Monday, May 23, 2016

Healing Agony: The Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 Shortlist 2


Review of Stephen Cherry, Healing Agony: Re-imagining Forgiveness (Continuum, 2012).



The second of the shortlist for the Michael Ramsey Prize is Stephen Cherry’s Healing Agony.  This is a profound and hard won meditation on forgiveness.  The origins of the book are in his accompanying of a mother whose child had been murdered.  From this starting point, Cherry approaches a wide range of material on forgiveness.  Some is theological, some political, some psychological.  There are many stories of those who have faced the challenge of forgiveness.  Quite deliberately, Cherry sets out to bridge the experiential and the theoretical.  There are no simple and easy solutions on offer, as Cherry says ‘the truth about forgiveness is darker, more difficult and infinitely more agonizing than the myths about forgiveness which people, not least Christian people, prefer to promulgate’ (p. 179).

Through the hard stories of those who have endured the murder of children, torture, injustice, terrorist acts and more, Cherry is a sure footed guide to what is going on with forgiveness.  He is clear that forgiveness is not a duty so much as it is a spirituality.  The ‘duty to forgive’ that is too easily preached as part of Christian virtue, is one that can increase damage caused to victims.  Part of this additional damage is because it places them in the ‘God-like’ position of choosing whether or not to absolve those who hurt them.  Even Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer, Cherry argues, is not creating a direct instruction to Christians to forgive under all circumstances.  Cherry suggests that the New Testament passages be understood as communicating not the ethics of forgiveness, but a spirituality of forgiveness.  The context of the Lord’s Prayer helps to site forgiveness as one of the ‘ongoing aspects of a wholesome life’ (p. 58).  Cherry argues that we need to have a ‘forgiving heart’, a ‘disposition’ to forgive that enters the spiritual struggle and healing agony of any forgiving where it is possible.  This forgiving heart is shaped by the cross, with the agonies and struggles that implies.  It is far more than a matter of ethical duty.

Cherry is wary of what he calls ‘forgiver syndrome’.  This builds on the supposed duty to forgive and creates delusion.  It can lead the sufferer to believe that any or all hurt they experience are the product of injustice.  This then leads to the second level in which the sufferer asserts their own righteousness by forgiving.  This claim to the moral high ground can be a third level of the syndrome.  In part by considering objections to the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, Cherry rejects any understanding of forgiveness that make it about closure or about ending a problem.  Rather he states that ‘Forgiveness is slow, deep, enigmatic, unpredictable and vulnerable’ (p. 152).  Cheap grace (Bonhoeffer) in all its forms is to be rejected.

But Cherry is hopeful and positive about forgiveness.  It is a creative response to suffering, and as such unpredictable and painful.  Like all creative acts, it does not demand repetition to the point of cliché, but looks to inspire and open new spaces for thought and action.  Cherry spends some time on the example of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed by an IRA bomb in Enniskillen in 1987.  Cherry offers a careful reading of what Wilson said after the bombing, and takes seriously the understanding that Wilson’s words were an important factor in minimizing reprisal attacks after the bombing.  ‘By avoiding the word “forgive” but by declaring that he had no ill will he was beginning to open up a new and fertile space for moral creativity which might begin to break the cycle of violence and open out to a new kind of future’ (p. 100).  This creativity fits well with Cherry’s account of the spirituality of a forgiving heart.

Cherry is nothing if not honest about the cost of forgiveness.  He speaks of the hard requirements of forgiveness on the empathy of the victim.  To forgive, someone has to have empathy with the person who harmed them.  Forgiveness requires a ‘distasteful empathy’ (p. 169).  This is a concept that Cherry develops through an exploration of the writing of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a black South African woman who visited a white man who killed three black policemen.  The challenge of empathy for someone she regarded as the embodiment of evil is not lightly undertaken.  This ‘distasteful empathy’ brings the whole self into the process of forgiveness, so that forgiveness becomes nothing less than ‘the gift of myself as victim’ (p. 175).  Cherry sees this as a mean of resurrection for the victim, but never without going through the agony of the cross.

This is an excellent book.  It brings together a wealth of material and interrogates it carefully and honestly.  Hope is woven through the book, but never naïve optimism.  It deserves its place on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist, and is worthy of a wide audience.  I recommend it highly!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Leadership Lessons from Prayer


A Sermon for the Mothers' Union Leadership Conference

It is a great pleasure and a privilege to be here with you today. I am a proud member of the Mothers’ Union, and what convinced me to join was the work you have done on Bye Buy Childhood.  Thank you for that, and for the many different acts of service that you do, individually and collectively.  I would welcome you to the Diocese of Derby, but since most of you are about to go home, let me instead bring you greetings from the Diocese of Derby, where you have been for the past few days, and especially greetings from Derby Cathedral where I serve as Canon Chancellor.

Some words from the first reading: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”  “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”  It is truly wonderful that you have spent this time learning about servant leadership.  I have enjoyed following some of the conference on twitter.  I particularly noted the tweet about a ‘workshop on Inspiring the Clergy to work with us’.  Although I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t the clergy that were more in need of that particular workshop.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”  So here’s the thing.  It’s not enough to talk about the gifts you have, especially the gifts of leadership – you have to use them.  Learning to lead is like learning to pray – you learn by doing it.  Prayer is, I have learned from hard experience, not about technique.  Nor is it something to be ‘good at’.  Sometimes I find prayer easier than at other times.  I would never say that I am ‘good at’ it.  It is a struggle, one that it is important to keep going through.  Techniques can be helpful in prayer – posture, silence, particular times, disciplines, other people’s prayers.  All of these have helped me to learn to pray.  I have learned about prayer from books, talks, stories from history, spiritual directors and so on.  But you can’t learn about prayer without praying.  All of this learning and these techniques have to be used and tried out.  If something works, then I keep it.  If it doesn’t then I try it in a new way or I ditch it. You can only learn about prayer by praying.

I think there is something here about leadership.  I’m not convinced that there’s a great technique that will solve everything.  When I come across leaders of all sorts, they do it very differently, with different qualities and abilities.  Some are deliberate, some are instinctive.  And there is much that can be learned from books, conferences, historical figures and contemporary guides.  But you can’t learn to lead without leading.  Let me encourage you to learn all you can about leadership.  Read the books, go to the workshops, listen to the talks.  And then try it out.  Take the risk, and lead.  It is the only way to become a leader.  Or as the letter of Peter puts it, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”

So let me suggest three things that I have learned from learning to pray that have helped me to learn to lead.  The first is this: lead as you can, not as you can’t.  That is don’t try to lead like someone else, however good them might be.  You’ll only fail.  Lead as you, as the person God made you to be.  If God had wanted someone else, he’d have made someone else.  Lead as the person who you are, uniquely.  That is leadership that no one else can offer.  “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”

So lead as you can, not as you can’t.  And second, just as my life of prayer is supported by disciplines so my leadership is supported by disciplines too.  What are the disciplines that support and enable you as a leader?  For me they include honesty, which is especially hard when I have to tell someone a difficult truth.  Listening, actively and carefully checking out that I have heard and understood someone or a situation correctly.  And saying no, because there are boundaries and limits to my abilities and time.  Find the disciplines that will support your leadership and use them.  “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”

Lead as you can, not as you can’t.  Find the disciplines that support you in being a leader.  And the third thing about leadership that I have learned from prayer is that is all about relationship.  It is all about relationship.  Get to know the people you are leading.  Learn what makes them tick, how they need to be supported and challenged, where they excel and where they need help.  Get to know them, care for them.  Leadership without relationship is the vanity of an armchair general.  It is not the servant leadership of Jesus.  And the relationship that is most often pushed out, but is most important to preserve is your relationship with God.  There is always something that seems more important than praying or reading the Bible or writing your journal.  There is always someone whose need is urgent and can flatter us that we are the person they need.  Leadership is all about relationship – relationship with the people we lead, and relationship with God who leads us.

So lead as you can, not as you can’t.  Be yourself in leadership.  Find the disciplines that support you in leadership, they will be vital when it gets difficult.  And remember that it is all about relationship – relationship with other people and with God.  You can only learn to lead by leading.  Take the risk, try it out.  Lead in the name of the servant leader.  “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.”

Amen.

First given at the Mothers' Union Leadership Conference, The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, 11th May, 2016.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Mistakes: A Sermon for Ministers


It was one of those moments when my mouth engaged before my brain.  I was being interviewed for a parish job, and had just been asked what I would do if someone refused to work with the Parish Child Protection policy.  "They can't be allowed to work with children" I said, and almost immediately began to soften it.  "Of course, I would speak with them and try to help them engage with the policy first" and so on.  But knowing what I began to know shortly afterwards, I think it was one of the reasons that I was offered the job.

After several days of being followed and spoken about, however accurately, by a slave-girl with a spirit of divination, Paul finally loses his temper.  "Very much annoyed" is how Luke puts this.  He turns round and orders the spirit to leave her.  Those who read Paul's letters carefully might wonder how he managed to last for "many days" without getting cross earlier.  There is, no doubt, a scholarly argument somewhere that uses this as further evidence of Luke smoothing things over as he writes the Acts of the Apostles.  Paul was not canonised for his patience!

The result is not good.  The fate of the slave-girl is not mentioned, but she would have been less valuable without the spirit, and the opportunities to make money for her owners from fortune telling.  As for the apostles, well they are arrested, beaten and imprisoned.  Their group is split up (what begins as a 'we' passage ends as a 'they' passage).  That phase of mission is over.  One can imagine what Silas had to say to Paul that night in the cell, and it is mostly about Paul's need to hold his temper in check.  Perhaps he quoted Galatians 5.22 at him, reminding him that the fruit of the Spirit is patience.

It was a mistake.  And we all make them.  I know that I can get angry when it is counterproductive.  I've made many other mistakes.  To date they have not got me arrested or beaten up.  But they have closed down opportunities for mission; they have led to weakening relations in ministry teams; they have led to friends and colleagues reminding me of scripture and of my own words.  We all make mistakes.  They have consequences.  But they are never the last word.  A book that I've been reading over this weekend puts it this way: "a saint can fail in a way that a hero cannot do, because the failure of a saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God" (Rupert Shortt, God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity (Hurst and Co., 2016), p. 70).

All our ministry belongs to Christ.  It's not our ministry at all, it is Christ's ministry that we are privileged to share.  So it is not about success and failure, it is not about how we make mistakes and cock it up.  It is Christ's ministry, and Christ works in and through us.  Christ even works in and through our mistakes.  To paraphrase the book: 'a minister can fail in a way that a hero cannot do, because the failure of a minister reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the minister is just a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God'.  Ministry is always about God, it is not about us.

That night, after Silas had reminded Paul of his writing on patience, there were prayers and singing.  Then there was an earthquake and the prisoners could escape.  It always reminds me of the great hymn, 'my chains fell off, my heart was free I rose, went forth and followed thee'.  If I were in prison and the doors were opened by an earthquake, I think I'd be out of there in an instant.  I might even take it as an act of God in freeing me.  But that is not how this story goes.  This time Paul was patient.  This time he waited.  He waits and keeps everyone else with him. Their jailer, fearing that he will be punished for allowing the prisoners to escape, is saved first from suicide.  Then he and all his household are saved by believing on Jesus and being baptised.

Paul's mistake is not undone, but it is redeemed.  Christ is at work bringing new opportunities even when that mistake seems costly.  Paul and Silas take the surprising decision to stay put in prison, when it seems that they have been miraculously freed. And salvation comes to a whole household.

We all make mistakes. They have consequences. But they are not the last word.  When you came for your induction at the beginning of your curacy, I told you to make good mistakes.  I'm not sure whether Paul's mistake is a good one or not.  But his mistake is not the last word - in the night he is freed and remains in the prison that he can bring salvation to the jailer and his household.  We all will and do make mistakes.  I at least am tempted to see them as disastrous and to despair.  Our mistakes do have consequences, but they are not disastrous.  Christ is at work in us and through us, even through our mistakes.  That seems to me to be borne out in many passages of scripture - from Abraham's misadventures in Egypt through to Jonah's attempts to run away from God.  Above all it is seen in the crucifixion of Jesus, when a whole series of mistakes and errors leads to the death of an innocent man, and the end of his mission to God's people.  Yet the creativity of God is at work even in the face of death to bring salvation to the whole world.  One of the paradoxes of the cross is that it is through human sin, not human virtue, that God works to save all humanity from sin.

Ministry likewise is cross-shaped and marked by God's creativity.  We belong to a God who is creative and constantly at work in and through us, so that our mistakes are never the final word unless we see them as the end of the story.  So continue to make good mistakes - they are the best way to learn.  But whether our mistakes are good ones or bad ones, never despair at them.  Christ is at work in and through even our mistakes to bring salvation to this world and to its people.  Amen.



First given at Diocese of Derby IME Weekend, Launde Abbey, 8.5.16

Sunday, May 01, 2016

'We wish to see Jesus'


A sermon for the eve of St Philip and St James

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”.  Perhaps that is the reason that we are here tonight.  We want to see Jesus.  There is no better reason for coming to church than wanting to encounter Jesus.  And here in the readings from Scripture, in the silence, in the music, in the prayers, in the architecture, in one another, perhaps even in the sermon, there are opportunities and pointers to help us to see Jesus.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. This is why we gather for worship.

But it is not just here that we see Jesus.  It is not just in church or during acts of worship that we can encounter our risen Lord.  We encounter Jesus throughout our lives, in the people, places and moments that make up our days.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand’.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Not just tonight, but each day.  The Christian life is one of meeting Jesus day by day and walking with him.

Perhaps it might help to look back on the last seven days and try to recall where and when we saw Jesus.  Were there moments when your heart sang with recognition?  Where there moments when it was clear to you the way to go?  Were there moments when you were drawn away from what you were doing to investigate the possibility that something important might be found?  Take a moment and just reflect on the past week. 

PAUSE

Let me share with you two moments from my week where I think I saw Jesus.  I think I encountered Jesus in the care of a colleague who helped me to laugh when all I could see was an enduring and awful situation.  In the care and the laughter, I became human again.  The second time that I think that I saw Jesus was in the need of a man who I could have helped, but didn’t.  I was in a hurry; I didn’t want to stop; I recognised Jesus in retrospect.  I have seen Jesus in care and laughter, in need and rejection.

Learning to see Jesus, to recognise him when he crosses our path, is an important spiritual discipline.  The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, taught a means of doing this called the Examen.  The Examen is a simple discipline. It consists of reviewing the day.  One teacher describes it as ‘rummaging for God’.  Go through the stuff of the day, and see where God might be found. Where did you see Jesus in the day?  The key to this is gratitude – be thankful for what God has given you in the day; and gentleness, be kind to yourself as you look back.  Thankfulness and kindness are essential to this spiritual practice.  You could try this in a lengthy way, spending fifteen minutes or so in review.  Or you could simply look through the highlights, so to speak, and say thank you for one moment of encounter in the day that has gone.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  This is one way that might help.

Seeing Jesus is not, however, a guarantee that all will be easy and nice.  It is all too easy to see Jesus in what seems nice and well suited to us, and to take hardship and difficulty as signs that Jesus is not with us.  But that is not true, nor is it the world we live in.  We live in a world with beautiful sunsets, and vicious and brutal wars.  We live in a world in which people are generous to us, and in which people lie and hurt us.  Jesus is present in all of this.  He is present in our weakness and our joy, our pain and our accomplishment.

The people of Israel had been in exile for about fifty years when Isaiah spoke to them in the words of the second lesson.  Jerusalem had been destroyed, and many taken into exile in Babylon.  There they had, almost uniquely, managed to retain and even deepen their identity as a people.  But they felt cut off, apart from God.  ‘My way is hidden from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God’.  This is a common spiritual mistake, and one that I certainly make frequently.  To see that things going well is a sign of the presence of God, and to see things being hard and painful as a sign that God is distant.  But it is a mistake, and one for which Isaiah rebukes the people.  Jesus similarly tells Philip and Andrew that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ 

The truth is that we can see Jesus in our weakness and in our hurting.  Sometimes it is only there that he can be at work, breaking down our false images of ourselves and of God and gently building true ones.  The hard question for each of us, is where we see Jesus in our hurt and our struggle.  So let me suggest that we try to get better at seeing Jesus in our lives.  Over the coming week, try reflecting on the day that is past and asking two questions:  ‘For what moment today am I most grateful?’ and ‘For what moment today am I least grateful?’  Then ask God to show you where he was in those moments.  Remember to be thankful and gentle.  Thankful for the presence of Jesus with you; gentle on yourself for your failings.  Try that this week, and see where it gets you.

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”  It is a good request.  It is what we are about in worship and in life.  As we go through this week, let us try to learn to see him better.  Let me end with the prayer of St Richard of Chichester:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.  Amen.



First given at Derby Cathedral 1.5.16.
 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: The Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 Shortlist 1


Review of Benigno P. Beltran, Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a Planet in Peril (Orbis, 2012).



If all the books on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist are as good as this, then I’m in for a treat!  It is good to have an author on the shortlist who is not from the UK or the US.  Beltran is from the Philippines.  A Roman Catholic priest, and a teacher of theology, Beltran has also been the chaplain to the most notorious rubbish dump in the world – Smokey Mountain in Manilla.  Here around 25 000 people lived as scavengers, and became a symbol of both poverty and the ecological degradation of the world.

This is a deceptively short book.  It is both moving and challenging.  It also covers several different genres.  Most obviously, it is autobiographical.  Benigno Beltran was a Pilipino priest who was sent to study in Rome.  He returned to the Philippines to train seminarians.  On his return he made Smokey Mountain his home, and ministered to the people there.  He lived with them and offered them his care and his ministry.  Eventually he was part of the ending of the rubbish dump and the resettlement of those who had lived there. On a purely human level, this is a fascinating and poignant story.

There is far more to the book than this story, however.  It is also a stirring and carefully argued plea for justice in the world.  This is a call for justice in the face of the immense poverty that led to people spending their lives scavenging on a rubbish dump.  The interconnection of movements for justice, democracy and solidarity confronting the powerful and rich is another major theme in Beltran’s writing.  He is concerned to emphasise hope in the face of despair and community in the midst of desperation.  The continued need for the provision of basic necessities – clean water, safe food, sanitation and education – in a world that spends billions on weapons is starkly put.  That does not detract from its truth.

Another theme is environmental.  The rubbish dump on which people live is in danger of becoming a metaphor for our planet.  The greed and excess of the consumer world is killing the planet and its people.  It is not sustainable.  Beltran offers a powerful critique, all the more valuable for its origins in the Philippines.  A new relationship with the planet is needed.  There are resources here.

Above all, however, this is a book about God.  Each of the chapters is named for an approach to God.  Beltran offers a powerful apologetic that dismisses the likes of Richard Dawkins easily – none of the so-called ‘new atheists’ have given themselves to the poor in the way that Beltran has.  Faith is clearly central to that commitment.  Armchair atheism, that decries poverty from a safe distance, has nothing to offer here.  The positive case for God that Beltran offers is one rooted in prayer, shaped by the scriptures, expressed in theology and encountered in action with the poor.  This, for me, was the highlight of the book.  It is woven throughout, and beautifully done.

Autobiography, justice, the environment, apologetics and God: not a small list of topics.  Each is as well handled as it is important.  This is a book I would not have encountered were it not for the Michael Ramsey Prize.  I am exceedingly glad that I did, and heartily commend it to others.