N open question
I sit today and type this freely in my office in a Christian church. Later on, I shall return to a house where my neighbours know I am a Christian, and will not treat me any differently because of it. In the time it takes me to write and publish this post, the chances are that another Christian will perish in Mosul. Christians have been hounded from their homes and those who have been unable to flee are being forced to recant their faith or face the most drastic of consequences. The image on the right below shows the Arabic letter ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene’ daubed on the outside of a Christian house in the city, marking it out for eviction or destruction.
Oddly, I had heard nothing about the letter until I saw it in the glowing, sanitized form you see on the left. When I asked a friend why he had replaced his profile picture with it, he explained all about the unfolding story in Mosul. A significant number of other people have done the same – replacing their own photo with this symbol as a gesture of ‘solidarity’ with their Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq. Like the girls who once held up placards declaring “I am Malala” it is a means of shrinking the distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and declaring that we stand together. It has clearly worked to raise the profile of the story – since I find myself writing about it today. That said, it makes Twitter a confusing place since so many profile pictures look the same.
To what extent does it actually work as a gesture of solidarity, I wonder? Will they ever know about it? Does it matter if they do? The ‘intrusion’ of this symbol into our lives here is an appropriate one in so many ways I am sure. That said – it can make for some banal juxtapositions, as seen in the Tweet below. The content of the tweet seems at odds with the symbol of suffering and courage which adorns it. Then again, is that the point?
These are genuinely open questions, and I would welcome your answers!
Bringing out the best
Many years ago, when I was a first year undergraduate, I wanted to be a theatre director. After many years of acting, and hot on the heels of literary study, that was my chosen career. I wanted to be there in the wings, surrounded by immensely talented people and watching from the sidelines as my careful coaching enabled them to shine and sparkle. Events took a different turn, and I found myself training as a Baptist Minister instead.
The thing is, much of the ambition has been realised. Like any vocation, mine has its ups and downs. There are moments, though, when I really feel as if I am watching from those fondly imagined wings as others shine like the stars they were always meant to be. Last night was a case in point. Our evening worship was led by our Youth Leader and the young people whom she has nurtured and coached. They prayed, they led parts of the worship, they interviewed me about my feelings on preaching and how I handle them. A little later, after I had preached, a shy young man took to the microphone to tell his story. He explained that some of the hardest times and the worst experiences at school had led him to trust in God, and that it was now time for him to be baptised. As my colleague led in baptising him and his friends prayed for him I watched from the ‘wings’ and thanked God for the experience. To be there when God performs the alchemy of turning our base metal into gold is a rare and wonderful thing
Forty-five years ago today, in a spindly Wallace-and-Gromit-esque contraption with less computing power than the simplest smartphone, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong descended from the command module towards the lunar surface. (Those wishing to recapture the moment can follow the tweeted timeline from the Smithsonian Air and Space museum here). Even during the brief descent, Neil Armstrong was still puzzling over what he should say when he got there. He had been overwhelmed with suggestions – from the Bible, from Shakespeare and from the fertile imaginations of well-wishers across the globe. In the end he summarised billions of dollars of research and development and aeons of longing with the simplest phrase:
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”
The sound quality was dreadful, the pictures on many contemporary television sets was barely visible, and yet those 13 (or 14) syllables captured an epoch.
Whenever preachers feel upstaged by the massive communications budgets and the slick comms agencies round about them, I remind them of this moment 45 years ago. The right words spoken for the right reasons in the right context can last a lifetime.
…and intrigue keeps him there
Imagine you had not just a product but a whole country to sell. How ever would you go about it? Grey Group China were given the brief to sell TUI Travel Agency’s services in Australia. Their brief was to ‘show our target audience that TUI is different from other travel operators, as it offers more in-depth travel experience’. The team at Grey Group China came up with a concept as brilliant as it is simple. You will have to click below and look carefully to ‘get’ it:
In fact, it was part of a series of adverts in 2012, all working on the same concept.
If you have got it by now, that is great. If you have not got it – you are still looking, aren’t you? No wonder the ad won awards at Cannes and elsewhere. It is simple, elegant and clever. The design did a brilliant job.
Tomorrow many preachers will try to ‘sell’ the Kingdom of God. It is vast – without borders of time or geography to limit it. How can they communicate such vastness with only words to help them? Simplicity and elegance might be a good place to start…
Photo- manipulation and the neutrality of technology
Yesterday morning, over my early morning cup of tea, I joined my voice with a small chorus of disquiet spreading across the internet. Like many others, I was disturbed that the official photographic company at numerous university graduations had been offering something of an ‘enhanced menu’. Amongst other things it offered:
Clearly no-one was obliged to take up on the options. However, the suggestion that a billowing gown or a less-than-perfect smile could somehow detract from a graduate’s achievement was surely preposterous? Can we really join the campaign spearheaded by people like Malala to call for universal education around the world, if on graduation day we suggest that a person’s smile or their figure is what matters most?
Calming down a little, I took another drink of tea and came across the story of Nathen Steffel, a grieving father in Ohio. Distraught over his baby daughter’s death, he posted an unusual request online. Since his only photo of his daughter showed her surrounded by tubes in a cot on the neo-natal unit, he asked if anyone could remove them from the photo so he didn’t have to remember her that way? He was overwhelmed by the response from around the world. People were staying up until all hours working on the photos and he was staying up until all hours looking at them. He commented ‘It helped knowing that others cared enough to stop whatever they were doing in their own lives to either send me a picture or just their condolences’.
The pictures, of course, are ‘cheating’ – since they depict a reality which the camera did not see. Does the end justify the means in this case though, do you think?
Whenever I am teaching people about hermeneutics, or the ‘science’ of interpretation, I save one little device until last. It is a small brown envelope bearing the legend ‘vital hermeneutical equipment- open with care’. At a given moment, we all rip open the envelopes to reveal…a mirror. The point is this: the interactions which take place in front of the text are at least as important as those which have taken place behind its production. Try as we might to find out the the historical background of a text and the author’s intent, we cannot know it fully because we weren’t there. In front of the text, however, there are all sorts of factors of which we should be aware. How does my particular character, background , experience and even prejudice make me read this text? To what extent do my philosophy, my acquired wisdom and even my gender affect my reading? These things will happen, without a doubt. The important thing is to be aware of them..
I saw an interesting example of this at work today. This morning’s Google Doodle marks 156 years since Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday. You can see it below:
An hour or so ago, I read this tweet from a trainee woman ordinand:
The hermeneutics going on here are fascinating. On the one hand, you could say that it is a piece of misinterpretation. On the other, a line can be drawn between Pankhurst’s courageous stand and the historic decision by Synod yesterday. Not only that, but there are all kinds of connecting lines to be drawn between the experience and aspirations of the tweeter and the interpretation of the doodle.
The hermenutical mirror is alive and well, it would seem.
I spent Saturday with 40 – 50 aspiring preachers in Spurgeon’s College, where I was honoured to teach for the third time on their ‘Equipped to Minister‘ course. Together we looked at topics ranging from why we bother to preach in the first place, through to exercises for the voice and hand gestures when we do. The seriousness and the enthusiasm which the students brought to the class was enough to gladden any preacher’s heart. These people will give 12 hours of their free time to attending lectures and many more to writing assignments simply because they want to be useful to the Church. ‘Chapeau’ ,as they say on the Tour de France!
Oddly, I came home after those lectures to a Sunday when I was not preaching. Instead, I listened to another person doing it. In the midst of many words which made up his word on The Word, I found myself drawn to a verse he mentioned in Jeremiah:
Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 8 v.16)
Those words stirred my heart again for a project which has lain in mothballs for too long: my book on #journey for Paternoster. (You can read more about it here). Words truly are powerful things.
I have just been reading all about artist Barbara Kruger’s new installation artwork at Modern Art Oxford. In it, the visitor finds him or herself literally immersed in a world of text – with words of both affirmation and condemnation. I wonder how it feels?
There are millions of words flying about you every day – like an unseen swarm. They stick to your mental clothes, clog up the air vents of your mind and fall like rain on your horizon. Once in a while, though, they are true purveyors of life.
How are yours doing today?
An antidote to despair
I was on my way to shop at the local supermarket when it happened. As I pulled into the shop car park there was news of one power outage after another on the London Underground. By the time I came back to the car, the news was very different – this was a terrorist attack on London one day after the euphoria surrounding the winning of the Olympic bid. My in-laws were travelling across London that day, and I was worried.
A few hours later, they arrived safely – and we all watched the grim story as it unfolded. Unknown to us, one of the stories hidden amongst so many was that of marketing executive Martine Wright. She was running late that morning, got caught in the blast, and lost both her legs and 80% of her blood on that terrible morning. For many people, that might have been the beginning of the end. For her, it was the beginning of a long and upward struggle towards rehabilitation in many ways. Seven years on, she took her place as a Paralympian, playing volleyball at London 2012 for Team GB. Since then, she has often spoken about the dramatic impact which these events have had on her life:
Anything that opens your eyes to a world you might not be exposed to is good. I honestly think the people I’ve met since I lost my legs have made me a better person, more understanding.
I am not a big fan of marking every anniversary of 9/11 or 7/7 – lest we end up looking more backwards than forwards. However, on a day when I prepare to talk to primary school children about “aspiration” – I have a feeling that a heroine like Martine will only allow me to look forward anyway!
Sixty Six today
Today I would like to pay tribute to a sprightly sixty six year old. You can find her in all kinds of places – from remote Hebridean islands to city centres. You will generally find her surrounded by the most brilliant minds and exceptional talents, whilst also playing host to the most needy people. She rarely blows her own trumpet, and even if she did it would probably be drowned by a chorus of criticism. Over the years she has been there to see countless babies arrive in the world and held the hands of many as they close their eyes for the last time. She never takes a day off, and welcomes needy visitors from dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, 365 days every year. At an age where most are thinking about retiring she is still scouring the country for the brightest talent and the world for solutions to the problems which bug her.
Her name is…the NHS. She was born 66 years ago today in Park Hospital, Manchester. In global terms, I am immeasurably privileged to have grown up in the country where she lives. Times without number, I have been grateful for the skill, professionalism, compassion and humanity which typifies her.
To every nurse, porter, healthcare assistant, surgeon, radiographer and everything in between – thank you.