Sep 222011
 

Stewart’s recent running training (and fundraising success) has led him to think about running with others from time to time. It got me thinking about how we might use the ‘Park Life’ concept within the mission of the church. We are often quick to create events where we expect people to turn up. Whether that is a ‘back to church Sunday’ day or a revival rally in the local park, there is the expectation that people will come because it’s an event and therefore ‘special’ or even ‘worth it’. And it seems to me that we then have trouble sustaining the ‘special’ quality of the event thereafter in the ordinariness of our faith life and in our mission work.

But what if rather than expecting people to ‘join up’ we simply made it possible for them to ‘join in’? Being a Christian is not about being a Christian on Sunday morning between 11 and 12 (or whenever). I know it’s about that faith ‘ethos’ infusing all that we do, but often that’s not too visible. If Christians were seen to be at work or play in their community, not doing Christian things, but simply doing things, is that a way of enabling people to join in?

It would, I think, need to be something that was done regularly to avoid becoming that one-off event. And it would need to be something that wasn’t already happening otherwise you end up competing and setting a tone of ‘joining up’ rather than joining in. And it would need to be something that facilitated relationships rather than just doing the ‘thing’, whatever that might be. And it would need to have, I think, some sort of Christian ‘context’, otherwise you’re just doing stuff that is no different from the stuff that everyone else does.

So what sort of thing might work in this context? Some sort of regular ‘clean-up’ walk around a community? A bunch of families meeting up in the park to play games? I don’t know, but there’s got to be something that enables joining in as a means to establishing relationships and relevance between a church and the community.

Jun 132011
 

[Note – I got out of sync. Hebron was actually day 2. What can I say? I was tired.]

Yad Vashem Holocaust MemorialThe visit to Hebron was a difficult one. Witnessing the effects of Israeli settlements on a Palestinian community was difficult. Seeing some of the ‘propaganda’ used to justify the existence of settlements was frustrating and caused a degree of anger.

But it never takes much in Israel to be reminded that the picture is enormously complex. Not every Jew agrees with what is happening in such places. ‘Settlers’ are not always representative of the wider community and culture. Indeed, they are often the more idealistic ones who have, often, been encouraged to return from other countries to reclaim their ‘birthright’. It is not a simple Jew v Moslem debate.

Added to this mix is the very recent history concerning the way Jews have been treated and how global events have manipulated and influenced the present state of affairs. There are many countries and governments complicit in present, unsatisfactory situation.

Perhaps one of the most emotive events in recent history is the Holocaust and it is a memorial to this event that Yad Vashem stands. The photograph shows the end of the main exhibition hall. Its triangular construction represents the coloured triangular patches of cloth which were sown to garments, in combinations, to represent the ‘crime’ of the wearer. The exhibition hall is just one part of the memorial though. The memorial park itself is huge and houses gardens of remembrance for various groups and ages. There is, for instance, a memorial garden to remember the children who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

There is no doubt that a wander round Yad Vashem is thought-provoking and not a little uncomfortable. The exhibition is exceptionally well done without ever coming across as grisly or voyeuristic. It is, nevertheless, extremely hard-hitting and it’s no wonder that it is a site visited regularly by Israeli conscripts. Near the beginning there is a potted history of anti-Semitism and not just in a Nazi context. It’s a stark reminder of how persecution and hatred of a group can become systemic and unquestioned. Then, only when blatant atrocities are committed are such things questioned. I would hesitate to suggest that such a style of presentation is intended to develop a ‘victim’ complex and to lay a guilt-trip on everyone else, but it certainly leaves a taint in the mind and a bad taste in the mouth.

What is unquestioningly powerful though is the collected testimonies of survivors and victims. Seeing the emotions on the faces of survivors speaking their story to camera and reading the words of diaries and letters and even journals and poems cannot leave anyone unmoved.

Strangely, though, it was not these that had the greatest impact on me, harrowing though they were. There is a room in the exhibition which holds records. The room is cylindrical, maybe 12 metres across and 6 metres high. You walk into a central, raised viewing platform. You are surrounded by box files. These are the records of those who died and were presented at the Nuremberg trials. Seeing millions of lives condensed to plain boxes of paperwork was deeply affecting. It was, in a sense, soul-less. These records are an inadequate witness to the millions of victims. In and of themselves they are just bits of paper – in that sense soul-less. And yet, what they represent is the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale, made worse by the fact that this was not simply a by-product of war, but a deliberate targeting of and attempt to exterminate specific groups of people (and, of course, not simply Jews). The very soul-lessness of the room and the records was a stark reminder of how dehumanising the treatment of Jews and other targeted groups was. When all someone is is a label, a coloured classification, then a paper record is all they are.

I find this difficult to write about. Words are inadequate to express such outrage and to draw contemporary parallels would be to open a floodgate that would, it seems, be overwhelming. And yet, even in such bleakness, there was hope. Another exhibit room records many of the acts of those who did speak out, who did put themselves in danger to stand up to the oppressors. Many were people of faith; many were great humanitarians; many were simply supporting friends and neighbours.

There is, of course, a supremely contentious lesson to be drawn from such a visit. When you read of Jews being excluded from areas of towns and cities, when they are not allowed to walk in certain areas, when they are treated as something less than human, it is difficult not to draw contemporary parallels. I don’t feel brave enough to dive into them here. Nor do I claim to have any kind of deep understanding of the complexity of issues involved. Yet, in my naivety, or simplicity, I can’t help but wonder…

Maybe it’s best not to go too far down that road, but rather, consider its impact on what our response ought to be. It’s easy to condemn, or point fingers, or play the ‘blame game’. It’s easy to get sucked in taking sides, seeing everything as black and white. I find the work of EAPPI and others of that ilk to be an enormously powerful way forward. They stand in witness to the humanity of all and call for that humanity to be recognised and respected. Unravelling the historical, political, religious and cultural issues surrounding the situation in the middle east is beyond most of us. But acknowledging the humanity and worth of others is eminently within our capabilities. And it is something which doesn’t just have application in places like Israel and Palestine, but can find a place much closer to home too.

Jun 052011
 

Hebron SoukA visit to Hebron was never going to be an easy one. It epitomises, in many respects, the key issues for Israel and Palestine. Hebron is a fair sized city, predominantly Palestinian, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. It is one of the most densely populated in the west Bank and is divided into two areas, the larger under the control of the Palestinians. But within this zone there are a number of Jewish settlements under military protection. There are approximately 500 settlers, with a military force of between 500 and 2000 soldiers (depending on tension levels). This within an area housing 30000 Palestinians.

The settlement areas highlight the imbalance of power. It is the Palestinians who are prevented from particular areas, including some of the main roads. Access to their houses is through dirt tracks and neighbours gardens. A Palestinian brave enough to take to the main road risks being shot – it is easier to minimise the ‘risk’ by assuming everyone is potentially hostile and to shoot first. There are no questions later – it’s military law in force. In fact, even the Jewish settlers go around openly and well-armed. As we wandered down a deserted street, the Palestinian shops all closed and unoccupied because it is a no-go street for them, we were brought up short by the distant sound of gunfire, followed soon afterwards by the unmistakable sound of an ordnance explosion. Our guide for the day reckoned it was probably from the nearby military barracks as the tension levels were low at the time.

Our walk through that part of Hebron was to take us to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The site of the tombs of Abraham (and his wife Sarah) and his descendants Isaac and Jacob. As we approached a checkpoint nearby we noted that the road was divided (unevenly) by a concrete barrier. Jews were allowed to use the broader lane, wide enough for cars; Palestinians had to use the narrower side. We opted to walk on the Palestinian side and also chose the mosque side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A single building covers the site, but it is split in half – one side a mosque, the other a synagogue. In one sense, completely understandable given the common reverence for the Patriarchs. Yet the irony was not lost on us. Having visited the mosque, where we were made welcome, visiting the synagogue was not an option. Again, we had made our choice.

Our route back to the city centre took us through a souk and the picture above is one part of it. The wire mesh is not a convenience for hanging things from, but an absolute necessity. The buildings above are part of the Jewish settlements and it is common for the settlers to throw their rubbish and rocks down into the souk. Such is their contempt for those who do business there.

Our guide for the morning was a young woman volunteering with EAPPI – a World Council of Churches initiative to help and highlight what is happening around such settlements. The volunteers serve for 3 months and there job is simply to observe the checkpoints. It seems that the Israeli military is somewhat less inclined to be so oppressive when there are international observers with cameras around. It doesn’t mean that EAPPI, and the many similar groups, don’t get harassed themselves, but it does help the overall situation.

IMG_6110.JPGThe afternoon brought us to Bethlehem. If there’s one thing about the Holy Land, it’s that if there is the hint of a ‘holy’ site, there’ll be a place of worship on top of it. But there are also the commercial opportunities to be had. I have to say that Bethlehem seemed to have some of the most tackily named tourist shops we have come across so far. John the Baptist Souvenir Shop or the Christmas Bells restaurant, every opportunity is grasped to link with the relevant site. I can’t help but wonder though if the heavily-pregnant Mary might have found the going easier if there were escalators to hand to get her to the stable room.

May 232011
 

Today, at the Kirk’s General Assembly, a pretty hefty debate took place over the Kirk’s future direction in its relationship with partnered homosexuals in ordained leadership. Unfortunately, due to ‘real’ church business, I was unable to sit through the entire debate, but caught the gist of it and the key vote.

The GA was presented with two ‘trajectories’. One kept to the traditionalist position and extended the moratorium on ordination of partnered homosexuals for an indefinite period. The other set out on a revisionist path which aims to lead to reconciliation with the LGBT community and to open leadership doors to those who are in a same-sex relationship.

It’s not quite the liberal triumph some may be suggesting (nor, for that matter, is it the road to doom and destruction others are suggesting). It simply sets out a possible path towards that reconciliation and opening up of leadership.

The decision allows for a theological commission to explore the issues around what this decision means. From the beginning of this phase of the debate I’ve always advocated the need for the Kirk to set in order its understanding of marriage and partnership as a prerequisite for any decision. If heterosexual marriage and same-sex partnerships can be brought to an equitable footing then there is no further debate to be had. This, I think, was the understanding behind the former Principal Clerk’s amendment to the ‘trajectory choice’ deliverance. I would have been happy for this to have been approved – it would satisfy the systematic theologian in me and help lay the theological foundations for further progress. Just to be clear – it has always been on this point that I have objected to same-sex partnerships in the manse, just as I would object to an unmarried heterosexual couple in the manse. Marriage is the defining structure within which we place committed partnerships. It’s not scriptural – it’s a legal issue. So, unless the Kirk was to make a serious u-turn on its approach to marriage then I always saw this as the primary issue to be addressed.

However, I also note that such a delay would have been entirely unsatisfactory on a number of fronts. Any opportunity to move away from discrimination and oppression ought to be taken at the earliest opportunity. The choice made today doesn’t quite meet that need either, but there is at least a glimmer of hope where there was little or nothing before. And certainly the other choice would pretty much have snuffed it out entirely.

One bigger candle of hope from today was the affirmation of sexual orientation not being a bar to ordination and training. Although it does raise interesting issues on what should happen if a subsequent partnership were to form. Do I detect the rattle of small pebbles precipitating an avalanche?

My biggest fear though is the threat of schism. There have already been rumblings that a vote for the revisionist trajectory would prompt some departures from the Church of Scotland. I’m not sure that a ‘trajectory’ really justifies that and would far prefer to see those voices stay with the Kirk, participate in the ongoing debates which need to happen and hopefully, along with everyone else, grow in grace. I don’t mean that to be ‘Christian-ese’ for ‘agree with me or you’re not a real Christian’, but rather work out how we can agree to disagree yet remain one. I know that there will be some who would say ‘good riddance’, but I think it would be very sad if any sort of schism were to happen.

So, back to the title. Is the trajectory set out upon today enough to satisfy those of a revisionist persuasion? Will there be patience to see through the next couple of years. working towards a more harmonious goal? And will a trajectory be enough to maintain a degree of unity in the Kirk?

Aug 052010
 

I’m using bits of Harry Reid’s book, Outside Verdict, for some of the introductory background for my dissertation. I came across this piece in which he quotes Telegraph journalist Michael Henderson (Monday commentary: 19th August 2001) commenting on a typical Friday night in Leeds. It’s a pretty biting piece and I wonder if things have improved any in many parts of the country.

Leeds, on Friday night, offered a microcosm of a society that has lost its soul. When you had picked your way past the drunks in the streets near the ground you could visit one of several dozen bars in the middle of the city, all amplified noise and tat, each with its own heavily-muscled “doormen”.

Awash with money, and yet ugly beyond belief, our towns represent the landscape of modern England, and things are getting worse. How can any person who truly cares about this land not be disturbed by the vulgarity and unthinking hedonism of our young people, who are, without argument, the most feckless, the most aggressive, the most stupid in Europe? What’s more, they wear their ignorance as a badge of honour…

Everything is trivial, and disposable, and available for “the people”, with their diminished expectations. Those people have money, pots and pots of it, but there is no spiritual dimension to their lives. They have been neutered by junk television, junk newspapers, junk food, junk beer, junk pop music, junk advertising, junk films. A kind of affluent poverty exists, in which nobody feels anything except a permanent boredom.

Jun 012010
 

In the spirit of not making any public statements, but encouraging discussion and understanding of the subject which cannot be named (why do I feel like we’re in a Harry Potter story?) I would like to point to some good and thought-provoking articles which were themselves pointed to in JohnFH‘s blog which I sometimes dip into (except for his Hebrew stuff which goes whizzing over my head).

The first is an article by Richard B Hays which is an adaptation of a lengthier book section. It is a pretty comprehensive statement of the conservative position on homosexuality. I recall reading the full book section in 2nd year New Testament studies and found it to be useful then. That was not long before General Assembly discussed the issue of human sexuality. The Mission and Discipleship report (.doc file, via OneKirk) and the congregation discussion resource document (1.5M pdf file, via OneKirk) they produced drew heavily on this work for the conservative perspective. It was also at the heart of a ‘refutation‘ at the time by Paul Middleton, but that work never fully engaged with Hays and so I was left feeling that it was a somewhat selective and not entirely convincing counter-argument.

The second referenced article is by Kim Fabricius (on Ben Myers blog) is a useful ‘in a nutshell’ view from the other side of the debate. The comments are extensive and worth a skim through. It is not a point-by-point argument and assumes a degree of ‘honest’ scholarship which recognises the ambiguity in many of the scriptural references to homosexual activity. If that’s not your ‘place’ then I would recommend doing some wider reading before decrying what Kim says. An ‘honest’ approach will/should leave Romans 1 as one of the few ‘unambiguous’ texts which need to be dealt with. Thereafter you may engage with his propositions and reach your own conclusion.

Finally, the third article referenced is not a theology one, but rather a media comment on a recent sex scandal in Australia. It makes some very valid moral/ethical observations which, I think, are quite pertinent to the whole discussion.

*Updated 18/7/11 to fix dead links

May 202010
 

I’ve been catching up on some reading recently (I’ve not long finished The Mystery of Christ by Robert Farrar Capon and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell) and currently working my way through The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. When I’m not banging on about Emerging Church, one of my soapboxes is the need for Christians (especially Christian leaders) to be the ‘prophetic voice’ within society – pointing out its failings and pointing to a better way. This is at the heart of Brueggemann’s book and I came across a passage worth quoting:

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated.

The italics are Brueggemann’s and state the hypothesis for  the book. The extract, I believe, succinctly states the mission and problem for the church. The church needs to be counter-cultural. And that doesn’t mean that it decries culture, rather it should always be asking if this is the ‘best’ we can achieve. And by ‘best’, I would suggest that that means being more ‘Christ-like’; being fully human and fully spiritual creatures, living life in its fullest measure without fear of discrimination, oppression and injustice.

But the extract also highlights the biggest danger the church faces – becoming ‘co-opted and domesticated’. (The phrase, “Aslan is not a tame lion” has just sprung to mind). My biggest fear of Emerging Church is that the Christian distinctives get subsumed by a desire to be ‘relevant’ – faith and worship are co-opted to suit a context, rather than that happening the other way round. Domestication comes when the church is no longer proactive but reactive and is ‘used’ to provide social services or a place where religious-types can go on a Sunday morning. Or perhaps domestication has come through the church becoming a useful branch of Historic Scotland responsible for the upkeep of a bunch of old buildings. I’m sure there are many ways in which we have become ‘co-opted and domesticated’.

How easy is it though to rediscover our revolutionary voice?

May 112010
 

I don’t generally blog on politics. It’s not a subject which particularly enthuses me – at least in the traditional sense. I have no particular love of party politics. The confrontational Westminster style is just irritating and the negative campaigning is simply depressing. But this blog entry isn’t about any of those things anyway. Rather, it’s about a train of thought that was triggered by watching a programme from a few days ago.

Continue reading »

Apr 192010
 

I was chatting with Nikki today at lunchtime in Rainy Hall and we covered the usual broad range of topics. I’m doing a funeral in a couple of days and I mentioned that I still don’t get the ‘privileged’ thing that many in ministry speak about. We agreed that, for us certainly, it wasn’t the best word to describe how we felt about funerals. I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t like doing them, but that there were problems with the word itself. It didn’t seem to capture the ‘motivation’ behind doing a funeral.

As I was wandering home from the station later, it struck me what my issue with the word is, at least in my eyes. For me, it’s the wrong focus. When we speak about being privileged, the focus is on us, and how we are feeling. It’s almost as though we are getting some sort of reflected blessing from the bereaved. After all, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Maybe we’d like a little piece of blessing too?

But, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter a hoot how I feel about a funeral. It doesn’t matter whether I feel any sort of blessing from it at all. It’s not about me in any way, shape or form. I could, in theory, walk away from it utterly untouched and unconcerned and still have been a blessing to those who mourn. Because that’s the important bit. My purpose is to be part of the flow of that blessing from God, bringing the sense of comfort the bereaved need. But in a very real sense I am not even needed for that, but I’m there. And I’m there because I am called to be and so I pray for God to use me in any way necessary to bring that blessing of comfort. My only desire is to speak the words of remembrance of the deceased, to show that memories may yet live and still be spoken with pain and gladness, but nevertheless still spoken, and to communicate that there is hope beyond even those memories. But that’s not about me, or at least it shouldn’t be. That’s about giving myself over to my calling; about dying to my own desires and seeking only God’s. That, to me, is only a privilege in the very superficial of senses.

I suspect that comes across at terribly self-righteous and even critical of those who take a very humble view of privilege. It’s not my intention to criticise others, but simply to reflect on why I have an issue with the word. so, if anyone’s got a better word, I’m happy to hear it.

Apr 152010
 

If you haven’t happened upon it yet, let me recommend at eighty one. Avril writes very movingly and powerfully about her journey alongside her elderly father as he (as they both) come to terms with his vascular dementia.

At yesterday’s candidates’ training session (MTN) we were discussing the difficulties faced when visiting elderly people in care homes. It can be easy to forget that the disconnected faces and the disruptive outbursts are only a snapshot of the person here and now. It’s easy to forget that they have a history, a family, a life. We may never get to hear their stories and so may be utterly unaware of their past. And yet that is what we need to hold in mind during a visit.

This is where Avril’s writing is both profound and necessary. We become privileged sharers in the story and through that sharing come to see others as having a story which, though we may not share it, we acknowledge it before God by valuing our time spent with them and in our prayers for them.