While Dr B was attending a conference on dealing with the past of East Germany, that past was -quite literally- being dismantled less than a kilometre from where the conference was taking place. This was all that was left on Friday of the "Palast der Republik", the 'palace of the republic' constructed by the GDR authorities in 1976 on the site of the Berlin Schloss that they had demolished in 1950. Not only did the palace house the GDR parliament (which in communist times met only a few times each year to approve what had already been decided by the Politburo) but a conference centre, a theatre, concert hall, restaurants and even a bowling alley. It was here that the first freely-elected East German parliament in 1990 voted for the unification of Germany. Three days before the unification on 3 October 1990 it was discovered that the palace was contaminated by asbestos and the lights went out on the people's palace. Since then a political and ideological battle has raged as to what to do with the site: while some wanted the palace of the republic to be rebuilt, others wanted the site to be cleared and the Berlin Schloss to be rebuilt. Still others wanted a completely new contemporary building to mark the site at which German unity was decided. The political constellation of forces decided to rebuild the Schloss, or more precisely to rebuild the facades of the schloss as part of a complex housing museums, hotels and leisure facilities. The Berlin state government has a whole web site (in English) devoted to the process of dismantling the palace, with an updated web cam photo of the building site.The winner of the architectural competition was announced on Friday, the day the last remnants of the palace of the republic were to have been cleared away. Unfortunately, the last "tooth" of the building couldn't be removed in time. Probably no other square in Germany has been the subject of such an ideological debate about architecture. One example of this is that the Palace of the Republic, in official terminology, has not been "demolished" but is being "selectively dismantled". Meanwhile, Marx and Engels, whose statues are in the nearby "Marx-Engels-Forum" have turned their backs to the palace.
Sunday, 30 November 2008
My Advent reflections this year will focus on Ruth Burgess' book of daily prayers for Advent Hear my Cry.
The book takes us deeper into the great advent antiphons, offering modern prayers on the themes of the prayers which I have always found deeply inspiring. I think my French Reformed congregations thought I was a bit strange weird when I tried to use them for all age worship.
Ruth Burgess offers daily meditations for the 24 days of Advent and then also a special section for the 17th to 23rd of December, the days when the great antiphons are traditionally said, with additional prayers, Bible readings and reflections. The final part of the book then has some outlines for writing and worship workshops, encouraging us to write our own advent cries and recognize God's diversity and unity.
The advent service at the college chapel would always include the antiphons being read and a candle on a menora being lit at the end of each one. For me these beautiful ancient prayers are truly light in the darkness. The "O" with which each prayer begins the Latin (and old French) word for prayer "ora" or "oraison" - O is also the shape of a mouth open in prayer and praise, perhaps it is also the shape of an open mind. It is also the shape Mary's belly increasingly takes on as the word becomes flesh within her.
The focus of the antiphons is as follows:
Sapientia - Wisdom
Adonai - Ruler
Radix - Root
Clavis - Key
Oriems- Rising Dawn
Rex - King
Emmanuel - God with us
O God of wisdom, teach me to wait ... to be still ... to listen and be attentive to your voice so that I too may become a bearer of your word.
Last year the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance launched a wonderful Advent calendar with Bible readings and meditations for each day - you can click on the boxes on the sidebar of my blog to access the English version. But this year the meditations can be accessed and downloaded in five languages:
The German development agency Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) has celebrated 50 years in Berlin. The first advent collection called Bread for the World was initially seen as a one off for a famine in India- but it raised 14.5 millions Marks in West Germany and 4 million Marks in East Germany. At an event in Berlin which ended with drumming from the Drummers of Burundi, the general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, Mvume Dandala, spoke for the 'worldwide ecumenical fellowship' and urged agencies in the North to support the peoples of the South in their struggle for justice.
It is not surprising given my complete unsportiness that the first time I get invited to play blog tag, I'm too dozey, unfit and stressed out to even notice! I never was all that good at tag even in the play ground. Anyway the splendid and irrepressible David Ker over on Lingamish has launched a great challenge to write a credo in the 140 signs you get for a Twitter post. So far late at night in my dozey state I've managed one in English and one in French.
As I was doing this I began to wonder whether I believe rather differently when I'm thinking in French ... this was quite a challenging thought - I think I believe God is "tout en tout" more than I believe God is "all in all" - tout en tout means something to me at a more profound level. Also the idea of God being "le tout Autre" is something more difficult to express in English. So these two versions are not translations just attempts at saying something I believe in each language.
Anyway the rules of the meme are to link to David's post and to tag five more people so I tag Roger Schmidt (and anyone else on the LWF youth blog who wants to join in), Georgina, Annie, Rachel and Lac19 (I'm not allowed to link to his blog because ... well it's complicated but hey that's life). And I think folk should write in whatever language they like, David even allows sms language so go for it!
Meanwhile David has now moved on to encouraging folk to take the Beliefomatic test on belief net. Not sure that I found it that edifying myself but tests are quite fun - we somehow hope to discover something about ourselves.
Before giving you my Twitter credo I should admit that every time I have tried to sign up for it I have failed miserably. If you have any tips on that then do let me know - maybe it's the converted Azerty keyboard ...
I believe in God
all in all
Eternal compassion, wisdom and judgement
Incarnate and risen amongst us
to love one another
care for creation
Je crois en Dieu
Tout en tout
et tout autre
Compassion , sagesse et jugement
Incarné et réssucité parmi nous
Il nous appelle à oeuvrer pour un royaume de paix et de l’amour
Saturday, 29 November 2008
December marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the French composer Olivier Messiaen (December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992). To mark the anniversary, Dr B writes from the German capital, the Berlin radio station RBB organized a concert at the Watergate, a scene club venue next to the Spree on what was the border between East and West Berlin, with spectacular views of the river and the brick gothic Oberbaumbrücke bridge. Philippe Jordan and members of the Staatskapelle Berlin performed Messiaen's "Quatuor pour la fin du Temps" (Quartet for the end of time), a musical setting of the Book of Revelation. Jordan pointed out that Messiaen was "extremely Christian, or better put, Catholic" in his outlook. The choice of the piece was not accidental for it was written in German POW camp, and the rather unusual choice of piano, violin, cello, and clarinet,was constrained by the fact that having been taken a prisoner of war at Verdun after the fall of France in 1940, these were the only musicians he could find in the camp at Görlitz in eastern Germany where he composed the piece - first performed before 5000 prisoners of war and prison guards. The piece is a musical setting of the Book of Revelation, but the "end of time" also refers to Messiaen's use of time in his choice of rhythm and harmony, and maybe also the situation in which he was composing. Messiaen wrote that the first two parts of the piece describe the Angel, who in the Book of Revelation will appear to announce the End of Time, a towering figure straddling the earth, one foot on the sea, the other on land. The Angel of Time appears once more in the seventh section.Overwhelming as the Angel is, Messiaen sees colours and vibrations, for the End of Time is not negative, but leads to metaphysical union with concepts beyond time and space, which in the Book of Revelation means oneness with God (hat tip to classical iconoclast).
Friday, 28 November 2008
I received my first Christmas card today, this rather sweet picture of rather fat nuns skating. It came from a lovely woman who sends me a card every year since I took her husband's funeral, over ten years ago. Her card reminds me what a privilege it is to be involved in people's lives at times of joy and tragedy like this. It humbled me too, to be remembered. It's easy to forget the impact you can have on the lives of others. Her husband's funeral was a joyous, weepy, jazz and sadness personal event. I can still remember his face from the photos she showed me.
Her card to mark Christ's incarnation reminds me how powerfully the gospel speaks to us in times of personal tragedy. Being able to remember a funeral with thankfulness and joy says something too about resurrection.
This is how this year's liturgy opens:
“Nobody dies of AIDS anymore”. This is the dangerous perception in rich parts of the world.
Some claim that AIDS is just another chronic illness that one lives with. But there is another reality.
Leader 1: According to UNAIDS, every 15 seconds someone in the world dies of an AIDS-related illness.
Leader 2: We may not know their names, or their histories. We may not know their joys, or their dreams.
Leader 1: But they die. They keep on dying.
They keep on dying, dying.
Leader 2: When no one weeps for them, God weeps.
Leader 1: Every 15 seconds God weeps for someone dying of illnesses related to AIDS.
Leader 2: We pray that God remembers those we don’t know how to remember.
Leader1 : We mark the time with a bell, each death -- happening at this moment.
Leader 2: We worship the Blessed Trinity, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The wonderful thing about showing people around the ecumenical centre is that I get to learn new things. Yesterday Ana Vilanueva from the World YWCA told the group of women I was showing around about the cross pictured here and I realised that the true story of Maria Christina Gomez made the rather general "this is a cross from El Slavador with a woman on it..." seem pretty tame.
Ana was with the delegation from the WCC which recieved the cross in the early 1990s and she also spoke movingly of the incredible solidarity work that women from the churches around the world had understaken at the time to make sure that women in prison in El Salvador not be forgotten.
Her telling the story made me realise how very poor our oral traditions ar in the West we forget to even pass on some of the most passionate stories. Interestingly it's a story about women too that has been forgotten, a relatively recent one at that.
I'll add more to this post in coming days but here's an extract from Wikipedia:
A member of Emmanuel Baptist church in San Salvador, Gómez was a national leader both of Baptist women and in the teachers' union. She was a founder of the National Coordination of Salvadoran Women (CONAMUS), an organization of women founded in 1986. Since then, CONAMUS has addressed the issues which directly affect poor women in El Salvador, including domestic violence and rape, economic survival, lack of political participation, and social inequality. In 1989 CONAMUS opened a clinic to respond to women who were victims of domestic violence and rape.
According to witnesses, heavily armed men dressed in civilian clothing forced Gómez into a car when she returned from the John F. Kennedy School in Ilopango. An hour later, she was pushed alive from a car, in front of hundreds of witnesses near a cemetery in Antigua Cuscatian, on the outskirts of San Salvador. Four shots were fired at her and she died immediately.
On examination, her body showed signs of torture and burns most likely caused by chemicals such as acid. The murdered teacher had been taken from an area that was the operational base for the Salvadoran Air Force. General Juan Rafael Bustillo, the then head of the Salvadoran Air Force, has been implicated in the murder. The National Association of Salvadoran Educators (ANDES) has stated that Bustillo had publicly threatened Gomez on previous occasions.
Full article here.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Since December 2000, a new Christmas tradition has been taking shape: sending peace messages to people in Bethlehem. Once again, individuals, communities, churches and congregations, organisations and partners from across the world are invited to e-mail Advent and Christmas wishes and prayers for justice and peace to Bethlehem. This year, the project is being carried out in collaboration with the World Council of Churches and its Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF).
Wishes and prayers will be printed and handed out as personal messages, educational materials (e.g. at schools), and in the context of interfaith prayers (in places of worship) and in the newly established peace house of the Arab Educational Institute opposite the Israeli "separation wall" at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. The wishes and prayers could also include ideas for non-violent actions. The action will be launched at the beginning of Advent.
Sending a wish or a prayer by e-mail is an important way of communicating with many people who long to hear a word of hope. People in Bethlehem greatly appreciate receiving wishes and prayers from people outside the region, both as personal and spiritual gestures of comfort and hope on the occasion of Christmas. These messages are one way of breaking through the isolation they live in.
Please e-mail your Christmas messages and prayers for peace before the 25th of December 2008 (Western Christmas) and/or the 7th of January 2009 (Eastern Christmas). While English is the preferred language, non-native English speakers may also send wishes and prayers in their mother tongue. Messages can be e-mailed to the Arab Educational Institute at the following address: email@example.com
As part of the Decade to Overcome Violence the WCC is organizing a series of "Living Letters" visits. Currently my coleague Henrik Hansson is in Pakistan with the living letters delegation. You can read the blog they're doing here.
Coming home on the bus one night this week I noticed that the floral garden display in Grand Saconnex seemed to be lit up and at a strange angle. In daylight it became obvious that an Advent calendar has been built above the flower bed and that it will light up in some way - at the moment light just glows intriguingly through the gaps between the unopened doors. Once the camera comes back from being with the Stranzblog's roving reporter in Berlin I'll try to take a photo of it.
In the meantime here is a photo of a brilliant idea from Hove of Advent beach huts (hat tip to Maggi Dawn for this).
Next week sees the launch of our most ambitious project yet - the world premiere of The Advent Beach Hut Calendar. All along the Hove seafront from the border with Brighton up to the Hove Lagoon there are some 440 beach huts and it occurred to us a year ago that opening their doors was rather like opening the doors on an advent calendar to reveal a piece of chocolate and a suprise picture. We've been able to recruit beach hut owners who are prepared to open their hut for an hour between 5.30pm and 6.30pm at some point during the month and to create a display themed around a Christmas Carol. Some hut owners who weren't able to do a display have been teamed up with local artists and a theatre company who are going to put on something on their behalf.
We hope that this will get the whole community here in Brighton & Hove talking about advent and what it means to look forward to the birth of Christ on Christmas Day.
We will be posting photos and comments from each opening here on the blog as often as possible throughout the month so please come by and see what we're doing and take part in this advent event.
BEYOND is an opportunity for people to explore spirituality through a variety of creative approaches. The aims of BEYOND are: • To help people to a deeper understanding of spirituality through the arts and other creative activities. • To explore non-traditional ways of being Christian. • To be a resource for church people who wish to further explore their relationship with God.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
This is a 'bonmot' of Voltaire that forms the refrain of the latest song - Voltaire-Chanson by Wolf Biermann, the East German singer who was forced into exile and deprived of his GDR citizenship in 1976, Dr B writes from Berlin. 'That which touches the heart is engraved in the memory.' The sentiment chimed with the reason for the concert, which took place during a two day conference preparing for the 20th anniversary of 1989 on, 'The peaceful revolution, the opposition and the Socialist Unity Party'. The conference has brought together academics, researchers and activists involved in the citizens' movements and political parties. The concert took place at the Langenbeck Virchow Haus. This was the first seat of the East German parliament and it was where Wilhelm Pieck was elected the first president of the GDR in 1949. It is also the place where the founding assembly of the New Forum citizens' movement took place during the peaceful revolution. Biermann wrote his latest song to mark the ceremony on 7 November at which he was presented (several decades late) with his graduation certificate from the Humboldt University. The Stasi had instructed the university back in GDR times not to give Biermann the certificate, but not to destroy it either. The conference itself is a reminder of the immense courage of the people who took to the streets in East Germany in 1989 to demand change, not knowing whether or not the government was planning a 'Chinese solution' and suppress the uprising by force, as well as the daily harrassment many of the activists had to ensure.
Monday, 24 November 2008
Natalie Maxson put together a reflection on the theme of Christ the King for our Monday morning worship today. It inclued a great rap version of Psalm 100 from The Word on the Street, by Rob Lacey. At it's centre was a wonderful pas de deux in place of a sermon. Watching the two dancers pushing, pulling and being pushed by each other, I was struck by how we read judgement as God pushing us around, whereas the end of the dance seemed to be more about judgement freeing us to live in right relationship.
We listened to a powerful reading of the parable of the great judgement from Matthew 25:31-42 and then watched our two young colleagues struggling with judgement and one another, pushing ourselves to try and do the right thing, handing over judgement to God, being set free to live in the Spirit ... as I watched I thought about Jacob wrestling with God. It also spoke to me deeply about how difficult it is to make the right decision, to live in right relationship, to visit those in prison, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry ...
This was part of our intercessory prayers:
Loving God, You push us to go the extra mile when it's difficult to smile,
You push us, to be better versions of ourselves
and to see the other point of view
You push us when there's nothing else to do
You push us when we think we know it all, when we stumble and we fall…♫
You can find the full liturgy here.
The Conference of European Churches has launched an essay competition for young people the theme is: Called to One Hope in Christ: The relevance of Hope in Europe Today.
So if you're under thirty and have hopes for the future and for the here and now, start writing, start hoping and encourage others to as well, full details here. Closing date February 15th.
Sunday, 23 November 2008
If you click on the book cover above it will open to show you some of the paintings and writings
by my friend and former calligraphy teacher Sophie Verbeek:
"Promenade d'écriture végétale" ~ Recueil de textes et d'aquarelles.
It's a lovely book and you can order copies here.
The book proves that Sophie is not only a talented artist with brush and pen but that she's also
got a wonderful way with words.
Saturday, 22 November 2008
I woke up this morning with rather surprising thoughts going through my head about why, even in the current financial crisis, unbridled free-market capitalism is so rarely identified and criticised as an ideology. Perhaps we all feel we have a stake in it, and are too busy buying things and thinking about buying things to be creative enough to come up with alternatives. Of course saying "we" in that way is actually ridiculous - there are milions, billions even, who pay for this system with lives lived in unremitting and degrading poverty.
Then I came across this post by Scott Stephens on Faith and Theology. Scott ends his post with these challenging questions and convictions:
While we hope and pray that those in positions of influence will find a just and effective response to the current credit contraction, should we not also reflect on our own indulgence in the greed and uncontrolled lifestyles that have brought us to this point? Shouldn’t we hope that out of this comes a rediscovery of a keen sense of the common good, and of new forms of community that nurture the virtues that have long since seemed to disappear from our society?
The onus, then, is on the church – not merely to pray in some benign way that God would mollify the effects of this financial crisis, but really to constitute that alternate form of community. To give the formation of Christian virtue and Christlike generosity priority over misguided “stewardship” (which so often is ecclesiastical code for white-knuckled miserliness). To have the courage to tell our congregations that participation in the Body of Christ means wanting less, using less, wasting less, so that we can distribute more. To embrace those sacramental resources that have been entrusted to us to keep us faithful to our calling, and which themselves enact a radically different kind of economics to that of corpulent capitalism.
There are also some good insights in the comments on the post which are also well worth reading. Here are extracts from just two.
This from Drew Tatusko's comment:
I am reading Brink Lindsey's book The Age of Abundance. There the primary argument focuses around the shift in free market economies from producing subsistence needs to producing desire. When we live in a corporate culture that produces desire, it creates inequities and political fractures that are ideological in nature.
And this from Kim Fabricius:
We are theologically spoiled for choice for reasons to reject capitalism as incompatible with Christian faith. D. Stephen Long summarises three of them: "Gutiérrez's opposition to capitalism rests on a social-scientific analysis of reality. Milbank anathematizes capitalist exchanges because of the heretical positions that give rise to them and which they perpetuate. MacIntyre opposes capitalism because of its historical performance when measured against the norms of faithful practice." Drew refers to Lindsey's (presumably) Augustinian critique of capitalism as an engine of the libido dominandi (I haven't read the book). McCabe enlists the support of Aquinas in pillorying capitalism's intrinsic indifference to the common good. As a pacifist, I'd put it like this: capitalism is the continuation of war by other means.
So why not add your reflections and creative ideas. Has the ideology of capitalism really been broken by the cross of Christ, is a new theology of money and economics beginning to emerge, who controls that theological debate, what space do we allow for theological models from the developing world?
A woman, a mother, regularly writes a journal. On a Friday morning she ends a short entry with a word in her mother tongue that translates as "blessings". Later that day she will learn that as she was writing that beautiful word her son was already dead.
Two weeks later at his memorial she speaks with composure and conviction of God's presence in the grief, questions and anger ...
And so we prayed over the family and the minister sang a Celtic blessing over them and gradually we all joined in.
Life is fragile, tragic and blessed.
When I die ...
Hold me in your lap and take me home;
Undress my tired and human body
And tell me stories until I sleep.
Give me your dreams to play with
Until I am born again in a day that you know.
Friday, 21 November 2008
Our friend Simon Barrow has an interesting piece in this week's New Statesman (Our household tends to always be reading th NS at least a week late because of the post) on the Church in the Credit Crunch.
When the archbishops of Canterbury and York started to sermonise on short-term greed and the failures of market, they were embarrassed to discover that the Church had been playing the system in pretty much the same way as everyone else.
Meanwhile the issue of the NS I'm reading on the bus in the mornings has a good article by James Buchan on the radical reform needed in the banking sector. about 10 year ago he wrote "Frozen Desire: an inquiry into the Meaning of Money" and the title set me thinking.
One of the tags on my blog is meaning of life and the course we use to teach the young people catechism is called "un sens à ta vie" a meaning to your life.
So what is it that gives meaning to life? Money? Possessions? Security? Music? A new Ipod? People? Recognition?
For me I know that over the years my attitude to money has changed, it has become more important for me personally as the society I live in became more obsessed with it. For any member of the clergy that is a pretty shocking admission I feel.
Does money have more meaning in my life than God? I think the problem is that somewhere along the line I like so many others have come to equate money with recognition.
As Simon says in the NS article above "The founder of Christianity once pointed out that “where your treasure is, there is your heart also”.
Thursday, 20 November 2008
We've been wine tasting the Beaujolais nouveau round the corner at the splendid Cave vins de France. It was fun and a meeting place for local characters and old friends. I particularly liked the white primeur Colombelle from Gascony. But at home we're now drinking a bottle of the BEaujolais pictured here. Strangely the only place to find a picture of it was at this Japanese blog. Even this seemed to fit in rather well with life in Ferney Voltaire as tonight saw the opening of the Made in Sushi bar just opposite the Cave vins de France. You can find an English machine translation of the Japanese site here, strangely bits of it sound like Dutch.
This came to mind looking at this week's New Statesman which has this headline on the last page: "On his deathbed Keynes revealed his only regret: 'that I did not drink more champagne'"
Musing on this I realised that the translation into French of champagne socialist is "la gauche caviar". "La gauche" - the left - is always a more powerful cry in French politics than the word socialist. Given the current débâcle in the French Parti socialiste this is perhaps not surprising. I spent parts of my student years trying to draw charts of the splits, unions and amalgamations that made up the parti socialiste, it's not easy to understand!
Anyway today is the day that the party votes between three candidates to see who will succeed François Hollande as first secretary.
No doubt the successful candidate - given the state of the party I hardly dare call them lucky - will toast victory with a glass of the bubbly stuff.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
This Sunday is "stir up Sunday" in Church of England and in some other parts of the Anglican communion. the name comes from the collect or prayer for the day:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is also the Sunday of Christ the King in the post Vatican II liturgical year in the Roman Catholic Church. For German Protestants it is Totensonntag or Ewigkeitssonntag - Eternity Sunday when those who have died are remembered. For the Western church this Sunday marks the end of the church year, the last Sunday before Advent.
My creative colleagues in the worship office of the WCC have brought out some wonderful online resources for Advent this year, called "Imagine Peace".
You can listen to the music specially written at a workshop in Cuba for the project, you can also download pdfs of the scores of the songs which have words in various langauges.
The liturgical material is also really good, with worship outlines for the four Sundays of Advent, and meditations on the theme of peace. We particularly enjoyed translating the one by Elsa Tamez, which conentrates on the sense of smell but there are excellent short pieces by Gerald West and Margartha Hendricks-Ririmasse amongst others.
You can download the full booklet and the liturgies will also be available in French and German before too long.
So will you be imagining peace this Advent or will you be too busy with end of year and pre-Christmas stress? Take some time out for the coming of the Prince of Peace.
All the material is also produced under a creative commons licence - in itself an imaginative and peaceful sign.
First Sunday in Advent
Second Sunday in Advent
Third Sunday in Advent
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Here's more information on Imagine Peace from the WCC website:
"Imagine: Peace" contains suggestions for services on the four Sundays in Advent. It is the first part of a collection of worship material from different regions of the world for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation 2011.
The bible meditations are invitations to reflect on biblical aspects of peace and overcoming violence. The texts and songs of peace may also be used in contexts other than the Advent season or church services.
Let them feed your imagination and get your own ideas flowing. We particularly hope that you will adapt this material to your own context. Be creative and let the Spirit lead you.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
"It is nowhere forbidden to laugh or to eat one's fill or gain new possessions or enjoy oneself with musical instruments or drink wine."
On Monday evening we got to see the originals of Bridget Dommen's calligraphy of Calvin quotes that are in the 2009 Calvin calendar for the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth next year. The originals are all beautifully framed and there are also cards of the different quotes available. The exhibition is on in the entrance foyer of the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva until Christmas.
It's all part of an attempt to try to reclaim Calvin from the prejudices about him which have grown up over the centuries.
At the "vernissage" - which is the wonderful French word for an opening night of an exhibition, meaning a varnishing, as in the varnishing of oil paintings - Douwe Visser, spoke both wittily and powerfully about the impact of Calvin's actual words - he even said he saw Calvin as his liberator.
When our communications secretary John Asling asked me last week to say in two sentences why the Theology Office of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches is doing an exhibition on Calvin, I had to think hard. Of course, it is obvious that the World Alliance of Reformed Churches has something with Calvin, especially in the Calvin09 year when the 500th anniversary of his birthday will be commemorated. No one can claim ownership of Calvin but as the largest global organisation in the tradition of John Calvin the World Alliance of Reformed Churches will most certainly be involved in this Calvin09 year. But still: why this exhibition?
Well, personally I see Calvin as my liberator. He made my Sunday life much happier. Let me explain. As a kid I grew up in a very orthodox reformed family in the Netherlands. Sunday life was going to church twice, in the morning and in the afternoon. No outdoor activities were allowed, except a short walk. I was a keen soccer player but to play that on Sunday was definitely not allowed. And oh how boring was that long, long day. The soccer ball in my room became so attractive. Yes my friend next door, he could play soccer on Sunday but he was Roman Catholic and my father used to say, that they could confess their sins and could continue after that as they liked. Well, I was prepared to confess all my sins if only I could go and play outside. But then on one of those Sundays the word of liberty came. Right from the pulpit in our church. It was during an afternoon service when our minister preached about the fourth commandment, about the Sabbath. He told the congregation in his sermon that we should not be too strict on Sunday because John Calvin himself in 16th century Geneva was now and then sailing in his boat on Sunday! This was a word for me. A word of salvation! The name John Calvin would be forever in my memory. And after the service I asked my mother whether she had listened well to the service. Of course she had. And oh how wonderful were the days when the word of the preacher still had great authority: the Sunday regime in our house became less strict. Thanks to John Calvin, sailing on the Geneva Lake.
You can read the full text of Douwe's speech here. Douwe works at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches as secretary for Theology and Ecumenical Engagement.
:: 2009 Calvin calligraphy calendar, price 15 Swiss francs (10 francs for orders of more than five copies), available from WARC, 150 route de Ferney, PO Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland, Fax: +41 22 791 6505, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Order online at: http://warc.jalb.de/warcajsp/
Companion God, you travel through life with us.
Alert us to your presence in ecstasy, insight, and devastation.
Transforming God, you make all things new.
Inspire us with discontent with the way things are.
We also sang Sidney Carter's splendid "One more step along the world I go" and the lovely German canon "Ausgang und Eingang".
Monday, 17 November 2008
Tuesday last week saw the launch of a short series of lunchtime library conversations. Theodore Gill got us started with a brilliant lecture called "So who was John Calvin?"
Theo began by showing us some of the cartoons of Calvin you can find in the Calvindrier that The Protestant Church of Geneva has published for the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.
So, who was John Calvin? La Vie Protestante, the magazine of the EPG or Protestant Church of Geneva, offers us one answer to the question. As the headline of this month’s editorial tells us, Calvin was Ni un Saint, Ni un Tueur – neither a saint nor a cold-blooded killer. It seems a rather negative assertion – attempting to explain what he was not, and quite defensively, rather than who he was. I prefer to commence in a different way…
I advance the proposition that John Calvin was very much a creature of the sixteenth century – a product of the high middle ages as they intersected with renaissance, a humanistic scholar whose academic concentrations had been in the fields of classical literature and law. But the basis of all education in those days was theology, and it was to this discipline that Calvin returned in earnest after he had completed his studies at the Collège de Montaigu in the University of Paris and made his way to the city of Basel.
The concomitant point I’m trying to make is that we are not creatures of the sixteenth century, not even the most Reformed among us, nor the most Lutheran or Anglican or Mennonite or Unitarian or Jesuitical. Our post-Enlightenment orientation and assumptions are so different from those of Parisians in the 1530s or Genevans of the 1550s that we do well to put a historical spin on the injunction, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” We lack the existential basis for judging 16th-century ancestors in the faith. To know John Calvin, much less to render judgment, we first would have to borrow a page from C.H. Dodd and enter into that alien era of Calvin, and Farel, and de Bèze, and Servetus, so as to live ourselves into its strangeness, and then return to our present. This is not likely to happen over one lunchtime, but let us try to go a few steps of the way.
The lecture was a birlliant reumé of Calvin's life and theology. Now you too can benefit from our lunchtimes in the library. The podcast and full lecture can be found on the website of the Ecumencical Centre Library (click on the links), and you can browse their site for other nuggets of fascianting information, a truly wonderful resource.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
Thanks to Dave Walker on the Church Times Blog for pointing to this interesting lecture by Father Christopher Jamison on the Operation Noah site. You can read the full lecture here.
You can also read about how to participate in operation Noah's reclaim Christmas day here.
So my first proposal this evening is that the debate about the physics of climate change must be accompanied by a debate about the metaphysics of climate change. We need rules and laws aimed at reducing climate change but they will not be enough. If we are to move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on people's motivation to do the right thing, then our culture will need to rediscover the reality of metaphysics.
Metaphysics can refer to a particular branch of philosophy but the word 'metaphysics' means literally 'what comes after the physics' and that is the meaning I'm using this evening
The first metaphysical port of call for a modern person facing a public issue is the human rights agenda. Most people today believe in human rights; they are the great metaphysical success of the modern era. Contemporary discussions about right and wrong usually revolve around human rights. So, for example, discussions about the end of life cluster around the right to die and discussions about gender cluster around women's rights. The development of human rights has succeeded in creating a framework within which to address many issues and the benefits have been enormous.
The human rights approach has, however, not provided a framework within which to address environmental issues. It has been noted for many years that there are human rights implications flowing from climate change, as people lose the means to live healthy lives in some countries. The human rights perspective helps us to measure the impact of climate change but it does not help us to remove its causes.
I love the German word Alltag, but it's not always easy to translate. Daily grind is one possibly, everyday life another. Alltagsgeschichte could be history of everyday life or history from below or history of the people - depending on the context.
I thought of this word one evening in the week, coming home too late from the daily grind there was a hand-delivered envelope waiting for me.
It was a simple note from a former parishioner who I never knew all that well when I was her minister. She said some kind things. It had obviously cost her alot of emotion to write - the note had two dates on it ...
Looking back at the week I realise how easy it would be for me to forget the letter, because of the daily grind, because it's easier to dwell on awful, difficult and desperately sad things, or on my own feelings of guilt or inadequacy about everything I have not managed to do or be.
Receiving a beautiful letter like that is rare, a call to lift my nose from the grindstone and celebrate both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of our wonderful human existence.
Sometimes I feel unexpectedly blessed.
Saturday, 15 November 2008
I realised how at home I am in that sort of work and how good it is for me to be able to have some roots in the local context. I think I came home feeling at peace because I felt at home in my church and in the way it encourages young people to discover God for themselves without forcing or insisting. I felt we were helping them discover their own tentative language of faith and prayer.
Perhaps it also helped that we tried to learn how to juggle with tangerines in our lunch break!
I came home feeling gentle contentment and a sense of connection with God, people and the place I live.
Friday, 14 November 2008
Thanks to the Ecumenical Women at the United Nations blog for drawing attention to this documentary.
In Liberia, thousands of women—ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters, both Christian and Muslim—came together to pray for peace, armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions.
Winner of Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, the film PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL chronicles the remarkable story of the courageous Liberian women who came together to end a bloody civil war and bring peace to their shattered country. A story of sacrifice, unity, and transcendence, Pray the Devil Back to Hell honours the strength and perseverance of the women of Liberia, and is a compelling testimony of how grassroots activism can alter the history of nations.
This remarkable film shows us a faith-filled example of how powerful peacemakers can be when they join together.
Look out for when it may be showing somewhere near you or maybe see if you can organize a screening as part of an interreligious event.
You can also watch an extract here:
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Securing water for all: a job for heroes with a licence to pray?
In the latest James Bond movie, which hit the screens in Europe last week, the villain seeks to control the "earth's most precious resource".
World cinema's most famous spy is back and this time he fights a villain trying to control strategic water resources in a developing country. Is the script of the latest James Bond movie too far fetched a fictional plot?
"Control over water translates more and more into profit and power," says Maike Gorsboth, the coordinator of the Ecumenical Water Network, an initiative of churches, Christian organizations and movements working on people's access to water and on community-based solutions to the water crisis. In the following interview, Gorsboth speaks to Annegret Kapp about water as a human right – and about how cinema and reality may have more in common than we think.
In the latest James Bond movie, which hit the screens in Europe last week, the villain is seeking to control the "earth's most precious resource" in a developing country. How realistic is the idea of a mafia gaining control over a country's water supply?
Already today we are witnessing struggles over the control of water supply and resources. With water scarcity increasing and demand for water rising steadily in many countries around the world, control over water translates more and more into profit and power. Companies are buying water rights and land in order to secure their access to water resources. Often they do not care much about the rights of communities or environmental consequences and deplete and pollute this precious resource.
So, in a way the idea of the movie is not as far fetched as one might wish. However, one of the problems is exactly that, while corruption does play a major role in the water sector, what is happening is often not illegal. Legal provisions ensuring public control and regulating private ownership and use of water resources are in too many cases lacking or insufficient.
If water should become more precious than oil in the future, it may be a concern for secret services. But why is "water for all" something the churches should worry about?
Without adequate access to water, human dignity is harmed and development impossible. And those who suffer most from missing and unequal access to clean water are the poorest. Now, this is not simply an inevitable result of physical water scarcity. This is about political, social, and economic factors determining who gets water and who does not. That makes it an ethical concern, a matter of justice.
James Bond, of course, tackles the problem gun in hand. What kind of action do churches take?
In the movie the villain almost succeeds because he is working in secret and because he uses other people's greed and corruption. Churches around the world are raising awareness and are educating people about what is happening, warn of the danger of privatizing the very source of life. They speak up for the poor and most vulnerable and thus help them to defend their right to water against more powerful interests. And they counter the tendency to reduce water to an economic commodity by reminding people and authorities alike of the social and spiritual value of water.
WCC interview by Annegret Kapp
Prayer and action go hand in hand, find out more about the Ecumenical Water Network here and get involved in praying and taking action for better access to water where you live and around the world.
"I know one husband and wife who, whatever the official reasons given to the court for the break up of their marriage, were really divorced because the husband believed that nobody ought to read while he was talking and the wife that nobody ought to talk while she was reading."
"Meek wifehood is no part of my profession; I am your friend, but never your possession."
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
And there are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.
But these were men of mercy,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their bodies were buried in peace,
and their name lives to all generations.
This is the quotation below the dedication in memory of her fiancé and brother at the beginning of Vera Brittain's memoir of the the first world war, Testament of Youth.
In 1979 the BBC dramatised the book, with Cheryl Campbell playing Vera Britain. I was 15 years old and so as not to have to wait a week until the next episode I bought the book - which in the end meant I wept once when reading and then again when watching on the tv. Thirty years later the book remains a key influence and Vera Brittain a huge inspiration.
Her daughter, Shirley Williams (now Baroness Williams of Crosby) writes this in her preface to the 1977 edition:
"The books, the poetry, the artifacts of those four and a half years still speak to young men and women who were not even born when the Second World War ended.
Why are we so haunted? I think it is because of the terrible irony of the War; the idealism and high-mindedness that led boys and men in their hundreds of thousands to volunteer to fight and, often, to die; the obscenity of the square miles of mud, barbed wire,
My own picture of the War was gleaned from my mother. Her life, like that of so many of her contempories who were actually in the fighting or dealing with its consequences, was shaped by it and shadowed by it. It was hard for her to laugh unconstrainedly; at the back of her mind, the row upon row of wooden crosses were planted too deeply. Through her I learned how much courage it took to live on in service to the world when all those one loved best were gone: her fiancé first, her best friend, her beloved only brother. The only salvation was work, particularly the work of patching and repairing those who were still alive. After the war, the work went on - writing, campaigning, organising against war. My mother became a life-long pacifist. I still remember her in her seventies, determinedly sitting in a CND demonstration, and being gently removed by the police."
Today is the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War and this post will be made on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour. 20 million died in that war.
How many will die today in wars, in armed conflicts, as a result of small arms fire? Other than remembering are we doing anything about it? Or do we think buying a red poppy as a mark of remembrance excuses us from responsibility for doing something constructive for peace in our world today?
In Geneva I often think of Vera Brittain, many of the doors in in the UN buildings have ornate embossed handles with the initials of the league of nations, an institution I first came across when reading testament of Youth. The failure of that attempt at international cooperation led to the second world war. Our current failures at internationalism also lead to suffering and death for many in so many different parts of the world. Yet it is important to hold on to the value of working both locally and internationally.
To end with, here are two quotes from Brittain herself:
"All that a pacifist can undertake - but it is a very great deal - is to refuse to kill, injure or otherwise cause suffering to another human creature, and untiringly to order his life by the rule of love though others may be captured by hate."
"There is an abiding beauty which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are and who will ask for no reward except to see."
Monday, 10 November 2008
My great aunt Helene Stranz Hurwitz must have been quite a woman. She was the younger of my paternal grandfather's two older sisters. Maria Stranz Behrendt the older sister ended up emigrating to Argentina in 1939, aged 60.
Following the first world war Helene seems to have become very involved both in research and campaign work on the lives and rights of German war widows. The research was published in 1931 as Kriegerwitwen gestalten ihr Schicksal. Lebenskämpfe deutscher kriegswitwen nach eigenen Darstellungen. An earlier regional study was published with Ernst Behrend, who may have been her nephew - I really must try and find a proper family tree somewhere. What interests me about this now is that the study is very much about getting women to tell their own stories, a history from below project. I must try and dig through the books and papers I rescued from my aunt's house and see if I have a copy. Knowing this now - mainly thanks to the internet of course - I wonder if she was the one who in part inspired my father to study history. His own father and grandfather were both lawyers.
Helene and her husband, Hans, had just one child, a daughter, Else. Born in 1923 she was a year older than my father and a year younger than my aunt. The three cousins were very close as they all lived in Berlin. They developed their own language, speaking German backwards with clear but complex grammatical rules about stems of verbs being changed, "ch" tending to remain unreversed for pronunciation reasons, with endings also remaining unreversed while prefixes like "ge" would be inverted seperately - so egchrabt would be gebracht and chi would be ich. Within six months of arriving in Britain my Dad and his sister were doing the same with English. For a long time I thought that the German for toilet was olk ( it is klo) and that the German for robin (the red bird) was nibor (English backwards). As my brother and I didn't grow up bi-lingually understanding all of this was always a bit of a struggle in our childhood. I think everyone was a bit disappointed that we didn't seem to have inherited the speaking backwards thing.
Else never made it to England. She died suddenly in May 1936 of an infected cut which would after the war have been fairly easily treated with antibiotics.
Her parents emigrated to London less than a year later.
Quite apart from the public strictures against Jewish people and businesses, the family were also living through the private tragedy of the loss of an only child, a close cousin.
I have photos of Else in an album her parents made several copies of, for her two dear cousins as well as themselves and their parents. The card at the front celebrating Else's life simply says "auch die Knospe ist in sich Vollendung" - Even the bud is in and of itself completion.
There was no religious statement, no verse from Hebrew scripture on the card, and I wonder how Else's funeral took place in those difficult times. My great uncle and aunt were secular Jews and may not have felt comfortable asking for services from the local synagogue even in those circumstances. Sometime I really am going to have to try and go through the family archives I have saved and resolve some of these questions.
In his book Me and My Town, my father gives his aunt Helene the credit for securing the emigration of her brother's family to Britain. Since her own emigration the rules for entry into the UK had been tightened and refugees were only admitted on a transit basis (in my family's case supposedly the USA), and a person of substance had to be found as guarantor for each member of the family. Helene managed to bully Sir Stafford Cripps into being my Grandfather's guarantor - "My brother is a lawyer so are you ...", found places in Kathleen Freeman's "Welcome House" for her niece and nephew and got the Quakers to act as guarantor for my grandmother.
A grieving mother did all she could to find a safe home for her brother's family. She brought to it all of her campaigning and research skills, even in exile she was a doubty campaigner. I sometimes wonder whether the family would have escaped if Else had lived.
My grandparents lodged with Helene and Onkel Hans on arrival in London and my great grandmother later also joined them. Helene, who could not save her own daughter from terrible illness, saved three generations of the family.
I never met Helene, but through the bits and pieces that I'm beginning to learn about her life, I do feel as if I am beginning to get to know her a little.
Like her sister's and brother's sons, Helene suffered from Parkinson's disease at the end of her life. My father apparently recognised his own early symptoms because they reminded him of what he had seen her suffering from.
Thinking about her makes me realise by what a fragile thread any of us come to be born. Without feisty women and men like her, even more human lives would be lost to despots, bigots and genocide.
I also give thanks for her championing of the stories of people's everyday lives in the research on German war widows. Perhaps the best hommage I can pay is to try and find a copy of her work and read it. So if you have read Helene's work or know something about her life do get in touch, I'd love to know more.
Sunday, 9 November 2008
In the night between the 9 and 10 November 1938 the Gestapo arrived at my grandparents' flat in the working class secular Jewish suburb of Berlin Weissensee. My grandfather, a lawyer, was arrested and taken away to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He had become a Christian several decades earlier. My father and his sister had both not been allowed to attend school for some time. My grandparents had been on a voyage of discovery over the summer to the USA to see whether it would be possible for the family to move and settle there.
With the November Pogromm - or Kristallnacht - it became very clear to the family that they needed to leave but not without my grandfather.
Among the organisations my grandmother tried to get help from was what became known as the "Büro Grüber" - pastor Heinrich Grüber freely confesses in his memoirs both that he voted for Hitler because he felt Germany needed a "strong man" to get them out of the chaos of successive Weimar administrations and that he quickly realised what a wrong choice this had been. Grüber became part of the Confessing Church and the Büro Grüber helped Jewish families to emigrate, but only really those who were baptised - it was known in English as the Church Aid Office for Protestant Non-Aryans. Although this way of bearing witness now seems very partial, it nevertheless landed Grüber and others in prison.
A little more than six weeks after his arrest my grandfather was released, perhaps in part as a result of pressure from the Büro Grüber, particularly around Christmas and New Year. Many others were also released, Kristallnacht was a prelude to the so-called Final Solution, systematic genocide was not yet underway. Three months later in early April 1939 the family emigrated to Britain.
They got visas for Britain in part thanks to the work of my wonderfully feisty great aunt whose story I'm only now beginning to learn about. More in memory of Helene Stranz-Hurwitz soon.
My family were fortunate to be able to become refugees. So many throughout history were not.
Deirdre Good has also written about Kristallnacht quoting a good article from the New Statesman. You can also read the joint statement by the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Germany on the 70th anniversary.
Saturday, 8 November 2008
For proof that Obama's victory really is already having a profound effect look no further than Réforme which has even had headlines in English on its website this week - A President is born. This is unheard of. So those of you looking for a French translation of Obama's short interview in Time magazine from last July can find it here.
For several years now Le Monde has been offering a Saturday supplement from the New York Times in English. No guesses for what's in this week.
Meanwhile next week if you are in Paris next week you can attend a conférence débat on "Tomorrow a New America? Given the speakers the evening will be in French. Here are some more details:
Pour conclure notre série sur les Etats Unis et commenter les résultats de l'élection présidentielle, nous vous invitons à une conférence débat le 13 novembre 2008.
A partir de 20h 30, au temple de l'Oratoire du Louvre, Jean-Luc Mouton, le directeur de l'hebdomadaire "Réforme" animera ce débat qui s'annonce d'ores et déjà très intéressant.
Olivier Abel, philosophe et théologien, Denis Lacorne, historien et politologue, Etienne Leenhardt, chef du service étranger à France 2, Sébastien Fath, sociologue, Neal Blough, théologien, Marie Lefebvre-Billiez, envoyée spéciale de "Réforme" en Californie, Laurence Monroe, journaliste, seront les invités de cette soirée.
This week I received a copy of the booklet pictured opposite. On Tuesday colleagues from the World YWCA and World YMCA who helped to preapreit will lead prayers in the ecumenical centre chapel in Geneva. As well as containing meditations on different aspects of human rights, liturgies and prayers, it also includes a Bible reading plan for the year.
You can download it in English French and Spanish by clicking on this link.