Thursday, 31 October 2013

The gospel of grey

Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, is an intense cinema experience, perfectly paced, provoking, wasting no time on anything extraneous or gratuitous, but celebrating one man's quiet diplomacy, bravery and humanity in a situation which all sailors have at one time or another come to dread: piracy.

It is the true story of an attack on an American cargo ship, by Somali pirates, the kidnap of the Captain, and his eventual dramatic rescue by US special forces. Commenting on its making, Tom Hanks observed Hollywood is generally interested in black and white, the victory of good over evil; but this film deals in greys, which is much more interesting.

Part of the 'grey' is created in initial scenes as we see Somalis in their dirt poor, dry and dusty makeshift homes, trying to scratch a living fishing. Volunteers are required for a planned hijack - the strongest and bravest only. As one of the actors comments later, we must remember that Somalis are the progeny of a decade of war - schooling is hard to come by, poverty endemic, there's 'nothing to live for'. Fuelled by machismo and promises of big money, four young men set out with automatic weapons for the high seas and a rendezvous with Captain Phillips' ship, Alabama.

Simultaneously, In a very different part of the world, Captain Phillips is setting out from his comfortable Vermont home, for a plane journey which will take him to Oman and thence to the horn of Africa. 'It gets harder each time', his wife and he agree, these long, potentially dangerous trips away from home. She worries about the world, which is changing rapidly. There's an ominous strain in their car journey to the airport. He worries too, about their children ('one left, one about to leave'), about job prospects for that generation, about the huge competition and the pressures of the corporate world. It's dog eat dog out there.

But the Captain must do a job, there is cargo to be shipped, some of it food supplies for hungry Africans. Once at the port he sets about the journey thoroughly and carefully, double checking all possible security risks and drilling his crew in emergency procedures. It is in the middle of one such that they are boarded by pirates, after a faulty hose on the side of the ship gives the four men a tiny window of opportunity. The cargo ship is massive, the skinny pirates' boat small and precarious, but there's a chilling sense in which we are all helpless in the face of armed terrorism, especially that which is perpetrated by men who have nothing to lose. 9/11 taught us that.

The next two hours of the film chart the way Captain Phillips handles the pirates and their violent threat to the ship, hiding his crew and engineering a power failure so that eventually the pirate captain, Muse, is taken hostage himself, below decks. It's a battle of wit vs. might; one cannot help thinking that Captain Phillips has on his side technological knowhow, education, training, poise. In contrast the Somalis are gung ho, fractious, and seem unsure of their strategy. The power cut leads to the youngest amongst them, hardly out of childhood himself, walking into a pile of glass, cutting his foot badly. Unlike the other older men, he has no sandals. In a botched hostage swap, Captain Phillips ends up being driven away with all four of them in a lifeboat, and the US navy immediately go into action.

In the sweaty and frightening confines of the lifeboat, the Captain attempts to bind up the young Somali's bleeding foot and keep channels of communication open, all the time having to manage his own growing fear and exhaustion. Instead of taking the £30,000 which was on board the Alabama, the Pirate Captain, Muse, is pressing the US for a ransom of $6 million. Buoyed up with the thought of dollars, he keeps up a facade of bravado, joking that after this ordeal is over, he'll go to America himself. America, land of individualism, material comfort and ...greed? 

On board the lifeboat they are running out of water and are soon outmaneuvered by the US naval special forces. The Pirates' gullibility is finally unmasked when they believe the US negotiator's lie that 'elders' from their tribe are on their way, and that as soon as Philips is released they'll have their money. Muse goes aboard the US frigate, as unaware as is humanly possible, of the vastly superior resources with which first world technology and money have equipped the navy for victory. He is promptly arrested*. 

As flies to a spider's web, the final three pirates and hostage Phillips are hemmed in with no options. The Captain, convinced he will be soon be killed, writes a heartbreaking farewell note to his family, finally losing his cool when one of the pirates tears it off him and viciously ties him up. But precision snipers, (who in real life, were waiting at the President's command, no less) are tracking the pirates as they move about in the confined space of the lifeboat. They finally find their three targets in one, terrifying, simultaneous moment when the Special Forces Commander shouts 'Execute!' and three bullets take them all out, Phillips looking on in terror, his ordeal finally over.

What are we to think? Greed is ugly; violence uglier. But the world is not a level playing field. The premonitions of Captain Phillips' wife were accurate: the world is changing rapidly. We cannot ignore the abject poor. Children become soldiers. Poverty is a breeding ground for radicalism.

The same evening I watched 'Quitting the English Defence League; When Tommy met Mo', on BBC 1, which charted the relationship between Tommy Robinson, leader of the English Defence League, and Mo Ansar, a British Muslim who campaigned to get the EDL banned. 

As well of footage of Robinson addressing the EDL at various Union Jack waving rallies, we saw him talking with Ansar about what Muslims really believe, even visiting a Mosque and eating with local Muslims, while Mo himself becomes the first Muslim to address the EDL. 

As in Captain Phillips it's about a clash of cultures as much as it's about religion. Robinson objects to the way women and men are segregated in the mosque. He doesn't like the use of the burqa  He meets Salma Yaqoob, former Birmingham Councillor, who explains that some women wish to wear to the burqa, some don't; it is they, not secular law, who should be allowed to decide. He meets historian, Tom Holland, who discusses the Qu'ran 'slavery texts', and how scholars and Muslims may or may not interpret them in the light of modern human rights sensibilities. 

It seems reasonable to want to know if the violence done in the name of Islam is an accurate outworking of what is in the original sacred text. But it's equally tricky in Judaism and Christianity to determine how to interpret texts. Is it by the spirit or the letter? The Jews tried to trick Jesus on this.

In a dramatic twist, Robinson decides to leave the EDL and cast his lot in with former fundamentalist, Maajid Nawaz, of the anti-extremist think tank, Quilliam. He feels he can get further with a group who are proactive in identifying extremism and isolating it from mainstream Islam, than he can with Mo Ansar, who perhaps errs on the side of downplaying extremism (for fear of tarring every British Muslim with the same brush?) It's a very hard line to walk. Ansar (and Yaqoob) are less than impressed with the outcome. Has Robinson gone 'mainstream' to further what are still violent aspirations? Can this think tank be trusted? 

How do religious people interpret 'difficult' sacred texts? What happens when religious and secular values collide, when East meets West? How do we deal with terrorism without stigmatising the innocent? The original Captain Phillips was clear in his own mind about his original Somali Pirate Captain: he was a thug, a man of violence. But is there no such thing as 'more sinned against than sinning'? (Lear). Or is violence always violence? As Jesus said, 'he who lives by the sword will die by the sword', yet he chose a Zealot as one of his disciples.

It would seem Tom Hanks (and Jesus) is right; nothing is ever as black and white as we would like in real, multi-cultural, global, religious and political life.

**In real life, the Somalian pirate Captain realised his ambition to go to America. He is now serving 33 years in a high security US penitentiary. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Prayed in Dagenham

21st Sunday after Trinity2 Timothy 3:14-4:5...In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable...
Luke 18:1-8The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’Whether or not you've been aware, this week has seen industrial action by the NUT and at least 3 local secondary schools were closed on Thursday, giving my kids an extra 6 hours sat in front of the TV.

A couple of years ago I went to the cinema to see Made in Dagenham, a film about the 1968 strike by the seamstresses at the Ford plant at Dagenham, staring Sally Hawkins.The 187 women employees at the Dagenham plant were initially classed as semi-skilled workers and paid accordingly.Their job was to sit at a sewing machine for long hours sewing together the pieces of the car seats which would later be assembled by the men in the main car factory.

At the beginning of the film, it is announced that Ford bosses in the USA have re-classified the women as unskilled workers and reduced their pay accordingly.Understandably the women are mortified and outraged at their demotion and arrange a one-day strike.The bosses refuse to accede to the demands of the women, who rapidly realise that the wider issue at stake is one of equal pay with men.They end up striking indefinitely which soon leads to very real tensions within the whole community in Dagenham as, without the women sewing the seats together, there are soon no cars coming off the production line at all, and none of the men can work either.

Cue scenes of domestic tension in kitchens and sitting rooms up and down the region, to the backdrop of realistic 1960s decor.
Everyone’s pay is withdrawn and things become really tough.Equal pay sounds like an admirable goal to pursue but at what cost?As this is, admittedly, a feel good film, there is never any doubt that eventually the woman will get what they desire.There’s the inevitable scene when they travel to Downing Street, no less, to present their demands to the Secretary of State, Barbara Castle, played in flaming red hair by Miranda Richardson.She is sympathetic to the women, to the horror of some of her male colleagues, and the film ends with the women seamstresses returning to work, all smiles and victory salutes, with the promise of equal pay ringing in their ears.

In a film postscript, the credits inform us that the Equal Pay Act was passed within two years of that strike.In addition there are clips of interviews with the actual 1968 seamstresses, women now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, feisty women who, whilst looking a lot less glamorous than their young film star counterparts, are women you would not want to cross!However they had one thing which was vital: they had ‘RIGHT’ on their side.

At some fundamental level, the basic human rights we enjoy in the West– the right to vote; the right to be paid for work; the right to religious freedom – are acknowledged to be worth standing up for.In our reading we heard about another doughty woman - the widow and the unjust judge.
This woman is one of Luke’s powerless ones, along with Jairus’ sick daughter and the elderly haemorrhaging woman and the poor widow who only had two small coins to live on – but the powerless ones have God on their side...Jesus, particularly in Luke, has a special place for the poor and for women.A particularly vulnerable group in first century Palestine, widows had no welfare state as a safety net.To be a widow in Jesus’ time, without wider family, was to be one small step away from destitution.A widow in this very position is the heroine of our story today.She comes to the unjust judge and pleads for justice against her adversary.Jesus doesn't give us many details but it’s possible she is owed badly needed income and is being denied it by her opponent.
The Greek plays around with the notion of righteousness in the text, so that the widow’s opponent is referred to as the anti-righteous one.In the world’s eyes the widow’s opponent is the one with the power, but the way God sees things is different.In God’s schema the widow has right on her side.And she knows it.Her daily perseverance towards the unjust judge eventually wears him down.

We are given a glimpse into his psyche in verse 4, which says that for a while he refused to grant the widow justice, but then he has a conversation with himself.Jesus shows his mastery at story-telling here, and it’s meant to be funny, though the translation in our reading masks the humour.Let’s rediscover it: the judge says: ‘though I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming’ but the Greek could also mean ‘yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face (give me a black eye)’!So the judge decides to grant the widow justice, not because he is righteous, but through her sheer feistiness and perseverance.The helpless widow was not quite so helpless after all!Jesus ends, ‘And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’

I wonder what you make of this comparison of God with the unjust judge…Has Jesus in this story run the risk that we might think God is like the unjust judge in that He appears unwilling sometimes to answer prayer?
Is it that God can’t be bothered with us, but gives in when we wear him down?Why did Jesus tell this story?Luckily we’re told at the beginning: it is so that we should keep praying and not despair.Losing heart, or despair in prayer, is insidious.We may not be wringing our hands as such, but have we secretly abandoned hope that God can have the last word in human society?

Have we unconsciously adopted the mindset that sees a reduced church, trudging along as best it can, in the face of widespread secularism, as rather a sad picture, with God somehow a bit helpless on the outside?We may be tempted to unfaith in the face of unanswered prayer.And then there’s the great, as yet unanswered prayer: ‘Maranatha’ – Lord, come again.For those of us living 2000 years after this story, it can seem like Jesus has forgotten to come back.For us who live reasonably comfortable lives this may not be a big issue.But for the poor, those denied equality, those who live in fear of the powerful and violent, the coming in of the full kingdom of God can seem like a long way off.
Justice will be done when Christ returns.
And we can start being concerned with justice in the here and now.

 So to sum up: Jesus tells this parable so we persevere: if the unjust judge can finally grant the widow justice, HOW MUCH MORE will God grant justice to those who cry to him day and night?
We must not despair. And we must not be apathetic.

In our other reading Paul also urges Timothy to consider the eternal framework for justice: ‘in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires’.

Is there something you are constantly bringing to God, which yet appears unanswered?
Keep persevering.
We are not called to look for miracles, or dictate timings to God. We’re called to persevere to the end.

And finally, a plaintive end to Jesus’ story...
An ‘And yet’...
‘And yet’: always a little moment of anxiety, of reflection, of questioning.
And as Jesus leaves it open, so will we:
‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
Will he find real disciples, real faith amongst us?

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Sermon to self

As an advert for Christianity, the quotation 'my power is made perfect in weakness' doesn't come across as very attractive. From St. Paul*, it haunts those who are not only ordained, but also 'trained', to within an inch of their lives, to be organised, professional, competent, strong, smiling priests of the church.

But when it all gets a bit much, it can be the best verse in the bible. It would seem that those in the caring professions, particularly Christian ministers, are a lot better at looking after others than they are at looking after themselves. In fact over a two week period recently my whole life became a 'sermon to self' on this particular subject. The fact that I thought I knew about boundaries, self awareness, rest and days off, and still became overwhelmed, makes it quite likely that even the 'strongest' can find themselves caught out in a bit of real, live, can't-really-carry-on-right-now full blown weakness.

Boundaries are fine as long as they do their job - i.e. keep certain things in and hold other things out. But it's like the autumn when leaves find their way down drains and rain water spills onto the road - boundaries dissolve. 'Work' spills into 'life'; 'life' spills into 'work'. Family and ministry can happily co-exist, or chafe like badly fitting boots. We're so less in control than we think, but certain things are our teachers in these times of quite scary freefall. Here are three that schooled me.

Rest is a state of mind.
Rest is not just taking your day off. It's about the quality of your time off, and finding other times of rest through the week. Daily bread includes the idea of enough strength for that day. In an ideal world there would be no housework, shopping or school run on the day off. In the real world, it's only a day off from being a Curate. Everything else, for a mum, carries on as normal. If, by the end of it, I'm more tired than I was at the beginning, something's gone wrong.

Multi-tasking is over-rated.

I used to be secretly proud of my ability to multi-task. This is what the church needs! People (i.e. women) who can mentally plan a sermon while stirring the bolognese, helping with homework and answering emails in the kitchen on their smartphone. Somewhere between the sermon and the bolognese my brain just gave up and I realised I could no longer do one thing at a time, or in fact anything slowly or mindfully. This is generally very bad for your spiritual and psychological health. To unscramble your brain from the multi-tasking habit, from the feeling that if you don't keep all the balls in the air simultaneously everything will fall apart, is very difficult indeed. But vital. I should have taken my cue from my occasional quiet days, taken in a large and peaceful country house, where the highlight of the morning for me is boiling the kettle in my room, making a cup of coffee, sitting down in a chair and drinking it, while looking out of the window. And nothing else.

Time is subjective.
I think the phrase is 'more haste less speed'. I was never very good at calculations involving time, distance and speed
but I think the idea is that if you rush through life you will find in the end everything takes longer because, presumably, doing things slower, more carefully (more mindfully), will actually save time eventually. And in my recent recovery time, this is precisely what happened. I was forced to slow down, not do things, let other things surface. And I was less frustrated, more at peace and more willing to stop when my body told me to, instead of when the work was finished (because, funnily enough, the work is never finished). And the body doesn't lie.

Slowing down reacquaints you with the stuff going on inside, of which there is a vast amount. Working through 'stuff' takes time. So everything else takes more time than you think. It's like when you've been caught speeding (NO...yes...) You have to recalibrate the time it takes to get anywhere. My physics isn't so bad that I don't know that if you religiously observe all the speed limits, the time it takes to get anywhere it will be longer

So time is what I make it. I can look at the clock and think 'I only have fifteen minutes before x' or I can look at the clock and say, 'Wonderful: I have fifteen minutes to sit and be.' The difference between these two, in terms of well being, is considerable.

Sermon to self over. I fear, and am suspicious of weakness. But it's part of being human. Rest is a gift designed to renew us through and through. You cannot skimp on it. Do one thing at a time and do it with your whole self. And time is subjective. There's always enough. It's just that we try and squeeze too much into it. Sooner or later, if we don't heed our own sermons, there'll be a massive leak. 

*2 Corinthians 12:9

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The view from somewhere

Original painting by Sarbani Bhattacharya
One of the most challenging things about Ordination training in pastoral theology & ethics was the 'real life' case studies we were given to wade through.

At first I thought these were some kind of bad joke, the sort of thing someone had thought up just to catch you out, not anything that would actually ever happen in real life. They were all so difficult - whether ethical issues -  abortion, divorce - or complex funeral, wedding or baptism scenarios; or just some random, knotty issue that someone had come to a priest with, hoping for a listening ear, perhaps a cup of tea, and a little bit of clarity in the terrible muddle of daily life. 

Then I discovered they weren't made up at all. They were apparently all real scenarios about real people (with names changed, of course).

So we would sit there in College, in little groups, on our plastic chairs, on a sunny weekend when other people were going round B & Q or doing the ironing, and we would ponder something like this:

'Jean, a long standing member of the PCC, comes to you in some distress. Her daughter, Bernice, who is 22 and lives in a registered civil partnership with her partner, Susan, 24, has had a baby, Jacob, after an affair with a male friend. Bernice asks whether you will baptize him. In conversation with Bernice and Susan, they tell you that in fact Bernice had become pregnant by artificial insemination, but had not told her parents this. What would you do?'

And mostly we were thinking: 'What would I do? Well I think the most sensible option would be to go back to teaching/nursing/accountancy/housewifing/whatever it was I was doing before I completely abandoned all common sense and imagined I could be an Anglican priest and find any sort of a way through all these pastoral mess ups.

Sometimes the group would be divided about the right course of action, because, believe it or not, there are no easy answers. Sometimes we argued. In fact, I cannot imagine theological training without all the arguments. Sometimes, in the stress of the moment, we would inadvertently crack open the gender debate.

For example, a heated argument broke out on the back of this one:

'Vanessa, a professional woman in her mid-forties, is considering an abortion. She became pregnant despite taking full contraceptive precautions and having completed her family twenty years ago. Her older child has a genetic condition which has severely affected her physical and emotional health. Although there is a one in four chance that any subsequent child may develop the same condition, no screening test is available to predict this problem before birth. Vanessa feels very unwell and is already taking time off work due to severe morning sickness and says she has no compunction about seeking an abortion. Her husband, who has always been critical of abortion on demand, has more scruples. They are both Christians.'

We were asked to consider the stakeholders. I weighed in and suggested husband and wife might well be feeling differently, and that it was Vanessa, for whom most was at stake, because it was she that would carry the baby and give birth to it. In other words, the mother feels differently from the father. Fathers in the group were outraged. They felt that the husband would stand to lose just as much if the baby was not carried to term. Why stress the mother's anguish over the father's? It was plain wrong, and sexist. They imagined how they themselves would feel. I imagined how I would feel. I thought about the three children I'd given birth to and the one we lost. Feelings ran high.

There are ways and ways of arguing. I hope I learnt that in discussions about difficult issues, everyone's viewpoint is coloured by his or her own experiences. Men feel as strongly as women. There is no such thing as 'the view from nowhere'. But it raised an interesting question which I've never resolved. Do mothers feel differently about children to fathers? Is it right to identify some quality of being towards children particular to mothers, just because they carry and give birth to them?

Whilst not wishing either to elevate or denigrate anyone's role in raising children, I'm always struck by Mary the mother of Jesus, and how it was said by Simeon of her, 'sorrow, like a sword, will pierce your own soul', in prophetic reference to the destiny of her son the Messiah, and to all that she would suffer herself over him.

And as the beginning of what I believe is commonly known as 'empty nest syndrome' looms its ugly head, I admit I have always imagined that the one left inside the nest, deeply grieving for what is passing, is the mother bird.