Spreadsheets are Spiritual: A Post for Grenfell Tower (Deuteronomy 22:8)

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, and 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.

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 triumphs over portfolios.

Climate Refugees in the Bible

One day the rains didn’t come, and the next day, and the next. Then the herds began to thirst and die, crops crumbled into the dry ground, skies still parched and empty and bearing down on a family nearing starvation.

Salvation was at hand; one brother had found their way into Egypt, and through a series of misadventures he had the ear of Pharaoh. Joseph, blessed with insight as to how to distribute the Nile’s bounty during a time of famine, saved his family from the worst a changing climate had to offer.

But in times of crisis, opportunists will arise, and so Joseph became powerful and exploited the vulnerable, in the way that you can when you’ve got something everyone else needs. A couple of hundred years later his descendants found themselves slaves of the Egyptians. When the climate turns against you it can cast a long shadow.

Centuries later, another famine swept through Israel, forcing a particular family to flee to Moab, an ancient land now in modern Jordan. Soil turning to dust underfoot, Elimelek and his family took a look back at the Promised Land and made their way towards a new life. Only one of them would return, accompanied by a widowed daughter-in-law, and yet in the face of starvation and natural disaster, those poverty-scarred survivors would go on to become the line of King David, the ancestors of the Messiah. And throughout the narrative, names conjure images of emptiness and fulfillment, famine and harvest. The dust of a vicious climate coats the whole story.

There are other examples; a famine striking the Romans Empire in Acts 11, prompting the infant Church to pool together resources and distribute aid; the climatic conditions that drive Abraham into conflict with PharaohJoel’s locust swarm that forms the backdrop to his great prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The environment is Scripture’s silent backdrop that nevertheless shapes events and people and the work of God. We can’t ignore it.

Nor can we ignore the 20 million climate refugees thought to be on the move today. We can’t ignore those whose water supplies are polluted, or whose food sources are dying, whose homes have tides lapping at their door, whose churches are facing a Noah’s Ark scenario of their own. We argue about how and why these things happen, but we forget the people. When it comes to theology we seem to spend more time debating the eschatology of the Anthropocene, its mechanisms and its imagined idolatries, than we do in serving those most affected by a changing climate. Faith and history will both judge us for that.

In his latest book, Rob Bell highlights the danger of reading the Bible as if it’s about the past or the future but not the present. We can’t ignore how the stories we read throughout the Bible intersect with what’s going on in the world around us. That’said why we need public theology. That’said why we need to speak with grace and mercy and love rather than treating vulnerable people as problems to be confronted by our dogmatism

And that’s why your church needs an environmental policy, and see the footprints in the dust and in the mud, and to know they could be our own.

Thoughts and Prayers

Another day, another disaster, another act of public violence and Twitter confusion, another outpouring of sympathy and compassion. Throughout all this, one phrase gets repeated, echoing around social media to the point of cliché.

I understand why. I’ve heard terrible news and felt the need to say something, anything, aware of my powerlessness but needing to speak. Somehow silence seems inhuman, erasing, and so I offer up my thoughts and prayers, along with thousands of others. And all too often it ends at that, at least until the next disaster, the next outburst of senseless violence.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers – I probably don’t give enough time to either. Sometimes all you can do is hand things over to God, because our power only stretches so far. Having the humility to accept that is a good thing.

But prayer is meant to change us, isn’t it? Let’so not be so arrogant as to suggest that communicating with the Divine will allow us to walk away without being transformed. We pray about situations, and we think about situations, and God will break through our platitudes and prejudices, until He transforms how we speak, how we spend, how we act, how we vote, how we serve, how we Tweet, how we love.

People get cynical when they see so many of us talking about thoughts and prayers. Part of that is scepticism, but part of it is, I think, the fact that we say these things every time but nothing changes; there’should always another disaster that could have been mitigated; always another act of violence that could have been avoided.

We want God to materialise and personally fix things, but sometimes he expects us to be the answer to some of those prayers. We speak with him, we follow Jesus, we embrace the Spirit and that’ll have an impact. And bad things will still happen, but at least we won’t paint God as an impotent deity on a cloud through our refusal to let him change us.

We see what happens through our prayers: people open up their places of worship to serve as shelter and support, they cook meals and collect toys and go out and fill shopping trollies full of toiletries and clothes. They weep when the words have run out and mourn with those who mourn, because the cumulative effect of all those prayers is Jesus shining through.

Thoughts and prayers are important only insofar as they are real. If we’re passionate about them, if we use them to let God get into our bones, then maybe our Tweets will mean more. Maybe, one day, we’ll be changed.

Socks: A Post for Ascension Day

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and  as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

What you’d’ve done is what you’re doing

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Today we remember six million Jews butchered by nationalism, extremism, an insanity of industrial scapegoating that also took people with disabilities, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyone who didn’t fit Hitler’s jigsaw of crazed mythmaking.

And so the Holocaust now lives in our collective psyche, totemic names like Frank and Schindler and Auschwitz representing years of horror, a time in which the world broke, language spasmed, birthing showers that weren’t showers and humans made non-human by the stroke of a pen. We see it as a black and white world in more ways than one, maybe because the horror is too much to take otherwise. “It can’t happen here,” we say, a mantra to cast it all into the abyss, a relic of a unique historical breakdown. Maybe that’s why so many people are keen to say it never happened, maybe erasure makes the demons and the victims and the survivors of the past look a little less like us.

We’ve all asked ourselves what we’d do under those circumstances, whether we’d run or fight, whether we’d collaborate or resist, whether we’d hide someone in the basement or simply call the secret police. Some of us even have the privilege to pretend we could mind our own business.

But while the Holocaust was a long time ago now, we’re not divorced from it; what we would have done then is what we’re doing now. It’s how we respond to antisemitism. It’s how we talk about Muslims or immigrants. It’s how we react to gay men in Chechnya being rounded up by the government.

These things happen now. Those people in the pictures aren’t us, but their soundtrack rhymes with ours. You could end up in a camp. You could be an informer. You can join in a whole new Krystallnacht, you can resist.

Or, if you’re lucky, you can pretend it’s none of your business. That’s an option for some of us. No-one’s knocking on our door yet.

But there’s always someone knocking somewhere. “Never Again” can be a mantra, a prayer, a lie, but most of all, above everything else, Never Again is a duty.