Two speeches divided by a common language

Within the past week both the British Prime Minister and the American President have held Easter gatherings at their places of residence. Both Have made allusions to their personal faith, and both have called on people of faith to join them in a bid to improve the society in which they live. Remarks from both addresses are reproduced below. I wonder whether you can identify whose is whose? If politics is indeed ‘the art of the possible’ (Otto von Bismarck) then it has to inspire a transcendence of the actual, don’t you think?

Whether its providing services for children at risk of exclusion, whether it’s teaching prisoners to read, whether it’s dealing with breakdown, whether it’s provision of food banks, there are some extraordinary organisations run by faith groups and Christians in our country and I want to see the possibilities for that to expand.

So this morning, my main message is just to say thank you to all of you, because you don’t remain on the sidelines. I want to thank you for your ministries, for your good works, for the marching you do for justice and dignity and inclusion, for the ministries that all of you attend to and have helped organize throughout your communities each and every day to feed the hungry and house the homeless and educate children who so desperately need an education.

 I hope we can do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world. It is the case today that our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world.

And we’re joined by several faith leaders who are doing outstanding work in this area mentoring and helping young men in tough neighbourhoods.  We’re also joined by some of these young men who are working hard and trying to be good students and good sons and good citizens.  And I want to say to each of those young men here, we’re proud of you, and we expect a lot of you.

This third thing I wanted to say, which I suppose is a little bit more controversial, but I was reflecting on this meeting tonight and what to share with you and I have a thought – which is not a new thought, but I think it is a true thought –which is when I think of the challenges which our churches face in our country and when I think about the challenges political institutions face in our countries – in our country, I see a lot of similarities.

We’re all made in His image, all worthy of his love and dignity.  And we see what happens around the world when this kind of religious-based or tinged violence can rear its ugly head. It’s got no place in our society.

And when I look at churches I see that the – you’re trying to do exactly the same thing, to fire up your congregations with a sense that actually, if we pull together, we can change the world, we can make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the – what the Christian message is about, and that’s why it gives me such pleasure and is a huge privilege to have you all here.

We are drawn to His timeless teachings, challenged to be worthy of His sacrifice, to emulate as best we can His eternal example to love one another just as He loves us.  And of course, we’re always reminded each and every day that we fall short of that example.  And none of us are free from sin, but we look to His life and strive, knowing that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”   

What we both need more of is evangelism. More belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country, and we should be unashamed and clear about wanting to do that. And I’m sure there are people here of all political persuasions and no political persuasions, and I’m certainly not asking you to agree with everything the government does, but I hope you can see – hopefully more than moments, but real moments of evangelism, enthusiasm and wanting to make our world a better place.

He reminds us that all of us, no matter what our station, have an obligation to live righteously, and that we all have an obligation to live humbly.  Because that’s, in fact, the example that we profess to follow.

twofrontdoors

A project for Palm Sunday

A couple of weeks ago our senior teenage group listened to a poem ‘When Jesus came to Birmingham’. Following on from that, we asked them where they thought Jesus might go if he came to Teddington. We then took the small wooden figure of Jesus which you see below, and photographed him in all those places. The list was not edited at all, and the photographic tour led to some interesting conversations:

  • With the manager of the charity shop.
  • With staff at Tearfund, who saw the photo on Twitter and wished they had been aware of his visit.
  • With the barista at Starbucks, who wondered whether I wanted him in the photo?
  • With the secretary of the newly rebuilt secondary school, who took me on a tour of the £35million facility to find the best place for our small wooden figure.


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Another interesting result was a conversation on Twitter which led me to the work of Si Smith and his ‘stations of the resurrection’ You can see one of his arresting images below, and order his astonishing collection here. In an interview with him last week he said: making the characters contemporary forced me to look at them more empathetically too -so it’s not a story about ‘them’, it’s a story about ‘us’.

Emmaus

Emmaus Road…[CLICK for full size image]

Palm Sunday should always be a story about us, don’t you think?

An idea

I have just come from leading a Friday lunchtime prayer meeting. It lasts for about 45 minutes, and is attended by a group of people who often pray together. How to keep it fresh? Sometimes it is good to have topics which ‘open up’ the praying by capturing the imagination – which is what I did today. Using the four cards pictured below we prayed about.

  • Hearts – the people and things we love
  • Spades - those areas of church and working  life where we dig in
  • Clubs – clubs, groups and societies inside and outside the church where we play a part
  • Diamonds – the cutting edge where the church meets the world.

These simple topics released a steady flow of prayer. Feel free to steal and adapt…

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Dear PM

Happy Easter to you too

Dear Sir. I am not, actually, the Prime Minister. You see, the girl who described me that way was very little at the time and she did not understand. I am not the Prime Minister, nor am I a Minister of state. I am, in fact, the minister of one relatively small church within a much wider global movement. As minister I am not completing the work Jesus began – since that makes it sound as if he left the job half done. On a good day, I like to think I can facilitate His work. On a bad day, I think He graciously works around me.

As that kind of minister within a multi-faith country, I expect neither prejudice nor privilege when it comes to Christianity. Like my Baptist forebears I support the rights of any man or woman to hold their beliefs be they “Hereticks, Jews, Turcks or whatsoever” [sic] If you are going to intervene on behalf of persecuted Christians, I hope it will also be for those who are persecuted whatever their belief might be.

You say you would like us to join with you in “evangelism”. I’m not so sure about that. You see, when that word was first coined it was news of a battle won. As politicians do, the imperial wordsmiths took it over and spun it into a technical term for the announcement of a new Emperor’s birth. Christians naughtily subverted it as news of a battle yet to be won and the arrival of a king who would knock Caesar into obscurity. Having once wrested that word from the hands of politicians I am not quite ready to give it back just yet.

And then there is the invitation to “think of me if you like as a sort of giant Dyno-Rod in Whitehall”. I wonder quite what you mean by that? Does it mean you turn up at some unearthly hour in a van painted such a bright orange that it disturbs the neighbourhood? Does it mean that you are prepared to roll your sleeves up and clean out the mess which no-one else wants to touch? Are you sure that is an image you want to leave in our imaginations this Easter? I only ask, because next time I am explaining what the actual Prime Minister is, it might be useful to know.

Happy Easter.

Richard

 

Image:kubatana.net

The words of a hero

Sixty nine years ago two guards came to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s hut in the Flossenburg prison camp to fetch him for his final journey to the gallows. Turning to a fellow prisoner he said ‘this is the end, but for me the beginning, of life’. After that he proceeded with quiet dignity to the gallows. A fellow prisoner, Dr Fischer-Hullstrung, gave this description:

Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

I have often wondered why Bonhoeffer has had such an enormous influence on my theological thought. Today, on the anniversary of his death, I have been trying to identify some of the reasons:

  • I studied him as part of my first degree when my I was first learning to think theologically.
  • His conscious decision to leave Union Theological Seminary and return to Nazi Germany to share the fate of his own people showed such moral and intellectual college.
  • He was a truly liberal thinker, making room in the spaces of his thought for many insights.
  • He was a truly dialectical theologian – demonstrating an ability to hold then and now, Bible and world, here and hereafter in tension.
  • Standing in a tradition of formal and drily intellectual ministerial formation he was prepared to emphasize the need for the communal and devotional life of trainee pastors.
  • Raised in a setting of old German privilege, his outspoken opposition to the Aryan clause showed a triumph of mercy and grace over self-interest.
  • Raised in a Lutheran theological climate, the decision to resist the authority of State was enormous, but having taken it he was prepared to support it by action as well as words if necessary.
  • His essay ‘After 10 years’ abides as a clarion call for reasoned theological judgement. See more of it here.

When I get to heaven, I should very much like to meet him – but I’ve a feeling the queue might be quite long!

Image: groundspeak.com

Measuring impact

Back in 2000, I was completing a Master’s Degree in Preaching and tackling my dissertation on ‘the preacher as translator’. Having invested a lot of time prior to that in the study of translation science, the topic held a fascination for me. I knew all about the translator’s ‘Holy Grail’ of equivalent meaning, and the fact that most times she or he must settle for something less in either formal equivalence (mirroring every word) or dynamic equivalence (mirroring the impact of original text).

Twenty-odd thousand words later, my conclusions were twofold. Firstly, the preacher should not be so seized by the image of translation that the Biblical text loses its ‘teeth’ in an effort to fit in with the world of those who hear the sermon. It is, and always will be, a word from ‘another place’ which lands in the world of the listener. Secondly, I concluded that the most effective measure of any sermon was not how it sounds or how much it is enjoyed, but how much difference it makes. A translator whose job is to translate road signs, for instance, knows that they are doing a good job when all the cars turn the right way!

Yesterday I downloaded a communications report from YouGov and found that second conclusion unexpectedly endorsed. The report says that ’43 % of survey respondents indicated that increasing stakeholder engagement was their most important objective for communications planning’. More significantly, it states that ‘communicators are defining success by the actions their audience takes upon receiving a message’.  Preachers – take note!

Years ago, the TV show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ used to measure the success of an act by the decibel level recorded in the auditorium on the ‘clapometer’ pictured below. Nobody ever felt it was any kind of scientific measure. In these days of integrated media where votes can be cast by phone, text, red button or likes it looks nothing more than a quaint relic.

Here’s a question, though. If you are communicating for a living today – how will you measure the success of your communication?

 

Image:nationalmediamuseum.org

…or analogue reticence?

There’s been a black-and-white photo doing the social media rounds recently, taken in a 1950′s railway carriage.  In the picture, everyone has their heads buried in a newspaper, in exactly the same way as people today have theirs buried in a smartphone or tablet. The implication, to borrow a phrase from a very old book, is that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’. Is technology really making us more antisocial, or just giving us a more graphic-rich and resource efficient way to do it?

Many will have read today the sad story of a retired schoolteacher who took her own life because she felt unable to adapt to modern life.  In an interview published yesterday, she lamented what she perceived as a lack of genuine social interaction, exacerbated by an atavistic absorption with technology. People hungry for a headline have been quick to seize on this as an example of ‘digital isolation’ and the first note in a synthesized funeral dirge for real society. Many, though, will appreciate that the complexities behind the decision made by ‘Annie’ will not have been nearly so simple.

Meanwhile, a small, crowd-funded initiative to get Londoners talking to each other, got savaged in another newspaper on exactly the same day as the suicide story was breaking: ‘Surely the point of living in a city is that you don’t have to talk to anybody. That’s certainly a big part of why I moved to one.‘  Such an outlook needs no encouragement from technology to be isolated, it does it all alone in an old-fashioned analogue way.

If we want to talk, we will do it – with or without technology. If we want to be isolated we will do it – with or without technology. Let’s not blame technology for our disinclination to take the risk implied in every encounter with ‘the other’ though.  A true encounter with another human being – whether across the bus face-to-face or across the Atlantic Ocean on Facetime is something which enriches us all:

When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them” – Martin Buber

Image: talktomelondon

 

Glimpses by night

Walking into town for an admin meeting at the church as light faded last night, I found this little Prayer of St Jude carefully tucked into the perspex on a notice at the bus stop. This was by no means a casual act. Somebody had slid it carefully in, making sure that its text could be read by anyone waiting for their bus opposite the hospital.

jude

For those unfamiliar with the text, it reads as follows:

Saint Jude, glorious Apostle, faithful servant and friend of Jesus: The name of the traitor has caused you to be forgotten by many, but the true Church invokes you universally as the Patron of things despaired of. Pray for me, that finally I may receive the consolations and the succor of Heaven in all my necessities, tribulations and sufferings, particularly (here make your request), and that I may bless God with the Elect throughout eternity. Amen.

An hour or so later, darkness had fallen, and I walked past another church. The lights were blazing, and through the door I could see a solitary figure (the Vicar) praying alone. I found myself involuntarily reminded of Edward Hopper’s “nighthawks” below – figures bathed in light but somehow sealed off from the world.

Image: 2bp.blogspot.com

 

Passing by the same bus stop again, the paper was now scudding across the pavement in the swash of air from passing traffic. Had it been ripped out in anger, read and discarded, or simply lost the ability to cling on, I wondered? Only one person would know, I suppose.

Nearing home, I looked up to see a perfect crescent moon overhead – like a curved slash in the night sky ripped by the sharpest blade. Like God, hearing the prayers in the church and the prayers at the bus stop it was a silent witness to it all.

Not before time

A little while ago the editor of a well-known online tech magazine tweeted a question about the ugliest kind of wearable technology.  Several times I tweeted the response ‘a gun’ – only to delete it out of fear of a response from some NRA advocate or a visit from some kind of ‘munitions bot’ to my Twitter feed. Today, I am pleased to say that I fear no such response as I announce the arrival of altogether innocuous wearable technology.

After the success of their ‘I thought as much’ search engine (which validates any prejudice typed into the search box) those pranksters at the multi-coloured company which ‘is not evil’ have been at it again. They have teamed up with Bible giants eweversion to devise a product just perfect for the Christian community. Users perplexed by what they see around them – whether news events, meteorological conditions or unusual behaviour, can type what they see into the search box of I-told-you-so, and find Biblical evidence for what they see. Users can select a preference on sliders from left to right, conservative to liberal and traditional to modern before beginning their search.

Not to be outdone in the march towards wearable technology, this new facility comes pre-installed in spectacular eyewear for the religiously fashion-conscious. This new piece of kit: fully activated integral thought headware is available in a number of styles to suit denominational and traditional preference:

Conservative evangelical

 

Antipodean charismatic

 

Baptist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Readers keen to express an interest  can do so today via the comments box below, but may need to wait until after April 1st to place their order.

A gem of understatement

Most of us generate a lot of words every day – spoken, written, texted and typed. If we could see them all around us, we would feel that there was such a sea of them that we had to constantly swim up towards the surface for air. As a preacher, writer, and occasional broadcaster, I contribute more than my fair share. Let me offer you, then, a small masterpiece by Bath Youth For Christ with just three words spoken in the whole film.

It is beautifully done, and needs no commentary from me:

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