Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Rethink Reskill Reboot

 

Yesterday, we watched the first in the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? (actor Jodie Whittaker), in which people in the public eye discover the stories behind their family tree. This often involves the de-bunking of family stories, passed down the generations in Chinese whispers or arising from adding 2+2 and getting 5. Also, the processing of new information, a dismantling and the construction of a new (though equally partial) meaningful story.

Yesterday, I also took part in the funeral of a man who had started out working for the Gas Board, later retrained as a teacher, and had an active retirement.

Also in the ether, much chatter around the inevitable pressure of (Austerity and Brexit and) Covid 19 to require some people to retrain—some unhappily so; others, as welcome opportunity—along with questions as to which forms of work are valued by society, and which are not.

And it causes me to wonder, what, if anything, happens when our vocation is co-opted by others for their construction of meaning?

This coming Sunday is the Feast of St Luke, who wrote the Gospel According to Luke (a biography of Jesus) and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles (a biography of the early Church). From early on, Luke is identified as a physician, essentially on the basis that in one of his letters Paul refers to Luke the physician. It is often noted that he has a particular interest in healing miracles, but there is no real evidence to support this confirmation bias. What if Paul writes ‘the physician’ to distinguish one Luke from another, from the better-known man of the same name?

Luke the author inserts himself as a character in three distinct sections of the second half of Acts, switching from third-person to first-person narration.

The first recounts a sea journey from Troas to Samothrace, Neapolis, and Philippi.

The second is concerned with a sea journey from Philippi to Troas, Assos, Mitylene, opposite Chios, Samos, Miletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, (off Cyprus), Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and on inland to Jerusalem.

The third describes in great detail a sea journey from Caesarea to Sidon, (off Cyprus), Myra, off Cnidus, off Salmone, Fair Havens near Lasea, past Crete, off Cauda, and ending in shipwreck at Malta…

…and, three months later, in a second attempt to get to their original intended end point of Rome, a fourth sea journey from Malta to Syracuse, Rhegium, Puteoli, and on by land to Rome.

It is clear that Luke, who appears in the account whenever a sea journey takes place, is not only an eye-witness but an expert witness, a sailor who understands ships and the Mediterranean.

But Luke the merchant seaman, who served the Church in somehow facilitating Paul’s missionary journeys—and who perhaps turned his back on the sea to become a biographer—is later retrained to be Luke the posthumous physician, patron saint of physicians. Rethought. Reskilled. Rebooted.

Was the Church in need of a patron saint of physicians? And, today, are we in need of a new meaningful story, of exploration around the coast, the liminal edges of chaos (the great Sea) and shelter (the harbour)? Of surviving being lost at sea, and shipwrecked?

Or, for those working on the frontline of the NHS at present, a physician-seaman, a ship’s doctor?

What, if anything, happens when our vocation is co-opted by others for their construction of meaning?

 

Thursday, October 08, 2020

A friend in need, part 2

 

Jesus’ parable of the three friends (Luke 11:5-13) challenges us in our view of friendship, and invites us into a fresh understanding. At its heart, the parable in search of evidence of friendship is laid before us to address the question of God’s covenant friendship. What is the evidence of God’s covenant friendship? He gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

This Holy Spirit is associated with wisdom, love, and power; with companionship, comfort, and courage; with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

To return to the dynamic at play in the parable: I come to you, having reached the end of my wisdom, my love having worn thin, my courage run out. This is not hypothetical; I am, among other things, the father of two (out of three) children on the Autism Spectrum; like all children (and even more so) they don’t come with a manual (though, God knows, plenty of books have been written offering advice).

You, however, are fresh out of wisdom, love, and courage, at this moment in time. Which is no slight against you, for, we’ve all been there, right? So, you turn to another friend, God, in prayer and say, “My friend, Andrew, needs some wisdom right now, and I haven’t any to offer, in evidence of my friendship. Could you lend me some? Indeed, could you lend me three loaves’ worth, so that you, Lord, and he and I can eat together?” (literal companionship is the sharing of bread with another.)

That’s how it works, my friend.

 

A friend in need, part 1

 

In the Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today, Luke 11:5-13, Jesus tells a story about friends, that is to say, about people who claim a particular devotion and affection in their association with one another, as opposed to mere acquaintances. Friend C arrives at Friend A’s door in the middle of the night, and Friend A has nothing to set before them, or, no evidence to produce in support of the assertion that C is indeed their friend. And so, Friend A goes to Friend B, requesting the loan of three loaves. In other words, Friend A asks Friend B for evidence that A is indeed their friend, evidenced by redistributing their surplus, the loaves they have left over at the end of the day.

There is much chatter in these days of the indominable spirit of the English people, of their deep love for their country and their community. There is also much chatter concerning the viability of certain forms of work, what can be supported or bailed out and what cannot.

Cards on the table, my work role is not viable. Not, it brings in billions but has not been recognised; but, at least in economic terms, it is not viable. Yet, I believe that what I do adds real value to society, some of which is measurable and some of which is immeasurable. And this is true of other forms of work (not to mention children and pensioners, neither group being viable, though at least children grow out of it, and pensioners, die out of it).

The question is, this talk of friendship, that is implicit in how we want to perceive ourselves, where is the evidence? In the terms of this parable—and yes, it is only a story, but a story that might provoke us—where is the redistribution?

One of the things I believe the pandemic has highlighted is the need to adopt a universal basic income or citizens’ income. This is not an extreme form of socialism, let alone communism. If (UK context) you have ever been in receipt of married couples allowance, child benefit, working tax credits, if you have ever been in receipt of a state pension, you will have experienced the partial redistribution of personal resources through taxation. A basic income, ensuring the essential needs of every child and adult, is evidence of a fair society, of genuine friendship.

A Conservative government won’t go for it, because they believe in meritocracy, or, that you get what you deserve: if you have little, it is because you deserve little; if you have much, it is because you deserve much. A Labour government won’t go for it, because the universal nature is essential to the idea, and they don’t believe in giving even a tiny percentage of the common purse to the super rich. Neither of these positions, in themselves, are reasons not to keep raising the matter.

May God give us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and love, of friendship and boldness.

 

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Unclean

 

There’s a story in the Gospels of a woman whose severe gynaecological bleeding (or possibly haemophilia) has kept her isolated from community for twelve years. She is ritually unclean, which is to say, removed from society, with anyone who touches her also having to remove themselves from society for a short while.

This ritual removal was part of the regular rhythm and flow of her culture. Women would remove themselves in the monthly cycle of their period. Ritual uncleanliness is not sinfulness, or moral failure, and ritual cleansing is not sin management or the management of the Other; but, rather, to participate in ritual uncleanliness and ritual cleansing is to enter into the pattern of death and new life, to be an actor in deep mystery. Every one of us, regardless of sex, age, or culture, regardless even of introvert or extravert preference, needs regular times of withdrawal from and restoration within society. But for this woman in this story, the withdrawal had been extended out indefinitely.

We know that she has spent all of her resources on physicians who were unable to cure her. We know, therefore, that she has felt human touch, and under the most vulnerable of conditions. But it is quite possible that she had gone for months at a time between experiencing human touch, for years. We do not know, but it is possible that she had family members who, in order to provide such touch, essentially self-isolated in order to shield her; even so, she is removed from her neighbours. Given that we know she had spent all her resources on the hope of a cure, and that she was still alive, we may imagine that one or more of those neighbours left food on her doorstep, in a spatially distanced compromise they had to make work.

All of this seems meaningful, in 2020.

This woman hears that Jesus has arrived in town, and resolves that if she can push through the crowd, unnoticed, and only touch the hem of his garment, she might hope to experience the healing she needs, the kind of healing she has heard that others have received from him. And so, she takes the risk. She, surely, makes others ritually unclean by her contact. She reaches out for Jesus. And straight away, he is aware that power has left him. And straight away, she is aware that she is healed. And Jesus responds in such a way that everyone, who have just been made ritually unclean, is ritually cleansed. The whole community goes through death and new life (which is really interesting, because Jesus is in fact, at this very moment, on his way to raise the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue from death).

How do we go about our lives under the tension of needing to interact with people who are mutually exposing one another—and by extension others who have not chosen so to meet—to risk?

How do we live with the very real emotional and psychological impact of the extended loss of human touch—and the added impact on those who are removed from the possibility of touch, but nonetheless must look on as others break the rules?

How do we nurture empathy and compassion for those most affected by isolation, over extended time that erodes our empathy and compassion?

Where might Jesus, and the community gathered around him, feature in our thinking?

How might the story of this woman help us?

 

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Comfort and Joy

 


2020 has been a hard year. The Church of England’s theme for this Christmas is Comfort and Joy, recognising that this year Christmas will be, for many, a strange mix of the numbness of loss and the longing for that celebration of love that strengthens our bones in midwinter. Jo and I would like to share some Comfort and Joy by giving every home in our parish a bespoke bauble, to create a community-wide Christmas tree, in our homes and also hopefully curated online. As we look to bless our neighbours, we have asked a local business to make the 7,000 baubles for us, and they look great.

Here’s how you can help.

[1] Could you donate to our Just Giving page, to help us cover the cost? The link is https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/comfort-and-joy

There will be some additional costs (printing of an explanatory flyer; possibly ribbon) but our target of £1,750 relates to 7,000 laser-cut baubles at 25p each.

[2] Do you have any ribbon you don’t need and could give to the project? It needs to be 15-20cm lengths, between 3mm-(max.)10mm wide.

We know that many of you might have some ribbon saved for a project you’ve never got around to, or even the hanging loops from a dress or top. Here is another way to get involved. We need 7,000 strips in all, but every contribution helps, however small. Any colour will do, especially if Christmassy. If you are further afield, you could post them to us—message me for our postal address on andrew [at] dowsetts [dot] net if you need it—and if you are local, you might even be willing to thread some of the baubles for us?

[3] Local friends, would you be able to help deliver baubles door to door, later in the year? Let us know!

 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Hidden in plain sight


The God of the Bible (there are many gods in the Bible, but I mean Yahweh, the god who is vulnerable enough to approach us in hope of friendship) is not all-powerful.

This god insists, and consistently models, that power is dispersed across all creation. To stars and planets, including our own, whose physics makes life possible. To the moon over the sea, to the sky and the sea and the land. Among all living things, plants and animals, to reproduce and evolve, and hold all in self-giving mutual interdependence.

To angels and mortals; to mighty emperors and lowly disciples; to women and children and men; to widows and orphans and aliens, and to those who honour them. To all. To you. The very breath of life. Power that this god does not retract when it is misused by others; which is by no means to abdicate personal responsibility for justice.

No, this god is not all-powerful. And therein lies this god’s freedom, this god’s majesty, beauty, holiness. This god’s ability to transform the world, for good and not evil.

 


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Into thin air

 

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, with its Old Testament reading from Genesis 28:10-17.

Jacob finds himself at the outset of a long journey. Unable to carry on, for now, he stops for the night, in a certain place. The place matters, but it has no name, nothing there, only a stone for a pillow and the ground for a bed. And as he sleeps, Jacob dreams grandiose dreams. Contrary to the English rendering ‘ladder’ he dreams of a ziggurat, a tower of ramps and terraces, rising to the heavens. The template is that of the mythic Tower of Babel, an early attempt of a people to build a lasting name for themselves. Such is where Jacob would expect to meet with God. Such is how he would seek to be remembered.

And, in grace, God does meet with Jacob in his dream, with angels descending and ascending the tower, just as they had gone down to find out what the tower of babel was all about. And God promises that he will go with Jacob, and bless him, to be a blessing to others. But what will that look like? Being scattered to the four winds (again, like babel, though this time as blessing rather than curse, as redemption after constraints).

Jacob awakes to realise that God was present in this place. This empty place. Not the ziggurat of his vain imagination.

So where is God when your dreams vanish into thin air?

 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

This is not That (but they are connected)

 

The murder of police officer Sgt Matt Ratana is an absolute tragedy. My heart goes out to his family, his colleagues, and the families of all police officers who will sleep a little more fearfully for a while.

But today I am seeing a disgusting meme circulating, asking, rhetorically, whether Black individuals in the public eye will take a public stance, and answering that they will not. I should not have to point out why this is wrong, but, apparently, it is needed.

First, this meme implies that the named individuals lack a shred of human decency: of course they do; they are sub-human, after all. Not like us.

Second, this meme accuses them of double-standards: of speaking out at the death of a Black man or woman at the hands of the police, but not at the death of a police officer at the hands of, it is assumed, a Black man. But these are not the same.

Police officers are called to protect the public, a calling that at times brings them face-to-face with criminals, and danger; not to criminalise, or endanger the public. We can argue that what happens to Black Americans has nothing to do with British Blacks, but that is to fail to attempt to understand the complexity of their different and yet connected life experience. We can argue that police officers who kill unarmed men or sleeping women are ‘bad apples’—so why are they not held responsible?—or that their victims were far from innocent—so they don’t deserve a fair trial? Both these moves are excuses, to justify racism. We can argue that this is the UK, not the US, but that is to deny that racism is an issue here. Here, where a Black, female barrister was assumed to be a defendant three times (and a journalist once) on the same visit to a magistrates court. And yes, that’s just one example, so, listen to the experiences of Black people in England, both British and other nationalities.

It has already been pointed out to me that the reason this police officer was shot inside his own station was because the Met’s hands are tied because of the media profile of a ‘semi-famous athlete and her boyfriend’ who were ‘legitimately’ stopped and searched. Why does it matter whether they were semi-famous, world-famous, or unknown? That’s just a put-down. And, in the absence of the results of IOPC review, how can it be claimed to be legitimate to stop and search those guilty of owning a nice car while Black? But, worst of all, such a view puts the blame for the death of Matt Ratana on the Black community and their allies. Because, again, it is the Blacks who are the problem.

Again, the murder of a police officer is a tragedy. If the suspect, who, apparently, turned his weapon on himself, survives, he will be charged and tried and sentenced according to law. There will be an enquiry into what happened, not to point the finger of blame, but to see what lessons can be learned; with recommendations that will, in turn, be considered, and, perhaps, implemented. The family of the officer will not get their loved one back, but they will at least get the justice they need and deserve. No, this is not the same as for other families.

All lives matter, and police lives matter. But to use Police Lives Matter, like All Lives Matter, as a response to Black Lives Matter is not to support the police—it certainly does not honour a Maori officer—but to take a stand against those who experience systemic racism every day. To stand with racists, in a sick, manufactured competition. You wouldn’t want to do that, unthinkingly.

The murder of a police officer is a tragedy. People using it to stoke racial hatred is a disgrace.

 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dreams

Everybody has a dream, whether it is to be an astronaut when you grow up, or a bucket list to complete before you die.

Some people will tell you that People Like You have No Business having Dreams Like That. They might know you—sadly, they could be a teacher, or even a family member—but they don't care about you. The best thing you can do is ignore them; don’t even waste your precious energy proving them wrong (and yes, I know that is easier said than done).

Some people will tell you to Pursue Your Dream, may even be your cheerleader. But if that is all they have to say, then either they don't care about you any more than the haters do; or, they do care but no-one ever taught them what to do with dreams (and, sadly, this is commonplace).

Your dreams don’t want to be pre-emptively buried, or relentlessly chased; they want to be interpreted. And here, I’m not talking about while-you’re-asleep dreams and psychoanalysts (helpful though they can be). I’m talking about the way our waking dreams speak, and the way that we are made to speak into one another’s lives.

The ancient poetry of the Bible imagines us as being a fusion of clay and the breath of God. Of the mundane, and the magical. The poet Lucille Clifton described her life thus, “this bridge between starshine and clay”. Your dreams are the conversations between those two poles, about what they—you—want to experience in this world, which contains more than any one life can bear. Yet, because we are created for connection—for communion—with others, our component states don’t speak the same mother tongue. Hence, though we might learn to ‘get the gist’ of the conversation, we need others to help interpret the nuances, to follow the conversation fully. That is why, even though on the surface it may look a solo endeavour, Clifton’s words quoted above are from a poem titled Won’t you celebrate with me: though having no model to follow, this is a celebration shared with, and in part of, those who helped her shape a kind of life.

So, start asking clarifying questions of your dreams; and pray for the gift of people in your life who can help you understand what you hear. And though the kind of life you shape will not correspond with the dream, within it, we will celebrate.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Talk more

Stand in front of any urinal in any gents toilets in any motorway services in the country, and you will come face-to-face with an advert for either van insurance or erectile dysfunction.

The common denominator is a sense of loss, in forms targeting men. To be a man is to drive (and used to be—another loss—to fix your own engine). As for our penis, that is explicitly referred to as our ‘manhood’—though my internal jury is still out debating whether this is a false construction of manhood, or whether manhood itself is a false construct. In any case, the encouragement is for a quick fix: if your motor is stolen, we can get you going again. It is the same impulse behind (the success of) populism, the promise of making Britain Great again.

I don’t think men talk about van insurance much. We sure as hell don’t talk about erectile dysfunction. But the underlying taboo is admitting and navigating loss. Yet loss is a recurring part of life for all of us, and something that we can work through but could really do with not having to do it on our own. Help, not to find a fix, or a distraction, but to express appreciation and gratitude for what was good; to acknowledge the legitimacy of our grief; to articulate relief at the unhelpful baggage that has been lost with/in the loss; and to embrace the possibilities of a new season.

It seems to me that the mare that is 2020, and the occasion of Suicide Awareness Month, are good reasons to encourage men to talk more about loss, in all its forms. We’ve got this.