Thursday, 18 April 2019

Go on loving

When a dictator strikes, he is quick and efficient.  A troublesome journalist steps inside his country’s embassy and finds it is already equipped with bone saws to dispose of his body.  The nun quietly opposing logging companies and championing the rain forest and those who live in it is found with a bullet in her head.  The political exile touches a nerve agent smeared on the door handle of his safe house.  And others in the media, in the church and in political dissent get the message.

So the story for today (Maundy Thursday).  

It is the sensitive time of year when the mob in any big city could easily be whipped up against the occupying forces.  A religious radical from the north has needed watching for some time.  Now he is in the capital attracting attention and crowds.  There is intelligence about where he will be late in the evening.  He will be picked up during the night.  An initial trial will take place in the dark.  The authorities will rubber stamp the conviction at dawn.  The public execution will be under way tomorrow (Good Friday) before most of the crowds even know he had been taken.

Next week, there will be Easter Day to write about.  The finality of death unfinalised.  The tyrant’s effective swift victory nullified.  The religious radical loose again.   

But that news isn’t here in time for this week’s paper.  We are still in the days when God-made-human is alongside those whose hope seems least secure.  He awaits the fate of those whose lives and ideas seem so easy for power to stamp out.  As he washes their feet tonight, he has puzzling final words with his fearful closest friends and collaborators – ‘go on loving whatever happens’. 

Then power strikes and thinks it has won.

 The picture is of Brookhouse Beck only a few hundred yards from our house, near the Railway Children tunnel.  The three hundred words are my piece for the Thought for the Week column in today's Keighley News (I only get asked about once a year). 

Monday, 15 April 2019

War Horses and mirror writing

Time in Haworth churchyard today with those developing a simple guide for the Bronte Society.  The Bronte Parsonage Museum is in the back of this first picture.

We found the new Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) sign in freshly in place.  The intention to install a sign alerting visitors to the presence of war graves was one of the motivations for developing the guide.  Both war graves are marked by family headstones and we feared people setting off on a fruitless search for distinctive CWGC headstones.

We found the tree which obscured the inscription on Frederick Carr’s grave had helpfully been cut down, we hope by Bradford Council which maintains the churchyard.  Carr joined the Army Veterinary Corps in 1897 and served first on the North West Frontier of India and then in South Africa during the Boer War (being seriously wounded).  The rate of the loss of horses became a scandal and he became involved in seeking to tackle this problem travelling widely with what was called the Remount Commission.  He saw service in northern Nigeria and in Egypt before going to France at the outbreak of the First World War (where he was again wounded).  Back in Egypt, he was seeking to tackle a cattle plague epidemic when bitten by an infected mule.  He was brought home to England and died in hospital in 1917.  He had been mentioned in despatches, awarded the Order of the Nile and an insignia in the Ottoman Order of the Osmanich.

We also pulled back the matted earth on one grave to find that roots had followed the lines of the inscription beneath and now represented a mirror image of it. 

Friday, 5 April 2019

Autism Awareness Week

We got to the launch of Saima Kaur’s Autism: This is me at Kala Sangam (the intercultural arts hub in St Peter’s house next door to Bradford Cathedral) last night: beautiful, imaginative, important and moving.

She has used the phulkari shawl embroidery tradition from the Punjab – pieces of which have been handed down to her from her mother and grandmother – a tradition she knows she will not be able to pass down to her profoundly autistic daughter.

Her shawls represent interaction with stages of her daughter’s life.  Her hopes in the gift of a child about to be drawn down to her.  Herself in a spin amidst the things people said to her when her baby’s development seemed at first to be delayed.  The sounds her growing daughter made.  The way her daughter is overwhelmed by senses.  Experiences of anger.  Fears for the grown daughter she will one day leave behind.

And she spoke of the what a difference it had made to her to express all this, and how she had been able to draw some other mothers with children at the same Special School into expressing other aspects of their own, a few of which were also on display.   

It continues during the Centre’s normal opening times until 23rd May.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Crow Hill Bog Burst

On 2nd September 1824, Patrick Brontë was in the Parsonage when he “heard a deep distant explosion” and “perceived a gentle tremor in the chamber” which was “the busting of a bog or quagmire” with “all the precursors, accompaniments and results of an earthquake” five miles way on the moors.  He saw it as an act of God.

A rapid torrent of mud and water issued forth, varying from twenty to thirty yards in width and four to five in depth; which, in its course for six or seven miles, entirely threw down or made breaches in several stone and wooden bridges – uprooted trees – laid prostrate walls – and gave many other awful proofs, that, in the hand of Ominpotence, it was an irresistible instrument to execute his justice.”

Sometimes, God produces earthquakes as awful monitors to turn sinners from the error of their ways, and as solemn forerunners of that last and greatest day, when... the universal frame of nature shall tremble, and break and dissolve.”

Here and there... I was able to discern one in deep contemplative mood, who saw by faith through nature to nature’s God...  Many, I perceived, on their return home, who in all the giddy frivolity of thoughtless youth, talked and acted as if they dreamed not of heaven or hell, death or judgement.”

The greater part continue to indulge in their bad passions and practices, utterly regardless of every warning, and not considering the awful reckoning they will be brought to for these things on the last day.  Let us pray earnestly for divine grace, that we may be able to act differently, and to walk by faith in Christ Jesus.”

This is a text (from one of only two published sermons of Patrick Brontë’s – he mainly preached extempore) to which I’m returning quite often at the moment, preaching last Sunday, revising the Brontë related leaflets we leave in the prayer corner in St Michael’s, Haworth, and developing ideas  for the Brontë Society's annual weekend in the summer.

Meanwhile, the picture is from the German Church in Bradford; the art work is simply mounted on cardboard and I wonder whether we could create something like a temporary major hanging cross for one of our churches.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Confessing possibilities

This week, I found myself in the German church in Bradford for the first time, and thus in the steps of Dietrich Bonheoffer.

The area in which the church is set is called Little Germany.  From the 1850s Germans came in good numbers to work in the wool industry, and the building is now called the Delius Centre in honour of one of the most prominent of those families which included the famous composer who was himself born in Bradford in the 1860s and brought up there.

Bonheoffer was working as a German pastor in London in 1933 when Hitler came to power and began to suborn the national Lutheran churches to the Nazi cause.  It was at a gathering in Bradford that a resistance statement was agreed by the German pastors in England at Bonheoffer’s instigation.

It was of no use.  The national church capitulated and became a tool of Jewish exclusion and persecution.  Bonheoffer was to return home in 1939, be a prime mover in a dissident alternative ‘confessing’ church, ran its underground seminary for new pastors, and, in 1945, be taken to a concentration camp and executed.

I wondered about W. Hansen, listed as Pastor 1930-39 and then 1948-52.  He must have been the host of the gathering on 1933.  And, like the J. Collier listed on the incumbents’ board in Haworth as being ejected at the Commonwealth and then reinstated at the Restoration, it is the gap in his ministry dates which is particularly striking.

We were there to hear a remarkable women who we had in fact met in 2013 in the West Bank  and who was in England promoting the work of the Fair Trade Co-operative Women in Hebron which seeks to provide employment through the sale of handmade Palestinian crafts.  Her quiet determination to continue in the face of almost unimaginable consequences of occupation felt as moving as the setting.

In 1994, there was a gun massacre in the mosque in central Hebron near where Women in Hebron’s shop now is – just as there was in Christchurch the day before she spoke to us.  Awareness of the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh less than a year earlier, on Finsbury Park Mosque less than a year before that, and attacks on a number of Christian churches across northern Nigeria across the whole period, makes us cry out for more Bonheoffers and more Women in Hebron.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Lead us not into temptation

Last year, by far the earliest known evidence of bread-making was uncovered in a part of the Jordanian desert.  It pre-dates the development of agriculture by a substantial period.  Some ash and some wild barley revealed what some hunter-gatherers had been doing.

Speculation has to be built on meagre evidence like this.  Could it be that one of the root causes of initial human settlements was the discovery that weeding around such wild barley to improve access to it resulted in a better crop?

When we find later evidence of any pre-historic settlement and we notice things like a perimeter ditch or postholes for a palisade, we speculate about the family or community’s need to defend itself.

When we find pre-historic burials and we notice the care of the burial, the alignment of the bodies and the presence of grave goods, we speculate about the grief or hopes or longings or belief systems of those involved.

This all came to mind again when preparing to read Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on another first Sunday in Lent tomorrow, and it made the reading surprisingly fresh.

Full of the Spirit, led by the Spirit, considering the attractive, instinctive, human wrong paths – to create bread in the face of hunger, to dominate in the case of assault, to grasp certainty in place of faith.  Weighing these options against the crucial texts of Deuteronomy.

No need to make fire or gather grain.  Simply feed thousands and have baskets full left over.  But he knew God humbled his people, causing them to hunger and then feeding them with manna, which neither they nor their ancestors had known, to teach them that human beings shall not live on bread alone.

No need to dig or raise defensive lines.  Simply command the evil to come out of those under attack.  But he knew the warning: when God brings you into a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of slavery, worship and serve him only.

No need for grief or mourning.  Simply raise the widow’s son.  But he knew to throw himself from the temple’s wall to find out if God would do anything would be no better than those who abandoned faith a short way into the desert saying ‘were we brought here simply to die?’

So instead he will teach people to live.  Blessed are those who hunger; be worried if you are comfortable.  Blessed are those who face hateful attack; be worried if you are highly honoured.  Blessed are those who weep; be worried if you have escaped mourning.

And he will teach people to pray.  Give us bread for each day.  God’s kingdom come.  May the hallowing always be only of God’s name.  

Now he will stay fasting for while in the desert, then go out among people increasingly vulnerable, until, yes, he will let himself be thrown away in Jerusalem.

He will do it alongside the human beings who enter history seeking basic sustenance as others monopolise all the resources, longing for safety as others gain their own dominance over them, looking to make sense of it all as others bandy their political and religious certainties around them.

The pictures are not of the Jordanian or Judean deserts, but around Top Withens in the mist and drizzle a few days ago.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Location of discipleship

Every fifteen years or so, the Church of England publishes roughly the same report on lay discipleship.  I was newly ordained in 1985 when it was All are called, on the General Synod in 1999 when it was Called to new life, and newly here in 2017 when it was Setting God’s People Free.

It is always a call (as I blogged when Setting God’s People Free was published) to value normal people’s everyday life as the primary place for their discipleship and to focus on equipping them for this rather than to identify and value chiefly their contribution to the life of the church.

It is always subverted (as I blogged two years earlier about All are called) by what I think of as the gravitational pull of the financial and organisational needs of the institutional church and its understandable focus on recruitment and conversion; I was remembering the General Synod meeting which following the one at which All are called was received and commended and the way nobody seemed to see anything odd in then receiving and commending a report on raising money for the ministry and mission of the church actually called First to the Lord.

So, ahead of Lent about to begin, almost exactly fifty members of our three congregations, perhaps a third of the adults who we might expect to see at worship on anything like a regular basis, have provided me with a note about where they spend their time in the community, at leisure, at work or volunteering.

I’ve brought the answers together in a leaflet which asks us all to pray through Lent for each other’s working out of Christian discipleship in those places, with the Bible Study opportunities to which a few will come each Lent this year simply promising to pick up something relevant each week. 

Family life is a particularly prominent theme, with the care of grandchildren mentioned even more often than the care of particularly vulnerable parents, spouses or children.  Being a neighbour – whether fostering social relationships or giving time to particular needs – is the next most common category.  After that are issues in workplaces which range from diversity and inclusion to nurturing future skills and managing debt for businesses.

In less prominent categories, there is much creativity. In the least prominent categories, there are levels of political activism.  Charitable involvement, exercise, reading, being trustees of organisations elsewhere, helping run village organisations, and volunteering with the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway each have quite a significant number of individual mentions.   

Then, having finally got the leaflet ready for printing, I went off to Bradford Cathedral on Tuesday, responding to the occasional three-line whip for a Bishop’s Study Day, this one designed to help us think through our own attitudes to money and how we lead our churches in this area. 

The quotation from Setting God’s People Free I’ve used most is How are Christians ... equipped to integrate their... practices of faith with the demands of... finances... and consumerism?  I had preached the previous Sunday in a church celebrating being newly designated a ‘Fair Trade Church’ and explored what lay behind the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call a while ago to put Wonga out of business and the painful lessons we learnt about the ambiguities of ethical living when central church investments in Wonga were then quickly uncovered.  The person preparing to come as Curate here this summer is at present working on projects with Christians Against Poverty around debt support and life skills training.

I knew it wasn’t going quite the way I might have hoped when the diagram we were provided with on areas of ‘intentional discipleship’ (said to be a summary of a recent Anglican Consultative Council report on ‘every aspect of daily life’) had nine boxes, eight of which were about personal faith and church life (Baptism, Bible reading, catechesis, Eucharist, fellowship, giving, prayer, worship) and just one about looking outwards (service of the community).

I should simply have known that thinking through attitudes to money and how we lead our churches in this area was going to focus down on the ‘giving to the church’ box – at one point submission to God was equated to giving to the church without just being concerned with the church’s presenting needs, and I’m not sure austerity, consumerism, ethical investment or fair trade were alluded to at any point in the day.

We will have to see how Lent goes – and whether the focus on our parish on all the places in which discipleship is lived out helps us resist the gravitational pull just a little bit.

The pictures were taken on a Half Term trip to Dublin.