Auschwitz web

21 September 2017

CSC_0105

 

Such a thing of fragility to beatify

when spied upon in dampened, sunlit sky.

True….a jewel hidden for most from view,

but the briefest glimpse it shows,

to those who dare themselves to know,

a web and cornered frailty,

vulnerability in sharpened wind

and the cruellest of human whim.

 

Pulsing, intermittent breeze,

Beats.

Then stilled

at any sudden moment,

abandoned of all sentiment.

 

How many will pass by

this travesty of human design?

How many? We cannot say.

Except in later days

some may pause

and take a gaze,

claim it as a sign

of stifled cries

or muffled pain,

and let out their practised sigh.

 

Before the tears fall to sodden earth,

and dew drops cling for all their worth,

see silent stream of solemn stripes

and hear forbidden birdsong sing,

to parting coach and comforts yearning.

 

 

 

 

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The Veil of Moses

4 August 2017

Exodus 34.29 – end

2 Corinthians 3

 

It is often said that a person might wear their heart on their sleeve.

Hiding emotion is more difficult for some than it is for others.

Struggling not to laugh when to do so would be embarrassing is hard work.

I recall the pianist at theological college playing a tune to a hymn that seemed to me more appropriate for the 50’s musical South Pacific than it was an act of solemn worship. Wannabe clergy all around me swaying to the tune conjured up an image of them in white naval uniforms or grass skirts with garlands around their necks. Believe me it was tough to get through the last verse.

On a silent retreat the nun distributing the bread and butter pudding just couldn’t suppress her giggles when she caught sight of my eyes requesting a bigger portion.

It’s not just words that convey our feelings.

When Karen and I were expecting our first child, who was to be called Rebecca but on arrival turned out to be David, our good friend Sally didn’t have to be told Karen was pregnant, she could see it, as she put it, in her glow.

The Hebrew Scriptures recall Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. His encounter with the Lord had left him looking radiant to the Israelites. We are told that his countenance was so bright he had to wear a veil over his face to protect the people. And when he returned up the mountain he would remove the veil again to speak to the Lord.

In years to come, when the Temple was established, a curtain would cover the Holy of Holies; only the High Priest could pass through it to speak to the Lord, and even then only on the Day of Atonement.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have a tradition that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was surprisingly born to elderly parents, Joachim and Anna. She was therefore dedicated to the Temple and given an education in the Torah, the Law. This was in recompense for working as an embroiderer on the new curtain for Herod’s Second Temple. Such a tradition adds special insight into the curtain being torn in two at the death of Jesus on the cross. Not only is the curtain torn to allow the people to come face to face with the Lord but it indicates the brokenness of Mary at the death of her son.

Myth or not, the veil of Moses became a significant factor in understanding the relationship between God and his people. For a while only the very special ones, Kings and prophets, could experience the glow that came about as a consequence of an encounter with God.

Later, on a mountain in Galilee, three disciples would see that same light in both Jesus and, what appeared to be, Moses and Elijah, the representatives of Law and Prophecy.

Later still, the author of the Second Letter to the Corinthians would argue that we no longer need a veil to hide the glory of God from those we live amongst. He states that we are called, and are enabled, to act boldly in declaring what God has done for us.

Sadly the writer is scathing towards those that, in his view, were seemingly unable to see it and his words were used by the Church to condemn Jews and Judaism.  Today we know that there are many factors that conspire for some people to not experience what others might.  A group of people can look upon the same event yet, through no fault of their own, feel differently about it and draw very different conclusions.

Not everyone in college chapel all those years ago could understand my barely suppressed giggles. Others joined in without knowing what had set me off in the first place.

Clearly joy is infectious for some even if it isn’t always appreciated by others. Ours is not to judge the reason why; some get it and others don’t. Ours is to simply be true to ourselves, our feelings and what we may convey.

And when we have experienced something wonderful it may not be that words are the best way to express our feelings at all.

Anna Pavlova was once asked if she could describe what she was trying to convey at a particular point in her performance. She replied ‘if I could put it into words I wouldn’t have to dance.’

I shouldn’t have to put into words what God means to me, it should be obvious. Sadly that is not always so. Thankfully God is all merciful as well as all knowing.  All too often I place myself far from the Kingdom or indeed from what is expected of me.

So even when the light seems dimmed and the shine has been taken off life, there may be others who will accompany me in the presence of the Lord. This is why togetherness in discipleship, and not the solitary religion so many prefer today, is the means by which we may all experience the glory of God in times good and bad.

Just as the cloud covered the disciples at the transfiguration so it is that the clouds that cover us on occasion cannot hide the fact that behind them the sun still shines.

 

 

This year is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in which a safe haven was promised for persecuted Jews. Many people have sought to criticise the declaration and blame all the recent ills of the Middle East upon it. They assume that there was some kind of idyllic state that existed in the Ottoman Empire before the British Mandate and the eventual founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Such claims are historically inept.

Long before the Balfour Declaration the writing was on the wall. Both Arabs and the 85,000 Jews (out of the whole population of 689,000 based on 1914 figures), living in what is now modern day Israel, dreamt of being liberated from Ottoman occupation and turning the land into a new nation state. In 1905, observing this developing clash of dreams, Azoury, an antisemitic Christian Maronite, predicted a coming war between Jews and Arabs that would not end until one had beaten the other.

Long before the Balfour Declaration Jews, who had outnumbered others in the Old City of Jerusalem since at least 1850, had faced hostility from their Arab neighbours. Al-Khalidi preferred those Jews fleeing European pogroms to be settled anywhere other than Palestine.

Long before the Balfour Declaration Orthodox Clergy contributed to Jew-hatred by exporting from Europe and Czarist Russia antisemitism into the Arab countries. As the land became more open to travel German Protestants also brought with them abhorrent hard-line Lutheran theology that claimed Jews were destined to suffer as a consequence of failing to accept the Messiah.

By 1908 an anti-Zionist daily began to be published in Haifa – edited by a Protestant of Greek Orthodox origin. Two years later Muslim opposition to legitimate land purchases by Jews led to increasingly frequent acts of sabotage on their property and the following year, in 1911, an economic boycott of Jews was proposed; all this long before the Balfour Declaration.

For centuries under Ottoman rule, despite being the poorest of the poor, Jews were taxed heavier than the Muslims and Christians; they were jostled in the streets, on their way to the Western Wall broken glass was scattered across their path, and when they arrived there they found the wall stinking of urine and faeces that had been smeared across it. They were forced to pass Muslims on their left side because that was the side of Satan. They were segregated and the synagogues had to be hidden in out of way places.

So it is absolute nonsense to suggest that under Ottoman rule, Muslims, Christians and Jews existed side by side in some kind of idyll and that the Balfour Declaration was the originator of the Middle East crisis. To do so is either naïve or dangerous partisanship. Indeed it could be argued that Balfour may have been seeking to resolve the escalating conflict by creating a safe haven for Jews in much the same way as the Dayton Agreement sought to settle the Balkans conflict eight decades later.

By all means criticise British policy in the Middle East if you must but let’s not lose sight of the whole picture. The land had been occupied by Ottomans for centuries, conflict between Jews and Arabs was long-standing and during the British Mandate there were attacks from both sides on each other. If only we could spend our energies seeking a more sophisticated understanding of the historical facts and work towards solutions instead of taking sides.

One of the challenges we must face is that no one actually won this election.

There was no clear winner and this leaves the country in a form of limbo.

It will be extremely difficult to push legislation through at a time when a clear consensus is required but we simply don’t have it.

And it is of little use saying we need a second election, or even a second referendum, because the division in the UK is deep and clear; until there is a proper debate with the arguments played out before the electorate we will just keep getting slim majorities or hung parliaments.

This is because we are currently spilt right down the middle on almost everything; from Brexit to immigration, from the NHS to taxation, from Trident to terrorism.

What I do think is that the much of the electorate punished those who failed to engage in that debate; from the Prime Minister refusing to appear with the leaders of other parties to local candidates that refused to attend hustings. Such a dereliction of duty to those they wish to serve is foolish at best and perhaps arrogant at worse. The democratic process deserves better. There is a part of me that is pleased that they paid the price for such disrespect.

However the fact remains that the political leadership of both major parties failed to convince the electorate that they are worthy of our trust, otherwise there would have been a clear winner.

Personally I think it will be interesting to reflect on any future analysis of how people voted.

My guess is that many preferred to vote against a party rather than vote for the candidate they chose to place their cross next to on the ballot paper.

That is a terrible indictment of those that seek to represent and lead the people.

On the issues that affect us I think the Government has not taken seriously enough the inequalities in our island nations and are storing up resentment in many quarters.

But the other major party has failed to deal with the far left in their wings, and the antisemitism that has gone unchecked is fuelling hostility and hatred in many communities.

The second terrorist attack in the UK in less than a fortnight is a deeply painful reminder of the challenge we are facing.

It is clear that our priority as a British society is to build bridges across the communities. We cannot allow the prejudices within every heart, including our own, to continue unchecked, for to do so would give them permission to be expressed in destructive ways.

This is not a battle to be waged by others, it is one to which each and every one of us must be committed. Criticising the other is no way to peace; being closed off to the different is no way to harmony; failing to admit our own shortcomings is no way to unity.

Today we mourn the loss of life in London. We pray for the victims, their loved ones and the emergency services. Tomorrow we may mourn the death at the hands of terrorists in another city. Evil is stalking not only these islands but the world. Good will always overcome evil but the victory comes at a cost, often a very great cost. The sacrifice has to be made by each of us through the manner in which we think, speak and act.

May God give us the humility and the strength to reserve our judgment for ourselves and not others, so that through honesty and a willingness to strive for peace we may be part of the campaign to defeat the extremists that exist in every community.

It is understandable that we should think the world to be in a mess.

Of this there can be no doubt.

The events in Manchester on Monday night were a reminder, if ever we needed one, of the evil that stalks our world.

Add to that one of the most destructive wars since the Second World War being played out in Syria and visible on our screens week after week, year after year.

The largest movement, again, since the Second World War of people across the globe.

Refugees from battle zones, economic migrants fleeing abject poverty, famine and drought.

In our own islands there are moves towards the break-up of a Union that had once ruled the seas.

Policies that were once deemed to be far right are now accepted as mainstream.

And a third national poll in 25 months; we have lost our direction; we are not sure where to go let alone how to get there.

And what can the Church do?

It seems as if we are as impotent as Cnut in holding back the tide.

No one seems to listen, even when we may have something to say that’s worth saying.

If we cannot accept that the demise of the Western Church is imminent then at least we should acknowledge that it is in a serious, perilous state.

Respect, tolerance, courtesy, grace were all part of a moral compass that now appears to be difficult to find.

Shame too is a thing of the past.

Barefaced liars in public office, the disparaging of historical fact, a reluctance to hear opinions that differ to one’s own limited perceptions, and a Church so wrapped up in arguments about sex that it can’t speak to a rising generation.

Like the woman at the well we have given ourselves to those that can never meet our expectations.

We are left scurrying around in places already vacated by the rest of our generation.

We are alone at the well, wondering how deep the bucket will have to go.

Yet hope remains. Of this we should have no doubt neither.

We still hope to encounter the one who will satisfy us.

We still hope to answer all our questions.

We still hope to have something of value to tell our community.

And all these things may yet come into being.

But for them to do so a change of perception is necessary.

It’s not on this mountain or that mountain that we will find the salvation we long for. Not in this temple or that temple.

Not as we have always supposed but in a wholly new way will we find the truth.

Today we have a myriad of choices in almost everything.

From a ridiculous array of breakfast cereals on the supermarket shelf to information on the internet. We are awash with choice.

We have no idea where to look in order to find true, everlasting fulfilment. Is it here or there? With this one or that?

There will come a time, Jesus says, when you will not need the temples you build – for you will find the One you long for elsewhere – and you will do so through being in spirit and truth.

The end point is not where we expected.

David Jenkins once wrote that

‘Our humane mission now – as Christians and as faithful believers in God – is not primarily to convert but to share; not to conflict but to collaborate. We are not called to write off our neighbours but to seek to understand and to contribute some shareable insights into our mission, our hopes and our enjoyments.’[i]

The time has come to not convert but to share.

Only the arrogant close their ears to the possibility of insight emanating from the stranger in our midst.

Only the humble will hear the truths that God discloses through those whom we would not normally pass time of day.

Only the confident in faith will allow the faith of another to inform, enlighten and add to their own.

On Monday evening Manchester witnessed the worst and the best of human deeds.

From the one with evil on his mind and cruel intent to the emergency service personnel who rushed to the scene in selfless duty to protect and tend to the wounded; they could not have been sure that they didn’t have another Bataclan in their city with gunmen awaiting their arrival yet they went about their duty with great professionalism.

On Monday we witnessed the worst and the best of human deeds. From those who took to twitter and Facebook to spill out their vile hatred to those taxi drivers of every faith who ferried the stranded to safe destinations free of charge.

Today we might yet witness to the greater good. A good that unequivocally states that all life is precious. That states every human being is a child of God, whatever culture or creed in which they have been raised. That states we will not allow prejudice to infiltrate our way of behaving or speaking.

Today we might yet witness to the greater good.

Today we might encounter the stranger at a place where he or she seeks refreshment and find that we too have our thirst quenched.

Today there has never been a greater need for dialogue, development of understanding and appreciation of difference.

The woman asked Jesus where they were to worship, on this mountain, or that mountain; in this temple or that temple.

Jesus responds with a comment that resounds down the ages and comes to us this very night.

You will worship in spirit and in truth.

May we be sure that our minds are filled with good intention and our hearts with love so that the spirit and truth may be our guide and our legacy.

 

[1] Jenkins, David, The Calling of a Cuckoo: Not Quite an Autobiography (London and New York Continuum, 2001), p.175

 

 

 

Only those with evil minds and cruel intent would not condemn unreservedly the abhorrent attack in Manchester last night.

This is not a time for either platitudes or hate-filled rhetoric and posts, it is a time for silence and grief; it is a time for action for actions speak louder than words.

There will also be a time for judgment. While the Christian Gospel speaks of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, it also speaks of judgment, in this regard there is special mention of those that bring harm to little ones. So there will come a time for those behind the outrage to be brought to justice.

I know of no person of truth faith who would not condemn the taking of innocent life. There will be those who will seek to divide us further by nurturing the understandable anger that we feel. We must not let them. Their prejudice fuels the terrorist and the terrorist fuels their hatred.

We must channel our energies into extending a hand of friendship to the stranger in our midst, to build better relations across the communities.

We have been heartened by the stories of people opening up homes to the stranded overnight, of taxi drivers (no doubt of all faiths) ferrying people away from the scene free of charge. There will be countless stories that may never be told, of heroism and compassion.

May our story be one of openness to difference of culture and creed, may our story be of humility and grace.

In my more relaxed moments I consider models of ministry from outside the church.

I sometimes think of the Church as a circus and I am one of the performers.

When all is going well I might consider the role of ring master, a sort of compere, acting as the one who steps in between acts to keep the show on the road.

Occasionally I feel as if I am walking a tightrope with the audience waiting for me to lose my balance.

At a difficult Church Council I might consider the role of lion tamer.

Sometimes I feel as if I am the clown – trying to put on a brave face when behind the mask all I want to do is cry.

And then there are other models that come from faiths different to my own.

Through my close contact with rabbis I have come to see the importance of teaching, of opening up scripture no matter how difficult or obscure the text.

When I worked with Kosovan Albanian refugees 20 years ago the local Muslim community were an important part of the support network. I started getting telephone calls from members of that community about all sorts of things, including a teenage boy whose mother had told him to ring me because he wanted to find a local football team to play for. I came to discover that in some Islamic cultures the imam is the one to whom members of the community turn if they need something to be fixed, or a contact to be made. The imam is the one who knows a man who can.

And there is one more model that I have more recently come to reflect upon, that is the guru.

Now if I were to advise Methodist ministers to become gurus I guess we would have an interesting reaction.

Today we use the term in all sorts of ways.

There might be a career guru – an expert who offers advice on career paths.

There might be a health guru – an expert in wellbeing.

Of course we are more likely to think of the Guru as an enlightened being.

The thought of being an enlightened being as a model of ministry might turn us off.

But I have discovered that the term is made up of two words from an ancient Asian language.  Gu and ru. Gu means dark, ru means light.

A guru is one who takes a journey from darkness to light; and who guides others on this journey of transformation.

I don’t think that’s a bad model for ministry; and it’s one we can all adopt as we sit with those whose past diminishes their present or with those who fear the future.

As we minister to one another, as we ponder what may be done with what is left of what was once attractive, thriving and glorious we can take the journey from dark to light, from night to dawn, from despair to hope, from death even to life.

In recent weeks a number of people have asked me about the future of the church. The future is playing on people’s minds.

In some cases I have nearly been in tears as those who have given their life to their local church lament the burden of maintaining the premises. They desperately try different things to attract others to what they feel is an absolutely vital aspect of their life. Then they are unable to understand the reluctance or even indifference of their neighbours.

The fear of closure and death is very real; not just the existential fact but of society too and the church’s role within it.

In our lifetime we are experiencing changes that previously would have taken generations to evolve.

At a time when we have better communications at our disposal, loneliness is as great as it has ever been.

At a time when we can see before our eyes the consequences of hostility we threaten war on an unprecedented scale.

At a time when we witness at first hand the stories of survivors we somehow grow deaf to their cries.

If we were to sit back and either fall for prejudice or to allow it to fester we would be failing our calling.

Or if we offer a lazy rejection to challenge and the possibility of change by claiming to draw on traditional belief this would be no way to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The journey from darkness to light includes showing interest in the one who is different.

The journey includes revisiting our beliefs and practices.

The journey includes providing hospitality to the stranger fleeing their home.

The journey includes ending the madness of inequality.

To take this journey will to us appear to be a small act of kindness, generosity or resistance on our part.  But to take the journey together, joining hands with those whom we have never travelled before, will change for the better not only us as individuals but our communities and world.

Yes we need to be gurus alright.

We need to take the journey.

And this is the supreme model of ministry found in Jesus.

 

 

 

Rowan Williams identified three other models, three metaphors for the ordained.  For him a minister may be a watchman, a weaver or a witness.

A watchman is one who stands on the city wall, looking out for those who are approaching. Those approaching may be friend or foe, ally or enemy, come in need or come to attack. The job of the watchman is to spot them and alert the community. That is a model I can live with. To keep abreast of the issues of our day. To spend time reading and watching, to note where we are being led.

A real concern for me is psychometric profiling. The way in which social media, especially Facebook, is able to identify our interests and concerns, select material to which they expose us and bend us to vote even in a particular way. This method was used extensively by the Trump campaign and it is becoming increasingly likely that it was used in the referendum last year.

It is our duty as ministers today, as it was for our predecessors, to act as a warning to those we seek to serve. It is not always a comfortable place to be, standing on a wall, looking out and passing on news of what we have seen, it can be cold, it can be lonely and it is easy for people to throw stones at us, but it has to be done.

The second model is that of weaver.

The weaver draws together different strands which in themselves are not that interesting. But the one who can take the threads and turn them into a beautiful rug is one that fulfils the call of God to serve a community.

Watchman, weaver.

The third model Rowan Williams offers us is that of witness.

How we appear to those about us sets in their imagination what it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how the Church is in this age of searching and multiple choice.

I regret that I have not always been a good witness for the church. The things I have said and done in public have not always been to the standard I would expect of a disciple. But in my frailty and vulnerability I would hope that others see a weak human being called by God and in that weakness God offers hope to them, those who are equally fragile.

Watchman, weaver, witness.

At one time or another we will have explored models of ministry.

We will be familiar with the terms prophet, pastor and priest.  Each model has served the church well over millennia.  Some are called to be prophets, others pastors and some priests.

We have all known ministers who were great preachers but lousy visitors;  or those whose insufferable sermons have been tolerated because their visits were an absolute delight.  We rarely, if ever get, someone who is wonderful at all they do; I take some comfort from this fact.

Methodism has traditionally placed great stress on the preaching aspect of its presbyters. This falls into the category of the prophetic model.

It was once said that the only newspaper people would access was through the Sunday sermon. That fell away some years ago as tabloids became available.  Then it was claimed that the sermon became the only Bible some would access.

The responsibility on preachers has always weighed heavy.  Today , as always, but as never before, we are called to discern the truth amidst the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the psychometric targeting of voters through social media.

The significance of the prophetic side of ministry has never diminished, neither has the pastoral. Indeed the pastoral aspect informs the preacher, keeps the preacher alert to need, to where the issues are.

Killinger in his book ‘The Fundamentals of Christian Preaching’ wrote ‘The preacher who is pastor is a preacher indeed.’

In Methodism we have focussed on the prophetic and the pastoral, less so on priesthood.  Yet priesthood is there.

The presidency at the Eucharist is one such visible expression of the one called to be priest.  And it is also present in our relationships.

Like it or not, our ordained ministers are expected to act differently. The ordained are meant to be holy, to be devotional and to discern the will of God in a given situation.  Please never come and observe me watching an England rugby international, especially against Wales – it would shatter what little respect I have left!

We will shy away from priesthood, we will underplay it, but it is there and not always beneath the surface neither.

Prophet, pastor, priest.