Monday, March 20, 2017

Hidden Figures

Back in February we went on a family outing to see Hidden Figures, the film based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and the many other women, both black and white, whose work at NACA and later NASA helped America to win the Space Race.

Initially Jo had thought it might be a good film to take Susannah to see, but on second thoughts felt that Noah and Elijah needed to see it too. As the credits rolled and we stood up to leave the cinema, the boys declared, ‘That was fantastic!’ and, ‘When that comes out on dvd, we need to get it!’

Inspired by the film – which is excellent but, as the nature of the medium requires, conflates story- and time-lines – I bought the book, which is a masterpiece of research, as readable as it is meticulous.

On a day off, I was sitting in a local café reading it when a waitress came over and enthusiastically asked if I had seen the film. We got chatting, and I recommended the book to her. I recommend it to you, too.

I passed the book on to my daughter, and she showed it to her History teacher.

The lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson weren’t exactly hidden. From the outset, for propaganda reasons, NASA conducted its work in public. And these and other women also worked tirelessly in their locality and, in time, far beyond, to inspire and raise up future generations to overcome gender- and racial-barriers in pursuit of new horizons. It is more that they were overlooked. It is more that their stories weren’t gathered and recorded, deployed, and told in a unifying narrative that wove together apparently unconnected trails like pages and pages of elegant equations advancing towards a breakthrough that changed the game forever. Until now. That is what Margot Lee Shetterly has done, in her extraordinary history.

These stories deserve to be told, and heard. To be celebrated. They have the power to inspire far more than future scientists. They have the power to inspire future life itself, in all its diversity.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Poet's Chair | Part 4

Jesus told an audacious parable, or bare-bones story, (Luke 15) in which he depicted God as a woman* who experiences domestic violence.

She has lost one of the coins on her head-dress, symbol of her status in the community - and of her husband’s standing. Such coins could be drawn on in economic emergency, but only with the woman’s husband’s permission. In this case, there were only 10 coins to begin with, few enough for him to notice that one is missing. She is terrified. How could she have failed to notice the thread fraying? Her husband will accuse her of parting with the coin as token to a lover, of defying and humiliating him in public. She is in for a beating tonight.

In desperation, she turns the house up-side-down looking for the lost coin, until she finds it.

And when she does, she is so relieved that she calls all of her friends, to share in her joy. Because she has been spared another beating.

And Jesus said that the joy in heaven whenever a sinner repents can be compared to that of a desperate woman. It is that visceral.

And the powerful men who knew that this parable was spoken against them – God’s abusive husbands; the sinners who need to repent - conspired to kill Jesus because of this parable.

We might want to tell the woman to leave her husband. Certainly, it puts more weight on the parable than it can bear to use it to insist that women put up with domestic violence. That is not the point Jesus is making.

But we might want to say this: by all means discount Jesus’ God because you have no use for a god who chooses to identify with our pain, and transform it from within; but not because you believe that God to be indifferent to human suffering.

*in his parables, Jesus often depicts God in as a human character, often a man such as a merchant or father or king, but also as a woman kneading bread or searching for a lost coin. This is not to say that God is human, is male or female; but it is to fully-identify God with men and women. Sometimes Jesus locates himself in his parables, such as the younger son who goes on a long journey (from heaven to earth), squanders his father’s wealth in partying with sinners, makes himself ceremonially unclean, was dead and is alive again, and is given by his father symbols of authority. On other occasions, Jesus tells parables to contrast the way of the world with the ways of the kingdom of heaven: not every king in every parable should be assumed to represent God.

The Poet's Chair | Part 3

The set Gospel text for Holy Communion today is Luke 16:19-31, the parable of the rich man and the poor man covered with sores.

I would suggest that as a society, we are at war with our bodies, as evidenced by how much make-up some young women wear; by airbrushing of images of the body; by the obsession of older men with younger bodies which I contend is as much about failing to come to terms with their own aging body; by eating disorders; the cult of youth and our not wanting to see - be confronted by - the elderly or physically infirm...

I would also suggest that we are at war with God over our bodies. That whereas in much of the world, pain and suffering strengthen hope in God, in the West they are viewed as reasons to reject God.

This parable would suggest that we meet our neighbour, and ourselves, and God in bodily frailty and bodily touch that does not shy away from bodily frailty.

In Communion, we meet Jesus not only in the bread, but in the touching of hand to hand as the bread is given and received.

The post-Communion prayer for today:
Almighty God,
you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves:
keep us both outwardly in our bodies,
and inwardly in our souls;
that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body,
and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Poet's Chair | Part 2

Pivoting on the visual relationship between broken chairs and broken bones to challenge us not to turn our backs on domestic violence, Stephanie Smith’s The Poet’s Chair can be seen at Sunderland Minster now until 29th March.

I am reflecting on bones, and on passages in Scripture that speak of bones.

I think of the vision of the valley filled with dry bones, Ezekiel 37, which are restored to life in a two-part process:

first, tendons and flesh and skin materialising, holding the bones together;

and then the breath of life returning; as the poet-prophet partners with God’s divine intention.

Bones, exposed to the bleaching sun, bearing testimony to hopes and dreams of a future lost, slowly returning to dust. Yet this is not inevitable.

What might it look like to partner with God in restoring the structure of ‘tendons’ and ‘flesh’ and ‘skin’ that hold bones together? A structure of support, of safe-houses and help-givers, of advocates and champions, of community that holds the most vulnerable?

What might it look like to partner with God in the breath of life returning? To love victims into survivors, and break the cycle of violence?

How might the honoured stories of our faith tradition resource us?

The Poet's Chair | Part 1

Pivoting on the visual relationship between broken chairs and broken bones to challenge us not to turn our backs on domestic violence, Stephanie Smith’s The Poet’s Chair can be seen at Sunderland Minster now until 29th March.

I am reflecting on bones, and on passages in Scripture that speak of bones.

I think of Genesis 2, which, in the Hebrew, does not so much speak of woman being made from man’s rib as it does of a gender-undifferentiated earthling being cleaved, resulting in male and female in the same act or moment.

What might it mean to recognise that when one spouse breaks the other – husband or wife; straight or same-sex; breaking bones or the human spirit – that both are broken, that both need mending – re-creating – whether it is possible to do that together or necessary to do it apart?

Do we at all times live with a scar, easily re-opened; a weakness, a vulnerability, that we entrust to another, needing protection? And does shame of our scar, our need, give rise to lashing out in anger, against the one we love, against our very self?

How might we look upon our bone and flesh, reflected to us in another, without shame?

How might the honoured stories of our faith tradition resource us?

Monday, March 13, 2017

It is always personal

Here is something that I have learnt, and am learning, and hope to learn; not least as the parent of a child who has refused to go to school, on and off, for the past five years.

When our words, or actions, or deeply-held beliefs, cause another person pain, we never, ever get to say, “It isn't personal.”

No caveats. No exceptions.

I do not get to determine the impact of me on others. And they do not get to determine the impact of them on me.

To say “It isn't personal” is not only self-absorbed, it is abusive.

Instead, if we have any integrity at all, we get to acknowledge how deeply personal our impact on others is;

and to learn how we might make room for one another, on common ground, when we are unable to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in agreement;

and to discover how much (more) we can see, together, when we do not see eye-to-eye.

Which is lifelong hard work.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

International Women's Day

This memorial to Eliza Ritson is found in Sunderland Minster. It reads:

To The Glory of God / This Organ was dedicated / 3rd January 1936 / the Choir Organ being in memory of / Eliza Ritson / a faithful servant of God / in Bishopwearmouth and in Japan

It is a small plaque, but the organ pipes must be the largest and most grand memorial in the building. Eliza Ritson is one of our hidden women, whose overlooked story deserves to be told. She, and the other women she went out to Japan as missionaries with, are truly International Women!

I have looked Eliza up, and found her obituary in ‘The Japan Christian year-book’ missionary obituaries for 1935-1936. It reads:

‘Miss Eliza Ritson, who died at Sunderland, England, on August 25, 1935 was 25 years a missionary of the C. M. S. in Japan. Except for three months on arrival in Osaka the whole of that time was given to Tokushima, where she served the church devotedly by work, prayer, and gift. There are many in Tokushima who remember her with thankfulness to God for the light which she was the instrument of bringing into their lives. “Only God can measure how much her love and prayer have done both for individuals and for the church.” She retired from Japan about eighteen years ago and lived in England untill [sic] her death.’

I have also established that Eliza has many entries in the Extracts from the Annual Letters of the Missionaries, Church Mission Society archives, which are kept in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library among their Special Collections. I would love to be able to bring copies of her letters to the Minster, her own thoughts to life in a space that was being re-ordered in her final years, including relocating the organ from the West end of the building to the East.

How might her story inspire future generations? First, it must be told…

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

You are what you eat

The lectionary readings for Morning Prayer today are Genesis 2.4-9, 15-17 and Mark 7:14-23. In the first, God warns the ‘dustling’ not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the second, Jesus declares that it is not what goes into the body that defiles us, but what comes out of the heart. How do these readings relate?

The first two chapters of Genesis tell two different accounts of creation. These are symbol-rich stories whose purpose it not to tell us the mechanics by which the earth came into being, but rather to tell us about the kind of world in which we live. In chapter 1 we see order and life brought out of chaos, and that life is pronounced ‘good.’ In chapter 2, we come across something that is not ‘good’ – the knowledge, or lived experience, of evil, alongside good. We also discover that it is ‘not good’ in God’s eyes for the dustling to be alone. God addresses the first ‘not good’ through instruction – don’t eat of that tree – and the second through provision – enabling the dustling to be fruitful, and multiply.

The symbol-rich story continues to unfold, and in chapter 3 we discover that there is already at least one creature present in the garden who has set themselves against God and against the privileged relationship the human beings enjoy with God. We also discover that separation from God has an impact on the fruitfulness of the earth itself, as well as on the fruitfulness of the dustlings made from it.

And with these new pieces of information, we can look back at chapter 2 and understand that already, as a consequence of the decision of the serpent to set itself against God, there has been an impact on the fruitfulness of the earth. Among the trees there is one that is bringing forth not only fruit that nourishes good but fruit that nourishes evil. Yet even this might be redeemed, as an opportunity to learn discernment.

Jesus says, it isn’t about what you eat. So what were the Jewish food regulations about? Where they simply misguided? Or are they now superseded? Elsewhere Jesus claimed that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. The purpose of the law is to instruct, to train us for right living. The food regulations aren’t about what you eat; they are about what you consume and what you nourish; and about learning to decline something that look perfectly good and justifiable, because not everything that looks perfectly good and justifiable is good for us.

There is a rich diet readily available that will nourish the potential for evil in us, whether newspaper articles that encourage us to fear certain groups; or adverts that feed discontentment and greed, promising satisfaction forever just out of reach; or juicy gossip that eats us from the inside out; or images that objectify others, seeing their physical form (shaped from dust) but not the breath of God that animates them. And, in the end, it will kill you.

There is also plenty of food available that will nourish the potential for good in us, while starving the potential for evil. Tempted in the wilderness to feed a sense of entitlement, Jesus declared, The dustling does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words that are patient, and kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; not insisting on getting their own way, or irritable, or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in truth; words that enable us to bear all things, to believe, to hope, to endure. Such words, wherever they are spoken, have their origin in God; and God’s words don’t return empty-handed.

What are we consuming? And what is it nourishing in us?

What do we need to reduce in, or cut out of, our diet? What do we need to eat more of than we have done?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

How are you, really?

Today is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas. In Tudor times, this day marked the fortieth and last day of Christmas.

Much more recently, the first Thursday in February has been designated Time to Talk Day, a day to help us overcome the stigma of mental health problems. A day to recognise that talking, and listening, really does save lives.

The Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today – Luke 2:22-40 – tells of the elderly Simeon and Anna encountering Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus within the temple at Jerusalem. It is instructive to read the account through the lens of mental health awareness.

Simeon takes the child in his arms and praises God, saying:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…’ (verse 29)

Simeon has an encounter, a healing experience, that enables him to move forward – ultimately, to have a good death – in a state of peace. This implies that he was not, previously, in a state of peace. We might note that, habitually or formatively, Simeon has been particularly aware of those around him in need of consolation (verse 25). He has most likely shared something of their need.

We might also note that the encounter does not reflect a change in external circumstances, nor a change in internal outlook (there is no simplistic connection between devotion and peace). Rather, what we have is a moment of coming-together, in which Simeon, Joseph, and Mary all discover – perhaps not for the first, or last, time; but discover in this moment, nonetheless – that they are not alone.

Simeon goes on to specifically address Mary, telling her:

‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (verse 35)

Here is an acknowledgement of wounding, not at a physical level but at the level of the soul. The soul is not something we have: we are a soul. In biblical understanding, the soul is what is brought about in the coming-together of dust and breath – the human formed from the dust of the earth, having life breathed into it by God. And so a soul is all that we are: bodily, cognitively, emotionally, wilfully.

To have our soul wounded is to bear a wound that hurts us bodily, without being physical; that damages our ability to ‘move’ free from pain, in thinking and feeling and in making and acting on decisions.

To have our soul pierced is a description of what we, for want of a better word, refer to as an issue of mental health. It impacts us wholly.

Mary’s soul will be pierced in very particular experiences, very particular moments. Not everyone’s soul is pierced by watching her son being executed in front of her. But, of course, everyone’s soul is pierced in very particular events in our personal history. To have one’s soul pierced by a sword is an inescapable aspect of being a mother, a wife, a woman, of being a human being.

And yet this unavoidable truth is acknowledged in the context of the act of blessing (verse 34), the intentional invocation of relationship between Creator and creature, the deliberate act of recognising another soul.* This blessing is a lasting moment of soul-healing, however often the soul might experience piercing and be in need of healing again.**

Candlemas does not always fall on a Thursday, but how wonderful that it does this year. Following the example of Simeon, whom might you have a conversation about your mental health with today?

*soul = dust + breath, or, the deep connection between creature and Creator.

**please note that Simeon is not a priest: to bless in such a way is not reserved for priests.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The miles before us, the miles behind

Yesterday I watched The Straight Story, a film given me by my brother for Christmas. It is not a new film (1999), but I had not seen it before. It is an unlikely film (directed by David Lynch and distributed by Walt Disney) based-on the unlikely true story of Alvin Straight who, in 1994 and aged 73, his eyesight too poor to hold a driving licence and disliking travelling as a passenger, rode 240 miles on a sit-on lawnmower to visit his estranged brother, having heard the news that his brother had suffered a stroke. At a top speed of five miles an hour, and with various mishaps along the way, the journey took six weeks.

If you like your movies larger-than-life, this will not be the film for you. There is drama, and humour, but it is very gentle. Very slow. Nothing much happens, other than the common-or-garden you-won’t-believe-what-so-and-so-has-gone-and-done of any-town, anywhere.

It is a film about making peace, with oneself and with those whom it matters most to make one’s peace with before it is too late.

A film about the ways in which we rebuild our lives to accommodate those events we cannot change; and the consequences, good and ill, of our coping mechanisms.

A film about the redemption and transformation – for and in us, for and in others – made possible by telling our stories.

A film about making those changes we can, and the power of both repentance (the decision to change) and penance (the desire to make amends, often through symbolic action as well as practical action).

It is a film about neighbourliness, and the willingness to trust those we know and love, and those who are a stranger to us.

A film about generosity and hospitality; sending out, and inviting in.

A film about the gift of the present moment, to disrupt the flow from past to future in surprising and joyful, life-giving, ways.

A film that explores the limits of what we are able to receive from others; the limits of our interior landscape (Alvin is stubborn and proud, but a good man. He brings an end to his stubbornness and swallows his pride in order to repair relationship with his brother; but, being stubborn and proud, must negotiate limits on the help he is willing to receive, which is less than that he is willing to offer).

It is a film about the complex, wonderful beauty that is a human being – every human being – made in the image of God and deeply loved, for all its flaws.

It is a film about aging, all the more poignant because the lead actor, Richard Farnsworth in his final (and Oscar-nominated) film role, was living with terminal cancer at the time (the following year, he took his own life before the cancer took it from him).

It is a film, from a time that is perhaps now past, or passing, for our times. Before it is too late.