is almost without limit, the winds and storms themselves provide for the rain that falls on the land and waters our crops, provides for and fills our rivers and lakes. Our sorrows, our suffering, when confronted with a small amount of faith, are themselves transformed into the Grace that makes for a better world. What our world needs most is for faithful servants to plunge themselves into the sea, wash themselves in salt tears.

Jesus tells us of the faithful servants who after toiling in the fields, come home to serve the table of their master. I have to admit the first reading of this feels counter intuitive. I want the master to invite them to share, not to serve. But on reflection, if the faithful servants are the disciples of God, toiling in the fields, the master they serve are the afflicted and suffering of the world. The good and faithful servants knows his or her meal will come, knows that forgiveness is theirs, and because they have received the healing of the sea, because they know the suffering of the guilty, because they know forgiveness having lifted the stone of guilt from around their neck, to serve another is only doing what is humanly decent.

None of us can survive the sea without that we serve one another, forgive one another, feed one another, freely dive into the sea for one another – and there discover God’s given Grace with and in serving one another. We must plunge into the sea, plant ourselves in the swirling waters of our world’s sorrow, plead forgiveness for turning away from the suffering of others and be swift to forgive the transgressions of others.

Seeking the Best in Us

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The day the results of the referendum were announced, I joined in the Big Iftar in Luton town centre. The mood was subdued, but also held a deeply poignant determination that as a community, Luton was going to hold together. Iftar is a meal taken at the end of a long day of fasting. It is begun with dates, a bit of sweetness, and water, essential for life. Hosted by the borough council, with Muslim caterers and community police officers serving, there where Muslims and Christians and Hindus and people of no faith and people of many nationalities and traditions and languages, all joining together, to honour the sweetness of their friendship across cultures and faith, a sweetness that is essential if life is to flourish.  In a town lodged in popular imagination as a birthplace for hate movements, the people at the grassroots level are weary of the reputation. When you have nothing left, rather than acts of desperation, maybe the only thing that matters is the relationship we have with the people around us – is it loving and nurturing, or is it one of fear and suspicion? We can only live in fear for so long. At some point we all need to reach out. Whatever the outcome of the referendum was going to be, there was going to be some upset. And in campaigns where all sides stoked fear, that upset was always going to be raw. But on this night in Luton, there was nothing but a quiet reaching out to one another, reaching out in respect and reaching out in a mutual effort to heal divisions and work towards the common good. This was the best of Luton.

My parish of Kimpton in Hertfordshire has a link with a parish in East Germany, which has sent us a message to reassure that they still hope we are able to keep a strong link of friendship and exchange as two rural, Christian communities. And we will be returning a message of love and support, that despite the outcome of the referendum, we will continue to strengthen the bonds between us.

That hate crimes have increased to such an extent following the referendum is surely a sign that more than ever we need to pull together. This past week a primary school encouraged their students to perform acts of kindness, by giving out flowers to people on the street, and placing handmade bookmarks with supportive messages written on them in library books.  Each of these positive gestures not only make someone else smile, but change our own hearts, our own souls as well.

Taking the words of the Bishop of St Albans, it is vital to offer reassurance to those who are most fearful, listen to those who are frustrated or angry, defend those subjected to attacks of hatred, report abuse, reach out to our neighbours with simple acts of kindness, and work together for the good of all.

This is the full response to the referendum results written at the request of Madeleine Davies from The Church Times. For more responses around the UK, please see this link: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/there-is-an-enormous-and-widening-divide

The following is a statement issued by the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, in response to the referendum result:

“The people of this nation have spoken, although the referendum has also highlighted the deep divisions that exist in our country. We must now move forward together. However, healing the divisions will require an acknowledgement that the vote in part reflects the increasingly polarised circumstances between the poorest and the richest people in our nation.

“It is my hope that all who voted will show grace whether they side with the victorious or the defeated. We must seek to rebuild neighbourly trust and acceptance on our streets, in our workplaces and clubs and schools.  We will start with prayer in our churches and continue with our longstanding service to all the people of our communities. Most of all, it is vital for us to offer friendship and reassurance to those who might fear that this result will be exploited by factions peddling hatred and division.”

http://www.stalbans.anglican.org/bishop-st-albans-responds-eu-result/

God is God

A response to CRIB (Christian Response to Islam in Britain) – Do Muslims and Christians worship the same god?

When I was a child, God was in the angels that sang in carols of the birth of a child at Christmas; God was in the arms of Mary surrounding all life with love; God was in the candles my mother would fill the house with light with on Christmas Eve; God was in the spirit of giving of a Santa Claus that ensured all children everywhere were cared for and loved. God was in the magic of waking up to a midnight snowfall, in the tiny crystalline flakes and the lacey patterns on frosted panes of glass.

God was in the daffodils and crocus that erupted from the dark earth in Spring, in the loving eyes of a Jesus ready to die on the cross at the hands of ordinary people who didn’t understand the love he offered. God was in the gentle rabbit that hid eggs under tufts of grass and flowers in our garden at Easter. God was in the sunshine and clouds that floated gently across the sky in summer, in the thunder rolling across the plains and lightening that crackled around the house in August, bringing welcome rain to dry fields and mountain forests.

God was in my mother’s touch, when she warmed flannels with Vick’s vaporub to clear a chesty cough, in the love of books and music and art that she instilled me, in her love for my father. And God was in my father’s pride in my doing well in school, in my song, in my painting.

When I was a child God was in my Christian fifth grade teacher, Mrs Conyers, telling us about her Buddhist friend who believe that God sent prophets to every nation on earth, to tell of God’s love for us all in the best way the people of those nations are able to understand.

When I was a child, God was love, God was beauty, God was compassion for the poor and wounded, God was gentle and kind.

And God was God.

When I got older, God was in the child running away from napalm attack in Vietnam, God was in the freedom marches of Martin Luther King and the words of Malcom X and with Native Americans taking their stand at Wounded Knee; God was in the brave hearts of all who gave their lives for the sake of peace, for the sake of justice, for the sake of Love of one another. God was in the flight of the eagle, in the majesty of mountains, and in the eyes and touch of the one I loved.

And God was God.

At one point in my life God found new names. God became Allah, and Khoda, and Rahman and Raheem. I discovered God had many names, one hundred names in Arabic and myriad names in other languages.

And still, God was God.

I worshipped God in study. I worshipped God in service to others. I worshipped God in a voice that called for justice for the vulnerable. I worshipped God when standing. I worshipped God when bowing. I worshipped God when prostrating with my forehead on the ground. I worshipped God when fasting. I still worship God when standing, when bowing, when prostrating with my forehead on the ground, when fasting.

God remained God. God was God.

And when my children were born – God was all over the faces of my children, in their eyes, in their voices, in their running and playing and laughing and in their crying – crying that demanded the care of their mother and of their father and of humanity and of God.

And when the man who should have protected and cherished me turned, and when I witnessed war, and homelessness, and hunger, and when I watched the suffering of my children – God was in my anger. God was in my anger at God. God was in the bleakness of abandonment, holding steady until I could stop screaming and listen for the still and small and loving voice of God at the heart of my anger. And God lent strength and courage and forbearance through the faces and eyes and hearts and song of my children,

and my family,

and my friends.

And God kept me alive through them and with them and in them.

And God was God. God was always God.

And when I remembered the Jesus of the cross, put there because we didn’t understand his love – God was still God. And God understood my pain and my anger and my insides desiccated by life because God died on the cross that I might know he knows me.

And God was God. And I knew God better. But God was still God, the always God, the only God. There was no other God. There was never any other God.

And I shared my life with people of God, with lovers of God, with those who had different names for God, with those who understood God differently – but God was still the always God. There was no other God. There was never any other God.

Until one day someone asked me whether they worshipped another God, those who knew God by another name. And I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Why do they ask this question? Why do they say there is another God, when God is only God, no other God.