Friday, 31 July 2009

A dignified end?

Dignitas - the Zurich based assisted suicide enterprise - has been much on the morning bbc radio news listened to as our household persuades itself to get out of bed in the morning. The Times has had two articles describing the rather tawdry and less than dignified surroundings some desperate people pay to end their lives in.
In the Pays de Gex a retired minister of the Genevan church has set up an association called "Le droit de mourir dans la dignité" - the right to die in dignity. This association has nothing to do with the way many people die in dignity, which is well-cared for in hospital on wards specialisng in palliative care. It promotes the "right" to assisted suicide. The retired colleague who set up this local branch likes to think it's his role to shock what he would term Roman Catholic ethical assumptions.

When I first arrived in France 18 years ago I was shocked to discover the lack of hospice care, it was the other side of excellent medical care, death and the end of life were seen by the medical profession as failure and unmentionable. I can think of one particularly tragic situation where the father of three teenage children had invasive and completely unnecessary surgery days before he died. So weak he could only say good bye to his family with his eyes and neither he nor they were really prepared for this goodbye. This has changed enormously in the past 15 years. However, in French the word "hospice" has negative overtones as the places poor people were sent to die - not quite the same visceral reaction as the word "work house" in Britian but similar. Palliative care, pain management and home nurses are much more part of what is on offer now. And Switzerland has an excellent reputation in palliative care, even if it becoming infamous at the moment for "death tourism".

Part of the palliative care movement's philosophy is that a good death feeds out into society. Does assisted suicide feed into society or does it rather feed off and increase people's fears?

Towards the end of my father's life I remember having an uncomfortable discussion with his doctor, saying that I hoped his notes included instructions about not to over-intervene to save his life in an emergency, given his very poor general health - my father had Parkinson's disease for over 20 years, my mother was not getting the support she needed in caring for him, my brother and I both lived a long way away. My father's doctor listened to me carefully - while writing out a prescription for some MS drugs for me - and said that he understood that I felt as I did. As I think back to that conversation I am so grateful that his response sent me back to my own feelings of helplessness and frustration at my father's desperate situation.
We are encouraged to feel that death is something to be feared and the ultimate loss of control in our control-obsessed cultures. What luxury to focus on the very few rich and frightened enough to chose when to end their own lives. Most of the world's population might like access to proper mosquito netting, decent basic health care, enough clean water and regular food - to say nothing of medication. The rich worry about how best to die with dignity, the poor may not be treated with much dignity in life.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

An interreligious summer evening barbecue

The closing ceremony for the Bossey Ecumenical Institute's third annual inter-religious summer school was held yesterday I was there interpreting for Geneva's former grand Rabbi Marc Raphael Guedj. It was a moving time which we ended with a rousing singing of "we are the world"
Some of the contributions from the participants really gave me hope for the future - an old cynic like me having hope for the future is really quite a concern ;-)
A wonderful pastor from the Assemblies of God in Nigeria gave a brilliant performance of why "it is possible" and not impossible for inter-religious dialogue and just simply dialogue to change the world. A young Palestinian and a young Jewish woman spoke quietly but passionately about their reservations about coming on the course and also the loneliness they felt, believing in peace but not always being able to act for peace in their communities, yet the hope they have for peace as they prepared to return home.
Guedj spoke of how important authentic rather than facade dialogue is in the building of real understanding and peace. Hafid Ouardiri from the Genevan Islamic community said how this month that participants had spent together helped to build community and encounter the other differently.
An old Hassidic story recounts that a Rabbi begins by wanting to change the world, gradually his ambition changes and he ends up realising that in order to change the world he must begin with himself. Each participant in the summer school had changed in the few weeks of deep encounter and so each had begun to change the world - holding on to this experience will be important as they move back to their own often quite conflictual and complex inter-religious contexts.
The evening ended with us all singing a rousing version of "we are the world" followed by a fabulous barbecue prepared by the Bossey kitchens.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Ten golden fingers ...

Ten golden fingers have sprouted on the land outside the Ecumenical Centre. The monumental sculpture « invitation/decalogue » was made by Romanian artist Liviu Mocan for the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth in Geneva. The sculpture was inaugurated today - 10 columns 4.5m high are set in a circle; the inside face of each column resembles a human finger, while the outer edge narrows to a vertical blade. The sculptor, Liviu Mocan, is a Baptist who was born in 1955 and he studied at the Fine Arts faculty in the University of Cluj. His public sculptures have been erected in Germany, the US, Egypt, Norway as well as in his native Romania. In his home city of Cluj, the artist was appointed to create a sculpture commemorating the martyrs of the 1989 uprising which overthrew communism. "I want this sculpture to create a positive feeling for people who come inside the circle, to enjoy nature, to enjoy art, to enjoy one another," explains Mocan. "The circle of columns also suggests a kind of limitation because real freedom is only found in the midst of clear borders - moral, spiritual, economic; outside these borders
we will finish in tragedy." At the "vernissage" he explained he saw a parallel between the ten commandments given by God and the ten fingers created on each hand. The Ten Commandments said Mocan should be seen as creating a space for freedom, something reflected in the space within the ten fingers. More information here.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The benefits of passion

I first read Catherine Fox's splendid book The Benefits of Passion about 10 years ago. Together with a good friend, who was living with and dying from cancer at the time, we became quite addicted to this and Fox's two other novels - Angels and Men and Love for the Lost.

I still live in hope that Ms Fox will return to writing these wonderful, meaningful novels but there hasn't been much on the novel front from her for years. I have this fear that parish life may have swallowed her up.
Anyway if you can get a second hand copy of any of her books I really recommend them. Food for the soul - really I suppose I just wish I had had the imagination and will power to write a book that is as fun and as meaningful as this.

Annie is training to be a priest but as her mind wanders during theological discussions and doubts emerge about her choice of career, she plots and writes a highly sexed novel about ... a novice priest and his flighty girlfriend.

Read about my friend Jet's Calvin rap

Youth rap with Calvin
A news feature from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches
John Calvin wore sun glasses and rapped his story to the tune of the popular music classic, "We will, we will rock you". Audience members, invited to write their own raps, produced comic songs about God's mission, Calvin's example and the singer's sense of calling.
There are voices which say that the church in Europe today is dying. But the energy and engagement on show at a recent youth event in Lyon, France - timed to coincide with the 13th Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) - exuded hope and expectation.
The eventdubbed Le Grand Kiff brought together some 1200 young people from France and abroad.(Kiffer means "to love something and find it cool.")
Organized by the Reformed Church of France, the youth programme (18-22 July) was designed as an introduction to the theme of the CEC Assembly: "Called to One Hope in Christ".
Five days packed with activities ranging from an exploration game in Lyon to rock concerts, film nights, group Bible studies and a wide variety of creative workshops, were geared to have this generation of 15-21 years express where they are vis-à-vis our planet, God, the church and themselves.
The programme included time for youth to explore opportunities to express solidarity with the world. Organizations like Scouting France, CIMADE, FAIR TRADE and OIKOCREDIT Lyon introduced themselves and their key themes through a range of simulation games and interactive workshops.

Notes on the dying, declining Church

Prodigal Kiwis do a great job at keeping me up to date with eclectic bits of theological reading. I like Paul Fromont's honest approach to non-churchgoing Christianity. The most recent post on the Declining Church resonated with me as I begin to recover and reflect on the experience of the CEC Assembly in recent weeks and wonder about the reality of church life in much of Europe.
Much of the post is taken up with quotes from Diana Butler-Bass and a recent article she has written here.
It's interesting reading reflections like this while serving a very different context, even if some of the concerns across the English-speaking world do also resonate this different cultural context. What particularly struck me in what Butler-Bass writes is the assertion that church is seen as "hypocritical". Though I sense that in the French context it is much more the search for meaning and identity than the desire for transformaiton that motivates those in the church I'm involved with. In what she writes there is much food for thought and challange for all of us involved in ministry in mainstream churches and on its margins. I suppose I feel challenged to dare to continue being creative and bearing witness.

...What is causing the erosion of Christianity in North America? Most North Americans look at Christianity--especially as embodied in religious institutions--and find it wanting. I suspect that Christianity is in decline because it appears both hypocritical and boring. Although young North Americans express deep longings for a loving, just, and peaceful world, they don't find an equal passion for transforming society in meaningful ways in most congregations. And, sadly, many churches simply lack the imagination and passion that many spiritual people are searching for. Folks aren't looking for answers nearly as much as they are trying to clarify their questions and are hungry for accepting communities in which to ask them
...we are looking for congregations, communities and denominations that put the pieces together--passionate, imaginative, open, justice-seeking, inclusive, and loving gatherings of faith that actually live, as Jimmy Carter put it, "the teachings of Jesus Christ."

Monday, 27 July 2009

Rowing in the storm and reaching land ...

At chapel this morning we read John 6.1-21 the story of the feeding of th 5,000 followed by the disciples rowing in the dark for miles on the lake and being terrified as they see Christ coming to them. Then as they invite Christ into the boat they reach land.
I preached a very brief 3 minute reflection, worthy not even of the word homily. I focused on the disciples rowing - in French if someone says to you "je rame" it doesn't normally mean that they are rowing but that they are having difficulties, involved in hard work and not making much progress. So there they were rowing for miles in the dark, in the gathering storm trying in their exhaustion to overcome their fear as they see Christ coming towards them. What interested me today was how as the disciples overcome their fear and try to encourage Christ into their boat they reach their destination ... where does he go? Is he now walking towards others who are making painful headway through dark storms of life?
Later at the liturgy after the liturgy in the cafeteria over coffee - after we had sung Brian Wren's wonderful Break the bread of belonging welcome the stranger in the land - some of us reflected on how the small boat speaks powerfully of what is going on at sea borders across the world as refugees flee terror to seek a better life. As I was speaking this morning I thought of a visit to an anti-slavery museum in the Caribbean and of the diagrammes there of slaves chained head to toe in the hulls of the ships. Those who reached the destination imposed on them could hardly be described as fortunate.
Christ has much to do walking on the troubled waters of our times, helping those at risk of drowning and exhaustion to reach dry land.

Sometimes things just work ...

Here in Europe it's holiday time so at work and in the chapel lots of people are away. Through the ecumenical prayer cycle we're praying for the countries and peoples of the Caribbean. We really had no idea who would be there, if anyone, but we decided to celebrate communion this morning - despite fears of swine flu - and to enjoy ourselves singing some things with great rhythm. Including Fred Kaan and Dorren Potter's Let us Talents and Tongues employ and the wonderful Sanctus and Benedictus that begins le lo le lo lay ... at one point we even had a bit of a steel band noise going. Our ad hoc choir are amazing folk!
It sort of just all came together and it's special when things work like that. Simple prayers for the people of Honduras and Fiji were offered during our intercessions and as we shared bread and wine we began singing a wonderful haleluja from the Caribbean. It was a invigorating way to start the week.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Talking the talk or walking the walk?

Way back when I started blogging (nearly two years ago) I was trying to not use air travel to see how long I could last out before professional and personal constraints made me take a plane. I managed just over two years. Cyprus was the first time I flew, last October - train would have taken me 4 days each way - and then things go quite airborne and I flew to Manchester and Liverpool in the first half of this year - though I also travelled to Rome and Bremen twice each by train.
My friend Simon Oxley (who used to have season tickets for both Servette and Manchester City and you cannot do that without some VERY serious air travel) has written a good post about air travel which ends "After all, who is going to take any lectures about climate change from air travel junkies?"
I've been thinking recently about how it is what organisations actually do that is a key part of their communication and Simon's post fitted in well with such thoughts. Meanwhile a comment on Simon's blog makes this suggestion about environmental accounting:

There is a way to deal with this of course and it's called environmental accounting. We're all used to the time that gets taken up at meetings with finance reports and accounts, not to mention the auditors who are checking the accounts. It's all very important of course as finance is a bedrock for any organization, and all organizations have a responsibility to ensure the money they hold in trust for others is appropriately and correctly used. But why is not an appropriate amount of time spent by governing bodies in their environmental audit of organizations? It doesn't mean stopping all travel or meetings of course - despite qualifying in a quiz as a "nerd" I firmly believe face-to-face meetings offer something that virtual teleconferencing never can. But it does mean asking whether travel/meetings are appropriately and correctly used for the world that an organization holds in trust for others - as well as the other potential sources of environmental irresponsibility - then having a proper strategy to deal with offsetting unavoidable environmentally-unfriendly activities: not by asking participants to consider making a donation to an organization, but by building this into the accounts and strategy of the organization as a whole. Of course people will complain that money for their pet project is "wasted" on such measures, but in years to come if we get that far people will look back and ask who anyone could have been so naive. And there is an additional add on bonus, as a genuinely environmentally-audited organization is then in a much better place to advise governments and others what they should do.
So do you walk the walk or talk the talk? I really must buy the worms for the wormery and stop using the tumble drier. I must also try to stand up for a more accountable approach to climate change within the organisations I work for - churches are good at talking the talk on this issue. Are we really willing to walk the walk?

Saturday, 25 July 2009

"Toi qui gardes le silence" a hymn from Switzerland

I first sang the hymn "toi qui gardes le silence" at a ministers' retreat on the French shores of lake Geneva. We were looking over the water in the evening to the Swiss Canton de Vaud which is where the hymn origintated. There are not many hymns in French which take up a theme of social responsibility or offer new images of God and I was immediately drawn to this hymn written by the Commission jeunesse of the Eglise réformée du Canton de Vaud. It has a wonderful minor key melody by Olivier Nusslé - no MP3 available anywhere I'm afraid, I'm going to have to try and record it sometime.
I'm writing about it today becuase I have at last had a chance to read through the hymnbook that was produced for the CEC assembly, Gloria Deo. A rather good English translation of Toi qui gardes le silence is included in it - done by Isabelle Bousquet and Karina Graham.
One of the problems with the ubiquity of English is that it is very often English-language culture that gets exported and this is also very often true of spirituality and of hymns - Graham Kendrick is more likely to get translated than Claude Fraysse or writers from another language or culture. (If you also don't like "Shine Jesus shine" just try singing one of the other language versions where the lingusitic triteness is shall we say often further enhanced by translation!) So I was pleased to see this small effort in the opposite direction.
I was also glad to see Federico Pagura's wonderful Tenemos esperanza in Gloria Deo. Bishop Julio Ernesto Murray the President of CLAI, the Latin American Council of Churches, sang a verse of the hymn at the end of his hope-filled address to the assembly. Unfortunately one of the few hymn books on general sale which has Tenemos esperanza in it is currently out print - Agape published by OUP is a great resource so here's hoping that they will reprint soon.
Meanwhile here's the last verse of Toi qui gardes le silence in English - not quite the same without the great music but here you go:

Your world calls us to commitment
For your cause Lord we strive
In a world disintegrating,
your love, reinvigorating,
makes us new. You are strong.
We will follow you, our song.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Getting older - ach Happiness!

There's no avoiding it, I'm getting older. As they say it's better than the alternative, but it's also not easy to change to grow older, slower, wiser (perhaps!), faster too at some things. Interestingly older translators are often better due to simply knowing the job and work, I think I'm not quite old enough to have reached that echelon but I am nevertheless old enough to be getting older - if you see what I mean. I experience the problems but not yet the benefits!
For my birthday earlier this month a friend gave me Ach Glück by Monika Maron.
In 1987, when she was probably younger than I am now I heard Maron give a public reading from one of her works at the East Berlin Kirchentag. She moved to the West just a year before the wall came down. I haven't read the book yet but it seems from the blurb to be about the limitedness of human life. I wonder how I shall like it once I make the time to read it. I also wonder about how I shall reflect on a book which is about how we can only do some things we want to do and link that to Grace Jantzen's ideas of us being natals rather than mortals.
What would a novel of the endless birth of life look like I wonder, would I ever be able to write a hopeful novel of that kind? Or would I too be more drawn to how mortal our existence is, how short and limited life is if I wrote fiction? I hope not, but I'm not sure I have enough imagination to dream up a novel of natality. Perhaps though in some ways Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful novel Prodigal Summer does that - even though she has probably never read Jantzen.
Of course some would say that as I preach I am already involved in the art of fiction, I would of course beg to differ. However one of the benefits of getting older is knowing how to avoid pointless arguments or confrontations on such pointless subjects and concentrate at least part of the time on what you want to do. Let's tell stories that build trust, confidence and life.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

OK if you think I have been slacking read Called to One Assembly

Things have been busy over the past ten days at the CEC assembly. You can read some of what we got up to on the blog and on the twitter feed.
Meanwhile there are loads of great photos on the official assembly website and good stories as usual from ENI.

Oh dear bad news for translators

News here of a French financial newspaper using automatic translation "and a bit of human tweaking" to produce something that AFP refers to thus:

A leading French business newspaper is launching a multi-lingual version of its website using automatic translation, dispensing with journalists but producing often comic results.
I attended a course on translation memory and automatic translation recently and I know that it's important that translators do not dimiss this new technology, things have progressed amazingly recently. However it fascinates me how we want to procude "other" languages (in my area it is normally languages other than English, in other areas it means English) on the cheap. Translation has always been on the interface between the technical and the poetic, between craft and creativity. So does badly translated prose give good "presence" to all these newspapers and websites that want to find readers in other languages? I think not but technology is advancing, maybe I'll be out of a job soon ...

Liberté, égalité ... gratuité

Last week's Réforme has a great article about how what is free is is just a mirage.
Gilles Boucomont, pastor in the Marais district of Paris and an economist has written an excellent brief rant about how there is no such thing as a free lunch. He actually makes the point that grace and gratuité (things that are for free) are not at all the same thing. In economics there is no such thing as something given away for free - even freeing nations from debt can be a way of tying them in to buying products from a rich nation.
There's also a great dossier in last week's Réforme to prepare the CEC assembly which has just taken a week out of my life. This week's has some good follow up and some great reporting from the brilliant Grand Kiff, where 1200 young people have gathered from France and further afield, there have been ecological fair trade counters and Calvin rap led by my brilliant colleague from WARC Jet den Hollander. Sounds fun but I admit I was too tired to get out there by the end of the CEC assembly. You may have gathered I am almost too tired to blog, this is truly tragic for my personal wellbeing ;-)

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Normal blogging service will return soon. I've just come back from Lyon where I was running both the press room and the documentation service for the CEC assembly. I was also trying to encourage some of young people to blog and I was also trying to tweet the whole assembly - together with others. It was great fun and the communications operation went really very well, but I worked and played a little bit too hard to find time to blog on my own blog so sorry about that. I'm not as young as I was and can't exist on 4 hours sleep, so sleep counted for more than blogging for once!
However, there are a number of half written posts that I'll try and work on in the next few days.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

En attente des feux d'artifice du 14 juillet

So here we are all dressed up and it's pouring with rain. We may not get any fireworks tonight but it does look like we'll get thunder and lightning ... what a shame

Follow us at the CEC assembly on Twitter and the blog

Don't forget to follow what is going on at the CEC Assembly on the CEC website but also on the Called to One Assembly blog and via twitter

Now I'm off to see whether we can coax the photocopier through another day of slow and steady service!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Morning and evening, evening and morning another day at another internatiional church meeting

Staff began our meeting today by listening to Psalm 103 read by Colin Williams, the CEC general secretary. I found it both moving and uplifting to pray with 50 or so colleagues as we began 10 days of quite intensive and stressful work together. From Brussels, Strasburg and Geneva we gathered and by the end of today we have managed to achieve an enormous amount even if there have been a few frustrations on the way too! ;-)
Catherine, Laurent and Damian of our IT team have worked brilliantly and all the computers are unpacked, in place and plugged in. No one has been counting how many boxes we've moved up, down and around - just as well. And formatting of documents, trouble shooting, tweaking the website, preparing the hearings, sorting out interpretation, business plenaries and filling the bags for all the participants at the assembly ... et encore!
At the end of the day we are tired, but we know one another a bit better and we can see that our work is having some impact.
Towards the end of our meal this evening a choir of young people from Denmark sang beautifully for us. A moment of pure pleasure and grace at the end of a long day helping me to remember the morning's Psalm ...

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits ...
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Living like God in France ... or maybe not

So for our first meal as staff at the cec assembly we ate outisde in the cité internationale in Lyon. Although bottled water was on the table (which costs a fortune - really we must run an Ecumenical Water Network campaign against bottled water) there was no wine in evidence. I suspect the CEC finance director may have been in charge of the menu!
We talked about how in our different languages we try to ask for a jug of tap water when in a restaurant. Apparently when Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris the way to do it in a restaurant there was to ask for some "château Chirac".
Despite the lack of wine, which is surely almost a sin agaisnt the Holy Spirit in France, the company and conversation over supper were wonderful. I was honoured to be sitting next to Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and all Albania who was keen to know how the translation of his sermon for the opening worship on Wednesday was progressing. I was happy to be able to tell him that it is both translated and printed, and that we should be able to give him a copy once the boxes from the printers arrive tomorrow.
So despite Lyon's reputation for being the capital of French gastronomy, this evening we have not been "living like God in France" as the Germans call living well. Given the heat and the work we have waiting for us tomorrow it's just as well I think. My teetotal non-conformist forbears would approve of the water only approach of course.
Meanwhile the stewards have been on a treasure hunt through Lyon today, sounds quite fun, though it will have been hot work today.

Micheline Calmy-Rey on Calvin

You can read the full text of Micheline Calmy-Rey's speech at the Calvin anniversary on Friday evening here. Bien sûr c'est en français mes ami(e)s!

Off to the Conference of European Churches Assembly in Lyon

My suitcase is packed and I'm about to set off for the assembly of the Conference of European Churches which is taking place just up the road in Lyon. I'm catching the train at 13.58.
Not sure at all whether I shall have time to blog much while there. The press room and youth desks are running a blog which has already started and we're also going to try and tweet the assembly which will be quite a challenge.

Mildness, murder and money-making?

Here's the great poster from yesterday's Deutschland Radio Kultur event at the St Gervais parish hall.
The panel addressed various myths and realities of Calvin's legacy - meanwhile I was trying to tweet the event from Dr B's new Nokia5800. It's quite interesting to do this - listen to something in German and then tweet it in much shorter terms in English - good practise for consecutive interpreting! Will my tweeting take over from blogging? I'm not sure, I don't find it quite so satisfying so far but it is interesting to see how much and how little you can say in 140 keystrokes.
Meanwhile the brilliant Suzanne McCarthy has been writing about Calvin and Servetus, highly recommended.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

God or Mammon at the Calvin 500th?

So here's the globe floating into place at the front of St Pierre's Cathedral in Geneva for the Calvin 500th anniversary service last night. We were treated to three choirs of different nationalities, fabulous organ music, great chamber music and pan pipes, and wonderful drumming - even accompanying the 16th Geneva Psalter version of Psalm 111. Not sure what either Claude Goudimel or John Calvin would have made of that but it was fun.

In the picture here Micheline Calmy-Rey who is the Swiss foreign minister can be seen addressing the congregation. Next to her in the red gown is the Geneva state official who even on hot days has to dress up and stand next to any elected politician speaking in public on official business - and that means even in church. It adds a bit of colour but it is a bit strange when you're not used to the local customs. It made me smile to have all of these politicians talking in church about how important the separation of church and state is!
We were also treated to a wonderful pithy 4 minute résumé of the Reformation in Geneva from Professor Michel Grandjean. But the real treat was the sermon which Laurence Mottier and Setri Nyomi prepared together. More about that in a later post but the text was Matthew 6.19-33 - Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth ... you cannot serve God and Mammon. More photos to come.

Friday, 10 July 2009

A Picture for John Calvin's 500th Birthday

This wonderful watercolour of John Calvin usually hangs on the wall in the Ecumenical Centre library just outside my office. I look at it every day. It is by Jean Guitton.
Today the watercolour is welcoming visitors to the library with special happy birthday greetings.
You can also visit the library website and listen to or read a great lecture on So who was John Calvin? by my wonderful colleague Theodore A. Gill jr.
Scroll down this link to see some photos and get to the links.

Calvin's 500th Birthday

Tonight we go to Geneva's St Pierre Cathedral for the service marking the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.
Meanwhile every nightuntil July 26th in the Parc des Bastions where the Reformation Wall is, open air theatre Genève en flammes is being performed and the village Huguenot is open for business.
Seems quite fun that the Genevan Protestant Church has decided to mark Calvin's anniversary by doing a major piece of theatre!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The problem of evil ...

As always over on Ben Myers Faith and Theology blog there is an excellent discussion on the question of evil beginning as a result of Kim Fabricius posting his vote of thanks following a lecture on “Horrendous Evils: A Theological Problem of Evil and its Solution” at the University of Swansea by Marilyn McCord Adams.
I've been thinking alot about evil recently, its banality, its horrendousness, its attractiveness. That terrible phrase "for evil to triumph all it takes is for the good to say nothing" rings too often in my ears. Evil requires countering.
I don't believe in a theology of meaning in suffering - certainly not in a theology which imposes meaning on those who suffer. I also don't at all believe there is meaning in either banal or horrendous evil.
One of those commenting on Kim's post mentions Hans Jonas' Theology after Auschwitz. This made me once more remember the work on a similar theme of my friend Alain Blancy, the tentative final version of his paper (written a few days before he died) on theology after Auschwitz seemed to indicate it might be possible to blame God as the only theological way through impossible, unthinkable evil.
I'm still not sure about this, though the Psalms often have no such qualms!
But as I think this evening of news received in recent days from Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, the local women's refuge ... I somehow do not feel it is "enough" to simply blame God and so get over the problems of evil.
After all in the play God on trial, after God has indeed been found guilty, those who have judged God turn around and say the morning prayer.
What I sense I may be groping towards myself has something to do with grace existing powerfully despite horrendous violence and the silence that imposes. I can see what is meant by McCord encouraging a reaquaintance with mortality outlined in the second quote below. But I wonder about the sometimes prurient focus on evil. Is it possible to find a Grace Jantzen way through the minefield of horrendous evil, a way of of valuing natality and creativity despite evil? Perhaps a narrative theology that takes both evil and resistance to it seriously would be one possibility, a way of honouring that "suffering is without explanation or compensation" but is still part of our human and divine story. After all Jesus the Riddler threw down questioning, parabolic stories of hope, which did not offer simplistic answers to the ambiguities of life in first century Palestine. The complexity of the narrative of our lives linked to the divine may be my way towards living despite evil.

Anyway here is an extract from Kim's original post and from one of his comments in the discussion, and Bishop Alan's thoughts triggered by the same post:

Professor Adams, firstly, fully acknowledges the irreducible horrendousness of horrendous evils, the meaninglessness as well as the pain. Second, she knows that a moral taxonomy is insufficient to account for the sheer intensity and scale of suffering, and she knows that the free-will defence fails because of its overblown account of human agency (not to mention its competitive account of divine and human freedom). Third, if Professor Adams speaks of the participatory suffering of God, it is, quite unlike the process theologians, only in connection with a robust two-natures Christology: it is the crucified and risen Jesus who is the horror-bearer and-defeater. Finally, Professor Adams consummates her theodicy with a robust faith in universal salvation, not because all must win prizes but because God is good and resourceful, the maker and re-maker of meaning, and because the penal options (as she puts it) of “liquidation or quarantine” are hardly a satisfactory quid pro quo for hell on earth. And all so tightly argued: Professor Adams is, after all, a philosopher in the analytical tradition.

"Perhaps it is time for philosophers of religion to look away from theodicy - not to appeal blandly to the mysterious purposes of God, not to appeal to any putative justification at all, but to put the question of how we remain faithful to human ways of seeing suffering, even and especially when we are thinking from a religious perspective. Part of the task of a good theology and a candid religious philosophy is, I believe, to reacquaint us with our materiality and mortality. And part of that is the knowledge of suffering as without explanation and compensation" ("Redeeming sorrows: Marilyn McCord Adams and the defeat of evil", in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, pp. 271-72).

Beauty, calm and birdsong

It's a perfect summer's evening sitting in my garden after a glass of red wine and supper on the terrace. The swallows are flying and other birds are singing gloriously, the sky is turning that wonderful blue it goes just before the sun begins to set. Soon the bats will come out and the sky will begin to turn purple around the edges. There's a bit of noise from the airport and road, a lingering smell of someone's barbecue but the lush thunderstorm-fed greenery and the birdsong easily win out. A time for calm and unwinding, thinking and simply drinking-in this beautiful urban rural night. The first clouds are just turning pink and the blue is changing as I write. I feel blessed.

Word of the day "la parentalité"

Friends in Geneva are expecting a baby, to be born soon. Babies born in Switzerland are not automatically Swiss citizens unless their parents are Swiss. This baby's mother comes from a country which does not allow women to pass on citizenship to children born abroad, the father is from a country which allows him to confer citizenship to his child only if it is born in that country, he also has British citizenship but this can't be given automatically to his child as the father was not himself born in Britain.
If the child was born in France or the US it would naturally get citizenship. More shocking to me is the idea that male citizens of some countries can pass on citizenship to children born outside their country of origin but women can't. So much for human rights!
So our friends may enter into "parentalité" (parenthood) without knowing what nationality their child will have ...

Linking to a time for everything ...

We've just got our copy of le lien - the link for the wonderful Protestant bookshop in Paris Un temps pour tout - a time for everything. The few pages in le lien always have something in them that I want to read. This time it's Claude Hagège's Dictionnaire amoureux des langues. It wounds wonderful and I'm looking forward to getting a copy and reading it - even if it is 729 pages long!
It makes my other choice Claude Lanzmann's autobiographical Le lièvre de patagonie sound like an easy read at only 558 pages!
Anyway what are you reading this summer and what is your favourite bookshop?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Name the Campaign! Enter the Food Campaign Slogan Contest

The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) is searching for a slogan for its new four-year campaign on Food. We are looking for individuals, church and school groups, organizations, and community forums to use their creativity and experience to suggest the new slogan.
The EAA’s slogan for its trade campaign was “Trade for People, Not People for Trade”. For HIV and AIDS for the last four years it has been “Keep the Promise”. A campaign slogan should be:
Catchy and memorable
Relate to the overall approach of the Food campaign
Ideally indicate a Christian or faith-based connection
Work in different languages (although you don’t necessarily have to come up with the translations!)

Suggestions can be entered on the EAA website – and everyone can indicate their favorites before the final decision is made.

The creators of the winning slogan will be recognized on the website and in the EAA bulletin, and will receive Food for Life – a new cookbook compiled by the Lutheran World Federation. With over 100 recipes from individuals and communities in 23 countries and regions, Food for Life – which also contains table blessings and stories – gives insight into different cultural and religious backgrounds, and sheds light on methods of food production and the ways in which people cope with scarcity and adapt to climate change.

Individuals are also invited to submit drawings, songs, or cooperative games that may be used in the Food Campaign. Although not part of the contest, all such submissions will be credited to their creator if used by the EAA.

Word of the day une perle rare

I've posted my meditation from last Friday's beading, remembering and leave taking.

In French the phrase une perle rare meaning a precious pearl, a rare jewel or stone, and it’s also a way of referring to a person. Calling someone une perle rare is a way of honouring their uniqueness, their beauty, their contribution – it’s a way too of saying they are brilliant and fabulous! ;-)
Une perle is also the way you refer in French to an ordinary bead and not only precious pearls. Beads are also used in many cultures and religions as an aid to prayer a way of focusing. What are the rare pearls in your culture? How are beads used to help communication or spirituality?

Meanwhile some of you may be inspired to help David Ker with understanding the biblical text about not casting pearl before swine.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Jan Hus and Jan Palach remembered as we celebrate truth not institutions

This morning we had an unusual treat for a Tuesday in the chapel. A very talented ecumenical Czech choir from Sumperk sang for the service and for invited members of the local Czech community and diplomatic corps. The service was led by Sarah Motley, an Anglican priest who has just finished the Masters in ecumenical studies at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, and sisters who are part of the Bossey ecumenical spirituality project . Ms Belkys Teherán of the WSCF offered us a sung meditation on the reading from Romans 15. Belkys comes from Colombia which is one of the countries we are praying for through the ecumenical prayer cycle this week.

Towards the end of the service a Czech member of the congregation spoke briefly and passionately in memory of Jan Hus - many of the choir are from the Hussite Church - who was burnt at the stake on July 6th 1415. As he remembered Hus he said "we are here to celebrate truth not institutions" evoking also the memory of Jan Palach who chose to burn himself to death in 1969 to protest at the institution of Soviet communism and tanks following the crushed Prague Spring of 1968.
It was powerful to think that we were praying, singing and listening to celebrate truth ...

Simon says ... read my new blog

My good friend and former colleague Simon Oxley has started a new blog called Simon Says ...
I'm not sure I shall ever quite understand any of the references to Manchester City once the footie season gets started but so far it seems quite good. Really of course it's just a great way of not doing the research he's supposed to be concentrating on.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Word of the day "le non dit" - what have you left unsaid today?

"Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The quote above comes from Simon Barrow's twitter feed. It says alot about how silence is also something that can be heard, about how choosing not to say something, not to offer support, not to say what you think, feel or want is actually to say something very powerfully. To do nothing is actually to do something and to do it powerfully. This is about resistance and can of course be positive and negative.

In French the phrase "le non dit" - that which is not said - is about the rather Latin habit of not always saying things directly, about learning to read silences, about silences saying something; in very verbal cultures it is also about trying to tease out what has not been said despite the flow of words. In English we might say something like "there is alot that is being left unsaid".

But at another level it also made me wonder what is it each of may have left unsaid at the end of a day? What words of love, encouragement, hope have we left unsaid - do we always expect people to read between the lines to understand that we care about them? Sometimes though there are other things we have left unsaid - acts of injustice we haven't spoken about, fear we have let eat away inside us, unclear or painful situations we can no longer find words for let alone resolve, peacemaking we have been too tired to begin.
These few words of Bonhoeffer's can take us in many directions ...

Hope ... the difficult vocation

I have just posted the liturgy from this morning's service to the the docs sections and also my colleague Angela Schnepel's meditation on hope from which this is an extract:

To have hope is not a personal decision but a vocation. God tells us to have hope. So we have no other choice. That is why hope is so important. Hope is like a motor which takes us forward. Hope tells us to carry on, to continue our work in spite of the financial crisis and all other difficulties.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Bernie Ecclestone wrong about Hitler

I got very cross the other morning listening to reports of Bernie Ecclestone having said that "at least Hitler could get things done". You can read the interview with Ecclestone here.
I suppose Ecclestone won't have had time in his busy life making millions to have actually do something as challenging to his ignorance and boorishness as read, for instance Ian Kershaw's brilliant two volume biography of Hilter.
The Third Reich was not a dictatorship that was particularly efficient, decision-making and power were exercised in a social-Darwinist way, with everyone trying to curry favour with and please the mercurial leader who had a rich, highly industrialised and well-educated country at his disposal. Thirteen years of that way of "getting things done" left the country in ruins, millions systematically annihilated, further millions across Europe killed in war.
We must counter the myth that in difficult times we need "a strong man" to bully us through. Difficult times are crucially times for more democracy not for more dictatorship. Leadership is not always about telling others what to do, it's much more about building alliances, convincing others and saying "together we can make a difference", not "I have all the answers just do as I say".

Celebrating humanity and Walking with Walt Whitman

We are having a quiet restful day after our open house party all day yesterday. We are eating leftovers, relaxing and listening to the new internet radio. You too can listen again to Walking with Walt Whitman

Stuart Maconie meets devotees of Walt Whitman in Bolton and explores the history of the town's unlikely yet enduring relationship with the American poet.
A group of devoted fans established the Whitman Fellowship from 1885 onwards, and, although he never visited the town, Whitman developed strong ties through his correspondence with members of the group. Today, Whitman devotees gather for the annual Whitman Walk, to recite his works and share from Whitman's Loving Cup, a gift presented to his followers in Bolton in 1894.
Stuart joins this happy band of walkers and Whitmanites to discover why the poet is still celebrated there, nearly 120 years after his death.

It was a great programme with lots of real people reading Whitman's poems outside. It spoke to me of the democracy of poetry and words. One reading in particular helped me reflect on spending time with so many friends yesterday, the physical and emotional pleasure of being in human company.
To stop in company with the rest at evening is
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breath-
ing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, to touch any one, to rest
my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck
for a moment—what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it, as in
a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and
women, and looking on them, and in the con-
tact and odor of them, that pleases the soul
All things please the soul, but these please the
soul well.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Beads, remembering, friendship and hugs

On Friday evening a group of friends were invited to a special time of farewell for a colleague who is going "back home". This happens alot in Geneva, people stay, build friendships and then move on. The international population is very transient. Goodbyes are not often as powerful as this and it's easy with a constantly moving population to get a bit nonchalant about parting.
On Friday as we gathered we had prepared beads and strings. We each added a bead and a memory to a red string for our friend and we listened to her and to one another. We told stories, old fairy tales, tales about one another, we cried a bit and laughed and sometimes sang and remembered good times and difficult times. We each also created a thread of beads for our friend to take home.
One of us told about how in her culture beads are often used as a way of saying things without words. A woman might leave a string of black beads on the pillow as a way of saying to her husband "we need to talk".
We talked about life and families, work and friendship, values and how painful it is to hide who we are for the sake of our work. That group of people will never gather in quite that same way ever again. It was a time of authenticity, a time of farewell. I got a sense it helped all of us to reflect on our lives and on our work, but it also helped us to pick up the thread of our lives and to move backwards and forwards into the future. Saying good bye is not easy at all. Watching others leave when you remain is also hard. For leavers and remainers the beading helped to find more understanding of how all of us are moving on even as we stay put. We hope our strings of beads will say something beyond words about the love and friendship we have shared.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Suddenly noticing beauty

Waiting for the bus this evening I suddenly noticed how very beautifully formed one of the enormous pine trees was. The branches and greenery looked perfect against the midsummer late evening sky and the way the point tapered upwards just really pleased me aesthetically. I must have tood at the stop hundreds of times and not noticed that tree in that way before. So tonight I drank in its beauty and gave thanks that I had rather longer than usual to wait for the bus.
We want the world to change but often we need to change the way we see things.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Twenty years ago today

It was a Sunday and the previous day I had gone to the ordination of three female anglican friends who were ordained deacons in the Church of England at St Paul's Cathedral in London - we had trained together in Oxford. I was about to be ordained to the word and sacrament of my church, they were not sure when they would be ordained to the sacrament of their church. The photo of two of them was on the front page of many newspapers embracing one another in joy the day the Church of England finally said yes to women priests several years later. By then I was in France.
But twenty years ago today I was staying in Hackney, in Dr B's Greenwood Road flat. In the morning I went to the eucharist at the wonderful St Michael and All Angels London Fields, where the priest and his female curate always made a point of dividing up the liturgy in a way that meant that he only ever said those bits that canon law prescribed had to be said by a priest - they did that week in, week out for years as we waited for women to be ordained to the priesthood. And they say resistance is pointless, what do they know?
Anyway before church a group of us set off for birthday breakfast (for me) at the Colombia Row flower market, cream cheese bagels and big mugs of coffee. Just before I set out I received a phone call from Dr B saying "oh do be back at 9.30, I should be able to phone you then" - I was a bit peeved. Remember that - the days before sms and mobiles and the internet?
So I rushed back from my early morning birthday breakfast to speak to my beloved. Unlocking the door to the flat I thought to myself, that's strange that looks like Stephen's jacket. And there he was, he'd been phoning from Dover not from Brussels and had taken the overnight boat to spend my birthday with me. We rushed off to church together and arrived only 5 minutes late, after he'd told me about the difficult time they'd given him at customs, a single man carrying strawberries, champagne and and a packet of condoms but not much else. Very suspicious.
Nearly half a lifetime ago and much to give thanks for.
Seven weeks later on the night we discovered I could get over the Berlin wall and he could not we got engaged ...
Read about the wonderful murals at St Michaels and All Angels here.

Remembering the past with mixed feelings

Dr B has been writing about the 20th anniversary of the first symbolic cutting of the iron curtain in Hungary and also about how the economic crisis is making it hard for many Hungarians to look to the future with hope.
Sometimes, often even, anniversaires are bittersweet occasions.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Sometimes ... praying really is the only useful thing I do

In recent years I've quite often heard myself say something along the lines of "the only useful thing I do in a day is pray".
I suppose it expresses something quite deep inside me about the transitory nature of anything I might do or contribute to, perhaps it also says something about how spirituality holds things together for me. And on days when I feel that I haven't really prayed it also reminds me to continue with the useful useless activity of prayer.
This evening I've been thinking about the final verse of Psalm 90 in French. In the français courant version I have internalised it ends "donne à nos travaux un résulat durable; oui donne à nos travaux un résultat durable" which would translate into English as something along the lines of "grant that our work may last". The Traduction Oecuménique de la Bible has "consolide pour nous l'oeuvre des nos mains". So then I started looking at the English translations and I was really rather disappointed, nothing I've found there really speaks to my soul in the same way as the French does. The English translations seem to me to be either too opaque and old fashioned:
And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us:
and establish thou the work of our hands upon us;
yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (King James)

Or to be embedded in a concept of religious success which put my theological hackles right up, I really didn't like either of these:
Lord our God, treat us well.
Give us success in what we do;
yes, give us success in what we do. (New Century Version)

And may the Lord our God show us his approval
and make our efforts successful.
Yes, make our efforts successful! (New Living Bible)

Anyway here is the TOB version once more:
Que la tendresse du Seigneur, notre Dieu, repose sur nous tous!
Fais prospérer pour nous l'ouvrage de nos mains!
Oh oui! fais prospérer l'ouvrage de nos mains! (TOB)

And here are two English versions I suppose I can live with but they just don't quite mean the same to me as the French does.
May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands. (Today's New International Version)

And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands. (New King James)

So tomorrow morning I shall go to chapel and we will read the whole of Psalm 90 including this short verse "So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart". Perhaps it is the longing for wisdom of the heart that makes me feel that prayer is the only useful thing I do ...

Lover of Islam - Believer in Jesus Christ

One of the interpreters I contacted today for an interreligious meeting told me about this book by Paolo Dall'Oglio Amoureux de l'Islam, croyant en Jésus Christ. It was published earlier this year and sounds fascinating - though being a linguist the interpreter who told me about it said she felt the French could have been a bit better edited but that it was a passionate and fascinating read.
Dall'Oglio sees his work of reconciliation with Islam extending in the future toward some kind of mediation between all the warring parties in the Middle
East. "This is very delicate," he says, "but everyone knows that we cannot continue to use religion as an excuse for violence of all kinds. We have to find
a way to break through the infernal circle of fear that we feel, all of us."
Where does one put the focus? Dall'Oglio says it is clear that people in every religion have to dig deep into their own roots to find the rationales for dealing with everyone in justice and peace. He has found those roots in both the Old and New testaments. He has found them in the Qur'an. People who don't go to their roots, but follow only the letter (of whatever sacred text), he says, are the real troublemakers in this world. "Follow them and we are doomed."
The book is published by les éditions de l'atelier. You can find out more about this Roman Catholic, politically committed publishing house here.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will?

While reflecting on and re-reading parts of Candide this weekend I've also been thinking a bit about optimism. I'm a naturally optimistic person (though in a general and not in a philosophical sense) but I do have a tendency, as do many optimists, to fall into cynicism at times when optimism seems to no longer work.
So do you tend to pessimism or optimism and what do you think of Gramsci's maxim?