Wednesday, 30 September 2009


The news tells the story of tsunamis in the home countries of two of our younger colleagues; a family home destroyed, lives lost, lives saved. The news tells of a severe earthquake in a country where good friends have gone to celebrate their son's wedding to a local woman, I wait for news and hope. The news tells of floods and devastation in a city with a population twice that of the country of Switzerland, somewhere in that city I have a friend. The news tells of women raped while searching for water and food for their families. The news tells ...
From Manilla to Samoa, from Chad to Sulawesi to Sumatra to Tonga, from Amsterdam to Berlin to Nairobi to Chad to Darfur to Hong Kong to Sidney to Rio to Nagasaki to Damascus to Alexandria, from Bethlehem and from Rome ... the news just keeps on coming.
It's hard for my prayers to keep up, to focus, to connect, to have meaning ... but still I try in the midst of busy days and terrible news to make time to pray, to believe it might somehow make a difference.
And you?

Dorothee Sölle would have been 80 today

The German radical and feminist theologian Dorothee Sölle would have been 80 today. I love her feistiness, her thinking and poetry. She also wrote several books on political and engaged spirituality, as did her husband Fulbert Steffensky. I didn't know that they were married when I read back to back Sölle's Die Hinreise and Steffensky's Feier des Lebens in the extraordinary year I spent in East Germany in 1989-90. Both books were formative for me at that time in my 20s. I began to understand that a true spirituality calls on poetic, artistic and cultural references as well as biblical and political ones.

Even today as I read through the titles of some of her meditational writings I am deeply moved, just the titles speak volumes to me of the possibilities of life and faith: revolutionary patience, learning to fly, do play with bread and roses, crazy for light, civil and disobedient, praise without lies, give me the gift of the tears of God and Learning to wish more precisely (»die revolutionäre geduld«, »fliegen lernen«, »spiel doch von brot und rosen«, »verrückt nach licht«, »zivil und ungehorsam«, »loben ohne lügen«, »Gib mir die gabe der tränen gott« und »Genauer wünschen lernen« aus »fliegen lernen«).

I shall remember her again on all Souls day.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The giant hairball?

Because people know that I am writing about leadership, management and the life of organisations I get sent quite an array of fascinating suggestions for widening my reading list. My favourite this week is definitely Orbiting the Giant Hairball.
Just the title really made me smile, not sure I shall actually get around to reading it but it certainly encourages me to think up my own weird and wonderful images to talk about work, organisations and finding one's way through it all. I think in the end I still prefer circuses and volcanoes to pick some meaning out of it all for myself. If I had time perhaps I should try and track down the strangest title out there on organisations and how to survive them.

Burning up the ozone layer ...

Later this week I shall board a plane to Amsterdam, two days later another to Birmingham, two days later a return flight to Geneva and then a day later another flight to Crete ...
I'm not in the least proud of this, taking the train would be much more fun, much more civilised and I would be less stressed too - and the ozone layer would not be quite so damaged either.
Cheap flights and easy travel damaging a priceless environment. My lifestyle is not a model for this let alone future generations. I feel sad and guilty ... something must change and the wormery in my garden is not really quite enough. What to do?

Monday, 28 September 2009

To bear witness does not always mean to be a martyr or a saint ...

Through the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle Christians are encouraged this week to pray for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the Ecumenical Centre chapel this morning Carla Khijoyan and Tamara Grdzelidze led prayers with a simple Orthodox form and some glorious Armenian chanting. They each shared a story from their own culture about what it is to bear witness to faith. Carla, who works with the WCC's migration programme, spoke powerfully of the Armenian genocide, how to be Armenian is intrinsically to be Christian but also to be part of a people driven into the desert, persecuted and today scattered across the nations of the world, but with a strong identity which still seeks to bear witness to essential truths in the present.
Tamara, who works in Faith and Order - among other things on the Cloud of Witnesses project - spoke about the witness of a Georgian Orthodox priest and theologian who lost his life in 1943 in the gas chambers. Not technically a martyr to the faith but someone whose life story speaks volumes of where it is that faith may lead some of us in extreme circumstances.
Each of our cultures has stories of the lives of witnesses: individuals and sometimes groups of people whose tenacity, goodness, powerful words, faith, standing up for what was right, prayerfulness, generosity and much more, speak to others across borders of time and place. We need someone else's story to make sense of our own sometimes. For those stories to speak to us the people do not need to be saints or martyrs to faith, their story has in some way to touch our own. We need to be open to receive from the past and to recover sometimes forgotten stories from the past.
Early in November All Saints and All Souls' days approach and in my Protestant, feminist and certainly not very saintly way I'm beginning to think about how I might meaningfully remember stories that touch my own. Perhaps I need to begin gently making lists of those - both dead and alive - whose witness to the gospel and whose life-stories have touched mine. From year to year if I made such a list it would also chart my personal and spiritual changes perhaps, some parts of the list would remain the same, it would change or be added to in other areas. Theologically this idea speaks to me not of fixed immoveable tradition but of open and evolving tradition.
So who would be the first five women, the first five men and the first five groups of people whose witness have touched your story and spoken to you deeply of gospel faith?

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Shaking off the mud and dust

At the beginning of the week I had written into part of our peace liturgy the idea of shaking the violence of the world off our feet. At church in Ferney this morning Charlotte Gérard, the ERF minister in Annecy, preached on shaking the mud and dust off our feet, Mark 6.11 "And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them."
With mud (wet dust!) stuck to our shoes it is hard to continue walking - it's also hard to get your shoes back on again if the shoes or boots haven't been cleaned. Since putting the peace prayers together at the beginning of the week I've also come across this powerful shaking off the dust liturgy.
Listening to Charlotte's sermon, participating in new roles in my former parish, helping to induct the newly elected elders to their ministry and receiving the laying on of hands with all the others who teach children and young people, I reflected on how far I had come since to some extent shaking the dust off my feet. How for me personally over the past two years memories have been healed. I also recognised how far the church had come since I left: of the 12 elders now serving only three had served in my time. My leaving was part of the process that led to this positive change. But it was for me sometimes a painful journey, five years of shaking the dust before I went back.
Thinking about this text I began to wonder about how hard we sometimes try to make unworkable situations work. There are times when we need to stop knocking at the door, remove ourselves from the situation and take time for the heavy mud to dry to something lighter that can be more easily shaken off.
So what is the heavy mud that is making it difficult for me to go forwards at the moment, what is the dust that needs to be shaken off? Where will healing lie in this part of my story?
Today I was blessed to be able to glimpse how the the ministry I was part of for seven years is bearing fruit today. It is rare for ministers to have that privilege and I give thanks for it.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

It's good to talk ...

I read my mother's copy of the book pictured here a couple of years before my father died. Hugh Marriott's The Selfish Pig's Guide to Caring is brutally honest and very well-written. The carer is encouraged to think of their own needs, to develop a"selfish pig" attitude. The person being cared for in the book is referred to for the most part as Person I Give Love and Endless Therapy to, or piglet for short.
The book is a debunk of sacrificial caring and tries to look at the caring paradigm from a very different angle. When one person in a family or couple is disabled or living with a chronic illness the whole family is affected.
One thing the book really encourages the carer (selfish pig) to do is to talk to whoever you happen to be in contact with in any situation - shop assistants, car park attendants, people in the street. It's a way of sharing the burden with wider society, which of course is keen to put a halo over your head as a carer but not so keen to try and help, listen or change things.
When I first read the book I was a bit shocked by some of it, but I understood why it spoke to my mother. For over 10 years at the end of his life my father was in a wheelchair because of his Parkinson's disease. Today, more than four year's after his death, she still has to have physiotherapy on her shoulder from the strain of lifting him several times a day. She often got to the end of her emotional and physical tether and didn't find it easy to talk about.
Wandering around the market today on my own I watched all sorts of people and saw two couples where one had Parkinson's disease. I could see and sense the isolation for these couples, but I also noticed how brilliant the market stall holders were in talking with and listening to both carer and cared for. I also know though that there will probably have been hours of preparation for carer and cared for just to get to these moments of interaction with wider society outside the home.
Be you a carer, be you cared for, be you alone or in a family group, communication with others is one of the things that makes us human. It's good to talk, to share the burden to feel part of something beyond ourselves.
I've had great conversations today with the woman in the cheese shop and with the waiter at the restaurant about how wonderful the north of France is. They were inconsequential in many ways, not deeply meaningful chats and yet reflecting on them makes me think that they were part of the essential interaction that makes life into life rather than just existing. So who have you been talking to today?

Friday, 25 September 2009

Gentleness of an Indian summer Friday evening

To say that things have been busy at work today would be an understatement, frantic would be a better word. Yet coming home really tired after the bus got caught in traffic, our Friday evening Shabbat champagne did us good as we sat eating and laughing into the ever darkening night on our terrace. It is late September and not even cold, what a blessing and such a gentle start to the weekend.
Meanwhile I am consoling friends who are even more untidy than we are by reading out the opening quote from the splendid "A Perfect Mess" book:
"If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?" Albert Einstein
I'm particularly looking forward to reading the chapters on messy leadership and messy thinking. There isn't a chapter on messy church or messy spirituality but I think maybe I should try and write something on that myself!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Who said prayer couldn't change anything?

I can hardly believe today's news from the United Nations general assembly about nuclear non proliferation. It's a little bit like a Berlin wall beginning to come down. All those demonstrations, that memorable time in the snow outside the Molesworth airbase, the Greenham women. It seems like an enormous paradigm shift. Tectonic plates are shifting. Time for all of us to rejoin CND while we still can.
It's also made me think about all of our praying for peace.
In the Ecumenical Centre chapel in Geneva there is a small but imposing statue by a Georgian artist near the door. A long-haired bearded robed man stands putting out his hand as if to say "stop!" He is saying stop. The artist gave five copies of this small brass statue - one to the World Coucnil of Churches, one to the Russian Orthodox Church, another to the National Coucnil of churches in the USA and one each to Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. The statue is called "the power of prayer". Made during the cold war it was a call to the then two super powers to disarm, to get rid of their arsenals of nuclear weaponry.
So will we really make it to a nuclear free world? Our praying needs to be accompanied by action, advocacy and practical work to that end. Prayer is about keeping up the pressure on governments and public opinion, but prayer is also about building up the resources to trust that God's future is possible and that a move to a world without nuclear arms is possible, it helps us develop the capacity to keep on keeping on ...
Keep praying for real and meaningful peace. Keep believing in the power of prayer.
Let's rid the world of nuclear weapons.

German Protestants launch

Earlier this year undertook the brilliant and daring project of tweeting the whole Bible in German. A printed version of the tweeted German Bible will be launched later this year at Frankfurt, I'm really looking forward to getting a copy.
Today launched a really great new portal in Germany. It's got great wide-ranging content and will take me a long time to even begin to look around. Today is also the day that the EKD begins meeting in Kassel about its reform process.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Word of the day - trabant , or should that be sputnik?

Dr B has been writing over on Holy Disorder about the return of the Trabbi and he's also written some notes about the medieaval meaning of trabant which was a foot soldier or personal guard. These days when Trabant doesn't refer to a piece of ostalgie it means a satelite. Not surprising really as the GDR Trabant car was launched at around the same time as the success of the Soviet Sputnik programme - another word for satelite.

(Meanwhile I am left wondering how and why Dr B even manages to get footnotes onto his blog - surely we have too many footnotes in our lives as it is?)

What will you be doing for the European Day of Languages?

September 26 is the European Day of Languages. The Council of Europe which launched the day in 2001 has a EDL websites which has some fun features: a language fun section including language "treasures" list of words which are wonderful in various languages but difficult to translate. Apparently the word that has been most submitted to this section is the Portuguese word "soudade" meaning longing, missing - the only real translation for that is I suspect the German word "Sehnsucht". Anyway go to the site for a quiz and for other ideas about how to celebrate the day.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Early morning light and dawn

Yesterday I got to work very early and the lights in the chapel were already on. We were about to walk in the labyrinth of the peace, a version of the banner which is on the outside of the building for the UN year of reconciliation.
For many of us it was our first time back in the chapel since the death of our friend Suzanne. Arriving as dawn was breaking, it helped to see the lights in the chapel on to welcome people in from the outside. It was still hard to prepare a service she had been part of planning and to so keenly feel her absence.
So we prayed for peace, and we walked in the labyrinth and it spoke to us too of walking through life and trying to find meaning ... and muchmore besides.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Walking the labyrinth of peace

Today the ecumenical centre had two services for the international day of prayer for peace. The early morning was overcast and we were glad to have the lights on in the chapel. Our wonderful choir led the singing and we walked in the labyrinth of peace, which is an artistic interpretation of the logo of the international ecumenical peace convocation - the artists being the stewards from our recent WCC central committee - they were really creative.
I was moved and surprised at how well this worked. It's strange to have a rather crazy idea of turning a logo into a labyrinth and then to see that it actually works as liturgy. At the morning service where there quite a lot of people, it was good to see people greeting one another as they neotiated their paths in the labyrinth of peace. In another way the whole chapel also became a labyrinth where people could got and find and reflect on stones, water, salt or light and pick up Bible verses on those themes. And people did move outside their worship comfort zones and many took off their shoes to walk in the labyrinth.

By lunchtime - as you can see from the photos - the sun had just come out and so although we have no music the chapel itself was snap, crackle and popping as it always does with the first rays of sun as the wood expands - I often say to visitors that it is almost as if the chapel itself goes on praying even when no one is there to say the words. There were fewer of us at lunchtime but we also took time to pray and walk for peace together.

You can download a pdf of the service here along with other IDDP material, there's also an html version here.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Another book, another thought ...

Somehow yesterday I didn't quite make it out of our local bookshop without buying something. Quelles ressources spirituelles pour faire face à l'épuisement des ressources naturelles ? took my fancy, it's a series of shortish essays on what spiritual resources we need to develop in order to face the depletion in natural resources. The authors are almost exclusively roman Catholic but represent a wide spectrum of views and ideas on both ecological and economic challenges and choices facing us today. I've actually bought it in the hope that I can persuade a friend to review it for Ecumenical Review. It was put together following a meeting held by Chrétiens et pic de pétrole, a group I've not come across before based in Lyon.
Anyway, it's an interesting read of bite-size, thought-provoking pieces and offers a more philosophical and spiritual series of entry points into the issues than some material on the same subjects in English.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

A blissful, happy or blesséd shower?

This morning using some new shower gel I'd got as a present, I came across a new possible translation for the Beatitudes.
In English it's called "blissful body cleanser" and then I noticed that the French version was "gel lavant béatitude". So of course I began wondering if I could work this "spa wisdom" epiphany into a new translation of the beatitides - Blissful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? No maybe not ... ah well for translators even the morning shower poses questions.

Friday, 18 September 2009

International Day of Prayer for Peace

September 21 is the international day of prayer for peace and you can find the liturgy we've put together for that day.
We are focusing on the idea of the labyrinth of peace. The labyrinth we'll use on Monday in the ecumenical centre is pictured here in a very colourful version that our stewards painted during central committee. It's abut 4.5 metres square and putting it together has been quite an act of faith.

We hope to walk on it gently as we reflect on building peace. There will also be finger labyrinths available for peaople to trace with their fingers.

This symbol is part of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation logo - the convocation will be held in Jamaica in 2010.

So how will you be marking the internaitonal day of prayer for peace. Do let our colleagues at the Decade to Overcome Violence know.

Dog eat dog and can men really look after children?

One of the pleasures of being on holiday is listening to the radio, however there were bits of this morning's woman's hour that rather made my hackles rise. One of the men interviewed said that men were much better suited to "bringing home the bacon and dealing with the dog eat dog workplace environment" than to looking after children. So we heard that men were good at playing with children and introducing them to risks while women we better at worrying about them. Total tosh, based on phoney, spurious research and bare-faced prejudice. Meanwhile of course there are many ordinary men who spend alot of time caring for their children - and far more women doing the same of course. Relegating women to the "drudgery" aspects of childcare, nappies, laundry, broken nights actually doesn't speak to most modern parents' experience of bringing up children. It also deems "caring" work to be lesser work - according to the speaker men get "bored" by it - the idea being of course that women can cope better with such boredom because of our "hard-wiring". The work of caring is highly skilled, complex and often lonely. Perhaps the dog eat dog men who can't cope with those sorts of demands prefer to escape to the adrenaline of the workplace.
More seriously though the workplace itself is these days often much more about developing cooperation skills and team work than about dog eat dog. Women and men need liberation from the dictatorship of set gender roles in the workplace and in the home. Hard wiring for caring, for thinking, for ambition, or other qualities and vitues, is not dependent on gender.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A study day on the conciliar process to honour Heino Falcke

Dr B has been writing on Holy Disorder about the Study Day on the Conciliar Process that the Council of Churches in the Netherlands is organizing on 2 October in Utrecht. The East German theologian Heino Falcke will receive the Council's ecumenical prize on that day. So if you're around in Utrecht who not join us there. One of the things Dr B coyly left out of his post is that he will be giving a keynote lecture (in German!) to introduce the second half of the study day.
Anyway the first draft of the lecture is finished which is why we went out to supper tonight.

Flowers, perfume and a bottle of wine ....

After a day of writing for both of us we went out this evening to the excellent yet straightforward "imprévu", coming home we found a bag on our doorstep with a bottle of local wine and some wodnerfully perfumed home grown roses. It's sad that I can't bottle their perfume and difuse it via my blog. Ephemeral beautiful petals and scent, no card, no note yet speaking powerfully. One day soon I imagine we'll find out who our secret present-giver is, in the meantime I am touched by someone's gentle simple kindliness.

Just knowing this book exists makes me feel happier!

Dr B - who shares my untidy ordered life - has just sent me this link. A book celebrating the messiness of life - at last a hurrah for clutter. Less filing more piling, less minimalism more - it might be useful one day
Not sure that our mess is yet perfect but we're getting there!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Things, stuff ... life and the rest of it

"... since we have all been but a hair's breadth from death since birth, teach us, O God, how close we are to that life in all its fullness that Christ alone can give ..." (Funeral liturgy, United Reformed Church)

I've hesitated to even begin to write this post but feel I should try and that I should try to be honest ... that's not easy, this goes to the core of all sorts of things.
Years ago I used to work as a volunteer for Oxford Samaritans in the UK. Support for the distressed or suicidal just a phone call away, 24 hours a day. I remember that at the time there was a report about the Samaritans that caused a bit of a silly media stir, surprise that research showed those volunteering with the Samaritans were more at risk of suicide themselves than the population as a whole. Perhaps there's a feeling that if you help other people it will somehow protect you, not continue to make you vulnerable.

From the moment we heard about our friend Suzanne's death I have been trying very hard to watch what I say. Too easily and too often, in stupidly banal situations such as the stresses and hassles of work or trying to get a Gaz de France employee to actually answer the phone, thoughtless easy words slip from my lips "I'm going to kill myself". For the past week I have been trying to stop myself saying that and it has been surprisingly difficult. Often what now comes out is "I want to die - no I don't mean that". It's not easy to live with this injured, pained part of my psyche that is so insistent on verbalising - perhaps particularly not for my entourage. It is also not easy to write about because there are also joyful, creative, contented and very strong parts of my psyche which also spontaneously verbalise quite a bit more. I don't want to be, nor am I, defined by these frightening, horrible words that slip from my mouth all too easily, nor do I want to try and generate sympathy for myself. But I did want to say that for me as for every human being those are thoughts I sometimes have.

Living through this grief at this time is teaching me that saying that short destructive sentence is almost my security blanket. If I say this often enough surely I won't do it. But at a deeper level it is also an expression of the intimate knowledge that from the moment of birth we are but a hair's breadth from death. In some wierd and I'm sure rather pathetic way I'm probably trying to say "hey despite this tough exterior I'm vulnerable too". Saying those stupid words also has a further dynamic for me I think, it gives me the impression of energy, doing something ... hmmm many who commit suicide do so because of a similar dynamic, by doing this I take control.

In recent months I have been so enjoying reading Grace Jantzen's writings - perhaps because of my own obsession with mortality. Her insistent kicking away at the Western male philosophical obsession with death, her opening up of a different paradigm - we are not mortal but natal - speaks very deeply to me, yet it also shows me how very much further I still have to go - as a feminist, as a Christian, as a human being ...

If you are feeling suicidal, please pick up the phone, knock on your neighbour's door, make an appointment with your doctor. Try to talk it through, with a person, with God, it will be a start. All of us are vulnerable, even when things are going well, life is not always easy. As they said on Hill Street Blues - "take care out there".

And here are some extracts from the beginning of Isaiah 43 which give me solace and some sense of groundedness even when everything seems to be pointlessly shifting away.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you.

And thanks to all who listen to me.

Christian Bobin, grief and la plus que vive

Christian Bobin's luminous book La plus que vive is a celebration of the life of the woman he loved. It is also a poetic map of grief following her sudden death.
Here's a translation of a short extract:

I go for a walk with Clémence in the park de la Verrerie. Not far from the swings there’s a phone box. Sometimes on Wednesdays, when I realised that she and I would be home later than we’d agreed, I would phone you from there to say that we wouldn’t be on time but that you shouldn’t worry, we would be back later safe and sound, laughter painted all over our faces.
Clémence a week after your death, points to the phone booth and says to me “shall we phone her?”
I help her into the glass cage and lift her onto the shelf where the directories are kept and I watch her lift the receiver, press all the buttons on the dial and then for several minutes be quiet and listen, interrupting only to say “yes yes”
When she’s finished I ask
“What did she say to you?”
she replies, “she asked me if everything was all right and if we’re still together. I told her yes and said I was still getting up to lots of silly pranks as usual”

Then we leave the phone box and return to the gentle work of laughing and playing,

There are a thousand ways to speak to the dead. Through the craziness of a little girl of four and a half I understood that we needed less to speak to the dead than to listen to them and that they have only one thing to say to us. Keep on living, always live life, more and more, above all don’t worry and never loose your laughter.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Picking up the pieces, finding the thread ...

A thought is stuck in my head, she was knitting as she lost the thread of her life. Beautiful black thread shot through with gold and silver, the beginnings of a stylish exotic winter scarf. Shot through too with broken glass where the police had smashed the window to get in and find her ...
We could not pick up the stitches on the knitting, only unravel the yarn and plan to start again, perhaps hoping that taking up the thread ourselves, pulling thread through air in complex knots and beautiful patterns might somehow help us "get over" the sense of loss.
In your wardrobe some of your beautiful, colourful clothes still hang, waiting for you to step out once more in the shot silk pink and gold. Your piano is closed, the music tidied away yet we still want the song to go on.
We who remain feel less colourful, life is painted for the moment not in black and white but in grey, we can find neither melody nor harmony not even in a minor key.
We will sweep up the broken pieces of glass, clear the food from the kitchen and try to pick up the thread of life again as we plod forwards in dry-eyed grief, feeling leaden as we try to pull the often recalcitrant thread of life into the complex, ordinary and beautiful patterns we call living.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The philosophers' Bible part one

As befits the beginning of a week of holiday Dr B started it at the newsagent's. He came home with a fascinating array of reading matter, much of it about 1989 but more about that over on Holy Disorder.
He also brought back a special Philosophie magazine on the philosophers' Bible. You can read the table of contents here.
The issue brings together some original interviews with shorter extracts from various (mainly male) philosophers re-readings of parts of the Hebrew scriptures.
There have been some complaints that the articles don't go into enough depth but what I like about this approach is that it gives you a taster and sets various philosophical insights down next to one another, it's not pretending to be an academic journal. In France where all young people taking the baccalauréat have to study philosophy it also provides useful and attractive material for work with young people, linking the Bible to their academic work.
I'm particularly enjoying reading Eco, Benjamin, Trigano, Lévy and Barthes on the story of Babel. I'm already looking forward to the New Testament issue which will be out soon. Meanwhile the final extract in the magazine is by Jean Jaurès, the famous French socialist orator, pacifist, journalist and teacher. He also fervently defended the separation of church and state. there are roads named after him in most French cities. The extract quoted here celebrates the Bible as a book that teaches people to think if it is translated into people's own languages:

C’est dans la lecture de la Bible, traduite partout en langue vulgaire, que les peuples apprendront à penser, dans la Bible batailleuse et âpre, toute pleine des murmures, des cris, des révoltes d’un peuple indocile dont Dieu, même quand il le châtie et le brise, semble aimer la fierté, dans cette Bible où il faut que les chefs, même prédestinés, persuadent sans cesse les hommes et conquièrent, à force de services, le droit de commander, dans ce livre étrangement révolutionnaire où le dialogue entre Job et Dieu se continue de telle sorte que c’est Dieu qui a l’air d’être l’accusé, et de ne pouvoir se défendre contre le cri de révolte du juste que par le tapage grossier de son tonnerre ; dans cette Bible où les prophètes ont lancé leurs appels à l’avenir, leurs anathèmes contre les riches usurpateurs, leur rêve messianique d’universelle fraternité, toute leur ferveur de colère et d’espérance, le feu de tous les charbons ardents qui brûlèrent leurs lèvres. C’est ce livre farouche que la bourgeoisie industrielle a mis aux mains des hommes, des pauvres travailleurs des villes et des villages, de ceux-là mêmes qui étaient ses ouvriers ou qui allaient le devenir, et elle leur a dit : Regardez vous-mêmes, écoutez vous-mêmes. Ne vous abandonnez pas aux intermédiaires. Entre Dieu et vous la communication doit être immédiate. Ce sont vos yeux qui doivent voir sa lumière. C’est votre esprit qui doit entendre sa parole.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Losing the plot in a dissatisfying read

When I give precious time to reading a book, I resent it if I am left with a sense of pointless meaningless at the end. I kept on turning the pages of Douglas Kennedy's The Woman in the Fifth because it is very readable and any book set in Paris involving lots of visits to pretentious meaningful films can't be all bad. After finishing it I had a real sense of dissatisfaction. The plot seemed to lack any creative resolution and the message seems to be that the main character will have to give in to the forces of fear and vengeance in order that retribution not be meted out on those he loves. The novel seemed to have lost its own plot. (Probably there was some deep allusion to Bunuel or Godard that I missed, but hey I still didn't like it.)
So I realise that although I'm fine with unhappy, terrible, sad, enigmatic or tragic endings, I'm not really ok with endings that don't work or haven't been worked on. I wonder what his editor was thinking of - perhaps - ah well on the strength of his other books this one will sell anyway. Most books that I don't like never get finished, I just give up on them. Usually I'm fairly upbeat about whatever I happen to be reading, what the French call "bon public", I'm just so happy to have found something to read. So I suppose it was just as well that it was only one of the six books I got for 5 euros. Probably I should just stop moaning.

Five books for six euros

The rather bizarre "Jim's market" sells British goods (oatcakes, marmite and on weekend lunchtimes fish and chips) and also has a splendid book corner offering six books for five euros. I can never resist fishing through the second hand shelves and on Thursday I turned up a real treasure, something I've wanted for a while Emilie Carles' A Wild Herb Soup - Une soupe aux herbes sauvages. I first came across Emilie Carles' story in Phyllis Rose's wonderful Penguin Book of Women's Lives so picking up an almost unused copy of the English translation is a great treat for the start of my holiday.
For now I'll just share these snippets from Avril H Goldberger's translator's note which begins the English version:

The translator's goal is to open a window onto the original text, to communicate the message so faithfully that the reader will not be aware of the translator's mediation while in the process of reading. Nonetheless, the reader must not be allowed to forget the cultural and temporal distance between our world and that of Carles. Thus, even in striving to "convert [that] strangeness into likeness", I worked to "bring home ... the strangeness of the original", to quote John Felstiner's luminous Translating Neruda.

Goldberger ends her translato's note by quoting Gregory Rabassa saying that "translation is the closest possible reading of a text".

So picking up one second book has opened up whole new worlds of reading possibilities. A good way to begin our staycation.

Friday, 11 September 2009

More on labyrinths from Crosby sands

Hat tip to Shallowfrozenwater. Now of course I also want to do a sand labyrinth. In the meantime the labyrinth speaks to me a great deal of the work of grief which is and will remain very real in weeks to come.
I love the idea of guerilla worship.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Light a candle ...

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Dissent and resistance with groups of visitors

Today, in between a visit to the dentist, some tricky climate change translation and some migration editing I also spent time talking with two visitors groups. The second group came from Germany and got shown around the chapel, with a bit of a whistle stop tour of the history of ecumenism and lots of questions about the general secretary elect.
The first group I met with was of presbyterian women from India, East Africa, Congo, Korea, Switzerland and the USA. They had been on what sounded like a fascinating tour of Geneva and Southern France looking particularly at the role women played in the Reformation in those parts of the world. They finished their tour by attending the annual "assemblée du désert" last Sunday.
I was with them for their debriefing meeting and was struck by the different ways in which these women from diverse cultures had been touched by the history of French Protestantism and by the power and simplicity of the gathering of 10,000 people in the open air near St Jean du Gard. One of the African women said how moved she was to be amongst so many white people listening to God's word together. I was quite jealous listening to their accounts as I have still never attended this emblematic annual event for French Protestantism. Perhaps next year.
After listening to their impressions and thoughts I offered some reflection around the words resistance and dissent. "Résister" was the key word the women prisoners in the Tour de Constance scratched over many years into the stone. "Dissent" comes from the history of English non-conformity, being a church which is not established. I used these two words to reflect on how being a Chrisitian today is not about being a member of the majority. Being a Christian today is about being a member of a faithful minority.
For women, who are often the unrecognized majority within that minority, there are also a complex set of roles to take on as we try to give voice to God's word in today's diverse societies. For committed French Protestant women there is also a solidarity with Protestant men which comes from that minority experience and which has some similarities to the dynamic in womanist theology.
The hour and a half we spent together helped me condense some of my thinking about resistance, dissent and the difficult issue of "voice" for women. If for the most part women are not treated as equals then much of what they say comes out of that experience and reality of oppression. The word that comes from below is often a word that has to raise its voice, it can sound shrill leading unfortunately to further dismissal. The issue of finding the right "tone" was a question I left them and myself with.
It was also humbling for me as an interpreter to find myself being interpreted into French on one side and Korean on the other. I tried not to speak too fast, but then everyone I interpret says the same to me!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Trouver sa voie, trouver sa voix - at the crossroads

We began our season of feminist theology encounters on the theme of "trouver sa voie, trouver sa voix" this evening - Find your way, find your voice. I chose to start our reflections with studying the songs of Hannah and Mary, whose poetic, revolutionary words spill out as they recognize the personal and global upheaval that the birth of the babies they are each carrying may entail.
We always drink tea or coffee and eat biscuits as we arrive at our sessions (tonight we had the treat of homemade brownies) and I encouraged the group to walk our wonderful labyrinth before we started our Bible study - a physical way of meditating on pathways.
As always we had new people joining the group and also a special visitor, a prison chaplain from Amsterdam who is using three months sabbatical to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem by bicycle.
We shared very contrasting reflections on the texts - what does it mean for a woman to find her voice? What does it mean for Mary and Hannah to be the voices of history in the making?
As we were reading particularly Hannah's song I realised how shocking the visceral language of the Bible can seem to people - especially to folk in easy, nice Geneva.
One of our group was so carried away by the theme that she told us the extraordinary story of her life - how the war changed her path irrevocably. One of her brothers joined the French resistance, the other (a monk) set off with other forced labourers to work in German factories. And we also reflected critically on how women find their voices. How hard it is to be heard when your voice is coming from below and how this can make your voice shrill and hard, difficult to be listened to.
Listening to how each of us found challenge and grace in these glorious tumultuous hymns celebrating faith and the possibility of all things being made new, I was struck by how using the device of a thematic (or hermeneutic) key can help us reach new understandings. The idea of voice and pathway opened something up in people, Hannah stands tall and allows her face to be seen and opens wide her mouth in praise and hope. Looking around the group tonight about half of us have children and half not - three who don't have children worked as midwives and nurses in Africa. What is it we are giving birth to through our words, by following our ways? Can we raise our voices and sing a new world into being?

Thinking of Suzanne

A former colleague in Jerusalem sent us this. It's good to think of Suzanne being part of the very loud and funky choir of angels....

If I Should Go Before the Rest of You

If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.

Joyce Grenfell

Monday, 7 September 2009

A death, a tragedy

This morning we gathered in the chapel and as we began worship we learned of the death of a colleague. From the choir came an audible gasp of "oh no" followed by tears. Suzanne was brilliant, funny, musical and a little crazy. We loved her, she managed by sheer enthusiasm and charm to get people to sing, play and do music in chapel in a transformative way. Last week we met briefly as staff with our new general secretary and she spontaneously struck up Hale, Hale, Hale lujah at the end of the brief time of prayer we shared together. It was perfect and inspired.
Today she was due to start two weeks holiday with her younger sister, she had seemed so well last week. Yet at some time on Saturday night she reached rock bottom and now she is no more. We can see the back window of her appartment from our back garden. O why did she not feel able to ring our doorbell even at 3am? Yet again I feel caught in that old adage, life is lived forwards and understood backwards.
So we gathered again at lunch time today in the chapel and Suzanne once more brought in people who on principle never attend religious services. We wept, our voices broke, we read powerful passages from the Psalms in Swahili and Samoan and Spanish and English, we told funny stories about her. The choir sang wonderfully and the music wove in and out of our weeping, reading and remembering. We gave thanks to God for her life and lit candles and hugged one another. And we prayed for Suzanne's three beautiful daughters, her mother and sisters.
O Suzanne, I so wish you could have shared your hour of despair with us and that we could have helped you through. I so hate having to speak about you in the past tense, it seems very wrong, you who were so much part of the present. "If only"...

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Breaking the blogging block with a labyrinth

So to break my recent lack of blogging I've posted some photos of the brilliant labyrinth that my colleague Mark Taylor of the Iona communuity got stewards to lay out and build with stones during the WCC's recent central committee. When I first suggested the idea Mark took it all in his stride and found a very straightforward way of marking out the labyrinth on the grass next to the ecumenical centre's cafeteria. It is a wonderful resource just for taking a break during the working day and it also looks really lovely. I must remember to go up to the 4th floor and take a photo of what it looks like from up there.
I'll try and post a copy of the method Mark used to make the labyrinth soon - mind you especially if you build it with stones it does require quite a lot of freely available labour!
You can find out more about labyrinths here, and I'll be posting here about labyrinths as well.
The most surprising thing for me walking it for the first time is how long it takes to walk in and to walk out - it really is about giving yourself time for the pilgrimage. The other thing I felt very much on finally reaching the centre for the first time was a real sense of joy and achievement. Walking the labyrinth even touched an old cynic like me.