Monday, 12 December 2011

Shush! I have become an ecumenical bureaucrat

So it has happened. I have become an ecumenical bureaucrat. I suppose I'd like to think I'm a rather unlikely bureaucrat, (though I am a good administrator, that's not the same thing). I suspect my ecumenical skills lie more in ecumenical enthusiasm and ecumenical activism. Maybe I'm a bit of an agitprop ecumenist - both in the sense of agitation and propaganda and in the sense of theatre - wanting to tell the story.
Today in my newly acquired role as bureaucrat I took part for the first time in a national bilateral dialogue meeting between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran and Reformed churches in France. Together with Franck Lemaître o.p. I am "co-secrétaire" to the group. Today I learnt the ropes by looking over his shoulder as he typed over the minutes of the last meeting to begin to create today's minutes! He's obviously an old hand at being a bureaucrat, he also has perfect handwriting and seems to know instinctively when to take notes and when to let the discussion just flow on. Very interesting - and of course writing the notes does give you power to some extent. One of the problems I have at the moment is that years of consecutive interpreting between French and English means that I naturally tend to take notes in the language other than the one being spoken. So I had to make a conscious effort to just take notes today - there isn't too much in English in my jottings, though I did have to shake myself back to the task in hand once or twice: "stop thinking about how to translate that and concentrate on the content".
The group meeting today was newly constituted and set to begin a fresh round of dialogue based on looking at previous ecumenical accords in France relating to marriage and baptism, with a view to providing more up to date guidance - given how much society and the churches have changed over the past 40 years there is real need for this. So there was quite a bit of brainstorming going on, it was a lively and good natured meeting and a privilege to listen in and even contribute to such a group.
One thing that the group also wanted to think about from the outset had to do with "reception" - how will we get the fruits of our reflections and writing to those people who will find it useful. So we are trying to build some thinking about communication into the dialogue from the outset which can't be a bad thing, and may also have some impact on the shape and content of the dialogue. The hope is that the group will be able to work fairly quickly on the tasks it has set itself.
One of the main reasons for this is that the previous "comité mixte" ended up meeting for around ten years and produced the report pictured here "Discerner le Corps du Christ". This time the comité really hope to meet for less time and to write a shorter report. Seems like a perfect project for an ecumenical activist turned bureaucrat to act as secretary in such circumstances. I started the day rather worried that I wouldn't be up to the task and ended thinking what a real pleasure it had been.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ouff! So, perhaps now back to the blog ... of ecumenical springtime ...

Well, this evening it seems to be happening. I seem to feel that I have at last properly arrived in my new "home" in Paris. Finally the internet is working (getting a phone line installed took two months!) and I am actually at home and well enough to contemplate blogging (I've had a nasty bout of bronchitus the past 10 days). Tonight will be the first time in two and a half months that I have slept eight straight nights in my own bed in the flat here and I'm also looking forward to spending every night between now and December 24 in the same place too. Some of the time I've been away from Paris I've of course been in that other bed which is mine (or at least partly mine!) in Ferney Voltaire, but much of the time away has been been visiting local ecumenical groups in different parts of France, on speaking engagements or representing the Fédération Protestante de France (FPF) . Perhaps I should start a special guide to overnight stays and food in some of France's religious houses. So far I would have to say that the delicious mixed vegetable and parsnip soup eaten on a stormy evening in "Douvres la Délivrande" would top my list of delicacies. (The photo of the sky is from there.)
I am also getting the opportunity to pray with other Christians in many different places and this is a particular joy. I must start taking photos of the chapels where we share in these times of silence, song, word and prayer ... sometimes of course the prayers take place just in meeting rooms too. So far my two favourite chapels have been at the Frères de la Campagne in Meaux and at the Domaine St Joseph in Lyon.
To say that my learning curve has been steep would be an understatement. Doing everything in French, especially almost everything I write, has made me hyper aware of my failings with the language and more hesitant than I might usually be. Things take longer too ... though I find writing pretty hard work in English too truth be told. The French have an amazing capacity for frontal learning in "colloques" etc and I think I am used to having more tea and coffee breaks in my life! I had also forgotten just how bad I am at learning names and how tiring starting in a new place is ... I didn't expect to miss Stephen as much as I do, but conversely I am also really enjoying time on my own in my still rather empty but getting more comfortable by the moment flat.
Part of me had hoped and expected that in starting this new job I would somehow just press a switch and the past would be forgotten or transformed. Ah well. I suppose you can guess it wasn't quite like that ... Another reason I have not been blogging. When you wake at six in the morning in tears it is sometimes better not to bore the world with all that. That intensity of grieving, welling up from the unconscious and taking me unawares seems at last to be passing. Much as I have learned about myself through it, I am deeply, deeply grateful that it seems to be ebbing. More about this time as I move forwards. But it has been good for me to be silent on the blog front for a while, though perhaps the healing would have been faster had I been writing.
Anyway as for my new job, it is extraordinary and terrifying and brilliant and hard work. I hover between feeling like a complete fraud (whatever made me think I was an ecumenist?) and thinking, yes I think I may have a real contribution to make here. Honestly though, I have been having quite a bit of fun, you could look at some of the videos my colleagues made of me here - folk seem to particularly like the bonus one. I am working with a group of extremely hard working and talented colleagues, there is a mass of great creative work going on based from the FPF. It has been balm to my soul in this new environment simply to be trusted. I had forgotten what that was like and how very beautiful it is. On this Sunday evening the thing I give thanks for most is "la confiance", it a very lovely French word and a great feeling.

So here are a few glimpses of things I would have blogged about had I been blogging ...

  • A great photo of myself and an Orthodox priest in full liturgical regalia sitting on the front row of Les Etats généraux du Christianisme both of us taking notes on our Ipads - the photographer just couldn't resist. Now we just need to see if Apple do religious sponsorship!
  • Explaining my job to a young Tunisian woman while waiting for the RER to (not) arrive. "Oh but you should become Muslim" she said. An interesting conversation on day one of my new job and her fourth day in France!
  • The shock as an Orthodox priest drove myself and my Roman Catholic colleague to the railway station in Caen on a short cut through the red light district made up of old camper vans each with a candle lit on the dashboard. Most of the women came from Africa.
  • The deeply beautiful and moving sound of over 150 bishops singing in Gregorian plain chant in front of the Grotte de Lourdes and the Roman Catholic bishops conference. I was one of only four women present.
  • Having lunch with my church president and him deciding we'll go back to work to have a coffee as the price for an espresso in the local restaurants is to say the least prohibitive and would be a sizeable percentage of our salaries!
  • Still, but still getting lost in the Gare St Lazare ... ugh.
  • Enjoying the beauty of Paris even if I have so far done nothing cultural whatsoever.
  • Must try and say something at some point about L'histoire de la virilité and all the stuff about la théorie du genre.
  • A wonderful conversation about the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle with a woman who has for over ten years been updating the country information and writing new prayers in French for this wonderful ecumenical resource. A great link between my former and new jobs and i get to join the group this week!
  • And finally lunchtime today. We ate with the brothers at the Couvent St Jacques and I felt very privileged to be at table with four very eminent ecumenists: Hervé Legrand, Michel Mallèvre, Franck Lemaître and Stephen Brown. I'd like to say that I held my own, but really I have no illusions, but strangely I didn't feel too much like a fraud, just like I might need to have a different kind of conversation to be able to make my contribution. Ok I admit it, I was completely out of my depth. I think it was at this point that I realised that living with Dr B is a bit like living with a Protestant Dominican!
Enough I'm back on the blog, still alive and beginning to find my way around my new life. I am enjoying it. And one day I will blog about the infamous line "Bar à whisky, 500 mètres dans cette direction!" For now perhaps all you need to know is that I wander around talking to folk about ecumenical springtime. It's not a bad life.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Evening prayers for justice and peace

I wandered around the house in a rather desultory attempt to think about things I might need in Paris and ended up putting a mainly rather pretentious choice of books into my case - and also managed to leave behind the detective fiction book which might at least have had a chance of actually getting read!
Almost at the last minute I took this small book down from the shelves in my office in Ferney and this evening I have prayed in my hotel room according to the Monday evening order of prayer.
Each Day and Each Night by J. Philip Newell offers simple orders of prayer for the morning and evening of each day of the week. Each day has a theme and Monday's is justice and peace - you can get a taster here. It also has a lectionary of Bible readings for each day. Each day's morning and evening prayer begins with verses from the wonderful Psalm 139.
I know that in moving to Paris the one thing I shall miss most from my previous job is praying with others in the chapel on an almost daily basis. So I know that I need to find simple ways of encouraging myself in the discipline of prayer. I'm glad at the intuition that simply made me slip this into my bag, it spoke to me in all sorts of ways tonight to be praying for justice and peace, two of the key areas of work underpinning much of what the WCC does. It helped me look back to the Peace convocation this year and forwards to the WCC's assembly "God of life, lead us to justice and peace". It has been such a blessing to be able to pray with others so often in a very beautiful place, now I shall have to try and find different ways to frame my days with prayer. Much of what I feel at the moment has to do with a sense of very deep loss but also of profound thankfulness. The reflective Celtic but also quite Ignatian path through a simple office of prayer that Philip Newell sets out certainly helped me tonight to name that and stay with it a while. I'm sure the morning and evenign prayers will help me through these first few weeks of a very new existence.
It is going to be fun but it is also going to be chaotic and hard work at times. I will need discipline to make up in part for being less involved in preparing and leading public worship.

The opening prayer begins:
...O Christ of the lost
and betrayed
come close to me this night
that I maycome close to you

The closing prayer ends:
Who keeps watch
over us this night?
Who but the Christ of love.

This is what happens when you spend your life taking tomatoes out of sandwiches - you get asked to join a blog called BLT!

For a long time I never ate raw tomatoes, then in my late 20s I got quite partial to the little cherry tomatoes and nice ripe vine tomatoes in salads. I Rome I got slightly obessesd with the very sweet mini plum tomatoes. Even now I suually offer the tomato bits in restaurant salads to Dr B. What I really take exception to though is tomatoes in sandwiches. On planes and trains, in cafés and bars I order a sandwich and then spend time opening it up and removing the (what I consider to be) utterly horrible slices of tomato, the sliced version of the fruit just gives the bread and everything in the sarnie a sort of yucky texture and flavour. Out vile slice!
Given this, it was quite funny that I should be invited to post occasionally on a blog called BLT. In this case though it's not bacon lettuce and tomato but Bible Literature and Translation and it's certainly not just a sandwich.
Two folk whose blogs I admire and have been following for several years - J.K. Gayle and Suzanne McCarthy - blog there alongside Theophrastus and Craig R. Smith. These folk are all seriously knowledgeable about biblical translation, which I am not. One of the reasons I read Suzanne and Kurk is because I learn so much. Anyway the blog is about community building as well as exchange of ideas and information about the Bible, translating and literature. They would like me to add my voice which I am happy to do, though it won't be often unfortunately as I shall have to start blogging or doing some web based work in French in coming months, improve my typo 3 skills and more besides.
Anyway I have two initial posts in gestation for BLT and neither of them is about tomatoes you'll be pleased to hear. Writing this is my way of saying, please be a bit patient guys your Paris correspondent will be joining you soon! I was just not in any fit state over the past few days to do blogging of any kind, let alone try to learn Wordpress. So the best I can do is dedicate my first post from Paris to BLT.
I have however arrived in Paris, despite antibiotics and general sinusitus induced lethargy I managed to pack a suitcase and get myself here. Work begins tomorrow, wonder if there will be sandwiches for lunch?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Beauty, surprises and the generous liturgy of friendship and prayer ...

It had not been easy to find a date to go out for a drink together, and I was quite surprised that I was expected at the ecumenical centre reception for 17.00, I even got an sms reminder. Wow we must be having some serious fun ahead of us starting this early. In honour of a night on the town I even put on some mascara - with hindsight this was perhaps not a good idea!
I met with Maike and she took me not out to the bar but into the chapel - that place of course for the real gluttons and wine bibbers! In the side chapel were quite a number of my colleagues gathered very quietly and Maike explained that they simply wanted to say thank you by organising Holden Evening Prayer in such a way that all I had to do was to be there.
I was very moved - hence the problems with the recently applied mascara and the depserate search for a hankie in my bag (I've learnt from facebook they had even discussed this eventuality before my arriving - this of course is what friends are for).
A group of my friends had been preparing for a long time, rehearsing the piano and flute and solo parts since August, tonight was the first time they sang and played together. It was a very beautiful moment, and the liturgy should be beautiful but not perfect. I thought back to Stephen and Sara Padre, Itonde Kakoma, Luke Smetters, Colin Williams, Annie Osbourne, Michael Wallace and many others who have introduced and sung Holden with us since 2004. It is so good to know that the singing will go on, especially as more musicians know the parts. It reminded me of all of those times when I have come to the end of very busy days in the office and felt that perhaps the most important thing I had done was pray with others.
Tonight was truly "leitourgia" - the work and praise of the people, many were involved in reading the wonderful selection of Bible verses chosen by Ruthann, in the music, in the preparation. I know how much coordination that takes so I felt very blessed.
The liturgy is the space that frames our grief, joy, distress and doubt. This was the space where I could finally allow some tears to fall in public as I grieve at leaving a job I love, recognising my failures, seeing too some achievements and simply accepting that moving on is painful at this time. Tonight my tears were for the first time about leaving these wonderful people and this wonderful space, rather than tears about that which is broken in the present and the past. No more struggling is needed. Singing and praying to God held all of us in that moment together in love.
This was the second time this year I have received a sign of pure grace. It is quite hard to receive such creative, simple generosity. But I realised that grace has that capacity to transform and heal. The thirty minutes of tonight's service was a special gift to me, nourishing me with joy despite the tears.
Thank you all very, very much.
And so to Paris where I hope to occasionally say the Beatitudes with others at midday according to the tradition of les veilleurs.
But for now simply gratitude.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Putting part of the puzzling ecumenical picture together

My great WCC colleagues Marc-Henri Heiniger and Muriel Bataclan invited me to talk about the history of the ecumenical movement to group of people from specialised ministries who are at Bossey for some days of quite intense ecumenical formation. I haven't time now to say much about what I said - tho' I did manage to record it on my new Ipad. But our session ended in the sunshine trying to put together the ecumenical river - it's such a good metaphor - the puzzle of ecumenism.
Anyway I also have a video of the group doing this but I think I need a bit of advanced technical assistance before posting that - maybe tomorrow, it's too long as it stands now.
Anyway it was a good experience for me to speak with the group on this topic just a few days before ending my time working at the WCC. As ever it was a real privilege to speak with them and I did promise them I would try to post at least some photos before the end of the day. I also ended what I shared with quite a big plug for social media in building ecumenical capital: be authentic, be active, be nice.

So I should be ... but instead I am involved in many forms of perfect procrastination

Well I should be packing, getting organised, doing all sorts of things to clear my desk, finish writing projects and get ready to move to Paris. So of course instead of doing any of that I am actually returning to the blog at long last - and yes there is a great deal of tidying up to do here too of course, because almost all of the information about me and about Dr B needs to now change. You have been warned, you may turn up and discover the builders have been in and painted everything white! though rest assured minimalism is not really my style.
Yes I am moving on Friday this week! And on Thursday this week I go to Lyon for my first day conference in the new job. Pictured here is what the appartment in Paris I shall be living in looked like when I visited 2 weeks ago. The Chef de chantier looked a little worried when I said I was hoping to move in on September 30, he looked a little better when I said but it's ok if it's only at midnight!
Anyway you can see that my future colleagues can see straight into my place so you will understand why the only thing packed so far are 6 sets of Ikea curtains bought on special offer last week. I shall have to remember not to wander around this dwelling naked, unless all the curtains are drawn!
Then of course I had a little jaunt to and from Prague on the train - I was interpreting for the Conference of European Churches, I think for now we'll just say it was another one of those ecuemnical meetings, after all I do want them to invite me back.
Then this morning I said yes to talking to a group of specialised ministries folk at the Château de Bossey and that was great fun (for me if not for them!), but really I should have been packing ...
anyway Dr B drove me to the SNCF (even regular readers of this blog may not know that I do not have a driving licence) and I am now the proud owner of an Abonnement Fréquence for the whole of France, in Germany this would cost 150 euros, in Switzerland about 150 CHF, in France 650 euros ...
So I really should stop blathering on here and pack, but you know what? My wonderful colleagues gave me an Ipad as a leaving gift and I'm trying to learn that and then I took some really cool photos at the Ecumenical formation session this morning and I think today is the perfect time to learn how toedit the video I took and then I'd really like to write something about Prague ... and of course before I pack a second suitcase I really should empy the dishwasher. Yes, perfect procrastination when you cannot focus! More soon folks, who knows I might even tidy the house!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Our favourite coffee cups

Sadly all but one of our favourite coffee cups have now lost their handles. I was given them by Tante Lotte nearly thirty years ago so I suppose they have seen sterling service, and even then they were at least second hand, she always shopped at the local flea market. We're sad to see them go though, they are the perfect size, shape, coulour, feel, weight ... and those rogue handles that keep breaking are just a wonderful shape, perfect for holding. Anyway the saucers have fared better than the cups so we shall still have the memory of the cups when eating desert off the saucers.

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Saturday, 24 September 2011

The outward journey to Prague ...

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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

An attempt at some kennings "en français"

What follows is a list of some my attempts at kennings in French. It's not a form that should work in a romance language but it was helpful for our feminist theology group last night and made us think about language for God and faith in different ways. I'm not sure the resutls are really French - what would the Académie française say about such neologising! Of course because of the way French works the kennings are the other way around to in English or German. These are all loosely inspired by Jesus in the gospels.

Pêcheur d'homme et de femmes
fouetteur d'injustice
Raconteur de paraboles
Quitteur de tombeau
Chemineur de route
parleur de vérité
ballayeur de poussière
metteur de lumière
prometteur de l'Esprit
assureur de paix
maudisseur de figuiers stériles
pasteur de brébis perdu
aube pascal
levure de farine
ensemenceur de champs
lecteur de la synagogûe
chasseur de vendeurs
prieur de Gethsemané
rompeur de pain
verseur de vin

You can find some kennings in English here and here on my blog.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Playful wisdom - transgression and mysticism at feminist theology

I have come home from tonight's feminist theology group richly blessed as ever and laden with gifts, including a copy of Grace Jantzen's A Place of Springs. I am so delighted! I also got some very special Faverger chocolate and a splendid bottle of Ecrivain Poète Genevan wine.
Tonight was the last time I shall be with the group for quite some time as it really will not be possible for me to get back from Paris on a regular basis to be with them. This is a shame because the programme for the year ahead is really interesting: "Obéissance et transgression: Créatrices et créateurs à la suite de Dieu".
So we began tonight with an apple on the table as a symbol of trangression and its desirability. I spoke about mysticism and integrating spirituality and faith for this first session and we did various exercises - writing down the name of a woman and man who had been important for our spiritual formation, either folk known to us or historical figures or even ficitonal ones. Each of us spent some time, in the silence of our hearts comparing these two figures - had their influence been different because of their gender, is their a male or female spirituality or mysticism? We held on to and "contained" these thoughts as I went on to lay out some thoughts from Sarah Coakley's book Powers and Submissions about how "kenosis" the notions which have grown up around self-emptying have been seen in extremely different ways in by feminist theologians such as Rosemary Ruether and Daphne Hampson. In her book Coakley works carefully and persuasively through the text in Philippians 2 to offer a non destructive basis for kenosis as a foundation for spirituality. Tonight I was trying to pick up the different ideas around kenosis as a way of trying to move us towards thinking about who the God we pray is - I admitted taht despite decades of feminist theology I have deeply internalised a judgemental God - fortunately not the only God I have internalised but part of teh God I pray to. As we were workign through some of this I asked everyone in the group fot try to write some kennings and encouraged them by offering some that I had written earlier. I wasn't at all sure about using this form in a raomance language but it actually worked quite well. As we had some anglophone folk at the group tonight and I was interpreting myself into English most of the time it worked well as I tried to kenning what people said in French back into English. Two of my favourite ideas about God that came out of this exercise ( and I wish I'd had the presence of mind to write them all down but hey...) were "joueuse sagesse - playful wisdom and berceur d'enfant which I suppose I would translate as lullaby singer - what a glorious image of God.
I am so grateful to this group which has been my lifeline to sanity, theology and laughter over these past 7 or 8 years. I shall miss our time together but hope to drop in from time to time so as to transgress together.
We ended by reading Chouraqui's wonderful translation of the Beatitudes - en marche les matriciels - Get up and go may mercy be born from you...
A wonderful evening. And my kenning for God was "love maker". Maybe all these years of fem theol are finally having a bit of impact!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Versailles les Diaconesses de Reuilly

Some images for my time of transition ...

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The beautiful chapel chez les Diaconnesses de Reuilly - starlight, perfect sound and Geborgenheit

I am about to move to Paris and take up a new job with the Federation of French Protestant Churches, more about that soon! I shall move in just over two weeks, tomorrow I get to see the appartment I shall be moving into for the first time -though it is likely to still be a bit of a building site! From Thursday to Saturday I met with my new colleagues from the Federation on retreat at the Versailles mother house of the Diaconesses de Reuilly. I stayed on for two extra nights. So I have had four days of being able to go to prayers with the sisters here in their extraordinary new chapel. It is like an architectural meditation on the word "matriciel". It gives a wonderful sense of shelter of being known yet also of worlds and universes beyond our own as the light coming through resembles starlight. I'll write more about it over coming days.
It has been restful and restorative to attend worship and not have to do anything other than be there and try to pray, or give in to tears, or try to be silent. I was also moved that the Protestant sisters here take their ecumenical commitment so seriously and joyously - the major focus in the chapel at the moment is "time for creation" prayers are regularly said for ecumenical and church leaders.
Singing the Beatitudes at midday each day has been particularly moving for me for all sorts of reasons. It has been an emotional week, I had my leaving party from my job at the WCC on Wednesday, having preached a final time on Monday in the chapel ... yes I am sad and I am of course also terrified about the task ahead, but as in all times of transition I have to trust that things will "become", somehow.
First task after seeing the flat on Monday will be to order a bed. I think I should be able to cope with the rest if I'm able to sleep! Knowing that the sisters here will also be praying for me as they did and do for my predecessor also adds a further dimension to being supported. Knowing that this beautiful place is just an hour away by metro also gives me the idea that there is somewhere I can run away to and it wouldn't even be running away ...

Monday, 5 September 2011

Transgressive fragments: crusts of exile, hope and unity ... a sermon

Transgressive fragments: crusts of exile, hope and unity

Sermon preached on 5 September 2011 at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva


Exodus 12:39; Matthew 13:33

(This text is unabridged and rather longer than the preached version!)

Two philosophical introductions

Three fragments

and something that may be a sermon ...

“I chose to work on the writing of Paul Ricoeur because of his insistence on rediscovering a joyful ecumenism” said Beate Bengard at a lunchtime conversation hosted by the LWF’s department of Theology and Studies just two weeks ago. I was moved by her passion at Ricoeur’s thought, perhaps all the more so since I had just bought a book of the final fragments of his writings called “Lebendig bis in den Tod - to live right up to and right in to death, would be possible translations, but perhaps a freer and better translation would take up Christian Aid’s slogan of “we believe in life before death”.

While listening to Beate I thought of the work of another philosopher and theologian, the Canadian, Grace Jantzen, who was a Quaker. In her work she pushed for a thorough-going non-violent philosophy of religion, based on natality rather than on mortality. Unlike Ricoeur she did not have the privilege of living into old age. Her series on Death and the Displacement of Beauty in Western Philosophy remained unfinished following her untimely, early death. Yet her work and witness remain natal.

So these ideas of joy and giving birth to a new creative future frame some of the background to what I try to share this morning, perhaps particularly as we move this week towards the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Three fragments

In a concentration camp a father stands wailing next to the body of his dead son. He came quickly when they told him, now he screams in frustration because someone else managed to take his dead son's bread ration before he could. Dehumanized by a desperate system he grieves not for his son but for missing an extra ration of bread. Kyrie eleieson

The 14th century was a time of famine in southern England. Historical documents show that when the famine was at its worst the landlords made more profit. It's a story that may sound all too familiar given speculation on food prices in our own time.

During that famine the abbot of St Alban's Abbey - no doubt worried because he was losing his part of the tythe - ordered that the small milling stones, the quirn stones, be removed from everyone's house. He then built a patio with them. While the peasants could no longer mill small amounts of grain for personal consumption at least the Abbot had a patio.

The church's preferential option for the poor came along only a few centuries later.

More recently Globethics published a book entitled "Corruption free churches are possible"… kyrie eleison

An overweight middle aged woman refugee sits in the office of a British MP, she comes back day after day until he agrees to sign the papers allowing her brother right of entry to the UK. She knows her English isn't very good, she even understands that this is "not quite the done thing", she also knows she has nothing to lose. Her only child, a daughter, had died suddenly at the age of 13 just a year earlier. Helene Hurwitz-Stranz was a determined and tenacious woman. Her brother, his wife and their two teenage children arrived in Britain in April 1939, today would have been her brother's, my grandfather's, 121st birthday. Even with feisty defenders millions like him then were not so fortunate, neither are millions today. He was a fragment. Justice and dignity just a matter of arbitrary luck. Today the UK government claims as a virtue the need to balance net immigration. Kyrie eleison.

So now perhaps for an attempt at a sermon.

Just occasionally on hot summer nights when we sleep with the windows open I am woken by an exquisite and enticing fragrance. It's not often that a smell wakes you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning but this does. It is the smell of the baguettes baking and the croissants crisping up from our local boulangerie. And it is glorious! (Though rather dangerous for the hips!)

This morning the fragment from the gospels that we reflect on is about the stage in breadmaking that precedes the wondrous smell of baking. It's a beautiful, if for us perhaps rather old-fashioned image, not of freeze dried or industrial yeast but of natural leaven raising large quantities of flour. Leaven works more slowly than yeast or baking powder but it transforms the flavour of the loaf more thoroughly, some say it even makes the flour more digestible. The best French bakers use "levain" - leaven or sourdough for their bread and not yeast or "levure", real baguette à l’ancienne should be crisp but slightly sour on the inside.

The parable gives us an image where the kingdom of God is growing in hidden yet glorious ways, we are offered a vision of God's promise where gentleness, joy, reconciliation and respect, justice and stewardship, care and peace are the sourdough kingdom values, raising the dough with authenticity and integrity.

For those of us working in ecumenical affairs this gospel fragment offers perhaps also a glimpse of oneness in the future potential loaf, we could all share in together. A wonderful vision of the oikoumene.

And well I could end there, but I'm sorry to disappoint you, we have a little way to go yet ...

As is so often the case with the parables of Jesus the riddler there is something more complex, cryptic, playful and challenging going on than might at first seem to be the case.

The word krypto is even there in the Greek – even if modern English translations lose that sense – the woman hides the leaven in the flour. Is God’s kingdom about subterfuge, about transgression and by a woman? Is that the only way the kingdom will grow? Is Jesus simply saying: open your eyes to signs of the kingdom taking place in the everyday life of the homes around you. The kingdom is just like bread rising and that happens every day…

The bread of the Exodus, the bread of liberation, had no leaven in it. Today a Jewish household once a year will clear out all traces of old yeast and leaven, a ritual and practical break with the past.

Setting out into the desert and dependence on God's grace meant leaving the leaven of servitude and slavery behind and living with the unleavened, tooth-breaking bread of exile and with the manna which the early morning dew provided.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that amongst those desert wanderers and their descendents there were so many murmurings and yearnings about returning to the real food, the fleshpots of Egypt.

Over the centuries the spiritual unleavened bread representing liberation came to be prized above the everyday leavened bread, leaven is even judged as corrupt in parts of the biblical literature. There are warnings in the gospels and in Paul’s letters about the false or corrupt leaven of some teachers.

Yet as I return to Jesus’ clever and ambiguous parable I am struck by how it is the leavening, rising dough which symbolises God’s commonwealth. The dough rising speaks so much of hope, of the voiceless being heard, of the integration of the marginalised of the overcoming of oppression and the end of violence. The dough rising speaks of something hidden, marvellous and yet uncontrollable. This is what the kingdom is likened to - not to the baked bread.

As soon as the dough is baked – and those delicious smells come from the bakery - it becomes more fragmentary, less complete. Of course the bread actually feeds and nourishes but the rising dough is the subversive promise of all that potential feeding and sharing … all that might be possible.

Sometimes, very often even, I feel caught between promise and practicalities between the demands of the gospel and what I am able to do.

The French will vote with their feet, or tastebuds when it comes to buying baguette, preferring the bread of one boulangerie over that of another, though globalisation and the supermarkets are even eating away at this traditional discernment! I know I need to discern between the leaven of integrity and the leaven of corruption in my own life, in the life of the world. I know too that, however promising and full of possibility the rising dough may seem, the eschatological sourdough needs to be baked, the flavour of it needs to become real on peoples tongues.

And of course as soon as the hope filled dough is baked it becomes a fragment, bread that needs not to be hidden but to be shared, bringing straightforward nourishment, satisfaction and perhaps fellowship, justice or even life. Fragments of the flat liberating bread of exile, of mouldy prison rations or of fine brioche from the tables of the rich all have the potential to carry such hope.

Christ the leaven of our life offers the promise of liberation from cruelty and slavery of all kinds – the cruelty of famine, the slavery of materialism, or of abuse of power. That liberation is offered for both the oppressor and the oppressed.

The wholeness, vitality and natality of the rising dough, calls us to hold on to hope for all that is natal and joyful and hopeful as we try to bear witness and to live in such a way as to reconcile the fragments.

Perhaps the hidden leaven of God's kingdom will help us to develop an ecumenism of fragments which overcomes fragmentation; an ecumenism which believes in the sourdough values of the commonwealth, a bread which takes longer to rise, lasts longer and tastes better. A bread of true joy and not of manufactured bland niceness. The bread of tomorrow which feeds us today; its taste and texture speak to our hearts of life before death and of being one, if not at our divided earthly altars then surely at heavenly ones.

Jesus will not always put the fragments back together for us but he will say:

This is my body, broken, for you

This is my body, in fragments, for you

May the scales fall from our eyes and may all that is hidden and authentic within us bear the fruit of peace, joy and love which the Spirit wills for humankind and for the whole inhabited earth. Let us concentrate on that which creates and engenders.


Copyright (c) Jane Stranz/WCC

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Norwich, a wedding, sunshine, and reception in the cathedral cloisters

Daniel and Annie said yes to one another on Saturday. It was a glorious day in Norwich and an enjoyable day of liturgy followed by cream tea in the Cathedral cloisters.

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Mao's Great Famine - the redundancy of courage or the arbitrary banality of evil?

On the last day of our holiday I read in almost a single sitting Frank Dikötter's brilliant account of Mao's so-called "great leap forward" between 1958-1961. Mao's Great Famine makes for fairly desperate reading and I am still shell-shocked from what I have learned from Dikötter's scholarship. The scale of the sheer wanton destruction of human beings and of the natural environment is beyond comprehension. Scholars disagree how many "additional" deaths occurred because of the famine and the violent terror that accompanied it, but it seems to be between 30 and 45 million people.
Part of me was fascinated to read Dikötter's disection of how power, politics and decision-making took place as the great leap forwards was implemented across the party. Part of me simply felt deeply, deeply sick.
Very occasionally individuals try to act against the system, to hide grain for their villages or their family, to question the irrationality of planting in a way that will kill the seed, to say no. Nearly always they encounter a brutal end. Towards the end of the book we hear about the speech of the one highly placed party official, Liu Shaoqui who actually questions and condemns the leadership - having seen the impact of famine on his home province. "History will judge you and me, even cannibalism will go into the books." We are told that Mao is present for the speech. We are made to understand that the leader will bide his time to have his revenge and this comrade will be purged in the cultural revolution. The famine proved to Mao that the party, and he as its leader, exercised almost total control over the most populous nation on earth. His detached political pleasure at the destruction is frightening.
Reading it I was reminded of the title of Timothy Mo's novel about East Timor "the Redundancy of Courage". The hopelessness of resistance in such a system - the hopelessness of even being able to find out what forms resistance might have taken when destruction is so massive and access to information is managed - the only photos of the time of the great famine are propaganda photos. Sometimes even the story cannot survive yet Dikötter uses the detailed information he finds in the archives he has been allowed access to, to try and tell the story of individuals and communities. He gives people, and the tiny shards of information he finds out about them, a story and a name. It is very moving.
However, you cannot read history like this as a theologian without feeling deeply challenged. There is a passing reference to hope about two-thirds into the book. How destructive hope was for people, giving them energy to struggle on. People hoped that "if only the great leader knew" then things could change for the better, for a more rational future. In the face of this level of destruction of human beings and of humanity how do you preach about God's care for each individual, counting the hairs on each of our heads?
After reading a book like this - I have no answers just questions.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Your turn to spot the Dalek!

Sorry that is very unfare, we all know the Dalek is the stylish one in black and silver. Dr B is the intelligent one with unknown powers of conjuring up trains from the Thomas Cook railway timetable even without an electronic screwdriver (this is partly because noone else is allowed access!) - and sorry that was a very British cultural reference!

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Exterminate him?

No of course not. However, I do live with a man who thinks Daleks are cuddly toys just look at how this one makes him smile. I think this is probably the reason that he keeps on saying that we've had a really great holiday, well one of the reasons anyway.
I am going to get him to do some guest blogs about our brilliant and crazy journey. We have both returned home to work and life with smiles on our faces and looking relaxed despite carrying ridiculously large suitcases around Europe for over two weeks. Now if Daleks ever did decide to become benevolent perhaps they could reinvent the sent on ahead luggage system that almost all European railways now seem to think should be confined to the dustbin of history.
Anyway this Dalek was spotted in Waterstones in Norwich and I was instructed to take these photos. Dr B was overjoyed to uncover this as part of our holiday! (Yes he is a very big Dr Who fan ...)

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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A shards of glass angel

Well I suppose it's not surprising given that most of it is made from transparent glass that this little angel I bought at the Nidaros Cathedral today is almost invisible. As is the way with cathedral bookshops the one here had more than its fair share of kitsch - I admit to being rather intrigued with the real feather angel wings in various sizes - just where would one use them? Hmmm ...
Then I saw these and read that they are made from shards of glass by people recovering from or living with substance abuse. People living with a great deal of inner and real pain make these from broken glass, something that speaks of pain and of shattered lives.
The angels are marketed through the Kirkens Bymission - whose slogan is: respect, justice, care (well I'm just making that translation up from the box in front of me) - you can visit the City Mission website in English here. They do very good work with some of the loneliest and least well off even in this well-balanced and caring society.
Of course the shattered glass angel spoke to me particularly because of the many shattered lives here in Norway following the tragic events of last Friday. Inside the cathedral a whole set of steps in front of one of the altars was full of candles - so much so one attendant was almost full time just dealing with the nightlights. In the centre of Trondheim flowers and more candles have been placed alongside photos of some of those killed. Almost every public statue has flowers laid on it and the bridges have roses woven into the railings.
As we received the news I stopped writing up our holiday, sometimes silence is the only form of words we can find. Though there are various posts in gestation, but they will come later. Today I bought a shards of glass angel, something made from broken bits. And somehow from all that I have seen I can sense that Norway will build from these shards. One of the young women survivors said "If one man can hate so much, imagine what we can do together with love". Perhaps one day, although I am already three times her age I shall know how to show such wise maturity.

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