Monday, 10 April 2017

Reflection for Holy Week

I was really struck by something I caught in the middle of the Beyond Belief programme on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago.  The discussion was about the pitfalls of moving beyond inter-faith dialogue, which most people think is a good thing, towards inter-faith worship, which can cause offence at the very least. One comment really grabbed my attention and I’ve been thinking about it since. Apparently Muslims and Jews can worship in both mosques and synagogues, but they struggle to worship in a church. This is because of the iconography - in particular the images of Christ on the cross – of God suffering. To Jews and Muslims this is offensive, even blasphemous.

And yet this is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and it is the focus of this week as we begin our journey with Christ towards Jerusalem and to His crucifixion.  The crosses we see around our churches focus our attention on the most mind-blowing doctrine of all - that the Almighty God, creator and sustainer of the universe, stepped into his creation and suffered alongside his creatures.

Immortal God – trapped in time inside the body of a defenceless and needy infant, growing and ageing with limited knowledge of past and future.
Immortal God – who understands my fears for the future, and my frustration with how slowly things change.

All-knowing God – restricted within the small brain of a newborn baby, learning to identify sounds, shapes and colours, to make sense of a mother’s face. Bound inside a human mind and the experience of human senses.
All-knowing God – who understands the limits of my understanding, and my daughter with her learning disabilities, and my friends with dementia.

Father God – whose birth includes questions about parentage, embroiled in a dispute between his brothers, worrying about his mother’s welfare as he reached his final days.
Father God - who understands the challenges as well as the joys of my family life.

All-powerful God – who rejected the temptation to demonstrate His power. Who chose to be a servant, to wash the smelly, dusty feet of his followers.
All-powerful God – who understands me when I feel powerless, when I am angry at the hypocrisy, the greed and self-interest that seems to motivate so many. Who teaches me to be a servant too.

Creator of the Universe – learning to be a carpenter, starting with the basics, in a humble family – patiently learning and growing.
Creator of the Universe – for whom no humble task that I do is meaningless.

God of Heaven – born into poverty around farm animals, to parents soon to flee as refugees. Choosing to live a wandering life with no home to go to.
God of Heaven – who knows what it is to be homeless and poor, and to rely on the generosity of others.

God of Glory – who opted to hang out with outcasts, with rejects, people with infections and mental illness. With people who knew they had messed up.
God of Glory – who reaches out to touch me when I feel side-lined and alone, who reaches for me in my mess and in my shame.

God of life - weeping over the death of a friend. Willingly handing himself over to his betrayer and his accusers. Silently taking the thrashing, and the taunting, the intense pain, and finally suffering a slow agonising death.
God of life – who knows my loss, who knows my grief, who knows my pain and weakness, who knows my rejection. Who knows my death.

When I’m struggling with the latest challenge associated with bringing up a child with a disability I don’t always want to hear from the professional or the other parent who has all the answers.  I’m not especially energised by those who find everything easy – although I’m pleased that they do. What really helps me is when I know I’m not alone – when I go onto Facebook and share my problem and get responses saying “yes, we struggle with that too”. When I meet up for coffee with another parent in a similar position and we both know we don’t have to pretend. 

Healing is found just as much through shared experiences like these as through solving the problems.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

But God empathising with me isn’t the whole story. It’s not sufficient that God shares in my suffering. I also need to be redeemed – I don’t mean redeemed in its original context of slavery – someone has paid a cash price to buy my freedom - but in the sense of redeeming a situation. Bringing hope out of hopelessness, forgiveness for an unforgiveable action, peace to a troubled mind, and new life out of death.

“by his wounds we are healed”

“by his wounds we are healed”.

Monday, 3 April 2017


I found it very difficult to watch last Monday's special Question Time about Brexit. The programme was recorded in the West Midlands where historical tensions about race and immigration seem to be increasingly bubbling to the surface. The politicians and media figures on the panel claimed there was a general consensus that immigration is good, but uncontrolled immigration is bad; that immigration is good if it involves people who are skilled, will work hard and contribute and fill in gaps in our public services (never mind the impact this has on skills in their home countries) but it is bad if the immigrants need healthcare or support. Many people, but by no means all, think we should provide a safe haven for those fleeing danger and persecution. However, the burden of proof is expensive, and can be really traumatic for those who are often already deeply traumatised.

But what about unskilled economic migrants; those, often young people, who risk their lives in precarious journeys over land and sea for the promise of work and prosperity in the West? That's when the rhetoric changes and compassion disappears: "we're a small island and we're full", "we should look after our own first" and "our schools and hospitals can't cope". It's as if migrants are solely to blame for these pressures, and it has nothing to do with the Government's choices on tax and spending over the years since the economic crash.

Clearly we couldn't accommodate everyone who is living in poverty in the world. We can't even help a fraction of the refugees; there are now more than five million refugees from Syria alone in neighbouring countries. Five million! That's the population of Scotland! And we can't even get our act together to take a few hundred unaccompanied child refugees. Clearly we should be doing much, much more. The short and long term answer is obviously to work for peace and economic prosperity so that the majority of people can, and want to, remain in the lands where their families are rooted.

Over five days last week I took on a personal challenge, which I thought would be difficult. It was a lot harder than I had expected. It was called the Mean Bean Challenge, organised by the development charity Tear Fund. I had to consume only water, plain porridge for breakfast and then plain, unflavoured rice and plain beans for lunch and supper. My children also opted to do this for one day. I'm forever saying to them, "eat your supper and stop complaining! There are many children in the world who would love to eat that". And they look at me doubtfully, that is if they've registered my words as more than a background hum. To be fair, this might also be a lot to do with my cooking skills.

It's one thing knowing that so many people have so little to eat and that what they eat every day is insufficient, monotonous, and not nutritious. It was another thing altogether experiencing it myself. After a couple of  days I felt bloated and weak, I had a horrible taste in my mouth - by three days I was constantly thinking about food and on the final morning I woke up having just dreamt about delicious food being held out of reach. And when I broke my fast on Saturday morning everything tasted so vibrant, almost unbearably sweet. It is easier for me to understand now how hunger drives people to decide it is less risky to get on an over-crowded boat or stow away in a lorry for the promise of food security and a decent standard of living.

I went to South West Uganda twenty years ago to visit a friend who was spending her gap year there volunteering in a village school. Every day the children had the exact same meal of sorghum porridge and rehydrated beans. I tried this on just one day and it was a struggle to swallow. Recently some other friends returned from a visit to another part of Uganda and, again, there were photos of school cooks sifting beans to make the daily meal of maize porridge and beans for the children. Twenty years on, in one of the most fertile parts of our planet, and still the same grinding poverty! The money we all raised through our Mean Bean Challenge will fund resources and education to help many small communities to use more sustainable farming methods.

But why are these problems so intractable? Why, when there are multiple crops of delicious fruit and vegetables growing in the fields, are people only eating maize and beans every day even when the rains come? Why, when overall these African countries become more prosperous, does prosperity concentrate in the cities and with those who are already much more wealthy? Corruption has always been part of the answer, but it's not the whole story.

Our Government hands over millions each year in aid and many of us give to development charities. But we also expect to walk into the vegetable aisle and buy all possible varieties of fruit and vegetables out of season. We compare prices and quality between different shops and opt for the cheapest. Supermarkets generally compete on quality and price, but have always paid less attention to the way workers are treated in the supply chains. We throw so much food away as a society, and our homes are full of things we don't need.

There is only so much we can do as individual consumers, and it's easy to hide behind a feeling that it's all inevitable. I'm just as likely as anyone to think "what difference will me buying this one cheap item of clothing make? It's a crazy bargain after all". But of course, while each of us is telling ourselves this, the exploitation continues.

These are some of the things I can do: I can choose Fair Trade; I can check out the ethical credentials of my favourite clothes shops and send emails asking to see their policies; I can use one of the ethical shopping websites -  googling "ethical shopping UK" brings up loads of links.

As we start the process of leaving the EU and the exciting new world of separate trade deals with the rest of the world perhaps I should get in touch with the politicians that represent me and remind them that we want fair trade not just the most lucrative "best" deals for UK. Our Prime Minister was responsible for passing of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and often talks about the scourge of slavery in the world. This, and our shared responsibility to reduce poverty and global inequality, needs to be ringing loud and clear in all of our country's trade negotiations.

And after my bean challenge I will find it easier to remember that crossing the world in search of plentiful food and security is a perfectly rational and admirable human response to global inequality, not a crime.