Tear Down the Wall!

Church newsletter article 10.12.17

This will be one of the last newsletters of the year, a year in which the news has been dominated by borders and boundaries: Trump’s promised wall between the US and Mexico and the banning of visitors from Muslim countries, missiles fired across the border from North Korea, the Brexit debate and questions of the nature and location of the border between the UK and the EU, especially the thorny question of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This week the nature of borders and capitals reared its problematic head in the Holy Land too, with the proposed move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the recognition of that as being Israel’s capital city. What does this mean for the Palestinians who find their boundaries being squeezed? It has been a year of us vs. them and who’s in and who’s out. So often the divisions have seemed stark and irreconcilable and the debates and discussions impossible.

Advent seems a good time to reflect on these stories and situations in light of the Christmas Story. This story is all about such questions and debates. Today the Palestinians might feel they are living in an occupied land, then it was the Jews under the Romans. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem because of the census, a count of the people to see who was in, and by implication who was out. Wisemen come following a star, crossing borders of geography, ethnicity and religion to visit a new king. Can you imagine the response from Herod (picture Trump receiving them…)? The next scene makes it clear, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are fleeing across the border to Egypt to escape the threat of murder.

Who is in and who is out? Who belongs? And who does not? Place the past and the present on top of each other, do they sound that different?

There is another story of boundaries, the boundary between God and us, the wall erected between us and Eden comprised not of brick but our anger, selfishness and suspicion that says we’re doing life our way not yours. This story doesn’t end in firm positions, hard ball negotiation or red lines draw in the ground, but through God sending his son to cross the boundary, to see through our eyes, to walk in our shoes, becoming one of us, entering our world and speaking our lingo, so that in turn we could see and hear and understand his. This is not ultimately a story of us and them or in and out, but a story of reconciliation. My hope and prayer is that next year our story might begin to reflect this story instead…


Have You Been Read Like a Book?

According to Oxford University’s online dictionaries, the phrase to ‘read someone like a book’ means to be able to ‘understand someone’s thoughts and motives clearly or easily’. This saying took on an interesting twist for me today when I stumbled across the Human Library™ on the internet today. In this unusual library, you withdraw not the latest novels or timeless classics, but a person who will share their life story with you.

So where did this unusual twist on a library come from? It started in Denmark after the stabbing of a youth in 1993. Friends of this teenager, who fortunately survived, started a group called ‘Stop the Violence’. Asked to provide an activity for the Roskilde Festival, they brought together 75 human books, who could be taken out so that ‘readers’ could find out about the person behind the stereotypes and ask awkward questions – and hear possibly honest and challenging responses. Apparently before the first book was withdrawn, the hall was full of conversation between the books themselves as they listened to each other’s stories, the policeman sitting down with the graffiti writer, the politician with the youth activist and the football fan with the feminist. Since this first event, the Human Library has taken off with similar presentations taking place in more than 70 countries around the world. You can even go to their website and get a taste of some of the books you might get to read, the soldier with post-traumatic-stress-disorder, the convert to Islam, the brain-damaged, young single mother, the unemployed, the body mod extreme and the refugee amongst others.

Personally, I think this is a wonderful idea. We’re all too quick to judge others simply by the tags we put on them, failing to think beyond these simple labels to the complex human being beneath them with their mix of emotions, pressures and insights. Perhaps it’s important to remember that to others we are tags as well. Don’t forget, to some we are ‘Christians’. Colossians 1:19-20 describes God’s mission as reconciling the world to himself through Christ. I can’t help but feel that this Library could be part of that process, enabling people to come together and begin to appreciate other’s stories and the people behind them. Got me wondering how we can help others hear our story, but perhaps more importantly, how can we begin to hear the stories of those around us.

All The Way to the Banksy

I suspect many of you would have heard the news this week about the new Banksy that appeared on a wall in Bristol. As always it has caused a great deal of interest and controversy, mainly about the vexed question of ownership – just who owns a piece of graffiti done in a public place? Is it the artist? The owner of the wall it is done on? Someone else or even no-one? And who has the right to say what happens with it next, especially when that piece of graffiti could generate significant sums of money if auctioned in some way. In the past pieces have been painted over, damaged, and ironically been victims of graffiti themselves!

In this case owner of a nearby boys club took matters into his own hands and unscrewed it (for once it was mounted rather than painted directly onto the wall, and took it into the club for safety. It appears as if safety wasn’t the only motive, the club is in need of funding and this painting was seen as being Banksy’s gift to the club. They would auction it and use the proceeds. Unsurprisingly not all were of the opinion that they could just take it like that! It has now been taken from there via the police to the city museum for display, but the mayor has said he’d love Banksy to provide a limited edition print of it for the Boys Club to sell so that everyone could be happy.

Although the questions raised by the dispute are interesting, I found the questions raised by the artwork itself most interesting. It portrays a couple in an embrace, but each holding a mobile phone behind the back of the other which they are reading. The hug suggests relationship, but the phones suggest their attention is not really on the other at all; a modern portrayal of the nature of broken relationships. The painting is in many ways a commentary on the row that has broken out over it!

This weekend we celebrate the one who came to bring an end to broken relationships. As it says in Colossians 1:19-20, ‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’

Let’s celebrate this wonderful guerrilla act which, like Banksy’s artwork, was done freely for all, and play our part in spreading the message of reconciliation through Christ to each other and to our Heavenly Father. Let us not try and lock it way to keep it safe, or see it as for our profit alone.

Church newsletter 20.04.14

God has a Cunning Plan

Church newsletter article for 23.10.11

Found this picture on Facebook this week. Made me smile and I thought it was worth sharing… (would love to attribute it to its creator, but I’m not sure where it came from)

I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships of all sorts this week in connection with the mini-course on Wednesday nights looking at Ephesians. Preparing this two-week overview has made me appreciate this letter in a new way. I’ve always been fond of it as a book, it has a number of cracking verses in it, but I’ve never really looked at it as a single piece of work and tried to grasp why Paul wrote it – what was it he was trying to get across through it.

At its heart is a simple message. God has a plan for this world, always has had, and this plan is reconciliation. On one level as Christians we know this. We know that through Jesus, God is reaching out in grace to us, inviting us back into relationship with him. It’s so much more than this though. He’s not just seeking to fix the relationship between us and him, but all relationships; Jew and Gentile, husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave. These are just the examples Paul uses in his letter. I have no doubt the list could go on to include black and white, rich and poor, East and West, employer and employee, working class, middle class and upper class, educated and uneducated, town and country and so on.

Why is it that relationships are so hard? Why are there so many divisions in our families, in our country and in our world? Many of our relationships are built on power and hierarchy – the dominant controls the other. Employers control employees. The rich control the poor. Historically whites were seen as superior to black, husbands superior to wives, parents superior to their children. The problem is that this so easily turns into abuse. In ‘more equal’ relationships, there is still tension as we seek to ‘look after number one’ and to save face, protecting ourselves from what others might say about us if they really knew us. We are pulled apart rather than together.

Into this world of broken relationships came Jesus; the one with true power and authority. Yet, unlike us, he didn’t use it to abuse or to look good, but to serve. The story of his wrapping a towel around his waist and washing the disciples’ feet is not just a nice tale, but is at the core of this gospel of reconciliation. Through this act he made himself vulnerable, a risky act of grace. Through this he turned upside-down the usual hierarchy of power, abuse and self seeking, flattening it, declaring all equal, all important and to be cared for. This is our calling of the church. Where we are in power, we are to use it to serve the other as Christ did the church. Where the other has the power, we are to serve them as we serve Christ. This is the Gospel and it can only be understood through demonstration. Are we ready to make ourselves vulnerable in this way and follow Jesus?

Ten Years

Church newsletter article for 11th September 2011

Ten years ago we had an American friend from New York staying with us.

Ten years ago was 9-11, the day two hijacked planes were flown into the Twin Towers, resulting in almost 3000 deaths.

Having our friend staying with us gave us a very human insight into what was going on. Shock, anger, worry and worry were played out in front of us as she struggled to get home and tried to find out about her family and friends that she had left behind. It was a horrible time.

They said that the world would never be the same again, and in many ways the political landscape was changed dramatically. The shadows of that event can be seen covering much of foreign policy around the world since, both good and bad. How to respond to such an event?

Perhaps key in reflecting on our response are the Old Testament laws about revenge in Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21 with the well known phrase ‘an eye for an eye’. The danger of our taking justice into our own hands is that we tend to hit back harder than we were hit in the first place, leading to an even bigger reprisal to our response and so on. Quickly things get out of hands; these laws were put in pace to prevent such escalation. Of course Jesus took things even further than this. In Matthew 5:38-39 he said,

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

Challenging words from a challenging man. I’m sure Jesus wasn’t saying that we should simply let evil actions run riot, but I think instead he was calling us to be creative in our responses (read the rest of the chapter) so that whilst highlighting what is wrong, we don’t escalate the situation, become that which we are protesting against, or respond in a way that shuts off the chance for forgiveness (a two-way process, expressing remorse and having it accepted) and reconciliation.

As we remember, it is good to consider how we have responded. Perhaps the best commemoration we can make is to actively work to increase understanding and friendship between West and East, Christian and Muslim, religious and non-religious.