the Call to Love, it takes deep courage

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I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – the words of Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians.

Love, Peace, Humility, Gentleness – lovely sounding words, and because they are words of that to which each of us, each and every human being seeks to attain, thirsts for as the deer pants for the water, we want them to be easy. But we know they are not easily won – they are won through tremendous courage, the kind of courage that only Love can bear, the kind of courage that takes a man to a cross for the sake of the ones he loves. Love bears all things.

This past week I went to a conference at the University of Lancaster on Faith, Communities and Radicalisation. Astounded to be introduced as one of the Church of England’s experts on confronting the far right, I eventually realised that what I consider to be humble experiences, on the ground, at grassroots level, were actually valuable first-hand knowledge the those I shared the platform with viewed as indispensable. The common theme of the day was one of preventing our younger generation in particular from seeking to fulfil their hopes in the arms of the likes of extremism – whether it is with ISIS, or groups such as the EDL, Britain First or neo-Nazi groups such as New Dawn. We have a global context in which employment and housing opportunities are almost non-existent for a generation of young people. In the 14 years since 9/11, a generation of young Muslims have received a daily onslaught from media telling them they are terrorists. And other young people, struggling to find jobs – have also been on the receiving end of that onslaught. It is easy to now find a scapegoat in Muslims or immigrants or Eastern Europeans. What each of us concurred upon, academics, religious leaders, sociologists, criminologists, community workers, was that young people need to be given hope, hope for a future in which they might have employment, feel valued, and have a place in this world. If we don’t, as a nation, give it to them – someone else will. ISIS is the extreme manifestation of those seeking to benefit from a disaffected  generation. It is said that from their fruits you shall know them – and their fruits are that of organised crime. They are involved in trafficking of human beings, in arms and antiquities sales, sale of oil, in drugs. They terrorise just as organised crime uses terror to control swathes of communities.

One of the things that was said is a feeling that this is a new phenomenon – how do we stop it? But we have been here before. Much of the patterns we know of from groups in Northern Ireland are followed in the patterns of behaviour here in the UK with regard to the EDL and Britain First – mapping almost exactly in the Orange parades and organised drug crime. Tommy Robinson, founder of the EDL, has been convicted of a number of crimes which include drug charges and assault. What we have with both groups such as the EDL and with ISIS are a pattern of terror, illicit financial gain, and grooming of the vulnerable for the purposes of forming a voluntary army – whether it is on a small scale here in Britain, or the horrific events in Syria and Iraq. The pattern is the same.

This sounds a bleak picture – but I want to assure that it is not. The solution is not more bombing campaigns, the solution is not a 1950’s McCarthy-era style of thought police. Truly, the first solution, the solution that will make a real difference in the world, is Love. Rick Love (yes, that is his name!) of the World Evangelical Alliance, has challenged the Christian world to wage Love. He is challenging to follow the words of Jesus Christ that we love our enemies, that we love ISIS. Not their ideology – of course not, not their actions. But individual by individual, person by person, cup of tea by cup of tea – that we sit down and listen to people, value them as human beings, that we give hope through love. I have worked enough on the street to see how things ratchet up, and keep on ratcheting up. The more attention you give to the violence, to the anger, things ratchet up. Before we can even listen to one another – we have to stop, love, provide hope.

I was on the train to London at rush hour when the last budget was announced, and I listened to what I discerned were two social workers heatedly discussing the results. Young people between the ages of 18-25 will not be entitled to minimum wage. It is considered appropriate that they should seek help from their families. But these social workers were asking what about the young people in care who are expected to be independent when they are 18, no longer entitled to housing or benefits. Their only choice at this point is to return to a household where they were abused or neglected. It is a choice forced upon them. It will be that or the streets. This nation which in its compassion saw the establishment of the NHS and a benefit system that feeds and houses the vulnerable, and that our Prime Minister is asking to return to British values, is at risk of losing the best of those values. We who pay in to a system of taxes that is supposed to protect us when we need it most, are seeing that slowly eroding away.

This past week, a dentist in America received global disapproval of something he considered a sport. He shot a lion in Africa – and the world went crazy with accusations. And then there were the counter accusations – that people, and the media, care more about a lion being shoe than….well, you name it; a Palestinian child burned to death, a black woman beaten to death by police in the US, or nameless migrants killed in the Channel Tunnel from Calais. Jesus is calling us, calling us to love, to peace, to gentleness, to humility. It is a radical calling. It is a loud calling – and it is getting louder and louder!

When my children were small and had nightmares, I used a Native American technique with them. I told them the next time something chased them in their dream, they were to turn around and ask what gift it was the monster was trying to give them. You see, the thinking behind this is that our nightmares are really something in our psyche that is trying to get our attention – and that if we turn around and listen to what it is, we will find that it is a valuable gift we need to receive.

We are at a crossroads of humanity as a nation. We are being called to love, to compassion, to hope. Several people have died in the middle of a dark tunnel, crushed by lorries and God knows what. We are not provided with their names – they remain dehumanised, nameless, faceless, termed part of a swarm and like cockroaches. What is happening in Calais has been happening for years, but is currently part of a sharp increase of refugees worldwide. What some media term to be a huge swathe is in reality on a minute portion of those seeking sanctuary worldwide. Other European countries take in hundreds of thousands rather than the thousands Britain receive. That a small portion of refugees seek to make it to the UK is no surprise.

There is a global pressure of people seeking to escape unthinkable violence in their home countries, and by far the greater majority are finding refuge in countries closer to where they are coming from. They are not coming to the UK because they are under the impression we have a great system they can exploit. Those who are trying to come here either have some kind of connection through relatives, or have some knowledge of English which they believe will help them find a job.

I worked with refugees when I was living in Brighton. Many of them were highly skilled but prevented from working, from earning their way and paying taxes because while awaiting the lengthy process of seeking asylum, they have little or no recourse to public funds or to employment. But as hard as things are for them here and in Europe – there is at least hope, at least no one is going to shoot them just for being who they are. I was a trustee for Brighton Voices in Exile, a Christian charity which provided for those seeking asylum who were falling through the cracks – left with no food, shelter or recourse to clothing – even for families with children, the charity provided what little they could. What love, commitment, courage, humility and gentleness it takes to provide hope for the hopeless. It is not a case that if we opened our borders there would be hordes of refugees coming in. We are at the edge of Europe, and an island. Those who come this far are the most desperate. Rather than put up walls in fear, we need to work closely with the whole of Europe to find a means of providing for the needy – those in need of saving their own lives.

A Daily Mail headline from 1938 draws comparisons with those we are now seeing with regard to Calais: ‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage. In intend to enforce the law to its fullest.’ – quoting a London magistrate. It goes on to makes claims about problems surrounding unemployment issues – there not being enough jobs, etc. At this end of history, I would rather be perceived as the one who provided sanctuary for those escaping oppression, than the one turning them away.

The bread of life Jesus speaks of is the love for God and for one another each and every one of us is called to. That love would never see another go hungry or thirsty, in fear for their life or without shelter. The bread of Life is Love – courageous, humble, gentle, patient Love. It is not easy, it is not hearts and flowers and romance – but it is full of light and grace and blessing. From this Sunday’s sermon, using the following readings: Ephesians  4.1-16 John 6.24-35

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‘Trafficking’ – politically correct term for modern slavery?

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A talk at Turvey Abbey, 29 April 2015

I came to this subject of Trafficking by a rather circuitous route – through a frustration at the lack of women’s voices in our church, in the running of our countries, and in the world. I am certainly no expert, but it is something about which I am increasingly passionate – because all of us, as human beings, have not only a responsibility, but also have a capacity which we must recognise and act on, to end slavery.

The film 12 Years a Slave is truly powerful, but along with several colleagues, some of whom work in the area of equalities, I also found it very uncomfortable – not only for the brutality of the story, that is rather a given, but for the message it sends out to us today. There are many layers to the ‘white’ story in the film, stories of those who take advantage and kidnap a free man, those who were brutal, those who extended an amount of kindness while holding onto what they considered a right to own another human being, those who were cowards and those who courageously, at the risk of their own lives and livelihood, offered freedom. But these layers were ‘white’. Now racism is another hot topic I do not intend to try to tackle here, and recent events in the US indicate so very dramatically that race relations within the US are in great need of work. Perhaps a truth and reconciliation commission is as much needed there as it was in South Africa. Such films as 12 Years a Slave tend to provide a sense of self-satisfaction, that however bad things were then they are nowhere near as bad now. Even if we have a global problem of trafficking, it’s not as bad as then. Slavery is outlawed, and to make ourselves feel better we even give it a more politically-acceptable label – trafficking; not ‘slavery’. We cannot name it for what it is.

As the British public became aware of the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South, demand grew – not without strong opposition – to take action to end the slave trade. As early as 1792 there was a popular boycott of slave-produced sugar, hitting the slave trade and those dependent upon slave labour where it hurt. The collective efforts of ordinary people made a huge contribution to ending the slave trade, at least in Britain.

We culturally point to that time period, the ending of slavery in the US Antebellum South, as the end of the worst of human enslavement. But let’s look at the statistics. At the height of the US slave trade, 80,000 people were trafficked across international borders every year. That is people kidnapped, sold and shipped across borders, across oceans, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally – all of it in illegal and illicit beginnings, even if later on that journey the legalities were laundered. 80,000 people every year.

That figure has now multiplied many-fold. There are currently 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year. According to the BBC, 36 million people are currently living in slavery, up by a considerable amount when in 2013 that figure was 20.9 million. These range in anything from child soldiers and workers in the cocoa industry, to those working in factories and on farms, captives on Thai fishing boats, to those sold into work as sexual slaves.

Of the three top sources of illicit income worldwide, slavery is second only to that of drugs. The sale of human beings brings more income even than that of the illicit arms trade. We hear of the war on drugs, and on terrorism – but rarely do we hear politicians seeking to end slavery – the subjection of one human being to the will of another and owned in person industry and labour, unable to acquire anything.

At this point it is key to ask why there is so little political engagement with this issue? As with every other ‘cause’ – every now and then there is some media campaign that shows an emotive clip during the adverts on television. Now I don’t want to discredit these efforts– but I still ask, why is the enslavement of 36 million people almost wilfully ignored by media and politicians?

Unlike during the Antebellum South, when slavery was predominantly about forced hard labour – and that labour supported commerce in agriculture and industry, slave labour today is of another type. Half of those trafficked are minors, under 18 years of age. 80% of those trafficked are women. They are being trafficked for the purposes of sex. Trafficking, slavery, is perceived as a ‘women’s problem’.

My journey began as that of a woman working in interfaith dialogue. There were, and continue to be, very few women involved in this work – and those that are tend to be pioneers. I started noticing that many of the women involved were encountering certain difficulties – not necessarily from their religious counterparts, but predominantly from colleagues within our own traditions. I suggested to a friend that we all have lunch. She suggested I write a set of guidelines – which I promptly did. They were intended for the Church of England, but ended up being presented to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Korea in 2013.

In my research, I discovered there have been numerous studies in the area of development which have proven that if women are included at all levels of development work, the education, health and financial well-being of both men and women are improved. If you don’t include women – development just doesn’t happen. The same is true of peace negotiations. If you include women at all levels of a peace process, the likelihood of a longer-lasting peace is much improved. Don’t include women, the process is less successful. It is not that women have all the answers, but that perhaps women and men working together, alongside one another, are better able to come up with longer-lasting and more wide-ranging solutions, sharing different perspectives.

And yet despite this, the gender balance in the majority of decision-making bodies, from corporations to governments to media remains heavily male. And unfortunately, there is a pressure on women of position to continue to conform to stereotype. In a recent fund-raising campaign in the Conservative Party, Theresa May auctioned off a shoe-shopping excursion with her for which £17,500 was raised – not the best example of a woman breaking stereotypes.  When women have been chosen for positions in the cabinet, there is a media obsession with their clothing, with what they wear, rather than what are their political views.

When the young woman was raped and killed so horrifically on a bus in India, the canon chancellor of Leicester cathedral  organised a prayer vigil within 24 hours. The cathedral was full, and full of women – predominantly of South Asian origin, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian & Jewish. These were women who came out from anonymity – unknown by local authorities and faith leaders alike, these women were working on the ground, picking up the pieces, literally washing the dirty laundry, of our society. They work with women who have been victim of domestic violence, forced marriage, honour abuse, sexual grooming and trafficking.

Not long after there was a high profile case of sexual grooming of a minor in Leicester, which sparked violent community tensions resulting in several stabbings.  This was followed by the murder of one young man, plus a mother and her teenage children. I went into overdrive, finding out everything I could about grooming. What I found was that it was still predominantly white, working class men who were involved, but that there was an increasing number of men from other cultural backgrounds who were getting involved. At that point, after speaking to many academics in the field, there was a reticence on the part of those doing the research to investigate grooming in minority groups. The vulnerability among minority adolescents varies from culture to culture, but there are two things in common which make grooming difficult to confront. One, is that whatever cultural background perpetrators may come from – they are all criminal. Whether it is an individual acting on their own, whether part of a gang or acting on behalf of organised crime; their actions are aimed at exploiting vulnerable young people, the greater majority of whom are young girls, for the purpose of sexual slavery. These are not people of faith and should not be identified as such. These are criminals. The other commonality is a disdain for women, and the attitude that women are a commodity to be owned, used, abused and sold. Like it or not these attitudes about women are endemic in our culture.

During an incident of community tension on one council estate, one particularly nasty young man was trying to stir up trouble among the white community with this statement: ‘Those Muslims, they are driving around, stopping our girls, and calling them whores.’ My reaction was to turn to the men standing around and point out to them that is something they all did, didn’t they? Didn’t they call out to girls and call them whores? They all looked at the ground rather shamed-face and admitted they did. But what made my blood run cold was not this admission, as discomforting as it was, but rather the possessive words ‘our girls’. It was at that point there was a dark realisation that whatever culture we are talking about, women and girls are considered commodities, something to be owned and held responsible for male honour and behaviour, running deep through our language. Women hold the ‘honour’ of their families and communities. They are not ‘human’ in themselves, but rather something lesser.

Last summer I made a point of attending events at the Global Summit for Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict. I was privileged to sit at lunch next to a woman from Leeds who works with those seeking asylum, particularly with women who have suffered sexual violence. Her biggest challenge in our asylum system is the constant need for these women to have to prove their story. The system assumes deceit; there is an accompanying questioning of the veracity of each woman’s story. For a woman, for any human being, to have to tell and re-tell the story of her humiliation and violation before a judge who questions every little detail in minutiae, is an extremely painful ordeal which puts her through excruciating events over and over again. This woman’s struggle was difficult enough trying to support the victims of such violence, let alone having to convince immigration authorities of the injustice and cruelty of their process.

Trafficking does cut across gender lines. Children, boys and girls, are exploited in manufacturing for their small hands and ability to do intricate work, they are put to manual labour and made into soldiers. A recent news story told of fishing boats from Thailand where men are taken out onto the sea, forced to work and never returned to shore again – more than likely being thrown overboard if they cause trouble or become sick. Trafficking and slavery is not limited to women and there are more horror stories than anyone can count. But we cannot ignore the fact the majority of victims are women, and that it is highly likely part of the reason so little is being done to end this trade is because of attitudes to women. Ending trafficking as such will not be so simple as boycotting sugar, or certain products – it will entail changing cultural attitudes to women and to the vulnerable, it will entail greater responsibility on the part of those involved in manufacturing to ensure their products are made in a manner in which it can be proven a fair wage has been paid, every step along the way. It will entail insisting our politicians act responsibly, even in fund-raising for campaigns – that they do not re-inforce gender stereotypes, that they promote fairer treatment of immigrants, particularly within the justice system. It will entail ensuring gender parity in running of countries, in business, in trade, in media, in development work, and in reconciliation and peace negotiations.

I have mentioned grooming, misogyny and attitudes to gender, immigration. They are all intertwined in the trafficking issue. You cannot solve trafficking or end slavery without also touching on so many other connected issues. They are a matter of human dignity and social justice.

There is recently a more sinister aspect to recent trafficking – a phenomenon I am calling ‘voluntary hostages’.

We are in a global crisis for our young people in general, with high unemployment and lack of jobs and opportunities. The younger generation have lost hope for the future, are not sure where they belong and whether they are able to make a positive contribution to the world. Compound that with a generation of Muslims who have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, in a world where the media tells them they are terrorists – and if they are young they are especially dangerous. If you are visibly Muslim, wearing the hijab, young or old, you are shouted at and abused on the street and singled out in school. When you are young, you just want to know you have a future, that you have hope for a good life and that you can make a contribution to the world. Young people want to be heroes and to belong. But our society makes it increasingly difficult for that to happen, especially if you are Muslim.

If you look at the likes of ISIS or Boko Haram or Christian extremist groups in CAR, or Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army; look at their actions – by their fruit you shall know them! They are involved in the same activities as those of organised crime in their generation of illicit income. They are involved in illegal arms, in human trafficking in the kidnap of young girls and women, in drugs, in illicit oil sales and selling stolen antiquities. They are organised crime, not people of faith. And just as those involved in grooming – they are very good at enticing their victims into doing what they want until they are trapped.

We need to find a way of bringing back our young people, because they are ours, they are the best of us. They are the ones seeking a better life, seeking to belong, seeking to be heroes. And when they are enticed abroad with promises of a better life, of belonging, of being able to make a difference in the world – however misguided and violent – we need to find a way of bringing them home. Because they will wake up, they will realise they are trapped – and we will only add to their bitterness and resentment if we do not provide them an escape route. They are as much victim of human trafficking and enslavement as any other. And when they want to come home, they have become hostage to their captors, seeking either monetary gain or even worse, to use their entrapment as emotional blackmail and terror.

A recent ‘Thought for the Day’ by a Jewish woman rabbi quoted Nelson Mandela. She had heard his statement while part of a group seeking peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine when they had visited Northern Ireland. The group in Northern Ireland had visited South Africa (I love how these words of wisdom travel the globe!). They were told: ‘Don’t think anything is impossible. The only way change is going to happen is when each of us takes responsibility and makes the changes we can, where and when we are able.’

I have paraphrased here, not remembering the exact words, but you get the gist. The issues surrounding modern slavery are complicated and vast – but each of us can make a difference in our own lives, through the products we buy and the manner in which we buy them, the conversations we have (even on a bus or in a queue), the way in which we choose to vote, and in how we treat one another. Things are bad – really bad for 36 million people living in slavery. But that doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air and see a problem too big to handle. The solution comes about one person at a time, one moment at a time, in demanding better of our governments, businesses and media – and in living lives of passionate kindness.

Is our current politicking a festering wound that spreads infection?

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A sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter, based on Bible readings: Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48

I don’t usually like telling stories that generalise nations or peoples, so I am going to try to tell this sensitively. When I was living in Iran, we had several friends from West Africa, also studying there. My friend from Sierra Leone didn’t like going out much. Whenever we would go out, in a group, with other women from Iran, we would always be on the receiving end of stares. Now I had grown accustomed to this a little myself – but nothing to the extent in which she suffered. The city we were living in was a place of pilgrimage – and so many people from villages around would travel there in order to say special prayers or even ask for cures of the woman saint whose shrine was at the centre of the central mosque. These villagers had not seen much of the world outside. They would stand and stare, almost in a state of shock, at my friend whose skin was very dark indeed. And then she would be standing next to me, who was a few shades paler than most Iranians. The husband of another friend of ours, also from West Africa, would tell us that whenever he would go into a restaurant a crowd would gather around – curious to see a black man eating. They had no intention of being rude – but that is the thing with unconscious racism, no one means to be rude; but simply by treating someone different from how we would treat anyone else, we are setting them apart. We are making them special in some way – and that ‘special’ is not always easy to live with. There is something in that behaviour that de-humanises, either by demonising or by setting on a pedestal.

One of the things deeply discomforting about this impending election has been the manner in which so many are being set apart – as if they are somehow ‘special’, whether it is in holding up being white and British, native, if you like, as somehow being more entitled, or setting apart the immigrant – the darker the skin the more alien they become. As if being from somewhere else means they are less entitled to employment, human rights, equal treatment before the law, health care, or just the right to live a decent life. There is a loss of human decency in this political campaign that is extremely unsettling for the soul.

As counter, there have been a number of posters in the media and in advertising. These are pictures of health workers, doctors, firefighters, solicitors, judges, all kinds of professional people in the care industry who have served others, even saved lives – and yet each one is an immigrant. It is said much of the NHS would fall apart if it were not for carers from abroad.

What has made me think of this has been several phrases in our readings this morning. In the reading from Acts, there is the reminder from Peter to the people of his time, that it was they who were responsible for the persecution of Jesus, they who chose to have him killed. And yet Peter offers a way out. This man who had himself denied Jesus and been offered forgiveness, offers the same to others. He is a reminder that each of us, is culpable in some way for the suffering of others. He recognises that it is all too easy to get stuck in the guilt of that realisation – and that the only way out is to seek redemption, to seek forgiveness.

The First Letter of John celebrates in the forgiveness freely given, celebrates that we are all children of God. It reminds that Jesus was sent to remove sin – and that can only happen when there is forgiveness. Holding onto grudges, and holding on to guilt, both keep sin alive – a festering wound that spreads infection, pain and suffering. The only relief comes through forgiveness, to forgive hurt and failure and cowardice.

When Jesus stands among his disciples, I can’t help but think of my friend, who everyone stood around and stared at. There was a kind of disbelief at what they were seeing – in their eyes they were seeing someone like them and yet not like them, someone set apart. What must it have been like for the disciples to see the man they had loved – and yet run away from at the hour of his greatest need of them – how must it have felt for them to see him face to face? To look into his eyes? And most of all, to be greeted with a grin and a word of ‘Peace’? Along with the joy of seeing him, there must also been a huge twinge of guilt and grief, of shame. And it is this guilt that made them pause, that made them hold back.

And yet here he is telling them he is here, he is facing them, he doesn’t even mention forgiveness, for his forgiveness is already there – it is everything about his person. He tells them to come on, touch me, see that I am here, I am human – so human in fact that I’m really hungry. What have you got that I can eat?

I remember an interview with the author Maya Angelou years ago. She was asked what it was like knowing people such as President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. She replied that they were ordinary people, the same as everyone else. That it does them no favours to put them high on a pedestal where no one can reach them. She said they had doubts and worries and faults just like anyone else. They just happened to make courageous decisions at extraordinary times. If we put them high on a pedestal then we make their courage inaccessible too. It means no one else can be like them. But everyone has the potential to be like them.

Jesus is telling his disciples – look, you have the capacity to do what I have done. You have the capacity to bring forgiveness to the world, to bring forgiveness to Jerusalem, to bring forgiveness to the whole of humanity. This had to happen to me, to suffer pain, to be betrayed and to die – so that you might see that all can be forgiven, the worst that humanity can throw at us, can still be forgiven, must be forgiven.

One of the most extraordinary books I have recently read is ‘The Book of Forgiveness’ by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho. They write about the Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, but they also write about the more mundane occasions in life too – when each of us are hurt, and each of us hurt others, about the times we learn to forgive, and about the times we must seek forgiveness – even if it is from within our own selves.

They write: ‘I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another – whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity – then you will know this to be true, I have often said that in South Africa there would have been no future without forgiveness. Our rage and our quest for revenge would have been our destruction. This is as true for us individually as it is for us globally.’

I would propose the same is true for us in our current climate of fear, of a media and politicians who seek to sow fear of one another rather than learning to work together towards a better world. We divide to our own cost, to the cost of our children and to the cost of the future of the nation they all claim to seek to serve. It is a brave politician in this climate of fear that seeks to support the outcast and the marginalised, who recognises we are all children of God, regardless of country of origin, colour of skin, or faith in ones’ heart. Our survival as a nation relies not on fear, but on hope, on forgiveness, and on coming together.

#JeSuis…

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Paris falafelJe Suis? What is ‘Je Suis’? What does it mean to say ‘I am’? I am what?
Those of you who follow social media will have noted the myriad posts saying ‘#JeSuisCharlie’, people identifying with the victims of the terrible violence in Paris this past week. Even our archbishop posted a Tweet, ‘#JeSuisCharlie the response to such demonic violence is love for those who suffer and virtuous action against evil.’
This was followed by people wanting to identify instead with the Muslim police officer who gave his life trying to protect the magazine offices, Ahmed. #JeSuisAhmed became the call.
There have been numerous statements by politicians and religious leaders alike, articles and commentaries written, and myriad interviews. In the midst of this my own very modest role with our diocese has left me rather cautious. And I will share why.
Last Tuesday, before the attacks in Paris, I sat in a session in the House of Commons with the author Arun Kundnani, who has written a set of recommendations for the government on ending radicalisation. One of the more heated subjects touched on was that of free speech, how free are we to say what we believe or feel? And should government be monitoring university students, hospital patients and even nursery schools – in search of possible radicals. It was pointed out that most university students, most people, go through a period of being ‘radical’ as they develop their personalities and find their place in the world. If there is no space for those ideas to be explored in a rigorous and open manner, if people are afraid to express their views, express their fears, express their anger and not have those views challenged – they get bottled up, never addressed, and develop into something even more dangerous.
In reality there is no such thing as true freedom of speech. Along with this freedom comes responsibility. It is against the law to incite others to hatred of others or incite to commit a crime, for example. This being said, the greater part of the Muslims present at this session on Tuesday felt they were not able to speak freely. If they were to complain about the use of drones for example – would they then be considered radicalised and therefore a possible threat to the security of the nation?
And the next day we had the attack in Paris.
Unlike the aftermath of the publication of the Danish cartoons, journalists have been swift to share the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. Over a million copies of the magazine have now been printed – an unprecedented number for this publication. Now I have seen the Danish cartoons and the Charlie cartoons are infinitely more inflammatory and offensive. Charlie has been an equal opportunity offender, and have published cartoons deeply offensive to Christian, Jew and Muslim alike. When 200 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Charlie Hebdo published an extremely racist cartoon implying the girls were benefit scroungers. How that could possibly be comparable is beyond most. This was not clever satire.
In terms of a school playground, the behaviour of Charlie Hebdo could be considered to be that of the school bully – picking on the outcast. Any rhetoric in a nation that prides itself on having a sophisticated culture which then derides or humiliates the minorities living amongst them, must be condemned rather than celebrated. But that is not then cause for the horrendous actions of these murderers. God is big enough to withstand the scribblings of a few cartoonists – as is Jesus, Muhammad and the Pope. But the minorities among us are not.
What I find of more concern is the dissonance between the defence of the right to offend, and the lack of freedom to dress in accordance with beliefs. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab, or face veil.
On Friday, this same week, Raif Badawi, a young writer whose blog, Free Saudi Liberals, fell foul of the censors in Saudi Arabia, was subject to the first of a series of floggings. Prosecuted and found guilty of criticising Saudi officials, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes – enduring 50 at a time, once a week, every Friday, until the 1,000 are complete. Now if I can Tweet #JeSuisCharlie, in solidarity with those who have been killed in such an attack, I can also certainly help to campaign for the freedom of this young father of three, for his freedom to call for not only freedom of speech within his own country, but also freedom to live with other rights so many of us enjoy but which are absent in Saudi Arabia. And so there are those of us also Tweeting #JeSuisRaif.
More stories are emerging of heroism, of the Muslim worker, Lassana, who escorted customers at the Kosher supermarket into a basement freezer, giving them a safe place to hide while he faced the hostage takers.
For the first time since WWII the synagogue in Paris was closed on the Shabbat, and Jewish shops, museums and centres were advised to close. I was glad to see on the news that a wonderful kosher, vegetarian falafel restaurant in Paris, that is a favourite of my family, decided to stay open in defiance. The owner, Madame Martine, refused to be afraid. For people such as her and for the synagogue, people are Tweeting #JeSuisJuif.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus makes radical statements of identity: I am the bread, I am the Light, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life, I am the True Vine – each of these holding theological and spiritual depth of meaning which at the time were considered heretical. Jesus pushed the boundaries of the acceptable and in the end gave his life for the words he spoke.
As we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, the day Jesus ministry to the world was made public; and with a blessing and baptism through water from yet another who lost his life for the words he spoke, John, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. This event is not one of a private spiritual experience for Jesus and John alone. It is a Christological statement, a strong statement identifying Jesus as the Christ, Emmanuel, God among us. This is no gentle descent of a dove, no easy birth – the heavens are torn asunder, suggesting it was witnessed by a much wider audience. God identifies Jesus as his Son, his voice, his hands, his presence, his Love among us. It is God who makes the statement ‘I am,’ ‘Je Suis.’ When we are baptised into the life of Christ, when we partake of the communion bread and wine, we become part of this great ‘I am.’
A wonderfully warm Muslim friend of mine allowed fear to get the better of her the other day. She posted this on Facebook: ‘I think as Muslims in Europe we should get ready for a total surveillance and for life to get even worse than it already is – there is worse to come. I am not feeling positive at all.’
Now the next day, she realised how destructive this fear was and decided to post only positive stories in defiance. But I am also grateful to her for sharing her fears. It gave the opportunity for me, and for many others, to share our support for her and for our Muslim friends and colleagues. What these people with guns, and sadly also some people with pens, are trying to do is to divide us, one from another; to try to make us live in fear. The greatest thing we can do in the face of this is exactly what so many have done – to make the statement ‘I am’ – #JeSuisCharlie #JeSuisAhmed #JeSuisRaif #JeSuisJuif. We are the girls kidnapped and trafficked into slavery. We are the poor of this nation forced to go to food banks to feed their families. We are one people. We stand together. Amen.

Seeking Refuge – a sermon at Epiphany

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Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Today we recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Unlike in most Nativity plays, these Magi were not actually at the birth of Jesus, nor did they arrive that very night or day. Traditionally we mark their coming on Twelfth Night or Epiphany – twelfth night being quite naturally the twelfth day after the birth of Jesus, and ‘epiphany’ being a manifestation, usually a manifestation of the divine.
I am really quite fascinated by this particular passage in Matthew about the visit of the Magi – there are just so many interesting layers of meaning. In the scripture itself the number of Magi is not specified, and we have taken the number three from the number of gifts that were brought. But really we don’t know the number.
Magi at the time of Jesus birth were really rather suspect characters, associated with interpretation of dreams and of the movement of the stars – and because of this with magic. And it is partly because of this scholars believe the literal veracity, or truth, of the tale. Why recount the visit of a suspect group of outsiders to the birth of the Messiah? Wouldn’t this be cause for suspicion rather than a proof of his divinity and special birth? And yet Matthew has chosen to include this story. There is an interpretation of the New Testament from a Jewish perspective which considers this visit to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles as well as to the Jewish people – and this is also reflected in many Christian interpretations.
But how did we get from suspect Magi to Kings? This, again, points to another series of layers of meaning. The gold, frankincense and myrrh are usually interpreted as representing a recognition of Jesus royalty, represented by gold; his priestly or sanctified status, represented by frankincense; and myrrh to be held onto for anointing his body upon death. But it is also representative of the expensive and royal gifts brought by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon – that of gold and spices, and that her gifts foreshadow the royal and holy status of the Messiah. These gifts to Solomon have also been reflected in the first reading from Isaiah – which refers to the exalted status of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is here depicted as a widow mourning the loss of her beloved – but is comforted by visions of the restoration of her glory, not in human kingship but in the kingship of the Divine. This reference is purposeful – the passage from the Gospel of Matthew is reinforcing the divinity of Christ in referring to these royal gifts to be presented before Jerusalem. Jesus is the divine king who will rule Jerusalem, and who will rule the world, though possibly not in the political sense we understand today. That leadership is one of the heart, Love as the law by which all are sustained.
This passage also has a clever difference in the use of words by the Gentile Magi and those used by Herod. The Magi refer to the child to be born as King of the Jews, which would certainly have been a challenge to Herod’s kingly rule. But then Herod turns around and refers his chief priests and advisers not to the birth of a king but to the possible birth of the Messiah. He is asking a theological question about the signs of the birth of the Messiah, while the Magi are asking very practical questions.
This actually makes Herod’s decision to slaughter the innocents all the more insidious – he is not seeking the death of a rival king, but seeking the death of the awaited Messiah.
And the recording of this slaughter is purposeful – yet another layer to the story. It is a reflection of the slaughter of male children at the birth of Moses. The danger of this child who would bring down the might of Egypt is foretold to Pharaoh in a dream – reflected by the dreams and foretelling of the Magi.
I was recently asked by a church officer for any thoughts on immigration, and among my responses was the observation that our patron saint, of the diocese and of England, St Alban, gave his life for that of a refugee seeking sanctuary in this blessed isle for the freedom to follow his religion. At Epiphany I tend to reflect on the pride with which many of those I met in Egypt declared their loyalty to the Christ child, proud that Jesus, Mary and Joseph found refuge & shelter in Egypt for a time.
I’m also reminded of my time in Iran, during which the country had taken in a round 1 ½ million refugees from Soviet occupied Afghanistan, & later took in another 1 ½ million from the war with Iraq. A nation suffering economic sanctions was looking after an additional 3 million people, arriving with no possessions or wealth. And also the nation which it is alleged the wise travellers from the east originated: the city of Qum which I came to live in.
Our faith began in the light from a vulnerable child seeking sanctuary, a child that still is seeking safe refuge within our hearts. The power of this child, the light Christ brings, a light the wise cross deserts & mountains to seek, the power of love that brings down tyrants, is seeking still, calling out to us in the plight of boats abandoned in the sea, full of the desperate, fearful & homeless.
In his New Year’s message, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked on the generosity of Britons to the plight of the world’s suffering, and especially of people such as Pauline Cafferkey battling for her life in a London hospital after succumbing to the Ebola she tried to fight.
Let us pray for the courage of the wise – to welcome the light of the Christ child in our lived lives as well as in our hearts.
Amen.

What is Sexual Jihad? a talk given at the House of Lords, more or less…

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On the 24th of June 2014 an All Party meeting was held in Parliament to discuss the rising sectarian violence and recent threats from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I was asked to speak, and this is a summary of what I said, with a few additions for clarification.

So what is ‘sexual jihad’? Some have described it as when young women are radicalised and lured into ‘fixed term marriage’ or ‘nikah’ in order to act as comfort women for those men fighting with ISIS and other extremist groups. There have been reports from Tunisia and from within Syria itself of girls either enticed willingly or kidnapped against their will in order to have serial sexual intercourse with men. There have even been reports of young European women being influenced to do the same.

And then there have been counter claims that all of this has been an attempt to discredit ISIS and their like.

Those working in the areas of development and human rights have acknowledged it does their cause no good to either falsify reports or to exaggerate. So at this point, until there is further well-documented evidence I reserve judgement on the validity of these stories. It is important at this stage to not deny what could turn out to be based in real experience, nor to go along with something that may in fact turn out to be an untruth.

What cannot be denied however is the suffering of women and girls in war zones, as we heard so clearly during the recent Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict (https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/sexual-violence-in-conflict) and especially in current events in Syria and Iraq. ISIS (sometimes called ‘Da’ash’ in the Arabic) have their origins within the umbrella of al-Qaeda, and are associated through al-Qaeda, even if somewhat loosely, with groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and others. These groups have a proven track record of kidnapping young women and girls for the purposes of sexual and domestic slavery. They are also sold as a means of financial gain. And now we are given to understand women and girls are used for sexual acts as payment of jizyah tax.

Human trafficking is the second largest source of illegal income second only to drugs, and exceeding illegal arms sales (http://www.stopthetraffik.org/the-scale-of-human-traffiking) During the height of the global slave trade going into the antebellum South (of the United States), 80,000 people were trafficked across international borders per year. Currently that number stands at 600,000-800,000 per year (from the book ‘Half the Sky’, more information at: http://www.halftheskymovement.org/). Of those trafficked, 80% are women and girls. This means every year a possible 640,000 women and girls are sold into slavery, and the majority of those are used as sexual slaves. This is a criminal practice having nothing to do with faith.

There are currently more refugees out of Syria and Iraq than from WWII. The majority of those, again, are women and children. It is well documented that women living in refugee camps live in fear for their safety and the safety of their daughters especially. As a result, they tend to push their daughters into early marriage believing this will protect them.

And women have been enticed by wealthy Arab men, predominantly from the Gulf countries, into promises of security through marriage. These women are used, abused and then discarded – leaving them even more vulnerable than before.

If there is such a thing as this sexual jihad, of young radicalised women willingly providing sexual comfort for extremist groups – and I am not saying there is or isn’t – it is something the current Prevent agenda in the UK is not addressing, nor are our political, community or religious leaders.

It is known that a British woman holding extremist views was at the heart of the attacks on the shopping centre in Nairobi. I have known young teenage women in Iran who were part of the MKO at the time of terrorist bombings in Tehran, Qum and across the country. I managed to talk them out of the organisation, without having committed anything serious – but I can easily picture them as being susceptible to this type of ‘jihad’. They were wanting to be a part of a radical movement, and would have done anything for it.

Current endeavours for building peace in the region, for prevention of radicalisation and growth of extremist ideas both in the UK and abroad tend to exclude women, when UN and wider academic studies have demonstrated not only the effectiveness but also the vital necessity of inclusion of women at all levels of negotiations. Women have been very much the victims of these events and must be included in finding solutions.

 

 

 

 

 

We are all connected! a sermon from Trinity Sunday

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people embracing‘Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?

Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him?

Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice?

Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales;

see, he takes up the isles like fine dust…The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.’ (from Isaiah 40)

I recently watched a programme interviewing astronauts who had flown into space, who had circled the earth and viewed it from the heavens. Each one of them reported how they returned inwardly changed. They saw the earth, they saw people, through new eyes. They saw the oneness of the earth and how everything flows into everything else, how all is connected through the seas and the winds and the movements of animals and people. There are no borders, no lines on maps.

People and animals find amazing ways of surviving, even thriving, in what for others would be extremely harsh conditions – those who live in extreme cold or heat, those who live on the sea, hardly ever stepping foot on land and those who never see the sea.

But everything we do can have an affect on everyone and everything else. There are artificially manufactured chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides and the like which have invaded our environment, and were later discovered to be the cause of cancers and deformities at birth, even still births. Seemingly pristine landscapes have been found to be collection points for some of these chemicals – the earth’s flow of water, air and even land, carrying them until they gather at certain points, unable to flow any further. Miniscule bits of plastic now float in the oceans and collect in the bodies of the fish we eat.

There was a documentary recently about the prawn industry in Thailand – about how Malaysian men, seeking to find refuge, are instead trafficked onto fishing boats where they are forced to work as slaves – cleaning the catch of prawns, prawns which find their way to our supermarkets and sold so cheaply. They are not allowed back on land for years at a time, and oftentimes end up dying or being murdered and thrown overboard, never heard from again.

There are so many stories like this – and it sometimes feels just too daunting to try to keep track of all the things we should and shouldn’t eat! So most people just give up. It’s too much!

Arocha http://arocha.org.uk/ is a Christian movement for environmental concern. Among their most powerful messages are those which remind us that everything we eat, everything we consume is sacred. Our relationships are sacred, so where we purchase our food from, or how we grow it, who we share with, and more importantly how we share – are all vitally linked to the worship of God we share together on a Sunday morning.

I think one of the saddest things I have read recently was an article that stated fast food is the food of the overworked and underpaid. It takes time to be able to cook a meal, lovingly and slowly. It takes time to be able to pick out the individual ingredients and ensure they have come from an ethical source. It takes more money to be able to buy fresh produce grown locally. When you have little in the way of resources, when you have little in the way of time – when you are having to work shifts or all the hours God gives just to put food on the table for your family – oftentimes it is the cheapest, fastest and poorest quality available. And this is no criticism of those particular consumers, but more an indictment of a society that places little value of the sacredness of our food and of the bodies God has created for us to inhabit.

This is why it is so important for us as a common humanity to speak out to prevent the trafficking of human beings just so we can have cheap food. To speak out against the pollution of our environment. Everything we do affects everyone else. We are all interconnected. And the solutions to these problems can only come when we work together. I was recently reading about what it took to help end the slave trade in the United States. The British public took a tremendous dip in revenue, loss of trade and income, for the sake of human beings who were suffering elsewhere. At the height of the slave trade in the Antebellum South, 80,000 slaves were trafficked every year. What most people don’t realise is that currently 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, nearly 10 times the number Wilberforce and the British nation sacrificed so much to eradicate. 80% of those trafficked are women. There are no statistics for those people who are trafficked internally, never crossing international borders, and suffering in unrecorded silence.

In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

He begins his command with an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of creation, he dismisses borders – and tells them to use the name one of the most intimate of connections, that of a parent and child and the bond that hold them together. The Father, creator and loving parent; the Son, redeemer of the world and loving child; and the Holy Spirit, sustainer of us all, connecting us to one another and to God, that quiet voice that whispers in our hearts and lending strength to follow what we know to be the right path – the path of sacrificial love that sees the sower of the seed; the wind and the rain and the sun and the good earth which help it to grow; the reaper, the thresher, the one who grinds the wheat into flour, and the one who bakes the bread – all those who labour that we may eat. As we share our Eucharist each Sunday, we share it with all those across the face of this earth who receive the bead and the wine in their own churches, for our churches are truly One Church, blessed in Trinity.

Sitting at the Foot of the Cross

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‘Sitting at the foot of the Cross’ tripped so lightly off the tongue as if there were some redeeming quality in sitting there watching someone suffer torture, for we are the ones who put him there in the first place and we sit in fascination watching the pain, our own pain finding relief with each drop of blood that falls.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross for too long, watching the parade of mutilated children, bodies hacked to pieces by our machines of war, souls stripped of dignity, bellies sunken, spirits sunken from a hunger that could easily be assuaged if we would only, only learn for once to share our bread.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross of Christa, legs forced so wide her body torn in half, her heart torn asunder by the blows, the rapes, of the man who claimed to love her, would take care of her. He took care of her alright. Her eyes stare empty and cold and afraid, waiting for the next blow, her sweat and labour and mind bumping against the glass ceiling, angry fists battering to shatter the glass in her own face for the sake of the children she must feed and clothe and shelter, because the men won’t or don’t, because they drink and smoke and gamble away the nourishment of children.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross as wars wage, as cross and crescent and David’s star and Bodhi trees are born aloft, magic talismans of some god’s protection of some race or land or bank or honour or gender or whatever. The earth is blown apart, in fifty shades of cold grey that seeks to maim and bruise and cut from the earth bright jewels to cover the amulet heart of stone.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross watching the heart of flesh bleed in longing for the rejecting beloved, the object of a Love that is never requited yet goes on thirsting, seeking that cool water of refreshing redemption – and instead receives the bitter gall of betrayal.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross is a bleating lamb, watching and waiting, in stillness, in gentleness, in quiet – gazing upon the desolation of that moment and seeing only the penumbral light of hope, of a coming resurrection, when all the pain and the betrayal disappears, and all that is left is golden light beating with dove-like wings a cleansing fire, burning the chaff until all that is pain, all that is darkness, becomes itself an ember in the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Walking in the desert

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This time of Lent is an allusion to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before embarking upon his ministry. The Gospels repeatedly remind us that Jesus regularly struggled to find moments of solitude and silence, to escape the crowds following him wherever he went. Time out was essential to the state of his spiritual health and well-being.

Alongside a good friend, Michael Rusk, I was recently privileged to meet with David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director of Reconciliation. He described for us the archbishop’s intention to establish a contemplative community to be resident in Lambeth Palace and serving the wider borough as well as any visitors to the Palace. But the main focus of the community is to provide a space for prayer and intimacy with God, space to take time out of a punishingly hectic diary in order to stop, to breathe, to find a spiritual and a physical centre for the soul.

During a post-graduate seminar I taught recently, I described the manner in which global events impact on the local and vice versa, and how all of this impacts on our ministry in any parish church. How is what we do relevant to the lives of the people we serve? and how even what we do at a local and community level has an impact on the wider church around the world.

During the WCC 10th Assembly last autumn, a young Christian woman from Iran spoke eloquently about the impact of economic sanctions on the ordinary people in her country – and I repeated her plea to end these sanctions during a lunch with the US Ambassador (apparently a personal friend of President Obama) and at a special parliamentary session on Iranian foreign relations at which there were delegates from the CIA, US and UK departments of defence, and trade interests from around the world. The general attitude of these officials was that the sanctions had worked, they had forced the Iranian government to come to the negotiating table. But I am there to ask, at what cost? The cost being the suffering of ordinary people for whom all this geopolitical intrigue has been a source of hunger, pain, and even death. Sanctions which cause human suffering touch the lives of each and every one of us – they touch our soul, and affect our right relationship with God.

So what does this have to do with the desert? with time out? David Porter mentioned there is a question we must ask ourselves in any conflict situation, whether it is in areas of violent conflict in the world, or the inner workings of deanery or parish politics. What is this conflict doing to your soul? You may believe you have right on your side, but what is holding onto that right doing to your relationship with God and with your fellow humanity? Answering such a question entails taking time out, setting yourself apart from whatever situation you are in, and asking yourself the tough questions. Why am I holding onto this? And what it is doing to me spiritually?

Once you are able to discern what it is that brings your soul closer to God, it is important to hold steady, even in the face of fear – and as Porter puts it, even in the face of someone holding a gun to your head and knowing that however much you may be facing him with a steadfast and loving heart, he could very well still pull the trigger. Surviving conflict is about knowing what you are about and holding onto that calm centre.

During a session of our Lent course, one of our parishioners asked if God were present among us, then surely that is heaven. Heaven is with us here and now, it is up to us to recognise this. So how do we recognise this in the situation described above? Do we have the courage to recognise even the most painful, the most fearful situations to also still be of God, and in the presence of God and heaven? It doesn’t mean we face these without fear. As I have said before – faith is real when it is accompanied by fear. What is courage without fear? There is no courage if you do not feel afraid. Courage is standing in that desert, naked, trembling and vulnerable before God, and yet choosing to continue standing there, waiting upon the spirit of God to lead you home.

These moments do not come out of the blue, they are worked at with discipline. They are worked at through the daily offices and through taking time out to converse intimately with our loving God in meditation and personal prayer. They are worked at in all the relationships we build up with our wider community and between ourselves as a parish. Hold steady to the discipline of prayer and service to one another and to community. Have the courage to take time each day to let go of everything, to walk in the desert, to discern what is good for your soul and its relationship with God. This is what lends strength, lends steadiness, to the times of trial. Before there is Easter, there is the desert and there is the trial. Embrace each, hold steady – for God is indeed with us and heaven is at hand.

Removing the bonds of death through reconciliation

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Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Ezekiel raises them bones
John 11:1-45 – Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead

The Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem takes you on a carefully constructed journey. It is like a university campus with various buildings, each of which tell a different part of the story. You are first introduced to the thriving Jewish communities in Europe, the very different and vibrant ways in which they lived alongside and contributed to European culture and life. You are introduced to very traditional communities, wearing clothing and living a lifestyle that set them apart from others, and introduced to those who were very much a part of their society, contributing in the way of science, commerce and the arts. Life is presented in all its fullness. And then you are shown the manner in which they were torn away from their homes and thrown into concentration camps, families separated or killed before the eyes of their loved ones. You are shown the horrific life of the camps and the ways in which people were forced to betray one another for a scrap of bread. And then there are those who sacrificially gave their lives for others, those who shared their bread, and the righteous among the nations, those who were not Jewish but who did their best to save those they could.

There is the memorial to the children of the Holocaust – a simple round building. You enter a kind of round walkway that seems like a vast cave. The walls, ceiling and floor are covered in mirrors – each of them reflecting a single candle lit in the centre. The light of the candle is reflected through each of the mirrors and those reflecting lights seem to go on forever.

There is the building which represents Sheol – the land of the dead. The walls are of huge stones and everything else is painted black. There is a chance to read out the names of someone connected to you who died in the Holocaust – and in doing so their name lives on. In Jewish tradition, once the 40 days of mourning after a death are over, it is not considered acceptable to speak of the dead – and this is difficult when the whole point of the museum is to remember those who were lost in such horrific circumstances. It is hard to describe what it is like to be in such a dark space, with queues of people lined up to read out a name, what a privilege it feels to have been picked by the group I was with to read out the names they had requested, to know and understand the horrific manner in which those few people whose names I carried had died – each one of them had given their life for others.

At the end of the experience, and the museum is choreographed to be this way, you come out onto a veranda, in the light of the sun, and alongside the young army conscripts or students who are brought there on a daily basis – to demonstrate the hope of the future in the next generation, that despite all the efforts of Hitler, the Jewish people live on and prosper. Ezekiel’s bones are resurrected.

This past week saw the twenty year commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda. A BBC reporter shared the story of just one man he came to know during that time, a man who had saved his life and the lives of they believe over 1,000 people in the course of the conflict. Capt. Mbaye Diagne was a UN peacekeeper from Senegal who somehow managed to smuggle hundreds of people away from the killers roaming the streets and countryside of Rwanda. The film Hotel Rwanda touches on part of his story. Only days before he was due to fly home, his tour of duty complete, he was caught in a road bomb and killed by shrapnel. His wife reports his usual good humour had disappeared, greatly affected by all the death and devastation he was witnessing. But because of him, hundreds of people are alive today.

In a continuing effort for reconciliation within Rwanda, the renowned photographer Pieter Hugo visited a meeting of perpetrators and victims from that time. They are a powerful witness to resurrection after death. Each of the victims suffered loss of home, of livelihood and more importantly loss of loved ones, of husbands, brothers, fathers, children. Many of the perpetrators had served terms in prison, and as part of their rehabilitation into the community they had to not only recant their actions, but seek the pardon of their victims. Here follows a little of the article I found:

‘The people who agreed to be photographed are part of a continuing national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent)…small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counselled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness…

‘At the photo shoots, Hugo said, the relationships between the victims and the perpetrators varied widely. Some pairs showed up and sat easily together, chatting about village gossip. Others arrived willing to be photographed but unable to go much further. “There’s clearly different degrees of forgiveness,” Hugo said. “In the photographs, the distance or closeness you see is pretty accurate.”

‘In interviews… the subjects spoke of the pardoning process as an important step toward improving their lives. “These people can’t go anywhere else — they have to make peace,” Hugo explained. “Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” Yet the practical necessity of reconciliation does not detract from the emotional strength required of these Rwandans to forge it —side by side.’ (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-share&_r=3)

The raising of Lazarus from death is a powerful metaphor of love and forgiveness offered to us all by Jesus Christ – Love that can give life for others that they might live, and forgiveness for even the most heinous of sins. Life means life, full of joy and an open ability to love and forgive in the face of pain.

This past week Archbishop Justin Welby went on LBC Radio in London to spend an hour answering questions from the public. Anyone was able to phone in and ask a question. The rather contentious subject of equal marriage came up, several times in fact. And in the last five minutes I believe Justin made one of his more powerful appeals. He shared that he is awake nights trying to balance what is an impossible situation. He hears the pain of gay couples who seek the blessing of the church on the relationships of love and commitment they have found. He hears the pain of parents of gay teenagers who have committed suicide because of bullying. He hears the pain of gay people who have felt themselves rejected from the community of the church, a church that they feel would deny them the love of an ever-forgiving, ever loving God. He understands God’s love to be there for all of us, for everyone. But he also hears the pain of the families and loved ones of whole Anglican Christian communities who have been killed in parts of Africa because others around them, their neighbours, disagreed with the Episcopal Church in America’s decision to sanctify gay marriage. He hears the pain of those Churches in Africa who feel they are coming under increasing pressure to disengage from the Anglican Church in England, in Europe and the US because of this one issue.

Now I have heard people say that ++Justin is weak, that he is giving in to bullies. But I rather believe he is reminding us, here in England, that much of what we do can have repercussions in other parts of the world; to not be naïve about what we consider to be issues of justice. If we seek equal marriage, then we need to take responsibility for what happens in other places. It is not about giving in to bullies, but about taking pity on those who bear the brunt of our actions. It is not about not supporting equal marriage, but about accompanying our actions with a strategy that would enable vulnerable Christian communities in other parts of the world to feel safe. Of course, it must be recognised that the issue of equal marriage is an excuse. If it had not been this, it would have been something else. There is a much greater economic and cultural divide, a divide of histories in need of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We still don’t know what will happen in the next vote in General Synod on women bishops, but we do know that it is because of a strong push to listen to one another, on a human level, that has made the difference in the lead up to this next vote and which has gained much more support. Perhaps what we need, on a global scale this time, is a larger listening exercise on the issues of not only equal marriage but perhaps in general across the Anglican Communion – to enable people to meet face to face, share our stories of pain and loss. It is much harder to hate someone you have sat down with, broken bread with, with whom you have asked about their day or how their family is doing. A process of reconciliation is needed – a process of self sacrifice and of love. As Jesus removed the bonds of Lazarus burial shroud, we need to unwind our bindings of fear and hatred, misunderstanding and ignorance. Just as Jesus rolled away the stone of Lazarus’ tomb, we need to remove that heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.