World Refugee Day

World-Refugee-Day-1It starts with the language; words like ‘infest’ and ‘hordes’ and ‘armies’, words that weave images of war and plague. The language seeps into our hearts and minds, like some toxic incantation that transforms human beings fleeing for their lives, men, women and children, into an invasion force come to rape and pillage. “They’re here to take our women, they’re here to take our jobs” yell the tabloids; after all, it gets votes and ad-clicks, no matter how distorted or untrue the screaming gets. This is the era of Fake News after all, and people profit from it. Never bet against the darker angels of our nature; the race starts with the language and ends with kids in cages, or worse.  Memesmiths are happy to shape reality, to turn London into the mythical Londonistan, to augment reality with toxic hallucinations, to grow fat on clicks and likes.

If you fight monsters, take care lest ye become a monster. That’s doubly true if the monsters you’re fighting don’t exist.

And yet I’ve met asylum seekers and refugees. I don’t work on a border or in a camp; I make no claims to nobility. That’s the point – I’ve met asylum seekers at work, people who just want to get an education, to learn English or Business or Engineering. They have families and aspirations, they have hopes and a sense of humour. They’re ordinary, albeit forged in extraordinary circumstances that I wouldn’t want to face. And that’s why we need to stand with refugees, because we’re all human and we need to look after each other. Don’t sell your soul in return for outrage. Cut through the rhetoric and the rants, shout down the prejudice and profiteering, because we’re one and it’s a sin to sacrifice our brothers and sisters to the idolatry of lines on a map.

We live in dangerous times, shadows that once crept around corners now coalescing into a cold eclipse. Injustice and hatred have their sway, and despite the cries of “This isn’t who we are!”, the dirty secret of history is that that atrocities are committed by those who would have once thought themselves incapable of it. And so we need to stand together, stand together and be caring, be compassionate, be kind. Bad times start with language, but so do good, so speak words of hope, of humour, of peace and mercy and grace and welcome. Use words to cast visions, not curses; speak kindly of your neighbour, speak well of those fleeing the armies that arrived or the rains that didn’t. All the Never Agains started with people like us, for good or ill, and so we face the eternal choice. Be good. Be humane. Be kind.

Advertisements

Spreadsheets are still spiritual: A post for Grenfell Tower

(I wrote this post following the horrific fire at Grenfell. Two years later and it’s emerged that over 200 tower blocks across England still have unsafe cladding, with work still to start on its removal.)

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is still raw, a cacophony of anger and grief and heroism and apathy played out in the shadow of a highrise, a beacon for a country struggling with inequality and terrorist outrages and an inconclusive election, drawing the focus to the very real testimonies of those who have lost everything: first their safety, then their voice, then homes, possessions, loved ones.

Stories of those loved ones are emerging: a Syrian man, Mohammed, who fled the civil war and who was studying civil engineering; an artist, Khalifa, whose work is currently on display in Venice; Isaac, a five year old boy. Firefighters wrote their names on their helmets as they walked into the fire; communities pulled together to provide shelter, supplies, support. All this took place in the face of a murderous injustice; while full details haven’t yet emerged, it seems that Grenfell Tower wasn’t safe, built with unsafe materials and no sprinklers and no answers. This tragedy shouldn’t have happened.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” St. Paul once wrote, and profit margins and unit costs often show us where our hearts lie. The cost of a sprinkler system, or £2 extra per metre of cladding becomes a stake, a gamble that a fire won’t break out, with odds that apparently made it worth playing. I doubt anyone wanted these deaths to happen, but there’s a risk register somewhere that’s now exposed as a moral, even a spiritual document.

Millenia ago, an ancient law was handed down on top of a mountain. And among the commandments and liturgies and rituals, there’s a simple piece of construction advice – if you build a house, make sure the roof’s safe so that no-one falls, no-one dies. Elsewhere, there’s provision for priests to get involved in an environmental health situation. And yes, that’s a Bronze Age culture and I don’t think health and safety should be ecclesiastical, but justice persists, and the safety of the places we live and work is a justice issue. Lives are at stake, lives have been lost, and spreadsheets sometimes triumph over humanity.

download

But spreadsheets are spiritual. Building regulations are spiritual. Our homes should be safe and Grenfell shouldn’t have burned. We pray and mourn with the survivors, we honour the heroes. But let’s always remember that how we build and what we spend are moral decisions; humanity should triumph over portfolios.

An Accessible Pentecost?

(One of a three posts I’ve written to celebrate Pentecost this year – the others arePentecost – A Time for Telling Stories‘ and ‘An Environmental Pentecost‘.)

The fire fell from heaven, the wind blew through a locked room, and the Church was born in a babble of languages that sounded more like drunks singing than the preaching of saints.

I think sometimes we miss the miracle of Pentecost. We see it as a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a hugely successful evangelistic rally. And it’s both of those things, but underlying it all is a concept we often overlook: accessibility.

The pilgrim crowd heard the disciples speaking in the own languages, no matter where they came from. The Holy Spirit wasn’t picking and choosing, this was God reaching out to anyone who’d listen and dropping a pretty massive hint as to what the Church should look like.

And yet when we talk about Pentecost, our language can be limited. Does it include sign language? Makaton? Braille? The edges of our Pentecost may be telling us how far we’re really willing to go to communicate the Good News. And sometimes the languages we speak also have to factor in where we put the lectern, the colours we use in our Powerpoints, the font size in which we type our hymn sheets and the number of times we make sure the hearing aid loop is actually working.

Heck, architecture has its own language too. How easy is it to get a wheelchair into our churches?

Communication is wider than we think. Behaviour is communication – I have two sons with autism, and an awful lot of what they can’t put into words is expressed through how they act at any given moment. Meltdowns and social misunderstandings and sensory needs can be a kind of language, one that requires grace and understanding because too often out there it elicits tutting and judgement.

And so maybe this has to be part of our prayers this Pentecost: to ask the Spirit to give us a greater vision for the language we use, to ask for the gifts we need to make that vision a reality. Because the Spirit that spoke Hebrew and Latin and Greek and Aramaic two thousand years ago can use sign language and read Braille in 2019. We need to offer up our hands and hearts to receive the gift of an accessible Pentecost.

Some resources:

Easter Sunday: Back to the Garden

20140419-203921.jpg

Really it’s all about gardens.

The Bible, after all starts with a garden; the great cosmic scope of the creation story zooms in on a single location, a garden planted by God to home those created in his image. But the image is marred, the garden is lost, and the rest of the Bible is about a journey to restore that primal intimacy with God.

Jump forward to the end of the Bible and Revelation’s climactic description of the new Jerusalem. Here we read of a beautiful city, but one with trees and fruit and a flowing river. It’s an image of Eden restored; the journey of the Scriptures is a return to the garden.

So it’s no surprise that the Easter story is full of gardens; they’re present even at the darkest moments. Gethsemane is the place where a choice has to be made – the place where Jesus wrestles with his mission. Both Gethsemane and Eden present a choice between human desires and God’s; Gethsemane is where the right choice is made and Eden’s curse starts to be undone: “Not my will but yours” is a powerful enough prayer on its own, but praying it in a garden is a hint of where this story is heading.

And we head there almost immediately. On the agony and blood of Calvary, a dying man asks Jesus to remember him; Jesus tells him that they’ll go into Paradise together. The word ‘Paradise’ has very specific connotations; it means ‘garden’.

So the drama of that first Easter morning is played out in another garden. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb at the break of dawn, finding it empty. Wracked with grief and thinking that Jesus has been subjected to yet another unthinkable humiliation, she doesn’t recognise the hidden Christ.

She mistakes him for a gardener.

It’s the most profound mistake in the Bible, because God has always been a gardener. Eden and the prophesied City of God are evidence of that and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, access to those sacred gardens is restored. And so is hope and life and forgiveness.

It’s impossible to discuss Easter without talking about new life. Sometimes that’s the sudden, miraculous revival of what once was dead, but often it’s a slower resurrection, a cultivation carried out by a loving and patient Gardener. Sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days – the death of hope or love isn’t always reversed overnight. But new life is coming.

Mary didn’t get it wrong. Jesus is a gardener. He’s the Adam who got it right; the one who reopened the gates of Eden and shows us the way inside.

I have a bit of a imaginational heresy, that one day in Heaven, Mary tracks down Eve, gives her a hug and says “I was in a garden too, it’s gonna be okay.”

Happy Resurrection Day!

Holy Saturday: Desolation

Once, long ago, I lay curled up on my bed feeling hopeless and defeated and like every positive future had withered and died. I don’t talk about this often – this may even be the first time – and although the passage of time has taken away the feelings, I still remember the cloying numbness, the claustrophobic fog of depression.

That time passed, praise God, but the feelings return at times; many years later, weeks before going on holiday, I woke with the conviction that, if I went to New York I’d die. It was a lie, of course, a falsehood generated from who knows where. And I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty and a busker who looked like Hendrix tuning his guitar but never actually playing. I went to New York, because sometimes simply doing something good is a victory.

I won’t say I’m free of all this; it manifests differently now, I take medication and I get through it. And that’s why I often talk about the sort of faith that hangs over a cliff by its fingernails, because anyone who tells you that faith is pain free, that belief is a one way ticket to Big Rock Candy Mountain is trying to sell you something, or maybe just trying to cast their own spell to ward off troubles.

Holy Saturday sits at the heart of Easter weekend, an awkward heartbreak innoculating us against cheap triumphalism. There’s a season for everything, and Holy Saturday is a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to lay flowers at a graveside. It’s a time to recognise trauma (let’s not forget Mary, who saw her son torn apart by scourges and nails), a time to cry out “This is wrong” and “That shouldn’t have happened” and “Never again”.

This is a time to acknowledge, in the silence, that the world isn’t as it should be, that the future is frightening, that oppression and persecution are real, that things are broken. This is not a time to pretend that pain isn’t a present reality, that troubles are simply the result of faithlessness. Your pain is real. But while this may sound naive and impossible, it’s not the end of the story.

Because Holy Saturday isn’t a nihilistic full stop. It’s part of something bigger, of which pain is a part but so’s hope. That spluttering candle glimmer may be faint but it’s there, the light at the end of a narrow tunnel. It’s Saturday, as the preacher might have said, but Sunday’s coming.

We have to hold on to a vision of hope, all of us, because even if we’re not going through our own dark night of the soul, we can stand in solidarity with those who are, we can weep and march and sit and pray and stand with others. There are too many paid-off guards peddling fake news and weaponised visions, and so we need Holy Saturday to remind us that our own pain and history and honesty can be a beacon, so many Marys in the garden who’ve seen the stone rolled away.

Today we sit and mourn, and while we may still be doing that come the dawn, we’ve made it through the day, and the sun still rises.