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…