Jonah the Backward Prophet and the Friday Strike

I spent an afternoon in a primary school on Thursday with Year 3’s. They were having an RE day investigating the story of the prophet Jonah.

Then next day I saw children from all over the country following the lead of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg who decided to go on school strike at the parliament to get politicians to act on climate change.

My contribution to the school visit was the story of Jonah the Backward Prophet. This was not my story but a lovely script by Jerome Berryman, the creator of Godly Play. The story is told with beautiful wooden objects: the city of Nineva, a boat, a whale, and of course, Jonah. God tells Jonah to go to Nineva and tell the people they must change and become good. Jonah gets on a ship going in the opposite direction as far from Ninevah as you can go. God sends a storm and the sailors ask Jonah for help but Jonah does not help them. The sailors ask Jonah to pray to his God to save them but he is silent. Jonah does all the things a prophet is not supposed to do. He is a backward prophet. Eventually, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him into the sea and the storm will stop. They throw him in and the storm stops. Finally, after three nights in the belly of a big fish Jonah prays to God to save him. The whale vomits him up (the children like that bit) on the beach and he does go to Ninevah and tell them what God wanted him to say. It’s not the end of the story though. The people become good but Jonah is not happy. He wants God the punish the people for being bad even though they have become good! He sulks. When we wondered together about what was important in this story and what Jonah might do next the children of course were spot on. Jonah realised that he needed to listen to God even if it wasn’t what he wanted to do or what he wanted God to do!

The story of Jonah is the human story, our story. First we don’t want to listen to God, let alone follow what he might ask us to do. We are good at finding all sorts of ways to be far away from God. But, if we do decide to listen and follow we still want life our way, not God’s way. It must be so very trying for God. This can be likened to the way world leaders are responding to the burning issue of climate change. We are rapidly reaching the point where the damage we are doing to the planet is irreversible.

“Nelson Mandela once said: “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.” Human planetary abuse is, in a very real sense, child neglect.”

Thank goodness our children are taking matters into their own hands and becoming forward prophets about climate change!

“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.”

There is a crack in every thing God has made
Ralph Waldo Emerson

This morning I stood in awe at the most amazing sunrise revealed behind the leafless skeletal branches of the trees opposite the White House. Here was a moment of breathtaking beauty. But the scene also revealed another image. The black trees cut through the distant blood-red glow, breaking the light into fragments. This reminded me of a well-known other image about the cracks that let the light in. This is an enduring image we can find in Hemingway and in a lyric from the influential singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

In 1929 Hemingway published a novel set during World War I titled “A Farewell to Arms”, and he discussed the universality of human pain and resilience, that we are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Cohen picks up this motif in a lyric: Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
The words of Hemingway and Cohen have also been merged to yield the idea that breakage typically causes cracks, and light symbolically represents spiritual strength and insight.

This morning I felt keenly this image of brokenness and my brokenness. A bishop once described those in ministry, particularly the parish priest, as like a cracked, fractured pot, but still a vessel where we try to hold everyone in our hands and on our hearts to God. There will always be failure, there will always be brokenness but it is the cracks that let the light in.

Last week’s edition of Church Times ran a feature on courses and daily reflections for Lent. The titles include subjects such as learning to pray from those who talked to Jesus, hope and redemption, adversity to maturity, daring to see God now, and the beauty of the cross. The season of Lent reminds us more than any other season of the church year that we are broken as Jesus was broken but the cross, like my sunrise trees splintering the sky, is indeed the crack that let the light and as the poet, Emerson puts it: there is a crack in everything God has made.

Only fossils don’t change

Generally speaking, as a human race, we hate change. We want everything to stay the same, provided of course that what ever it is that stays is how we like it. Many of the arguments on the Brexit side of the E question are borne out of a desire for the UK (and in reality we are probably talking about England) stem from a rose-tinted view of just how great this country was and how it could be again, if only we could put everything back to how it was, when, if only…. Many of the arguments on the Remain side of the E question are borne out of a desire to stay as we have been for the last 40 years. That time spent in the big E has brought stability, peace and easy travel between Member States. If only we could keep things just as they have been then this will guarantee our safety, security and well-being, if only….

A very dead fossil

Here are two metaphors. The first is apparently easy to grasp: only fossils don’t change. Yet we let this simple fact slip by us. Nothing ever stays the same unless it is dead!

The second is what happens when change happens.

Inside your car

An internal combustion engine only moves a vehicle forward through a series of small explosions. That is how engines work!

In order to have movement you have to have those explosions. Unless of course you are preventing that free movement by pulling hard on the hand brake.

Who put the brake on?

We can apply these simple images of the fossil and the car engine (with or without the hand brake being applied) to change in all its forms. Whether a change that affects the whole country (and actually by implication the world) or change in our personal lives. Change in our family, job, relationships, finances are only ever acceptable to us if we have brought them about. Otherwise, change is an imposition, a disruption to the smooth running of our lives. Actually, we want the car to run smoothly without thought of those little explosions in the engine making it happen.

We are like this with church too. Ask any regular church-goer and they will either tell you they like it just how it is thank-you-very-much or they will say it’s not like it used to be and I want that back thank-you-very-much.

Where are you ?

In church families, just as in any other sort of family, including country families, change is necessary to discovering together, growing together, living together, loving together. Fossils don’t grow, fossils don’t learn new things, fossils don’t live together, love each other. Because they are dead.

A fire that never dies away

I was listening to a live broadcast from the Taizé Community this morning. It’s the season of Advent so images of dark and light feature prominently. One song stood out for me: Dans nos obscurités – Within our darkest night. The village of Taizé has seen its fair share of dark times and so has its namesake community. During World War 2 it suffered terrible deprivation, some who could, left to find work, leaving only a handful of elderly people and no one to farm the poor land. Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community, arrived in the middle of that people, to begin a simple life of prayer and practical support focussed upon reconciling people, reconciling differences.

It was a terrible time for France, a country divided between German occupation and free but in dreadful straits. Brother Roger helped Jewish refugees cross the line into free France then Switzerland. After the war the tiny community befriended German prisoners in a local camp. A dark time but the glimmer of the light of hope for a better future was already burning. The community of Brothers grew from different denominations – protestant – catholic – anglican – lutheran – determined to live a life of prayer together. The light grew.

Young people saw the light. It drew them like moths to a flame. The community’s work flourished. At the time of Brother Roger’s death many thousands from all over the world spent time with the brothers every week. There was always a welcome. There still is.

Brother Roger died on 16th August 2005, killed with a knife in the middle of the evening prayer by a woman with mental health issues. Within our darkest night. The last few years have seen terrorist attacks all over France and Europe. France is on high alert again after such an attack in a Strasbourg Christmas Market. The Taizé Community continues to pray for reconciliation, for the healing of divisions between God’s people. Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, that never dies away .

Homage to Raed Fares

Raed Fares died four days ago. He was shot dead by gunmen in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib. Who was Raed Fares?
Raed Fares, was the founder of Radio Fresh, an independent radio station broadcasting from inside opposition-held areas in the country.
He angered both militants and the Syrian government.

Four years ago, he suffered shattered bones and a lung puncture in an attempt to shut him up. There were more attempts.
Raed Fares did not expect to die quietly in his bed. He refused to carry a weapon. He said his fight was just dedicated to the people, and to the welfare of all groups, all society:

“What can they do? Kill me? Well let them kill me.                                                      I’m not going to leave and leave them the country”.

What did he do to upset both sides in this terrible, intolerable conflict? He protested against tyranny and injustice. He stood up for women in an unequal society. He promoted non-violent protest. He used hyperbole (such as playing sounds on his radio station of tweeting birds and ticking sounds, clucking chickens and bleating goats, and modifying women’s voices with computer software), to draw attention to the injustice of demands to take women off the air.

Does this sound familiar?

Love _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Yourself

You may recognise the missing words in this blog’s title. You can find references to these words in the Old Testament: Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 10:19. Jesus drew upon these verses to most clearly establish the best way to live and can be found in Mark 12.31, Matthew 5:43-46, Matthew 19:19, Matthew 22:39, Luke 6:27, Luke 6:32-35 and Luke 10:27. As the full text is central to Jesus’s message why leave words out?

Well just reflect for a moment upon the words that are left: LOVE YOURSELF. This may seem a selfish way to go, but not so. The problem is that people are finding it increasingly hard to love themselves. Low self esteem is rife, particularly amongst the young. This leads to addictions and unwholesome relationships. Low self esteem is also a characteristic of bullying, loneliness and isolation. This can all be summed up as an inability to love oneself. Loving yourself really means loving the person God created you to be. Not some other, more glamorous, beautiful, perfect somebody else, but YOU!

2000Here is some sad news from the Guardian this week: ” an Indian husband and wife who fell to their deaths from a popular overlook at Yosemite national park in California were apparently taking a selfie, the man’s brother said on Tuesday.

Park rangers recovered the bodies of Vishnu Viswanath, 29, and Meenakshi Moorthy, 30, on Thursday about 800ft (245 meters) below Taft Point, where visitors can walk to the edge of a vertigo-inducing granite ledge that doesn’t have a railing.”

This unfortunate couple are not the only ones who have died trying to get themselves into the best shot for a selfie. The selfie has become an artificial form of loving yourself. It has become THE way to show how beautiful, glamorous, adventurous, perfect you are. But the selfie is a sham. It fools you into thinking you are what you think you should be. It is not the REAL you. Learning how to love the real you is not easy I grant you. It took me half a lifetime to discover that truth.

I think this is what Jesus was really getting at when he said LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOURSELF. There they are, the missing words. The words that everyone focusses upon. Yes, they are important. Of course the Gospel truth is that we must learn to love our neighbours but how can we love others when we don’t even love ourselves. Just ourselves, imperfect as we are in our own eyes but always perfect in God’s eyes because we are made in God’s image.



tardisI am a massive Doctor Who fan.

Thirteen actors have headlined the series as the Doctor. The transition from one actor to another is written into the plot of the show with the concept of regeneration into a new incarnation, a plot device in which a Time Lord “transforms” into a new body when the current one is too badly harmed to heal normally. Each actor’s portrayal is unique, but all represent stages in the life of the same character. Together, they form a single lifetime with a single narrative. Now when you think about it this sounds a bit like a parish priest: a single lifetime with a single narrative. A priest in the Church of England is defined by their calling: the single narrative to ordained ministry. Extracts from the ordinal or ordination service state:

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent…With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name…Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.

As priests we swear to abide by this calling. We wear this stamp of priesthood imprinted upon us through the laying on of hands in an unbroken apostolic succession leading back through time to the apostle, Peter.

As I write, the latest Doctor Who series has begun with a new Doctor. Dr Who is a traveller, as Jodie Whittaker, playing the new Doctor, reminds the viewers. Priests are travellers too, called to follow in the footsteps of Christ wherever he leads us.