Thursday, January 29, 2015

Money For Nothing

On my birthday each year, I receive money, or possessions having monetary value, from others. I have done nothing to earn this money; it is given to me as a result of something as random and as fundamental as my birth.

I receive money for nothing from others not as reward for being a good son (etc.) but because of a sense of social obligation. By that I don’t mean the cultural pressure to reciprocate or keep up with expectations – things that drive people into debt. Rather, I mean the recognition that we belong to one another.

One of the mantras we hear in our society is that ‘some people seem to want money [or those things money can buy] for nothing.’ As a mantra, it is used to pass negative judgement on people. But a society in which I receive nothing that I have not earned by my own effort is one in which we are truly the poorer. And conversely, a society in which I give nothing that has not been earned is one in which we are truly the poorer.

The ability to receive certain things for nothing is as important to human flourishing as is the ability to provide certain things for ourselves and others by the work of our hands.

But here is a problem: I am wealthy enough that if I need or even want something, I can buy it myself – whether with money to hand, or after saving, or by taking on debt that I will hopefully be able to manage. And this makes it far harder for other people to give me something as a gift. Each year as my birthday approaches, enquiries are made as to what I might like, and I increasingly struggle to make any suggestion. The consequence is that I am harder to be obligated to – I am harder to belong to (not that belonging is about material things, primarily; but it is about the acts of giving and receiving). My material wealth can leave me poorer in more fundamental ways.

Money is a gift which can be used to build up that sense of social obligation that enables us to see other people – not just our own family – as those with whom we share a common belonging. But it can be misused to break down that sense of social obligation and deceive ourselves that we are obligated to ourselves alone.

We need to rethink – and continuously reflect on – what money is for.

Who Do You think You Are?

The Bishop of Durham and Footprints Theatre Company are presenting the Gap at Sunderland Minster this week: an interactive lunch hour or evening with theatre, live music, and an open forum to ask Bishop Paul the hard questions about real life. Each day looks at a different topic: food, image, money, life and death, relationships.

This evening saw a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion of image, responding to questions including sexuality and transgender. What follows are my own thoughts, relating to these and other image issues.

We find ourselves living in a time when the old certainties are breaking down. While this causes distress for many people – including those who declare that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket – this is broadly speaking a good thing. Many of the old certainties were over-simplifications, misleading headlines. Where we establish ourselves in our certainties, God shakes them until nothing we have built stands and we are exposed as creature not Creator.

At the same time – and an obvious consequence of such shaking – we live in a time when as a society we are profoundly disoriented and confused about identity, including the entire spectrum of sexuality and of gender. This in itself is broadly speaking a bad thing – and compounded by our refusal to admit to our confusion. But something significant is revealed in it. In times of such confusion, the Good Shepherd goes searching for lost sheep (and Isaiah reminds a shaken people that we are all like lost sheep); good shepherds have compassion for lost sheep; and wicked shepherds look to their own interests. It is not so much that under such conditions ‘people’ are shown to be false of heart – this has already been revealed, with conclusive evidence – but that ‘I’ am shown to be false of heart in how I judge others.

It is precisely in our certainties that we have no need of or interest in God, other than a god made in our image and serving our interests.

It is precisely in our disorientation, our confusion, our daily experiences of death, our wrestling with doubts, that we are searched out and brought home by the God who entered into death with and for us, that new life might be birthed.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The City

In Isaiah chapter 60, there is a vision of a city which includes representatives of the nations coming on camels bearing gold and frankincense (for this reason it is read during the Season of Epiphany, when we remember the bringing of gifts to the infant Jesus).

It is a city made beautiful by the immigration of many different people groups, bringing their resources, their skill, their particular traditions and solutions.

Indeed, it is a city rebuilt by a multicultural international community, after it has been deeply damaged and its population displaced as a result of international conflict.

It is a city free from security worries, because former enemies have become friends, and those who refuse to share in this vision of friendship and partnership have perished – not ‘are destroyed by the city’ but self-destruct, fail to reproduce, die out, their own vision of nationhood left abandoned.

It is a city at the heart of a nation surrounded by ally nations.

It is a city built on humbly receiving what others offer – recognising its dependence on others, as dependent as a breast-fed baby – not on arrogantly taking what belongs to others from them.

It is a city of divine light and glory.

It is not any existing city, but a city that could be. Isaiah imagines what Jerusalem, in ruins, could become, rising from the ashes. But it could equally be Paris, or London, or New York, or the cities of northern Nigeria, or northern England.

At the heart of the vision, God says that he will appoint Peace as their overseer and Righteousness as their taskmaster.

Allegorically, the city can refer to Christ (the one to whom representatives of the nations came, bearing gold and frankincense), to the one appointed by God to establish peace and righteousness. He is the Peaceful overseer and Righteous taskmaster, not imposed but given – not imposed but nonetheless appointed – to Jerusalem, and Paris and London and New York and the cities of northern Nigeria and northern England, for he has been revealed to all the peoples.

Living in peace doesn’t just happen, it needs to be worked on, needs to be built, painstakingly, with strong foundations, and quality material. Righteousness – living in right relationship with others – doesn’t just happen, but is hard work for which we need direction, and at times arbitration.

For peace and righteousness to flourish, I need to make my contribution, and so must you; and we must learn to value one another’s contribution. For peace and righteousness to flourish, my contribution must also be directed, and so must yours.

This isn’t a vision about imposing anything on anyone, but a vision of submitting ourselves, our gifts, how they might be deployed and who we might labour alongside, to the God-supported work of establishing and maintaining and expanding and sharing peace and righteousness.

And although it may sound naïve, it is a vision that has been fulfilled, albeit incompletely and temporarily, many times over, where people of different peoples have come together...

Saturday, January 10, 2015


To every action there is an opposing reaction, though not necessarily an equal one. After ‘Je suis Charlie,’ ‘nous sommes Charlie,’ and ‘Paris est Charlie,’ we have now seen a queue of people stating why they are not Charlie – and why, in their opinion, those who have said Je suis Charlie are misguided and un-thinking.

When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not condoning everything about the publication Charlie Hebdo, much of which may be vile. But I have no right to call myself a follower of Jesus if I am unwilling to identify myself with the unlovely, with the offensive. However much they offend me. However much they - and I – need to change. Moreover, if by saying, ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am saying, my attitudes include ugly attitudes, my words include hurtful words, then that is far more honest than if I were to claim not to be ‘Charlie.’

When presented with a woman whose actions were so offensive that her accusers believed her to be worthy of death, he ruled in favour of the verdict on the condition that whoever was without offence should carry out her execution. When no one was found to condemn her on those terms, Jesus identified himself both with the woman and with her accusers, condemning neither and condoning neither, but challenging all to live differently.

When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not claiming that my experience of these events is in any way that of those who have lost loved ones. That would, indeed, be deeply insensitive; but it simply isn’t necessary. As a priest, I stand in solidarity with people (some of whom are not likeable or commendable) who must bury their parents, their spouse, their children, even though I have never experienced that loss myself. That does not make me a fake. If we can only identify with those with whom we have common experience, then we are in very deep trouble indeed.

When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not deceiving myself that this act in itself is enough, that in itself it changes the world. It is a token gesture; but that does not make it meaningless, and does not necessarily inoculate us from taking other small acts of reaching out to our neighbour. Big changes come through the accumulation of small gestures, whether multitudes giving pennies to cancer research, or people standing with a city. And yes, it might have unforeseen negative impact as well as positive impact; and yes, we might need to identify with other places and people and causes, too. But these qualifying things do not negate the thing – though they can easily become an excuse to do nothing.

When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am not condoning Islamophobia or attacks on mosques. Multiplying wrongs never undoes wrong. Both in our multi-cultural communities and in our multi-cultural world, those who attack mosques harm the safety of their own tribe as much as those who attack others in the name of Islam. The signifier ‘Charlie’ has shifted from Charlie Hebdo to Paris, France, beyond, to a multi-cultural city, nation, continent, world; and anyone who harms Parisian Muslims harms ‘Charlie’ and is not ‘Charlie.’ And yes, that calls Charlie Hebdo itself to account [see Jesus, and identification with others without either condemning or condoning, but instead extending the challenge to live differently, above].

Yes, I recognise that it is possible to condemn the murders without identifying with those murdered; but it is also possible to identify with people without pretending that they are innocent. The reality that we do not live in a black-and-white world works both ways.

When I write ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am choosing to express solidarity with the people of Paris – Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and more besides – as they are faced with the difficult challenge of living alongside one another.

I am choosing to express some humanity.

I hope that in all our great wisdom, we do not lose sight of that. However we choose to respond.

I am, still, despite all the arguments against it, Charlie.

Friday, January 09, 2015

All Things

Either nothing is ‘sacred,’ because everything has been made sacred; or nothing is sacred at all.

There is no place in the universe where I can stand and pronounce that

I am a true believer, but you are a blasphemer,

my activity is devotional, but yours is profane,

‘this’ is holy, and ‘that’ is secular.

If such a universe ever existed, it imploded at the Epiphany: the revelation of Jesus – in and through whom God is reconciling all things to himself – to the nations.

And any action to separate what God has joined together is sacrilege.

Je suis Charlie.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

The Incarnation – depicting the King of the Universe as an incomprehensible incontinent, sating himself at a young girl’s breast – is the ultimate work of satire.

In Christian theology, God is the ultimate satirist. And therefore to be Christian is to be a satirist. Indeed, to be human – made in the likeness of God – to be truly human is to be a satirist; to poke fun at those things (religious or otherwise) we hold sacred – we place above questioning – in an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to exist in a position of privilege.

If we are not free to satirise, and free to take satire directed at ourselves, we choose to be less than fully human, we settle for being less than ourselves.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Gifts

We are in the Season of Epiphany, when we recall to mind the Magi who followed a star to bring gifts, in whom the nations symbolically responded to the revelation of Jesus’ coming into the world.

To be community is to reflect God’s love-motivated activity, however imperfectly, and whether we are aware that this is what we are doing or not. That activity is apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, and instructive (love is expressed through word and action) and community is (certainly never less than) the sum of such interactions.

To be a faith community is to intentionally seek to offer that activity back to God, for the good of others.

Consider the Magi. We do not know how and where they came together, but we do know that they form, or are formed into, community:

they are apostolic, sent out representatives, going out from their familiar place on a journey that has a clear purpose but an unknown goal – sometimes described as walking by faith and not by sight;

they are prophetic, humbling themselves to an alternative future – and in so doing discovering a previously-unknown freedom, and with it the impossibility of going back by the same route (represented by Herod);

they are evangelistic, bearing good news – even if not everyone welcomes their news, even if the news that God has moved to gather-in a people from among the peoples is rejected by Herod (who, being half-Jew half-Gentile, is perfectly positioned to respond to this purpose but chooses not to);

they are pastoral, bearing practical gifts that meet material need (gold), nurture the hope-full agency of intercession in a dark world (incense), and provide for the painful reality of death in our experience of life (myrrh);

and they are instructive, firstly because they are lifelong learners themselves, studying both spoken creation and written revelation, but also in their example, treasured in Mary’s heart and surely recounted to her son on many occasions through his childhood.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Cable

The most striking image from our holiday was looking down from a chair-lift at a piste-basher working on a precipitous slope. Piste-bashers are enormous vehicles that compress and then comb the snow so that pistes are firm and smooth to ski on. It must take some nerve to drive one down the mountain.

We noticed that this piste-basher was attached to a long cable, which seemed to run the length of the mountain. Following it back, and back, and back, we traced it to a red pole at the edge of the piste. Clearly the pole could not anchor such a heavy machine, but marked the location of an anchor-point secured in the rock of the mountain itself. And in deep snow, or thickly falling snow, such a marker is essential.

It struck me that much of what I do – the round of services some might see as church-ianity – is concerned with maintaining the red pole, as a crucial reference-point especially though not only when circumstances disorientate.

The more I see of people’s lives, of the circumstances they have to deal with, the less life looks like the adventure of running down a slope on skis where, even if you crash out from time to time, you are unlikely to get badly hurt; and the more it looks like the far scarier prospect of being responsible for a piste-basher going over the edge.

God is the rock, the anchor, and the cable that holds us. A Trinitarian image: for as the Spirit points us to Jesus, and Jesus points us to the Father, so the cable connects us to the anchor and the anchor connects us to the rock.

I’m struck by those who return, again and again, to the ‘red poles’ of the mid-week Communion services, or of a still-but-open building to pray, to stand in silent worship, to find sanctuary. To come back to Jesus before heading out over the edge again.

My tradition sometimes entertains the temptation to see such actions as at worst empty superstition, at best not enough. On their part, or on ours. But I have looked over the precipice. For some, this is not only enough, it is a life-line.

The Local Maximum

Recently back from a wonderful skiing holiday with Jo’s extended family (eight adults, seven children), I am reminded of the principle of the local maximum. In a mountain range, the local maximum is the highest point in its immediate surroundings, and once one has climbed to the local maximum one must descend before it is possible to climb any higher.

Ski lifts connect local maximums. From the village where we were staying, a button lift pulls skiers to a ridge at the top of the nursery slope. It is still at the bottom of the mountain, but from here you can generate enough momentum to peel off to the right and keep going along the flat-or-even-up-hill track to the next village along the valley. From here, there is a four-person chair-lift that carries you up the mountain. Sometimes, because mountains are irregular in shape, it is not possible to be carried to the very top and you must ski down in order to pick up another lift. By going up and down, up and down, it is possible to ski several connected mountains in a row.

It helps to have a guide, and well-maintained markers, to make the connections; and travelling companions to share the experience.

Skiing down the mountain can feel effortless, enjoyable, exhilarating. It can surf the cusp of being in- and being out- of control, swept along on an adventure. Or, balanced at the top of a steep drop, it can feel terrifying, overwhelming: too far outside of our experience, our ability, our capacity to face the challenge, it can be confidence-destroying.

Moving up the mountain can be painstakingly slow hard work, if you are side-stepping under your own steam. It can be largely effortless, carried on the work of others who built and maintain chair-lifts, funicular railways or gondolas. Or it can require trust – that the cable will hold, that no-one will slip under the restraining bar – and test us emotionally if not physically.

On the mountain, you are aware of others: jockeying for the chair-lift, sweeping past you or holding you up on the piste, taking a tumble, catching their breath and admiring the view. Each moment a snap-shot, for we do not see from where they have come or where they will go from here, other than in broad or immediate senses.

Each New Year brings its own ups and downs, its share of joys and sorrows, bad times and good. Risings and fallings, and risings and fallings again. Tipping-points and turning-points. Effort and learning and measures of good- and ill-fortune to boot. Sometimes we think we have ‘arrived,’ only to discover that we have only just set out. That is all part of life. Whatever 2015 holds for you, may you know the Rock beneath, and find camaraderie with those around you.