Thursday, 30 December 2010

Flowers and gratitude

Four weeks ago today I was given a bunch of flowers as a thank you, I was a bit embarassed - feeling perhaps that others deserved flowers more than I did but I was pleased too.
Despite being in a heated wintertime house the flowers lasted well, for once I managed to look after them well and these two lovely spider chrysanthemums which remain from the bunch have added their star-like colour to our Christmas table and may well even last into the new year.
A reminder to me to pass on gratitude and signs of thankfulness to others.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Advent and Christmas 2010

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Some Christmas images

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Radio services and the grace of other people's liturgies ...

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any left after the hiatus of recent weeks) will have gathered that the Stranzblog household is in a state of flux at the moment, heading towards much that is unknown in the New Year. I'm not going to write too much about that here, gradually things will become clearer I hope.
I have spent Christmas very quietly moving from the sofa to the kitchen and to bed - inbetween dosing myself with antibiotics and coughing. It's been almost the first time ever that I haven't been able to go to Church over Christmas and I've missed that. However, I've been blessed to be able to listen to the radio and really appreciated two broadcast services the first from St Martin in the Fields on Christmas Day and the second on St Stephen's Day from Prague - it linked Wenceslas, St Vaclav, the velvet revolution and much more besides. If you follow the link you can read some good blogposts about the making of the Prague programme.
Both services were meditative, meaningful and joyful without being preachy, they were locally rooted and thoroughly international which touched me. You can download transcripts.
Here's a longer extract from Petra Elsmore's meditation:

Stephen couldn’t keep his mouth shut. His speech to the Council goes on and on – covering two pages in my Bible. And towards the end, it becomes a bit of a rant – “You stiff necked people,” he says. “Are your ears full of wax? You worship the law, not the living God”…Enraged, they take up stones and the first Christian martyr is killed.
His words might seem to us now to be inflammatory perhaps. Luke’s story leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling when seen from this side of the Holocaust. But Stephen’s extreme language was born of an extreme time – here was a new branch of the faith struggling to discover its own identity and rebelling against its parent… perhaps it’s helpful to see Stephen’s anger in that light.
Like so many Martyrs, Stephen’s trouble was that he made a nuisance of himself – he spoke out rather than keeping silent. Stephen, like Jesus, like so many who have been killed for their faith since then, died not for the beliefs in his head, but for the actions and the words which flowed from those beliefs. His passion for Christ led him in the end to share his master’s fate.
Here in the Czech Republic, during the days of communism, speaking out could get you locked up in prison, you could lose your job, you could be placed under heavy surveillance and constantly intimidated…. But courageous individuals spoke out again and again throughout those difficult years… people who paid the ultimate price because something in them just had to protest against the injustice and inhumanity of those in power. It takes extraordinary courage to be the one person in 10,000 who is willing to put their head above the parapet and take a stand. In the Czech Republic, often the individuals who did so were artists, writers, performers, poets and musicians. Vratislav Brabenec, a member of the underground band “The Plastic People of the Universe” said "We weren't political, man. We were just trying to be poetical." Asked why the band would not accept government control, he answered: "That's freedom, man, I'd die for that."
Faced with injustice, most people keep their heads down and prefer not to get involved. We like a quiet life, we worry about our reputations, we conform to comfortable social norms. Speaking out always carries a price. And in the West or even in post-communist Czech Republic, it may seem that there is little to protest about… but when we open our eyes to those at the margins of society and to those who struggle to feed their children in a wealthy society, we might think again.
The root meaning of the word ‘martyr’ is to be a witness. Are we willing to take a stand like Stephen, when our faith and sense of justice demands we act or speak and make a nuisance of ourselves for what we believe in?

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Of Holy Innocents

Depending on which branch of Christianity you belong to yesterday, today or tomorrow marks the feast of Holy Innocents. It seems strange somehow to call something so horribly violent as Herod's brutal massacre of the boy children around Bethlehem a "feastday".
Often the date goes almost unnoticed, lost in the lurch from Christmas to New Year, forgotten in the rush to post Christmas sales and the return to work.

As I re-read the story in Matthew's gospel I've been reflecting on the disproportionate violence that the birth of the vulnerable baby provokes. I also wonder how many other times God tries to break into human history and yet is brutally stopped by human jealousy. Today children in so many places are massacred - through poverty, war, abandonment and the awful personal and thoughtless violence of those closest to them ... Herod today can take many forms and does not necessarily rule from a palace.

Often at Epiphany I have preached on how the Magi were not so wise and learned after all. They did not understand Herod's power or obsessions, their learned naivity leads to the massacre and the wailing of the parents ... the vulnerable prince of peace born into violence.

"Warned in a dream" the Magi return by a different route, this gives the newborn Christ and his family vital time to flee from the jealous political power that wants him dead ... and I wonder does God also weep at the spilt blood of the innocent children, does God rejoice that God's own son is saved, are not all children, children of God?

T.S. Elliot in his wonderful poem The Journey of the Magi has the Magi learning and reflecting on their homeward journey, precisely on this life and death paradox in the experience of the birth in Bethlehem. The child born in that place was destined to die and only thus to reign over a kingdom of peace. The gift of myrrh speaks powerfully of the perfumed spices that the women will carry to the tomb after the resurrection ...

were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Meanwhile, Patrick Comerford, whom I was privileged to meet on my recent trip to Ireland, has written as ever learnedly about Holy Innocent's day here. Here's a taster, but do read his whole post, and the ones that will follow for the remaining 12 days of Christmas:
Oscar Schindler famously said: “Whoever saves the life of one saves the entire world.” He was referring to a well-known teaching in the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4: 8, 37a) ...
This is an appropriate day to remember those children whose innocence has been destroyed by people working in the Church.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

A celtic blessing ...

God be with you in every pass
Jesus be with you on every hill
Spirit be with you on every stream
Headland and ridge and lawn;
Each sea and land, each moor and meadow,
Each lying down, each rising up,
On the trough of the waves, on the crest of the billows -
Each step of the journey you go

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Hope sleep and laughter - speech by Stephen Brown at the farewell to ENInews staff

'Hope, sleep and laughter'

Remarks at the farewell to ENInews' staff, 16 December 2010

First of all, my apologies. By the end of my remarks you will probably be asking yourselves what I have learned about post-colonial and gender perspectives during my 16 years at the Ecumenical Centre. For, as you will hear, my comments seem to revolve around the 'dead philosophers' society' - all the members of which, in this case, are white, male and European!!

Karl Marx, the German political economist, once wrote, "People make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing". It is no secret, I think, that the circumstances that we are marking today are not ones that I, or many of us here, would have chosen.

Rather than dwell on the circumstances, I prefer to concentrate on the first half of the sentence - the opportunity offered in whatever circumstances to make one's own history. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher whose name has sometimes been confused with that of our current president, Anders (Gadegaard), put it like this: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward."

Nevertheless, at an occasion such as this I also need to cast a glance backwards and give thanks for the enormous opportunities I have received over the past 16 years. I am and remain immensely grateful for these opportunities, and immensely proud of what we have achieved at ENInews. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to all those people and organizations who have allowed me these possibilities.

The danger of beginning to single out people for particular thanks is that either you read out a long list of names or that people who should be on the list are not there. So, I have decided to thank several categories of people, but these thanks should be understood as inclusive thanks to all of you.

Firstly, I want to thank the colleagues at ENInews I have worked with over the past 16 years: Eddie, Desirée, Danielle, Samia, Laurie, Peter, Valerie, Jean-Michel, Mylah, Doris, and David. Anything and everything that has been achieved is because we have worked as a team. Secondly, I want to thank the moderators and presidents of ENInews governing boards: Margot Kässmann, Jean-Jacques Bauswein, Robin Gurney, David Lawrence and Anders Gadegaard, for their advice, support - and belief in ENInews. Thirdly, the treasurers that I have worked with: Marianne Ejdersten and David Lawrence.

I also want to pay tribute to Jan Kok, who many of us still miss and who died much too young, for his vision and foresight in believing in ENInews and taking the action that made it a possibility (and Libby (Visinand) who did much of the actual work to prepare for ENInews). I want particularly to thank my current colleagues - Peter, Jean-Michel and David - for being such a great team. Particularly in the last weeks and months, we have been able to pull together, make sure the work gets done and support each other in what have not always been the easiest of times.

If I single out one organization, then it is the World Council of Churches. Without the opportunities I received from the WCC I would not be here today: attending the 1983 Vancouver assembly and a receiving a WCC scholarship to study in East Berlin in the early 1980s.

It was in Berlin that I first came across the saying of another 'dead philosopher', Immanuel Kant: "Three things help to bear the hardships of life: hope, sleep and laughter."

Those who know me know of my proclivity to be able to fall asleep anywhere, and almost at any time. But what I want to wish for all of us for the future, is not sleep, but much hope and laughter.

Stephen Brown

Monday, 13 December 2010

Fragments of Advent understanding - a sermon

They held up a stone.
I said, "Stone."
Smiling they said, "Stone."

They showed me a tree.
I said, "Tree."
Smiling they said, "Tree."

They shed a man's blood.
I said, "Blood."
Smiling they said, "Paint."

They shed a man's blood.
I said, "Blood."
Smiling they said, "Paint."

copyright (c) Dannie Abse, Adapted from the Hebrew of Amir Gilboa, 1982

Bible Reading - Isaiah 42:1-4
Matthew 3:1-12
Fragments of Advent understanding - a sermon preached in the ecumenical centre chapel

First the bad news - Manoj and Hielke are travelling so you get me again …
and be warned, next year it will be different you will all be doing the prayers and the preaching!

And now for more bad news:
Sorry but Advent is not all about the cute little baby

So I offer you some fragments

In the knowledge that they will not make a perfect whole

In the hope that this incompleteness will leave room for some of your fragments too

Earlier this year I spent some time whispering into the ear of a delightful, charming and erudite man called Floribert Bahizire, a leading human rights advocate and Director of an NGO in the Democratic Republic of Congo called "La Voix des Sans-Voix pour les Droits de l’Homme"

Six weeks later in early June the world learnt of his and his driver's death in suspicious circumstances. The two of them treated like paint. Their humanity and blood denied.

And in Advent we read and hear Isaiah's words from the suffering servant:

"He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick"

And I think oh really?

I hear my mother in law's voice saying to me that she really has had enough of all these prayers saying that God cares for all those who are suffering - "I don't think he does you know. And how does that help them, what is God doing?"


We can all think of people like Floribert - the bruised reeds or smouldering wicks who have been snapped off or snuffed out or raped or beaten - we may even refer to some of them as martyrs or saints

And there are also those too numerous to mention or comprehend who have died in genocide, war, famine and injustice: Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, gulags, gas chambers, the disappeared

"He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick he will faithfully bring forth justice."

Upholding human rights, upholding the humanity of humanity …seeking to bear witness not to paint but to the blood which courses in all of our veins. It is a painstaking and often dangerous task. Truth creates enemies.

And as I think about that challenge I think of the many times in my own life when I have been more on the side of paint than of blood. Advent is such a time of reflection, a time to contemplate judgement as well as the promise of joy.

Let me give you a small example from parish life in France. It was not a good day. The previous night's elders meeting had lasted until 1am, the morning's meeting of "les amis de l'orgue" - the friends of the organ - seemed to have resolutely decided to become the enemies of the pastor. I walked from my study out into the garden, in need of some springtime hope and as I got to the fruit garden my heart sank, there was the parishioner who "helped" (I use the term advisedly) with the garden with a large pile of twigs in front of her. I could see that they came from my gooseberry bushes which would now have no chance of bearing fruit.

Let's just say I wasn't happy and I let her know it.

She was probably the poorest member of the parish. After the failure of her marriage she had become addicted to antidepressants but had overcome that, her daughter was on methadone, she didn't have a garden of her own. And on this lovely sunny morning even the pastor was shouting at her.

"He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick he will faithfully bring forth justice."

His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

A further and final fragment
A friend is talking about the empty evening ahead while feeling lonely and exhausted after a heavy travel programme. She suddenly said, "I think I shall go home and pray." And I realised she hardly ever had the time or energy to pray and that having and making that time is also a privilege … do I use my privileged praying time well?
Centuries ago St Augustine said "without God we cannot, without us God will not". Prayer and ethics, spirituality and practice belong together
All of us are imperfect pilgrims trying to make those two ends meet.
Sometimes we ourselves are the bruised reeds and guttering wicks

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;

Even when things are in fragments the Advent promise carries us forwards.
Because of and despite our limitations we continue to bear hope, to dare to believe

Last week Floribert's successor was here in Geneva, and is taking the work of his NGO for human rights in DRC forwards.

So here's the good news
It is all about the suffering servant baby
About God's vulnerability and choice of the insignificant stable rather than the pompous palace.
About God the almighty accepting even to be powerless and dependent.

In British folklore parents tell their children that babies are found underneath the gooseberry bush - (given how thorny gooseberry bushes are this may say something about British attitudes to sexuality). Two years after the pruning incident in my garden I came home to discover a basket of freshly picked gooseberries on my doorstep. There had been a bumper harvest but I had moved house in the meantime, someone else was harvesting from the fruit bushes I had planted.

We are called to prophetic anger at abuses that treat people like paint and pawns rather than flesh and blood.
But in Adventide we are called even more to be fragments filled with the promise of peace and justice, reeds and wicks pointing to the possibility, to the certainty of future fruit even if we will not ourselves be the harvesters.

For most surely, God's suffering One from the stable will enflame our hearts and redress all that is broken within us.

Copyright (c) Jane Stranz / WCC

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Kennings for Advent are you a lotus eater or a locust eater?

At morning prayer today I invited those of us there to think poetically in kennings about Advent as we reflected on the reading about John the Baptist from Mark's gospel ... as we meditated in silence our reflection was occasionally broken by a kenning. I think I shall try it again for tomorrow.
Sandal untier, water baptiser, sackcloth wearer, locust eater, honey swallower, truth proclaimer, messiah announcer ...

And as I thought about locust eater I also thought about lotus eater and realised to my shame taht I am the latter not the former.

Later this week I am invited to attend lunch for the 10th anniversary of the Ecumenical Adovocacy Alliance which campaigns on food justice and HIV. May I should suggest the locust eater-lotus eater idea to them. Probably it's too literary to work ...
Anyway at least morning prayer got my brain working.

Antiphonally yours ...

Time for me to confess that I am always rather grumpy about Christmas - I'm not quite sure when this started, I think when I was at university and received presents I just didn't want and felt bad about it all. So I took refuge in doing night duty at the Samaritans and taking Christmas services. Now in recent years I have been privileged to travel - last year to Venice, before that Berlin. It feels a bit selfish, but I'm happy trying to do Christmas my way for now.

I am terrible at buying presents and not even very gracious at receiving them and yet I love the Christmas story, the repetition of words and narratives that continue to speak to me. And I love the wonderful quiet liminal time of waiting that is Advent.

This morning we prayed the great Advent antiphones for the first time this Advent, I love the images, the memories of candles lit in the past and the glory of the music to O Come O Come Emmanuel - Chantez chantez il vient à notre appel combler nos coeurs Emmanuel. That French version "he comes to fill our hearts" is one I particularly love.

This morning's liturgy, during which we were privileged to hear John's gospel and the passage from Genesis read in Chinese by visitors from the China Christian Council, can be found here - with antiphones of course!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Memories and writing

Our friend John Asling has left the Geneva rat race and is working as a freelance writer in Blackheath, London. I've just been reading a great short story he's written called "The Memory Girl".
I so admire him for trying to follow his creative drive and just get on and write. Maybe I should learn from his example ...

Thanks John for sharing, but most of all for writing.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Holding hands in a warm grasp whatever the weather

Over the past year I have been on a steep learning curve about Norway, a country I have only visited once - though I did rather like it and celebrated my 40th birthday there under the midnight sun!

In one article I read some months ago about the Tromso outdoor winter film festival I came across the phrase "In Norway there is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing".

I thought of this today as the World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit, who is Norwegian, attended his first private audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Tveit and other colleagues at the WCC thought carefully about gifts for the Holy Father, in the end taking an inlaid wooden box from Syria as a reminder of deep concern for and solidarity with the people and Christian communities of the Middle East. Inside the box were some more personal gifts, a book of poetry by Olav H. Hauge which contains in Norwegian and English one of Tveit's favourite poems by Hauge "The Dream we Carry".

Rather more unusually one of the other gifts was a pair of Norwegian woollen gloves. Since coming into office at the WCC Tveit has tried to rehabilitate the meaning of winter, as a time for reflection and preparation. Communicators sometimes find this a bit difficult to deal with as there is also much talk of ecumenical winter. Tveit's clear message with the gloves was that however cold the actual or ecumenical weather there are always ways in which we can reach out to each other, support one another and walk hand in hand to carry forwards the work of unity and being one together.
I like the idea of this ecumenical reaching out to one another whatever the weather, a warm grasp across the divisions, inspired by epigramatic poetry: carrying the dream ... To advance Christian unity perhaps we all need to think not about how bad the weather is but how we can metaphorically clothe ourselves in such a away that we can still reach out in warmth to one another.

The photo is from the Osservatore Romano who have a further piece about the visit here.
And here's a link to the transcript of Vatican radio's interview with Tveit, in German.

We have become a published author!

On Monday evening there were strange scenes in our household as champagne was drunk despite it being the beginning of the week. At last we received a copy of Stephen's book! The publisher's had tried to send one last week but a different - also quite interesting book - arrived instead. We knew it was at last published because a Facebook friend told us her copy had arrived!

Anyway, it is cause for much rejoicing. The foreword has been written by Dr Margot Kässmann and Dr B has benefitted from a veritable harem of German proof readers. Thanks to all of them.

He is trying to say that he will be doing an English version soon, but I think I may need a holiday before that!
Anyway claim to have already sold out of copies but maybe they'll stock up soon, so to buy Dr B's book for now you can go to the book depository here.

Looking forward to God's dream of peace ...

My friend Annegret Kapp has just posted the first of a series of videos to the WCC's Facebook page.
"There's less than 24 weeks to go until the beginning of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation. To get ourselves ready, each week we'll hear a vision for peace from one corner of the earth. We start of with the Rev. Eilert Rostrup, who reminds us that God's peace includes just relationships between human beings... and between humanity and the rest of creation."

Really hope we can do a video like this of the textile artists who will be putting the stitching peace exhibition together.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ecumenical Winter ...

As the Norwegian general secretary of the WCC says all seasons have their advantages. Winter is a time for reflection but also for preparation. It made me smile to see our new poster for the Peace Convocation in tropical Jamaica amidst all of the Swiss snow!

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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Midwifery for the barren - Advent thoughts

Midwifery for the barren

She is caught, between two men and her passion
She is caught wanting to give birth to the future
But has lost her voice
They control the money and the power
She no longer even controls her emotion

For a seemingly endless few weeks the belly of her future seemed empty
She was bereft of tomorrow
No heartbeat could be detected
But the pain and the tears...

Small everyday petty betrayal gnawed at her sense of self
Yet the depression has been a tool
And now she senses the future might once more be quickening
How to overcome her fear and midwife a future
Shining with a passion for integrity and not hatred
How to midwife a future of light and meaning

So this barren woman will bear the birthpangs
And the pushing
And the long hard labour
Yet if the men who know the joy of having children
Insist on carrying away the power as their right
The future will continue to be stillborn
And the only one to notice will be her
For they are lost in their dreams of control

She will not let her intellect be appeased
Nor her sense of humour depart
Without laughter the future will remain barren
Without joy there is no heartbeat
Even and especially the barren have a stake in the future

Throughout she will be challenged by her own preaching
And the vision she received through her tears
Only together can they do this
Only together

Will she find strength once more in generosity
And learn to go forwards, wounded but not bitter
Controlling the story … and giving it away

On being a midwife - are women really that subversive

I had a wonderful and powerful conversation with a good friend today. We talked of midwifery and the pain of our roles, trying to birth something into being and being hindered and held back, sometimes by not daring enough to be ourselves, to take on what my friend calls "our grace-filled subversive role as women". She pointed to the five women cited in Christ's genealogy in Matthew's gospel as being powerful subversive models in different sorts of ways:
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and "Miriam of Nazareth" - as my friend always calls her.

These women, inscribed through grace into the history of a male saviour, bear the future subversively, carry children in their bellies and give birth to the future despite everything - being seen as prostitutes, foreigners, wife of the wrong man, single mothers ...
Of course even the men God chooses to write salvation history through are hardly the handsome hero types - Moses has a speech impediment, David is the youngest son (and becomes more than just a bit of a philanderer), Abraham is such a man's man that he pretends his wife is his sister to get himself out of a sticky situation ... Cain kills his brother, Jacob steals his brother's blessing...

Then of course there is Joseph. If he had dared perhaps Shakespeare would have said Joseph was cuckolded by God. Earlier this week my friend challenged we female midwives to think about Joseph as a midwife, certainly as a birth attendant, at Jesus's birth. So many male partners are the only ones there to help new life into the world, to tend to the women they love at this most critical of times. Just as there are female doctors so there are also male midwives.
As we trangress and bend gender roles all of us take on some of the power of the subversives.
That subversive power is graced by God.
Happy Advent, happ waiting.

Swords into Ploughshares on World Aids Day

Today is World Aids Day.

Here on the Franco-Swiss border the world has turned not red but white as the heaviest snowfall in decades hits this part of the world. Many of the local campaigning plans for the day have had to be rescheduled, that's weather for you.

Colleagues at the Ecumencical Advocacy Alliance in Geneva launched their Advent Calendar today. It's a thoughtful and beautiful resource with contributions from around the world. It lasts for the whole of Advent - right up until January 6th which is Christmas Eve in many Orthodox countries and churches. So you get to wait and reflect for quite a bit longer.

Today's opening reflection comes from Canon Gideon Byamugisha, Christian Aid's HIV AIDS goodwill ambassador:
"Our faith insists we develop a prophetic imagination that works towards safer, healthier and more peaceful, equitable and fulfilling living that makes war history."

Week after week I talk to visitors groups about sowrds into ploughshares - the key text from Isaiah and Micah which begins this year's Advent readings. It was a surprise to see the text through this different lens of health and peace. Making war history also means working for just health for all.