Friday, 14 December 2007

Banking on Bethlehem

It seems that Christmas has come early for the global banking sector. Billions of pounds, gift-wrapped by the central banking Santa, will bring much-needed cheer to the poor and needy in the boardrooms of the City of London and beyond this Christmas. Why this generosity? Because the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market has blown Capitalism's cosy, exploitative and greedy mechanisms sky high, that's why. Cast your mind back to the £8 billion pounds worth of bonuses awarded in the City this year; reflect on what this annual greed-fest has done over recent years to the property market. Then consider the anguish of those whose homes have been repossessed, or those who see no way of ever being anything other than a tenant of a buy-to-let landlord. Ponder for a moment the real human cost of the sub-prime collapse; stories of eviction, depression, poverty and despair. A system which has wilfully exploited the vulnerable is now being bailed out by governments and central banks. The rich and wealthy clamour for an economic safety blanket, whilst the poor huddle in the cold. Reading Polly Toynbee's excellent article brings the point home sharply, as does some of the correspondence it sparked. It seems that to the corporate greed-mongers none of this matters. The true human cost does not appear on any balance sheet nor does it detract from any bonus. Whilst the progenitors of this nightmare, and their hedge-fund ilk, queue up to buy the latest £35,000 cocktail in a London nightclub, what of those who wonder where the next meal is coming from? For it is amongst them that the Christ-child was born.

According to our infancy narratives, the love and purpose of God is revealed in poverty, is birthed amongst the excluded and threatened ones and stands over and against the oppressor. The cosiness of most Christmas carols gets nowhere near the radical cutting edge of what God was up to in Bethlehem. At Bethlehem the clarion call of the Old Testament - set my people free - is embodied in the one who grows up to challenge and subvert all that diminishes our humanity. In the way he lived his life and through the way in which he died we see that true wealth lies not in power, money or celebrity; that true happiness cannot be bought; that a good life is defined not by what we have but by how we are with each other. These themes have always attracted me to the work of the Iona Community. About ten years ago now I first met Peter Millar, the then Warden of Iona Abbey. Peter's openness, vulnerabilty, humour and passionate faith made a great impression on me. He is a great guy who writes well. Every year Peter sends out a reflection for Christmas, and this year I share it with you. As Peter himself says:

We are connected across the world in these days of Advent and of Christmas. It is many years since Dorothy and I first started to send out a REFLECTION AT CHRISTMAS. They began when our home was in South India. This year, in the midst of much global uncertainty, I have tried to remind ourselves of that hope which is embedded in the very structures of the universe.


Is it not strange to believe in a “spring-time of the spirit” in such uncertain times? To believe that within the possibilities of God goodness can be liberated and our weary hearts restored? Are we foolish to think that the wounded can be healed and that those in the shadows are blessed? Do we stand alone when we assert that meaningless is never the last word, or that a single life can sow God’s seeds for the morrow? Yet even in our questioning the Word becomes real - for against all the odds Christ’s hope remains earthed in our shared and global fragility. Gathered or scattered, we are not abandoned to our hesitations, but invited to that spring-time of the spirit bedded deep in our souls and seen in our faces. For the road is marked by a Love that is stronger than hate, and the songs of life often spring from our suffering.

Peter Millar, Edinburgh, Scotland. December 2007

Thursday, 29 November 2007

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

If you are prepared to read a book which will plunge you unremittingly and unsparingly into the physical and spiritual darkness which envelops and frames Advent, get your hands on a copy of Cormac McCarthy's prize winning The Road. His spare, bleak prose matches perfectly the horror of the post-apocalyptic nightmare he unfolds. The symbolism of darkness and light is searingly present as we walk with the principal characters through American landscapes which have been utterly devastated in a long past nuclear war. McCarthy's depiction of nuclear winter, of a hope-less world shrouded in ash where sunshine is but a dim memory, turns our warm Advent platitudes on their head. The people who walked in light are trapped in darkness and gloom is nearer the mark. Alan Warner's review of the novel will help you decide whether this book is for you. He writes that "The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose." It is exactly this theme which George Monbiot explores in his appreciation of McCarthy's book: "A few weeks ago I read what I believe is the most important environmental book ever written. It is not Silent Spring, Small is Beautiful or even Walden. It contains no graphs, no tables, no facts, figures, warnings, predictions or even arguments. Nor does it carry a single dreary sentence, which, sadly, distinguishes it from most environmental literature. It is a novel, first published a year ago, and it will change the way you see the world."

What The Road does is stop us in our tracks and force us to think deeply about what matters most to us. Encountering the unsparing loss of all that we take for granted, each of us is challenged to become part of the solution to ensuring a collective, sustainable and just future for the whole human family. As such we truly become Advent people, for whom the text of Isaiah 35, set for the third Sunday of Advent on 16th December,is especially poignant. Read The Road and you will know why. And at the heart of our Advent journey is this other well-loved text from Isaiah:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

Isaiah 9:2

The two principal characters in The Road struggle with what it means to be 'good people' in the darkest of times. Within them the light of goodness still flickers, a fragile light in a land of deepest darkness. The people who walked in darkness; that means you and me too. To see the light of God's love in the life of Jesus is to be challenged to respond in such a way that we become lights of hope in a dark world. Advent challenges us to costly commitment, to take our stand as others have done throughout history with John The Baptist, for the sake of the most vulnerable and exploited people on the planet, and indeed for the planet itself.

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight"

With the likes of Wilberforce, Mandela and Tutu, we shall be in good company as lights in the darkness, unceasingly striving to prepare for the dawn.

Friday, 23 November 2007

The Summit of the Year

The photo shows Scafell and Scafell Pike, taken from the beginning of the magnificent ridge walk between The Old Man of Coniston and Wetherlam. As you can see the panorama was fantastic and was well worth the climb. This Sunday we finally reach the summit of the liturgical year as we celebrate Christ the King. Within the church our challenging twelve month long trek through Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary is almost over. Back down at the foot of the mountain Advent Sunday beckons (December 2nd), so for a brief moment we can pause to get our breath back, take in the stupendous view and reflect upon the way we have come.

The New Testament reading from Colossians has this same sense of being confronted by a breathtaking vista, in this case the fullness of God as seen in the life and death of Jesus, the risen Christ, as experienced by the early Jesus movement, who were themselves a living fresh expression of the power of the Holy Spirit. What we read is not second-hand dry doctrinal musing but a passionately motivated cry of joy from the very heart and soul of those who know this truth deep down within their own experience.

The accompanying gospel reading from Luke is 
The Benedictus. Here the confidence of this view from mountain top is recast from present joy to future hope: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. These beautiful words are amongst my favourites in the whole of the Bible. There is a promise here which means much when the way ahead is uncertain, messy and difficult, when the summit is shrouded by dark clouds and seems an impossibly long way off. This confident promise takes us through to Advent Sunday, when the climb begins again. It is like the first cairn marking the start of the the ascent; a small pile of stones left by those who have travelled this way before. It is appropriate, then, that our journey through RCL Year A begins with these words: Isaiah 2:3 Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.

BIG Skies BIG County BIG Future

Yesterday afternoon I chaired one of the regular meetings between Churches Together in All Lincolnshire and Lincolnshire County Council, when we took as our main item of business the Lincolnshire Assembly's BIG County BIG Skies BIG Future Vision for Lincolnshire initiative. As you will see from the website this is an ambitious county-wide consultation aimed at sharpening up a vision for Lincolnshire in 2030.

Help us shape tomorrow's Lincolnshire today. It's your county and what you think matters. The Lincolnshire Assembly is running an exciting campaign over the next six months to find out how you see Lincolnshire's future shaping up. We want you to speak to your friends, colleagues and neighbours about how you see our county developing and then to tell us what's important. Your enthusiasm and creativity will help us plan for tomorrow. What do you think Lincolnshire will be known for, or seen as?

Right across the board the churches have a vital part to play in shaping our common future. I would highlight one issue which is especially significant here in Lincolnshire: climate change. As the recent storm surge reminded us, here on the East coast we are particularly vulnerable to any significant rise in sea level. With the old maxim 'Think Global - Act Local' in mind it is imperative that the church not only offers courageous leadership but that we all get to grips with the necessity of reducing our personal and collective carbon footprint. According to the recent Environment Agency booklet The 50 things that will save the Planet the second most important action that can and should be taken - after purchasing electrical devices which are energy efficient and abolishing the standby button - is religious leaders making the Planet their priority.

The appeal comes through loud and clear from our panel – religious leaders need to make the planet their priority. ‘The world’s faith groups have been silent for too long on the environment,’ says Nick Reeves. ‘It is time that they fulfilled their rightful collective role in reminding us that we have a duty to restore and maintain the ecological balance of the planet.’ Penney Poyzer puts it rather more graphically. ‘Organised religion of all denominations, PLEASE get your congregations to make caring for our rapidly decomposing, landfill site of a planet the utmost priority,’ she says. Chris Goodall agrees, urging different faith groups to come together. ‘They need to form a coalition to encourage their followers to set an example to the rest of the population,’ he says.

The Lincolnshire Churches Environmental Framework for Action has been produced by CTAL just for this very practical purpose, so let's take it to heart and put it into practice and commend it to others. Why not have a look too at the excellent CTAL / BBC Radio Lincolnshire Sunday Breakfast Lent 2007 course - The Earth in Our Hands. This has recently won a coveted Jerusalem award in the category Environment – the Christian and biblical basis of ecology, so congratulations to Sue Edwards and Terry Miller (pictured with the award).

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

what really matters

This afternoon I spoke at Joyce's funeral. She was only 54 and had been one of the church stewards during my time at Cottingham Methodist Church. Her husband Steve evokes Joyce so well when he says of her: when she came into the house a light went on without anyone flicking a switch. As I said in the service this afternoon, Joyce was the loveliest person you could ever wish to meet. The truth of this was written into the faces and flowed through the tears of a church packed out today with her friends and family. Everyone will remember her smile. As a friend Joyce was incomparable – you couldn’t wish for better. That was the common memory today. Always thoughtful, always loyal, always there for you, always life-enhancing, always a part of you; to remember Joyce is to find a smile on your face and a deep warmth in your spirit. Joyce was like the fizz in champagne. Sparkly, bubbly, overflowing with life and love, she brought to life for those of us who were privileged to know her these words about God: God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. With Joyce this truth met you face to face. Joyce’s God was profoundly loving and entirely life-affirming. An intimate God discovered through love and friendship yes, but also to be encountered in the natural world; from the wild seas, glorious skies and breathtaking scenery of Iona, to her lovingly tended garden. Each plant in the right place, known by name and valued for its distinctive contribution to the whole garden, that was Joyce’s way. A parable in sweat and soil and lovingly inclusive creativity.

In the way she lived her life Joyce was a bright flame of hope for all who seek to transform this world for the better. Nothing spectacular here, nothing to make or grab the headlines; she was not a celebrity nor was she self-serving. She was an ordinary person living in an ordinary community whose ordinary life made such a difference, not least to those whom she knew and loved.

The photograph is one I took in Iona Abbey several years ago. Guests at the Macleod Centre had made clay figures and this one really stood out. Two figures are hugging each other. At the time it seemed to convey something of the experience of solidarity, acceptance and healing which often happens there. The icon reflects back the eternal truth of being held and cherished by God, which the clay figures express in a particularly unique way. The candle flame perhaps symbolises the fragility and beauty of love itself, set against the shadows and the dark.

As we remembered Joyce today we reminded ourselves of what really matters in life and of the values which define a good life.

May she rest in peace.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Solitude and Presence

Today's Guardian tells the story of a guy from Pocklington who has spent the last four years bagging a night on all 162 Scottish Islands. Andy Strangeway has set a challenge to which others are now bound to respond. But what strikes me most is something I recognise deep within my own experience; the presence and awareness Andy describes is there in mountains and wilderness, on moors and shores and shot through the testimony of the Celtic Saints. Visit Iona, the cradle of Celtic Christianity in these islands, and stand in a quiet place, say up at the North end, embraced by the expanse of sky and sea, carressed by the breeze and simply present to the moment and you will feel what Andy means when he writes:

Yet, beyond this great adventure, there is something far greater, something that I cannot see. I can only feel it and I do not know of what I talk. My time on the islands has brought out an awareness deep within me. I have no firm belief in a religion or God, but I still seek. I am aware that all these islands have a presence and, the more isolated the island is, the stronger this presence becomes. One day, I hope that I will find my belief and discover God. Until then, the nearest that I can come to this is to be alone on my islands and to feel the awe that surrounds me.

My search continues...

Sunday, 18 November 2007

up and running at last...or waddling purposefully in the right direction thanks to Costa Coffee

So here we go then, scorching into cyberspace all the way from Barnetby le Wold, thanks to a mid-morning shot of caffeine. Popped into Waterstones (Hull) on Saturday for said mocha and just happened to meet up with Rob Miles (University of Hull computing and electronics guru ) who was doing same. 20 mins later I had learned how a good dose of blogging could cure the I haven't updated my District web-page for yonks syndrome.  So here I am: good on yer Rob!