Wednesday, 19 December 2012

'The end of local government as we know it' - response to Birmingham City Council's budget consultation

Birmingham City Council are facing what the Council leader recently described as 'the end of local government as we know it'. Here's my response to BCC's consultation on their 2012-13 budget. You can see the proposals, and respond too, at:

To whom it may concern:

I’m grateful for the opportunity to respond through the Budget Consultation process, and I hope many other Birmingham citizens have also done so.

My response is largely around the general principles (what you call ‘the wider service delivery issues’ in the document) rather than the particularities of individual budget lines.

I’m sure cliches have already been over-used in this conversation, but I’m afraid the cliche that springs to mind is about ‘rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic’. It is becoming increasingly clear that the figures, projected into the future, mean not only that so-called ‘salami slicing’ of services is an ineffective response, but even that an approach that ‘preserves’ some services while cutting others will not be going far enough. Albert Bore’s description of ‘the end of local government as we know it’ is correct, and what is needed is a radically different approach to local government. Rather than ‘restructuring the building’, I would suggest, what is needed, unavoidably, is to begin the work of imagining what might be built, what seeds planted and nurtured, in the rubble that is left behind.

1) Who will be able to think the unthinkable?

I would humbly suggest that those best-equipped to do this imagining might include some council members and officers with an ability to think far enough ‘outside the box’, but that the pressures of working within the current system may well mean that many will find that just too difficult. Those of us who work in what is often called the ‘Third’ (and sometimes, more recently, the ‘Tired’) Sector have, I would suggest, a wealth of experience not simply in surviving on a shoestring, but on the kind of creative reinvention that is needed for Birmingham.

My first suggestion, then, would be an urgent need, not for another consultation exercise, or polite listening, but for getting the right people in rooms, together, with a blank sheet of paper, across all the areas and departments in which the Council currently provides, or aspires to provide, some kind of service – to re-imagine what kind of support will be needed for Birmingham to survive, and ideally thrive. As a concrete example, I would want to highlight the work of the Chamberlain Forum as being ideally placed to enable such thinking to happen and develop.

2) A radical approach that starts with neighbourhoods

The traditional model of ‘service provision’ is almost dead. That will, inevitably, mean huge losses, both in terms of council employees but also in terms of what local neighbourhoods will no longer benefit from. I would suggest, however, that in the crisis there is also an opportunity, and it is an opportunity to rediscover ourselves as a city, begin with our local neighbourhoods. There are many things that are ‘provided’ as ‘services’ that neighbourhoods are actually, with adequate resourcing, much better at doing themselves. There is clear evidence, for example, that the most significant factors that make people feel safe and secure is not police presence, but the levels of trust between neighbours, and the frequency with which people in a neighbourhood gather together outdoors. There is also clear evidence that the wellbeing of the most vulnerable people – children & young people, older people, and adults in between – is maximised not within institutions, but within communities of mutual care.

What I’m suggesting here is not ‘big society’ – a policy that looks for all the world like a smokescreen for massive cuts in public services, with nothing positive to replace them apart from some patronising moral exhortations emanating from comfortable Oxfordshire villages. It is also not simply about ‘devolving to District Committees’, as if that somehow solves anything – merely displacing the same old problems to a lower level on the chain (something that central government have been doing very ‘successfully’ themselves, as Birmingham can testify).

What I am suggesting needs resourcing. But it needs a kind of resourcing that is utterly different from ‘service provision’. It also, helpfully, can be done very effectively with rather less money. It is not about ‘neighbourhood management’, although that was a very good initiative in this direction. There will, after all, be rather less services for communities to manage or commission. This is about community development. Paid people, in each local neighbourhood (and ‘local’ means ‘local’ here – if it’s not within walking distance, it’s not ‘local’) of the city, who are trained and skilled in connecting people, building relationships, growing trust, nurturing friendships, drawing out people’s skills and confidence and knowledge and passions. It is, as the Social Cohesion Inquiry has at least begun to realise about identifying, unlocking, and connecting the ‘assets’ within people and communities so often labelled in ‘deficit’ terms – but using them to grow things from the grassroots, not to support a creaking, disintegrating, top-down structure.

Again, it is often the 3rd Sector that knows better than most how to do this. But even ‘we’ are often so tied in to the ‘service provision’ mentality that we fail to do what needs doing most.

Yes, Birmingham needs infrastructure, and it would be easy and obvious for the City Council to focus on that. But Birmingham needs strong, resilient and caring communities more. If we’re asking the hardest questions about what BCC spends its money on, I would argue this has to come first, before anything else – because everything else will flow from this. BCC is in the best possible position to commission the recruitment, training, and support of such a network of community developers – and it will pay dividends. The evidence from a programme such as ‘Near Neighbours’ in significant sections of the city would back this up.

There is, of course, an ‘equality’ question in all of this. Clearly some neighbourhoods will need more ‘intense’ work, others will require a ‘lighter touch’. There are measures around that will help with that judgement, but they may not be the traditional ‘deprivation’ indices. Levels of social capital, social infrastructure, and formal/informal co-production (again, see Chamberlain Forum’s work in this area) will be the key indicators.

3) Relationship with central government

As an outsider to the workings of ‘government’, I can only imagine what goes on behind the scenes in the relationship between local and central government. I would suggest, however, that we are again moving into radically new terrain in that relationship. While central government slashes and burns local government’s powers and budget (especially in authorities like Birmingham, particularly dependent on central funding), ‘responsibility’ (for picking up the pieces) is devolved to local level like never before.

It must surely be time for cities like Birmingham to find creative ways to vocally and powerfully resist the central government agenda and its impact on our communities, especially where it hits the poorest and most vulnerable. It may be an uncomfortable alliance, but I would suggest Birmingham City Council might find a whole new strength in forging links with groups as diverse as Citizens UK and UK Uncut, to make the people power of Birmingham known in the corridors of Westminster.

In conclusion, I appreciate these may well be answers to questions that you haven’t quite been asking, and that as answers go they may be either beyond what feels currently imaginable, or too vague to be of use. Whatever happens, please have the courage to not allow the vested interests and impoverished imaginations of those who wish to preserve their own small patch of ‘status quo’ to, if not win the day, at least paralyse any possibility of meaningful action. The ship is sinking, and we need to be hard at work making the best possible lifeboats.

With warmest wishes,
Revd Al Barrett

Church of England Priest, Hodge Hill Church
(St Philip & St James C of E in partnership with Hodge Hill URC)
"Growing Loving Community... in the love of God ♥ with all our neighbours ♥ across Hodge Hill"

'Stand and raise your heads' - a sermon for Advent Sunday 2012

(Readings: Jer 33:14-16; 1Thess 3:9-13; Lk 21:25-36)

We had around 50 Muslims visit church on Thursday. Most of them aged 5-6. They'd been told to have their eyes open, to look for clues as to what goes on here.

They'd seen a cross - the big one outside, and several inside. They'd seen the big candle in the middle (our Paschal candle, powerful symbol of Easter life). They'd seen the font, the place of baptism, and the altar table, the place around which we share bread and wine together. They'd seen the lectern, from which we read from the Bible... and they saw a Christmas tree... They knew Christians celebrate Christmas, and I asked them where else they might have seen Christmas trees? In the shops, and on the telly, they replied.

I was left wondering what kind of Christmas they thought Christians like us might celebrate. Would the images in the shops and on the telly give them a good idea? Is a 'Christian Christmas' all about over-eating & arguing? And how about Advent, Christianity's four weeks of preparation? From the shops and the telly, my Muslim friends would be forgiven for thinking it was all about parties and drinking and shopping...

And then I looked at our gospel for today...

One version, Eugene Petersen's The Message, renders Luke 21:34 as follows: "But be on your guard. Don't let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise...."

As always, as we enter Advent, with the jolly Christmas songs that have already been jingling out of our radios for too long ringing in our ears, the words we are given from Scripture sound a sharp note of warning, of dissent, an alert to those with ears to hear... to stop, unplug the Christmas tree lights, turn off the TV and radio and look, and listen... Just as our Muslim sisters and brothers in Ramadan very clearly mark themselves out as doing something different to the rest of the world, so in Advent, we Christians are summoned to do December differently... But how...?

If we dig a little deeper into gospel passage, we find Jesus painting a picture of a world in ‘distress, confusion and fear. It doesn’t take much effort for such a picture to ring bells with the world we see on our TV screens and hear on our radios: with Israel & Palestine sending rockets at each other; with floods that tell of environmental disaster; with drastic government cuts in this country that mean, among other things, here in Birmingham we’re witnessing ‘the end of local government as we know it’ (as the Council Leader recently described it).

It is enough to bring us to our knees...

But Jesus says something different. He says: ‘stand - and raise your heads’.

Jesus invites us, particularly through the weeks of Advent, into a different way of looking...

It is all too easy to get enthralled by the smoke of pollution, destruction and war playing out on our news reports, seduced by politicians’ promises that things are about to get better, or indeed by the TV ads for ‘the perfect Christmas’ (if only we bought this, or shopped there...). But Jesus says ‘look somewhere else’ – ‘look at the fig tree’, stare long and hard at the dead branches until you begin to glimpse tiny signs of new life... sit still, quietly, listening long and hard for the ‘still small voice’ whispering to us words of truth & hope...

Because in the midst of the big dramas of our TV screens, both real and fictional, there are little stories of real people – stories of desperate need, stories of courageous care, stories of fragile hope. These are the stories, the people, Jesus summons us, in this Advent waiting time, to pay long, hard, careful attention to. And they are not only in little places half way across the world – they are right on our doorstep...

In September, we began 'Open Door', down the road at The Hub. Offering a place to 'drop in' to, offering a cuppa and some toast, a warm welcome, friendship, and the possibility of practical support - with finding work, putting together a CV, managing money, finding volunteering opportunities, and the like. Nothing dramatic, really simply, literally, opening a door and waiting... And slowly but surely a trickle of people started coming. Coming with real needs, but also with real gifts, real passions, real possibilities - and horizons have opened up, and new and genuine friendships have begun to grow, shared journeys have begun.

In the summer, we did an activity week on the wasteland, at the end of Bromford Drive. Alongside music, games, and art & craft,  a handful of people, younger and older, cleared a path through the most bramble-tangled, nettle-infested, rubbish-strewn part of the wasteland. Some passers-by thought we were mad: it would make no difference, it was futile effort. But many children and adults use that path every day, to get to school, to a playground, to the shops. Echoing the ancient prophets, in our own small way we were ‘preparing a way’ through the wilderness - a highway for young and old, a path for God to walk with human beings.

Two small examples of what we think we are doing here, in Hodge Hill. We're in the business of looking for, and living out, little signs of God’s big future. Those little signs might look, and feel, irrelevant, insignificant. It might feel like we're fighting a losing battle... But those little signs are, in fact, like the first tiny specks of blossom on the fig tree. The beginnings of spring, even in the icy grip of winter. The first fruits of the coming kingdom of God.

If we are to ‘stand and raise our heads’ – to see, and to be, Christ’s body in the world – then we need each other. And we need to pray for each other, as Paul does in his letter to the Thessalonians...

We will need to pray with joy & thanksgiving & abundant love. To pray that we might truly see each other face to face. To pray for our faith to be restored where it is lacking, and for our hearts to be strengthened. And, most importantly, to pray for love to increase and abound among us – for each other... for all God’s children, and for all creation... this Advent, and in the year to come.

I want to finish by offering you an Advent gift - a poem by our outgoing Archbishop, Rowan Williams:

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Friday, 14 December 2012

'I am Bethlehem...' - some pre-Christmas meditations

I wrote these in 2008 and used them in a Christmas Eve service in Smethwick. We used them again in Hodge Hill last year as the 'gathering gloom' of austerity approached. Not one for repetition, we're doing something different here this year - but these still feel worth sharing. Feel free to use and share as you like...

I am Bethlehem…​
A little town, a nowhere-in-particular.
A place of hope, over the years,
but also, often, of fear.
My streets are dark;
my people are longing
for freedom from the fear of violence,
for a healing of divided communities,
for peace –
peace here, peace for all the earth.
And tonight, unnoticed,
the tiniest of lights has been lit,
tonight, unheard,
the whisper of God travels on the wind.
in the most unlikely of places
for the birth of hope.
in the silence
for the most extraordinary of messages.
in my dark streets,
God says:
‘Do not be afraid’

I am Mary…​
A teenaged girl, no one in particular.
Not quite a single mum,
but not married, not settled down,
not with the baby’s dad.
Of course I’m excited
about bringing
a tiny new life
into the world.
But you’d be scared too
if you were me:
my first baby could be here any time;
we’re in a strange town far from home;
there are no beds free,
and no hospital, come to that.
As for the disapproving looks
off the neighbours back home,
well… I’ve had months of that already.
But look…
In my body – mine! –
God’s love is taking shape.
In my ears – yes, mine! –
God whispered the promise:
‘Do not be afraid’

I am Joseph…​
before the word was even thought of.
Good with my hands –
not so clever with words.
I’m with Mary because I love her,
baby or no baby.
How many of you
have brought up a child,
knowing from the beginning it wasn’t yours,
but doing your best –
your very best, I mean –
to teach him all you know
about love,
and faithfulness,
and courage,
and being a man,
a real man,
a good man?
I fear
I might not have
a big-enough heart
to do that.
But then there’s God,
chipping away,
gently but firmly,
with those words again:
‘Don’t be afraid.’

I’m a shepherd…​
Paid barely enough to make ends meet,
put food on the table,
keep the babbies in clothes.
Working conditions not great either:
outdoors, whatever the weather;
long days;
long nights.
And hardly secure employment:
hired and fired from month to month;
Leaving your flock
is not a good career move,
whether an angel’s told you to
or not.
I’m scared
this winter’s going to bite hard.
But maybe if God knows
all about cold
and poverty
and insecurity.
Maybe I’ve got nothing to lose.
‘Don’t be afraid.’
That’s what the angel said.

I am a wise man,​
​Although they don’t say that
​about everyone
​who looks for messages in the stars.

I am a traveller.
My journey has brought me a long, long way.
I have not found much yet:
only power-hungry rulers,
and too many doors shut in my face.

​I am a foreigner.
I might look and sound quite different to you.
But just because I struggle to speak your language
doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain,
or a heart.

You and I are searching for the same thing,
I think.
A new government,
a different world,
a brighter future,
we hope.

But maybe we are looking in the wrong places.
Not in the corridors of power,
among the money men
and the decision-makers.
But in a back-street stable,
among the young mums
and the shift-workers.
The starlight
​I have been following
seems to shine
down those dark streets,
‘Do not be afraid.’

I am busy!​
​I’m an innkeeper.
Which means
I run a pub,
and this,
for people in my trade,
is the busiest,
most stressful,
time of year.
No room,
no time,
no joy.
Too many people around,
too many jobs to do,
too many places to be
at the same time.
I’m good without
the aggro.
just to keep head above water.
Better when it’s all over.
But if,
for ten minutes even,
I could leave the customers,
the complaints,
the constant demands,
and get round the back
to the cattle shed,
to see that new-born baby
I can hear crying,
and hold him in my arms…
even for five minutes,
I could just stop
and do nothing,
except be there,
and look
and listen…
in the space,
and the silence,
I might just hear God saying:
‘Don’t be afraid.’

I am me…​
I am you…
I am your next-door neighbour…
I am the person you go out of your way
to avoid…
I am your best friend…
We are waiting,
all of us,
sitting in darkness,
waiting for the light of dawn to break.
We tell ourselves
‘Christmas is for the children’,
but there is a little child
in each of us
that is waiting for more
than the contents
of the brightly-wrapped boxes
and the feast
of chocolate.
The little child
is waiting
for the moment
of wonder…
For the moment
the world
holds its breath
and then breaks into
a smile.
For the moment
when a lifetime
of hurts
and disappointments
is forgotten
in a hug.
For the moment
when the poor
and the hungry
are lifted up
and the rich
are sent
For the moment
when the hopes
and fears
of all the years
in the dark streets
and whisper
to each other:
‘Don’t be afraid.’
The little child
is waiting.
to be born.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

'Regime change' at the 'centre', or experimenting at the 'edges'?

With most of those inside the Church of England, and a remarkably large number outside, this week I have spent a lot of waking hours somewhere in 'the valley of the shadow of death', repeatedly finding myself surprised by intense feelings of shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, disappointment, disgust, embarrassment, frustration... the reel of emotions could go on and on.

Coincidentally, the decision of General Synod almost to agree to proceed with bishops of both genders, but not quite - thanks to 6 members of the House of Laity - comes in the week that I've sent off a hefty chunk of ramblings to my PhD supervisors, around the themes of 'asset-based' community development and 'co-production', and the Christian practices of gratitude and lament. I finish the piece, with inevitably unsatisfying loose ends, by suggesting that the 21st Century version of Saul Alinsky's community organising tradition, seen in the Occupy and UK Uncut movements, contains more than a little promise and possibility for bringing the laments of the local to the centres of power. I dare to suggest that these movements might be valuable partners to the local church.

The trouble is, of course, this week has made the church look ridiculous, irrelevant, lacking in any credible voice, especially on issues of community and justice. The very fact that, the day after the Synod vote on women bishops, the same Synod voted for the Living Wage throughout the institution - this should have been headline news, a challenge to central government, but instead was utterly eclipsed, consigned to irrelevance by the day before's 'long, boring suicide note', as one astute journalist described it.

But we in the parishes, at the front line of community-building in our neighbourhoods, had to get up on Wednesday morning and get on with our jobs. To be sure, we had plenty of explaining to do to our incredulous neighbours, to our children, to our partner organisations in local quests for justice, wholeness and integrity. God knows our jobs have been made more difficult by Synod's failure to live up to its latest kairos moment. But a crucial part of our 'getting on with things' locally has been the sense that, whichever way Synod had voted, how we live out church 'in the local' is not greatly changed. This is a point, I think, about bishops in general, about decisions in London, about the institution - in relation to the local Christian community that happens to call itself Anglican (in our case, even that is only partly the case).

We are a long way from the centres of power. Bishops do not (sshh, don't tell anyone) actually make a vast difference to our daily life and ministry and mission. Neither does much else that the institution does or decides or instructs - other than the 'taint by association' (unfortunate phrase in the context, but hey) that such crashing stupidity, amplified by media interest, inevitably fosters.

I am reminded of two things. One is a recent comment by a well-respected Council officer that 'the further you are from the centre, the more you can get away with'. Other institutions have their human edges, as well as their inhuman systems, too. The other is the wisdom of Australian 'Christi-anarchist' and radical community development thinker and activist, Dave Andrews. Dave reminds us that, in systems and institutions, 'regime change' (i.e. changing those at 'the top') never changes the system itself. Jesus was not interested in regime change. Instead, says Dave, 'Jesus’ stratagem was simply to persistently deny hierarchy, advocate mutuality, and reframe all his relationships, over time, in terms of equality'. Instead of seeking to 'move up' in the institution, Jesus and his followers deliberately sought to move to the institution's 'edges', locating themselves 'on the sidelines' rather than 'in the main game'. This presented Jesus (as it does his disciples) with a number of advantages:

'One, it gave him perspective. From the sidelines he was able to see the whole field, and see what needed to be done to improve the game. Two, it gave him opportunity. On the sidelines he was far enough away from the game to be beyond its immediate control, yet close enough to affect the way it played out. Three, it gave him time. On the sidelines he was able to develop his short-term alternatives to the system while he worked on his long-term transform-ation of the system. Four, it gave him space. On the sidelines he was able to demonstrate the alternatives he developed in the eyes of everyone, so they could assess for themselves whether they wanted to adopt them - or not. Five, it gave him a position from which he could advocate change, without being in a position to impose the change he advocated on anyone. So people knew they were truly free to adopt the change—or not to—as they so desired. And - because that made the change process much less threatening to the people in the synagogue - it gave Jesus greater freedom to experiment more!'

As the apostle Paul took on and developed Jesus' strategy of experimenting at the edges, 'Paul’s prayer,' says Dave, 'was that his experiments would not stay ‘on the margins’. But, that his ecclesia, would become ‘the centre of attention’. And not only be admired, but also be adopted as the modus operandi of society.'

Dave continues:

'Now many people think there is no point working for change on the margins. But I think there is probably often no other place we can work - except on the margins. Until there is a kairos moment of some kind or other, which can open up a closed system, and can give us a chance to take the changes we have accomplished on the margins, and place them—for serious consideration - right at the heart of the congregation. It doesn’t matter whether the kairos moment comes sooner or later. What matters is: we recognise it when the moment comes, and use it to manoeuvre our movement for change, from out on the edge, into the middle of the turmoil. We should always use a crisis in an institution to advocate the kind of change that can facilitate the development of a healthy community. Whether the crisis be conflict in the group, criticism of the organisation, or a succession in the leadership - we can use it - to encourage people to consider serious change.'

Now I don't want to claim anything special for Hodge Hill (although I do happen to think Hodge Hill is a very special place, for all sorts of reasons!). But I do want to suggest that this week, more than ever, Anglican churches around the country that are slogging away, often at great cost, at the edges of society and the edges of the church institution, undertaking risky, daring experiments in mutuality and community - these are the gift to the church that could, if the kairos moment is grasped, change everything. And guess what? Women are equal partners with men in leading such work. Why wouldn't they be?

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

How to run a regeneration programme – A Dummies’ Guide

(Any resemblance to any regeneration programme, living or dead, is entirely coincidental)

1. Try to stick with the same name. It might make it easier to get away unscathed, but people tend to get confused if your name changes too often.

2. It can be nice to win the, er, Lottery without buying a ticket. But remember, it can also feel a little bit like someone else is making the big decisions.

3. However much money you’ve got on offer, please remember, it’s really, really not all about the money. (Jessie J will back me up on this.)

4. It has been noted, over the course of history, that money has power. And that that has not always been in a good way.

5. There is an awful lot that communities, and neighbours within them, can do without money. Popping in on each other, making new friends, talking, singing, gardening, baking, eating together. Caring for each other. For example. And those are rather important. (Have I mentioned it’s not all about the money?)

6. Neighbourhoods rarely need much help remembering what’s wrong with them, what they lack, what they need. Helping them discover what they’ve already got – now that’s a real achievement. (Oh, and that’s not about money.)

7. Developing relationships, trust, confidence in a community takes time – hard graft, by real people, on the ground, locally. Telling a community that they’ve got lots of money but not right now, is not quite the same thing.

8. Having to spend lots of time reinventing wheels that have already been tried and tested elsewhere, is not quite the same as being empowered.

9. Believe it or not, someone may well have tried doing something similar to you before you have tried doing it. Try not to do the same things wrong that they did wrong. But if you’re going to do it differently, bear in mind that might not work well either.

10. Communities have all the skills and capacities to be ingenious and creative. Sometimes simply getting out of their way can be the best thing you can do.

11. Communities who have historically and systematically been deprived of wealth and investment – as well as value in so many other ways – will, at some point, find a voice to claim the justice – economic and otherwise – that is rightfully theirs. Then it will be about the money. But only partly.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

‘Open wide your hearts’– ‘broken’ neighbourhoods, ‘troubled’ families, poverty… and a different story…?

A lot of stories are told about areas like ours. The Daily Mail labelled us last year the seventh most ‘workshy’ community in England (based on proportion of working-age residents claiming some kind of state benefits). As an area with a concentration of social housing, we have been branded by some policy-shapers a ‘broken neighbourhood’, in which ‘both a dependency culture and a culture of entitlement predominate’. And most recently, neighbours of mine have been described by David Cameron as ‘troubled families’, ‘neighbours from hell’, ‘the source of a large proportion of the problems in society’. This last bit of labelling, it turns out, has been applied to 120,000 families around the country who tick at least 5 of the following boxes:

  • no parent in work
  • poor quality housing
  • no parent with qualifications
  • mother with mental health problems
  • one parent with long standing disability / illness
  • family has low income
  • family cannot afford some food / clothing items

As Jonathan Portes has clearly highlighted, ‘[w]hat instantly leaps out from this list … is that none of these criteria, in themselves, have anything at all to do with disruption, irresponsibility, or crime…’ These ‘troubled families’ are ‘not necessarily “neighbours from hell” at all. They are poor.’

The trouble is, ‘poverty’ itself is a term used by academics and professionals – and politicians. Again, it is a story of ‘them’, rather than of ‘us’. It may be the language of calmer heads and more cautious vocabularies than those of the Daily Mail and the current government, it may well ground itself in ‘hard facts’, like ‘indices of deprivation’, and painstaking ‘needs analysis’. But it is still a choice to tell a particular kind of story. A story of ‘needs’, ‘lacks’, ‘deprivation’ – of ‘what isn’t’.

It’s a story I’ve often told myself, and so have many of my neighbours. Many round here will talk about there being ‘nothing here’, or tell stories of an area that has ‘gone downhill’, and of being ‘ignored’ and ‘let down’, again and again over the years. The trouble is, when we collude with those in power who tell such stories of us, stories of ‘lack’ and ‘absence’, of ‘trouble’ and ‘brokenness’, we tacitly reinforce the story – external and internal – that we are less than capable, less than adequate, less than human. This ‘deficit’ story does little but encourage dependence (on those who are clearly more capable than us – the professionals, the politicians), and collude with the pathologising and stigmatising that would happily isolate us from apparently ‘unbroken’ society, and blame us for any and every social problem you can think of.

In recent months I’ve been digging into the theory and practice of ‘community resilience’. You could say it’s what ‘community regeneration’ has become, now the money’s run out, and the idea of neighbourhood transformation has been kicked into cloud cuckoo land. You could say it’s a convenient move by government that wants to abandon deprived neighbourhoods to sink or swim on their own. But both of these would be to give in to cynicism too quickly. The key ideas of ‘community resilience’ are:

  • CR understands communities as complex, dynamic ‘systems’, affected by, and responsive to, their wider environments;
  • CR is interested in the whole breadth of possible responses to disruption, change, and day-to-day pressure, from ‘survival’ to ‘adaptation’ to ‘transformation’;
  • CR looks not for the pathologies and lacks of a community, but for its ‘resources’, its ‘assets’ or ‘capitals’, its ‘capabilities’ – for what it has, not what it hasn’t.

Community Resilience invites us to tell a different story about neighbourhoods like ours. While our ‘indices of deprivation’ may be high, and our ‘financial capital’ may be pretty low, CR points us towards other kinds of ‘capital’ that we might well have more of: ‘natural’, ‘human’, ‘cultural’, ‘built’, ‘political’, and ‘social’ capitals.

Of course, it may be that even expanding the range of what counts as ‘community capital’ doesn’t change the story significantly. In the midst of maisonettes and tower blocks, hemmed in by the M6 and overshadowed by the Birmingham Airport flight-path, with few local associations and voluntary organisations, and a feeling of remoteness from those in power, quite a few of those other ‘capitals’ might look pretty depleted here too.

But there remains a choice. There is still a different story that can be told, if only we have the imagination and willingness to tell it.

That ‘different story’ is one that begins with local people – not just some local people, but all local people; not just ‘able’ adults, but the oldest of the ‘elderly’ and the youngest of the children, and those who live with disabilities and ‘life-limiting illness’ too. And the story is this: that each and every person who lives on this estate has gifts, and gifts that can be shared, if only we have the imagination and courage to create the opportunities. Gifts of heart – the passions, the things we care most about. Gifts of head – knowledge, experience, wisdom, learning. And gifts of hands – practical abilities, things that ‘we can do’, to make, maintain and mend.

The ‘art’ of telling, and living, this different story, is the art of connection. It’s the art of drawing out people’s gifts, and of linking people up with each other to enable those gifts to be released into the community. It’s the art of seeing the possible connections between a derelict waste-land, a passionate gardener, and a young woman diagnosed by her doctor with ‘mental health problems’ who’s desperate to get out of her flat, get some fresh air, and do something with her hands.

There’s a nice bit of technical jargon for this different way of telling and living the story of a neighbourhood. It’s called ‘Asset-Based Community Development’ (see e.g. John McKnight & Peter Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the power of families and neighbourhoods). It’s not rocket science, but it does demand a choice, to inhabit a different kind of mindset to the familiar, the easy, the ‘default’ story.

But it has other names too. In the Christian tradition, it’s often called ‘gratitude’. It’s the practice of seeing, and receiving, as gifts those things which might not obviously seem to be gifts. It’s the conscious, intentional, sometimes painstaking, practice of recognising gifts, opening ourselves to them, allowing our hearts to be enlarged by them, and responding to them with something more – something that exceeds attempts at ‘repayment’, exceeds what we think we ‘owe’, exceeds what we believe is our ‘duty’ with something that looks more like ‘joy’. We might say ‘thank you’ because we know we ought to – but as a practice, gratitude is learning to turn that ‘thank you’ into infectious enjoyment.

Another name for it is ‘over-acceptance’. I’ve written here before about improvisation theory:

“In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.”

But there’s a pretty crucial objection to these attempts to ‘change the story’. It’s that all this talk of ‘gifts’ distracts from, or masks, the injustice, the marginalization, the abuse dealt out to communities like ours. Is it really as simple as choosing the ‘glass half full’ story over the ‘glass half empty’ version?

I’m grateful to Ann Morisy, one of my deeply wise, deeply practical theological heroes, for pointing me in the right direction here. She talks about her suspicion of ‘poverty’ as the key, organizing concept to describe people and neighbourhoods. Instead, she points us to David Ford’s language of ‘multiple overwhelmings’ (in The Shape of Living). While such overwhelmings in our lives, Ford suggests, can often be positive (think of beauty and joy, for example), Morisy is thinking particularly of the kind of ‘overwhelmings’ that are negative, the kind of ‘common traumas’ that diminish people, ground people down – poverty, yes, but also insecurity, overload, anxiety, inadequacy, hopelessness…

Ford could be seen as a ‘resilience thinker’: he acknowledges the complexity of life’s overwhelmings, and cautions against ‘the simple solution’ that seeks to ‘tackle head-on one form of overwhelming while ignoring the others’. ‘[T]he consequences of multiple overwhelming create more intensive overwhelming... The personal and the political interact, so do the local and the global, the economic and the cultural. It is like a vast, multi-levelled ecology in which everything is somehow related to everything else.’

We might well ask how people cope – how is resilience nurtured and sustained – in the midst of ‘multiple overwhelmings’. But Ford is not just interested in ‘coping’. He advocates a very particular kind of ‘openness’. We can respond to being overwhelmed, he says, by ‘naming it’ (bringing the overwhelming into language), and ‘describing it’ (drawing on Scripture, poetry, and other sources to do justice to the complexity of the overwhelming, and to help us find common ground in our experience with that of other people). With people who are in the grip of ‘multiple overwhelmings’, we need to learn to practise what Nelle Morton calls ‘hearing to speech’: ‘a hearing that is far more than acute listening. A hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech – a new speech – a new creation.’ We who live in, and we who work in, neighbourhoods caught up in ‘multiple overwhelmings’, need to learn that kind of ‘hearing to speech’ that can help the gifts to be released, but also allow the laments, the anger, the pathos, to be heard in ways that change the structures, change the politics, change the ‘well-off’ and the power-brokers.

But Ford pushes us further. Ultimately, the ‘shape of living’ he advocates is, in fact, a very profound kind of ‘vulnerability’:

‘the wisest way to cope [with being multiply overwhelmed] is not to try to avoid being overwhelmed, and certainly not to expect to be in control of everything; rather it is to live amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes the others. That is the “home” or “school” in which the practicalities of coping can be learnt.’

Coping with ‘multiple overwhelmings’, receiving and releasing the gifts of our neighbours, unleashing the lament in a way that changes the politics: all of these, says David Ford, are grounded, ultimately, in letting ourselves be overwhelmed by God. This is where we find the imagination, and the courage, to change the story that is told about us, and that we tell about ourselves.

It is, incidentally, the kind of witness that we discover in today’s lectionary readings: of Job, looking God in the eye in the midst of the whirlwind; of frightened disciples in a fragile, storm-tossed boat; and of Paul and his co-workers, writing to the Christians in Corinth:

‘[A]s servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger… We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything… We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you… open wide your hearts also.’ (2 Corinthians 6: 4, 8-12)

Monday, 2 April 2012

An All-Age Passion Drama

This is what we’ve done in Hodge Hill for the last couple of years – it worked well last year, and better this year, I think. It’s written (using John Henson’s ‘Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures’ as a starting-point, but simplifying and adapting along the way) for a narrator, and then for as many non-speaking ‘actors’ as available. The joy is it needs minimal rehearsal – just some visually powerful props, and some placards with the various words for everyone to join in with (in bold, below). As we did it, one person (me this time) ‘paused’ it in places to lead reflective prayers, using simple words (below) and a growing ‘cairn’ of rough pebbles – which the children helped add to, in a way that was entirely un-engineered!

ACT 1: Feeling passion or thinking sensible

Jesus, Judas & Peter – sitting (with children – around a meal table)

It was Tuesday evening. Two days before the Passover meal. Jesus knew that soon he would be arrested and put to death. He was at Bethany with his friends, having a meal, when a woman burst in...

Woman with perfume – enters

She’d brought with her a big jar of very expensive perfume. And she poured it all over Jesus’ head...

Woman – pours perfume

His friends were angry:

All: ‘what a waste... what a waste... what a waste...’

they grumbled. But Jesus said to them, ‘leave her alone – she has done something wonderful for me – whenever and wherever you tell the good news, tell people the story of this woman’s generosity...

But Judas had other ideas. He left the party to find the religious leaders. ‘How much will you give me, if I hand him over to you?’ he asked. And they did a deal with him. Three hundred pounds they gave him...

Judas – takes money bag, and sits down (in congregation)

...and from then on Judas watched, and waited...

ACTION: Add 3 stones to the cairn...

o ...for every time ‘sensible’ has won over ‘daring’,

o for every time ‘look after number one’ has won over ‘love your neighbour’,

o for every time ‘counting the pennies’ has won over ‘open your heart’...

ACT 2: Passover meal

Jesus & Peter – sitting (with children – around a meal table)

On the Thursday evening, Jesus and his disciples gathered together to share the Passover meal. They got the food ready, and sat down to eat. While they were eating, Jesus said, ‘one of you will give me away – one of you here’. And one by one, each one protested: ‘not me?!’...

All: ‘not me?!’... ‘not me?!’... ‘not me?!’...

And Jesus took some bread...

Jesus – takes bread (and passes round children)

...he said ‘thank you’ to God, he broke it and gave it to his friends... And he said, ‘this bread – this is me, my body – take it and eat it...’

And he took a cup of wine...

Jesus – takes wine

...he said ‘thank you’ to God, and passed it round his friends... And he said, ‘this cup – this is me, my life-blood, poured out to bring forgiveness, and friendship with God... next time we drink together, the new world of God’s kingdom will be dawning’

Then they sang a song, and left the house, heading to the Olive Hill...

SING: Love is flowing, love is flowing,
love is flowing from the fountain of life.

Grace is flooding...

Hope is streaming...

ACT 3: Gethsemane

Jesus, Peter & children move to ‘Gethsemane’ – Jesus kneels

On the way, Jesus said to his friends, ‘tonight, all of you will run away – as it says in the old books, “When the shepherd falls dead, the sheep flee in dread.” But when I come back to life, I’ll go on ahead of you – back to Galilee, where we started out.’

Peter stands up, hands out.

And Peter said, ‘run away? Not me! I’ll stick with you to the end...’

And Jesus said, ‘believe me, before Friday morning dawns and the cockerel crows, you’ll disown me three times’

‘Not me!’ said Peter. ‘Not me!’ said the others.

All: ‘Not me... not me... not me...’

And when they reached the garden called Gethsemane, he took Peter, James and John on a little further, and said to them, ‘my heart’s breaking – stay close to me, and keep awake’. And he prayed to God, ‘my Father, loving God, if there’s another way out of this, please show me... but No, not what I want – only what you want.’

Peter and children ‘sleep’.

And when he found Peter, and James, and John, they had fallen asleep. And he woke them up, and said ‘couldn’t you stay awake, even for an hour? You want to stand by me, but have you got the guts?’

Then he went away, and prayed again. And again, he came back, and found his friends sleeping. One more time, he went away and prayed. And he came back to his friends, and woke them. ‘Still asleep?’ he said. ‘Look, it’s time to go. Here comes the one who’s going to hand me over.’

ACTION: Add 3 stones to the cairn...

o for every time we have cared about someone, really cared, but have grown tired, or impatient, or simply bored, of sticking with them

ACT 4: Betrayal and denial

Jesus – stands; Judas & 2 soldiers – enter

And Judas came, with a crowd, with swords, and clubs. And Judas came up to Jesus and gave him a hug, and a kiss...

· Invite people to embrace their neighbour...

o how would this hug feel if it was a betrayal?

And they arrested Jesus, and took him away. And all his friends ran away, just as he said they would.

Peter & children run away.

Soldiers & Jesus – move to in front of central (minister’s) chair

And Jesus was taken to the religious leaders, who tried to find anyone who would make up a story against Jesus. But none of it would hold together. And Jesus said nothing. And eventually they asked him straight: ‘are you, or are you not, the chosen one, God’s own son?’ ‘That’s for you to say,’ said Jesus. ‘But keep looking, and you will see God doing something new...’ And this made them angry, and they spat in his face and hit him and said to each other, ‘he deserves to die’...

Peter comes closer, sits & watches.

And Peter was sitting outside, waiting to see what would happen. And a girl came up to him and said, ‘You’re one of Jesus’ friends’. But Peter said,

All: ‘not me... not me... not me...’.

Another girl said, ‘you were with Jesus, I’ve seen you together.’ But Peter said,

All: ‘not me... not me... not me...’.

And a third person said, ‘you’re one of them – we can tell from your voice’. And Peter shouted,

All: ‘not me... not me... not me...!’

And the cockerel crowed, and the first light of Friday morning began to dawn, and Peter remembered what Jesus had said, and he ran, and he cried, and ran some more...

ACTION: Add 4 stones to the cairn...

o One for a kiss, 3 for the denials...

o For every time we’ve cursed someone behind their back, or stayed quiet when others have done so...

ACT 5: Jesus with Pilate

Pilate – enters & sits in central (minister’s) chair

And they took Jesus to the governor, a man called Pilate. And Pilate asked him straight: ‘are you, or are you not, the King of the Jews?’ ‘That’s for you to say,’ said Jesus. And all the religious leaders accused him, but Jesus said nothing.

And Pilate gave the crowd a choice – he would set Jesus free, if they wanted, or another prisoner, a man called Barabbas. ‘Which will it be?’ Pilate asked them. And the crowd shouted,

All: ‘Release Barabbas!’

‘And what about Jesus?’ asked Pilate.

All: ‘Put him on a cross!’

they shouted. ‘Why?’ asked Pilate. But they just shouted back again,

All: ‘Put him on a cross!’

And Pilate saw he was losing control. So he took some water and washed his hands and said, ‘I take no responsibility for this man’s death. This is your business now.’

Pilate moves to bowl of water (not font) – washes hands

ACTION: Invitation to come and wash hands...

o For every time we could have spoken up, stood up, for what, or who, we believe in – but it felt too frightening, or too hard...

ACT 6: Journey to the cross

Soldiers bring Jesus to middle – dress him with robe, crown of thorns, reed; kneel

Then Pilate’s soldiers took Jesus, and dressed him up like a king, with a red robe, and a stick in his hand, and a crown – made of thorns – on his head...

And they knelt down in front of him and laughed at him, ‘three cheers for the King of the Jews!’ –

Soldiers lead ‘cheering’...

All: (Hip hip!) Hooray! (Hip hip!) Hooray! (Hip hip!) Hooray!’

And they spat in his face and hit him and stripped off his robe and took him off to crucify him.

Soldiers – take away Jesus’ robe, crown & reed

And they grabbed a man in the street, an African called Simon, and they made him help Jesus carry his cross...

Simon & Jesus – carry cross together – move to ‘Golgotha’

And when they got to Skull Hill, they put Jesus on the cross, with a sign over him saying ‘This is Jesus, King of the Jews’.

Soldiers & Jesus – stand cross behind Jesus (Jesus holding red robe)

And the thugs hanging from crosses on his right and his left laughed at him, saying ‘if you’re God’s Son, then save yourself!’

And the religious leaders came along, and they laughed at him, saying:

All: ‘save yourself... save yourself... save yourself!’

And others passed by, laughing,

All: ‘save yourself... save yourself... save yourself!’

ACTION: Add 3 stones to the cairn...

o for every time we’ve seen someone else suffering, and have laughed, or looked the other way, or simply busied ourselves in something else...

And then it went dark. From mid-day for three hours it was as dark as night...


And then Jesus shouted out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ And he cried out again, and breathed his last breath...


ACTION: Add stone to cairn with each prayer...

o for all those in our world who feel abandoned...

§ by their family,

§ by their neighbours,

§ by their country,

§ by the world,

§ by God...

§ and for all of us – in those places of our lives where we feel abandoned too

o Holy God,
holy and strange,
holy and intimate,
have mercy on us.

ACTION: Lay down cross at cairn

SING: (Jesus, lamb of God) Jesus, lamb of God
(Take our sins away) Take our sins away
(Jesus, lamb of God) Jesus, lamb of God
(Grant us mercy / peace, we pray)
Grant us mercy / peace, we pray

And there were just a few who watched Jesus die: the soldiers on duty, and some women, a little way off – some friends of Jesus from Galilee, Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, and the mother of James and John.

And as they watched, the earth shook, and rocks split, and the curtain in the holiest place in the Temple was torn down the middle, from top to bottom.

Jesus – tears sheet from top to bottom, holds arms out to us

And those who saw it said,

All: ‘this really was the son of God...’

Soldiers kneel; Woman – lights peace candle by cairn

Jesus, Soldiers & Woman – re-join congregation as we gather in circle for Peace

SING: Christ, our peace,
you break down the walls that divide us.
Christ, our peace,
come, make us one body in you.

ACTION: We all hold hands

Jesus said: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12.24)

Not an easy peace, not an insignificant peace, not a half-hearted peace,
but the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be always with you.
And also with you.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Why did Jesus die? (A rather political answer)

(A sermon for Lent 3B, 11/3/12, at Hodge Hill Church)

The longer I go on as a parent, the more I realise that children’s questions need to be taken with utter seriousness.

In the last few years of my previous job, every Easter we’d invite classes of primary school children to church to ‘experience’ the Easter story. And at the end of every session, there’d be at least one child who asked the same question: ‘why did Jesus die?’

And every time, it was clear that the traditional answer – ‘to save us from our sins’, or something similar – just didn’t work. Just try it – with the nearest child to hand. I’m willing to bet that, like me, the succession of ‘why?’ questions that follows ends up in a great tangled mess, with you saying things that either don’t make any sense, or that you actually have great trouble believing yourself.

The thing is, that’s just not the kind of ‘why?’ question that the children are really asking. When they ask, ‘why did Jesus die?’, they’re asking, ‘what did he do to get him crucified? Especially,’ and you can almost see the cogs whirring in their heads, ‘as we’d been led to believe by you grown-ups that he was ever so nice and kind and good and well-behaved…?!’

It really is a much more interesting question. And if we dare to explore it, it inevitably brings us to today’s gospel reading [John 2:13-22]...

If you want a short answer (and forgive me for descending into the ‘vernacular’ for a moment), then Jesus died because he pissed people off. Powerful people especially, but also what our politicians today fondly call ‘ordinary, hard-working people’ too – people, that is, a bit like you and me.

But I’m guessing you’re interested in a slightly longer answer. Jesus died, I suggest, because of three things he did...

1. Jesus made friends with the wrong kind of people

  • Just think of the kind of people Jesus shared meals with, and called to follow him: the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’, in the gospels’ words; the hot-headed freedom fighters, the uneducated fishermen.
  • Just think of the kind of people he touched: the lepers, the ‘demon-possessed’, the sick, the dead – all those officially deemed ‘unclean’.
  • Just think of the kind of people he talked to with respect: children, women, foreigners…

Jesus made friends with the wrong kind of people – and that made the ‘respectable’ and ‘religious’ types uneasy. Envious. Angry…

And then we get to today’s reading…

2. Jesus went right to the heart of his nation’s power and turned it upside-down

Why the Temple?

  • It was the place not just of religious power, but of political power too.
  • It was a place built by the rich & powerful, on the backs of the poor & powerless.
  • It was a place caught up in ‘the market’ – where ‘transactions’ were the rules of the game: having to buy God’s favour with costly sacrifices, having to pay the extortionate Temple tax every year, and getting ripped off by the money-changers in the process.
  • And it was a place that excluded. Its walls and courtyards made a series of concentric rings, like the skins of an onion, designed to keep at arm’s length, or outside completely, those who couldn’t afford its prices, those who were deemed ‘unclean’, women, disabled people, foreigners… exactly those people who Jesus called his friends.

That’s why Jesus came to the Temple. And he got angry. And he placed himself, his body, right in the middle of its business, literally ‘in harm’s way’, to face down and challenge, to disrupt its ‘business as usual’, to clear a space for something completely different to happen…

  • A bit like 81-year-old Shirley, who chained herself to the railings outside the House of Lords, angry at the government’s selling off the NHS to private companies.
  • Or the chain of wheelchair-users blocking Oxford Circus, angry at savage cuts to disability living allowance.
  • Or like the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp, until a couple of weeks ago outside St Paul’s Cathedral, angry at the power of international markets to make the rich richer and the poor powerless. And like the Christians who were dragged from the cathedral steps by Police as they knelt in prayer on the night of the camp’s eviction.
  • Or like Chris, Martin & Susan, 3 Roman Catholics who cut through the fence of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire last year, and fixed a sign to it saying ‘open for disarmament – all welcome’…

Jesus dared to challenge, to disrupt ‘business as usual’, to put himself – his body – literally in harm’s way, fully knowing what the consequences would be. And he cleared a space, for something completely different to happen...

Listen to these words of St. Augustine of Hippo, 4th Century teacher of the faith: "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

I’d want to add a third ‘daughter’ – Imagination – to see what a different world might look like. A glimpse of the possible – of the kingdom of God.

It’s no coincidence that just before today’s gospel reading, just before Jesus comes to the Temple, he’s making the wine flow freely at the wedding in Cana, ‘the first of Jesus’ signs’, as John calls it. Which brings me to my third reason why Jesus died…

3. Jesus played by different rules – or better, he started a completely different game – and the powerful just didn’t ‘get’ it…

  • At Cana, Jesus shows the power of celebration – using the stone jugs for water for the rituals of purification, to pour out the best wine anyone had ever tasted.
  • At Cana, Jesus changed the game from ‘run out’, ‘not enough’, to ‘overflowing’, ‘too much!’. Suddenly we’re in a different ‘economy’ – one of gift, grace, abundant generosity.
  • And at Cana, Jesus showed us a different society – where no one is left out, no one is deemed ‘unclean’ or ‘underserving’, no one is excluded because they can’t afford it… and no one is in charge of who gets what…

So why did Jesus die?

  • Because he made friends with the wrong kind of people
  • Because he went right to the nation’s centre of power and dared to disrupt its ‘business as usual’
  • And because he started a new game that those in power just didn’t ‘get’...

And what about us?

  • Here in Hodge Hill, we might well feel a long way from the centres of power in our country. Even in England’s ‘second city’, we might well feel rather on the edge of things. But there may well, in the coming years, be places in our own community, lines in the sand right here in Hodge Hill, that will demand our presence, our bodies, to stand or kneel in solidarity with our neighbours, and against the forces which seek to exclude, deprive and demean them.
  • And in the mean time, let’s get on with making friends, as Jesus did, with all the ‘wrong’ kinds of people, the kind of people our current government apparently class as not worthy of respect or value, but who our God counts, and knows, and loves as made in his image. Let’s find opportunities, through what we do as a church, and through who we meet as neighbours, to cross boundaries, open arms, share meals, make friends, break down divides…
  • And as we edge closer to Easter, let’s use these days of Lent, and beyond, to get trained up in the utterly different game that we call ‘the kingdom of God’, where passion and compassion, gift and abundant generosity, vulnerability and trust, celebration and friendship are the only rules we need – and where, like a seed that has been dead and buried, hope springs up and blossoms from seemingly barren ground.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

What’s the point of Lent?

(A sermon at Hodge Hill Church, 26/2/12)

The desert waits,
ready for those who come,
who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading;
or who are driven,
because they will not come any other way.

The desert always waits,
ready to let us know who we are –
the place of self-discovery.

And whilst we fear, and rightly,
the loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
we forget the angels,
whom we cannot see for our blindness,
but who come when God decides
that we need their help;
when we are ready
for what they can give us.

(Ruth Burgess)

One of the gifts of the ‘Everybody Welcome’ course that we’re following during Lent in Hodge Hill is the way it seeks to open our eyes to how church looks and feels to someone who comes as a ‘stranger’ – passing by, coming in, meeting people, joining in, for the first time. And thinking about this again, I was moved to remove a poster which has been bugging me for, oh, the 18 months or so since I started here.

The poster has a simple message: “Life before Jesus” (sad face), “Life after Jesus” (happy face), “Any questions?”. I have two big problems with it. The first is it’s not true. Any of us who have lived through the loss of a loved one, or illness, redundancy or divorce, or who have suddenly found ourselves unable to do what we’ve always done or loved dearly, or have found ourselves suddenly ‘not at home’ – we know it’s not as simple as that. As if being a Christian somehow makes it ‘smiley faces all the way’, no questions, no doubts, no struggles.

My second big problem with it is that it’s not anything like the gospel. Or to put it in Lenten mode, it hasn’t been ‘tested in the desert’. In Mark chapter 1, just before the desert, we see Jesus baptised: the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends like a dove, a voice from heaven says, “you are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased”. Wonderful. Awesome. Joyful. And then he’s slung out into the desert.

And then just after the desert, out comes Jesus, proclaiming to anyone who’ll listen, “the kingdom of God has come near – repent, and believe in the good news”. But he doesn’t just proclaim it, he lives it – he brings the ‘good news’ to life, and specifically among those who have been pushed to the very edges of society. Those who know the desert as he does.

The ‘good news’ of Jesus is good news that has been tried and tested in the desert. We talk about Lent as a journey, and it is – but a journey through the desert – the ‘testing place’, the ‘training ground’, of Christian faith. The place where we learn to live with limits (some chosen, many more unchosen). The place where we discover our attachments (what are the things we think we can’t do without?). The place where our insecurities emerge (what are the things that make us ‘edgy’? what inner voices come out when we’re not feeling ‘at home’?). The place where we learn to live with boredom! The place where we find ourselves wrestling with ‘internal dialogues’ like this:

Are you hungry?
I am famished
Well, what's wrong with that?  Are you dying?

Can you stand being hungry for a while longer?
Maybe.  I guess so.

Okay, so what else?  Are you lonely?
Yes, I am!  I am terribly lonely!

What's wrong with being alone?  Will it kill you?
I don't like it.

That's not what I asked.  Can you live through it?
Probably not, but I'll try.

(Barbara Brown Taylor)

I want to offer three ‘rules of thumb’ for the desert journey of Lent. The first comes from the Iona Community’s daily liturgy: “We will not offer to God offerings that cost us nothing”. Or, we might also say, “We will not offer to others ‘good news’ that has cost us nothing”. The second is this: “We will not give up, or take up, anything during Lent that we don’t expect to leave us changed by at the other end.” What’s the point, if it’s just a 40-day blip and then ‘business as usual’? And then the third: “We must expect to be changed, not just for our own good, but for the good of others.” The desert is for anything but self-indulgence, or self-improvement. In the desert, we learn to resist turning stones into bread for ourselves, so that we come out of the desert ready to share our bread with our neighbours.

And if none of that is specific enough, let’s remember the five ‘values’ that we as a church committed to nurturing, just over a year ago – compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope – and which we explored together last Lent. Easy to say, harder to do. But let me share with you just a little of the hard-won, painstakingly-learnt wisdom we shared and discovered together last year, that points us not just to the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ of Lent. Maybe pick one, rather than feel like you need to try all five. And stay with it for the next six weeks. And see what happens…

  1. Let a stranger in. Physically perhaps, but certainly ‘emotionally’. Notice someone – maybe in the news, maybe on the street, perhaps even your next-door neighbour. Maybe someone who’s been labelled: ‘old’, or ‘young’, or ‘disabled’; ‘single mum’, ‘homeless’, or ‘asylum seeker’. And try asking them (or, if that’s not possible, ask yourself), “what’s your story? how do you feel?”. And you’re learning the beginnings of compassion.
  2. Give up grumbling, take up gratitude. Simple! Well, for some of us, moaning takes a lot of ‘weaning off’, so 40 days might end up feeling like an eternity. But as we discover the gifts that we have been given, and slowly open our hearts to be thankful for them, we discover that we are freed to share those gifts generously with others too. And we discover that generosity, like gratitude, is infectious.
  3. Admit a mistake or two. This is one that I find really difficult. I hate having to say I’m wrong. But how about finding someone that I need to say ‘sorry’ to, or even just to tell them that I’ve screwed up somewhere, each week of Lent? What better way is there to restore, and nurture, trust?
  4. Listen to someone. I mean really listen. Not necessarily a stranger – maybe someone you know well. But give them a good listening to, rather than our normal half-distracted efforts. And don’t try and get in there with ‘answers’. Don’t try and ‘fix it’. Don’t even dare to suggest you ‘know how they feel’. Try practising a bit of gentle, patient attention. It’s how real friendships are grown.
  5. And finally, how do we nurture hope? It’s easy to tell people there’s hope, to talk about hope, to encourage people to ‘be hopeful’. But that’s to fall back into offering good news that hasn’t been tried and tested in the desert. It’s not about talking, it’s about doing it. ‘Enacting’ hope. Making it a reality that can be seen, felt, lived in. Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see”. We can’t do better than that.

(with thanks to Stephen Cherry for many of the insights here)

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Jobs, a ‘local economy’, improvisation and… church?!

I am perhaps the last person qualified to write about jobs. I have one – of a kind. I have also spent a small fraction of my life on Jobseeker’s Allowance. But to have been ordained to an, inescapably ‘vocational’, ‘job for life’, with no career structure to speak of but large amounts of job satisfaction – well, I guess that puts me in a tiny and rather curious minority of the ‘labour market’. Nevertheless (and partly because it’s what I’m paid for), I want to attempt some reflections on ‘work’ from this rather odd position…

Here on the Firs & Bromford, the Daily Mail very kindly labelled us, a while ago, the 7th most ‘workshy’ neighbourhood in the country, with a very neat bit of short-circuited logic that somehow ‘not being in work’ means ‘not wanting to work’. One of the facts they neglected to mention is that, round here, a hell of a lot of jobs have vanished in the last 10 or 20 years. Lots of people worked in factories, and the factories have gone.

So what we need is jobs. We need to create jobs. We need to have create local businesses and industries, or attract businesses and industries, that will offer local jobs. That much seems obvious.

But let’s just allow ourselves to be stopped in our tracks, for a moment or two, by the words of one of your local young people: “I don’t want a job. I want a career.” More than just something which pays some bills (and often even paying the bills is a struggle). But what’s the ‘more’? This is where I want to traverse some unfamiliar territory…


Let’s start with the basics. Making ends meet. To be housed, to be fed, to be clothed, to be warm (and the same for those ‘dependent’ on me). And here’s where ‘local economics’ must surely challenge some of our normal assumptions. Do we need money for food? What if there are some people in our community who are good at growing fruit and veg? What if there are things we can do for them in exchange? Would money need to be part of the equation? What if we as a community had invested in ways of generating local energy? What is it about the bricks and mortar of a home that demands thousands of pounds a year, for life (and yes, I write as someone who lives in a house provided free by the community of which I am a part)? Are there other ways of meeting our basic needs, that ‘keep it local’? The network of ‘Transition Towns’ suggests there might be – in ways that are sustainable for us human beings, and the earth’s resources.


What else do jobs normally do for us, though? How about the network of relationships we have through work – at best (although it seems to be getting rarer and rarer), a relatively stable community of friendships that provides mutual support. And there’s the relationship that ‘working’ gives us with the wider community (and wider society), of having ‘value’, perhaps bound out with a sense of reciprocity – that I, by working, am making a valuable ‘contribution’, and I am being given back something (normally in the form of money) for doing so. But again, let’s just unpick this a little. Does money have to be the key currency of exchange in these relationships? Do we absolutely need to be ‘employed’, in the conventional sense, to be part of a stable, mutually supportive, community of friendships, where I have a sense of making a valuable contribution, and am given a sense of being valued in return? As a vicar, it strikes me that church might surely be one example of a place where all of this should happen – and not a penny changes hands (well, not as a necessary part of the community’s ‘currency’, at least).


But there’s yet more to ‘work’. That ‘career’ that our local young person talked about, surely has a lot to do with a sense of ‘journey’, of ‘going somewhere’ – a sense of purpose, and of meaning, to my existence and my labouring; of learning and growing and developing. Of course I’m a fine one to talk about vocations. But why shouldn’t everyone have their own sense of vocation? Why should some people have to be content with a sense of ‘going nowhere’, doing meaningless, repetitive chores day after day? Even if, as you’ll no doubt argue, the world needs lots of people doing persistently repetitive tasks, who says that is the only task they are allowed to perform? Who says they have nothing to contribute to design and development, to sales and marketing, to care for fellow employees, to making their environment, and the world, more beautiful, more happy, as well as more well-equipped with whatever…? And again, why should ‘vocations’ be limited to only those things someone expects to pay us for? Why do we value the vocation of child-rearing, for example, so much less that we refuse to pay for it? Why can’t every community have its poet, its artist, its head gardener, its jester, its singer – and for these to be their occupations, and for their livelihoods to be met by the community, in whatever way the community is able to do so, in exchange for them occupying that role?


I was away overnight last week with friends and fellow-clergy from Birmingham’s ‘Strengthening Estates Ministry’ group. Among many earthed, passionate and stimulating conversations, we spent some time playing with the metaphor of ‘improvisation’ – something I’ve written about here before (just after the August 2011 riots, in fact):

“In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.”

I’m going to try, in 2012, to stop using the word ‘empowering’ – or at least to cut back considerably – with its suggestion that somehow it’s all about ‘us’ giving power to ‘them’. I much prefer the idea of ‘overaccepting’ – starting with the assumption that those around us have always, already, got something to offer; and just working out how we can be daring and creative enough to receive it, draw it out, be part of a relationship that enables such offers to become more than any of us can ever intend or imagine. I reckon it’s what church does with people, when it’s at its best. Maybe it’s something we might even be able to offer to the wider communities of which we are a part (or indeed discover as already present within them!). Maybe it’s what we’re all crying out for. It’s got to be more than just a job…

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Benefit caps, the housing market, and Jesus

Of course, common sense says it’s crazy that someone can be on benefit payments of more than £26,000 a year. The trouble is, common sense gets a lot wrong.

Firstly, let’s get these in perspective. As Andrew Simms put it so well yesterday, they’re really small beans compared to city bonuses – with 1,200 senior staff averaging £1.8million in bonuses each last year. Where should we really be expended heat and light on ‘capping’ debates, hey? But blaming the victims of economic crisis is so much easier than blaming the perpetrators, isn’t it?

But as I understand it, one of the principle reasons for these rare, highest-level benefits payments is that people who were once in social housing have ended up (through policies of previous governments, both Labour and Conservative) in private rented accommodation. And the areas that they may have lived in all their life have, through ‘market forces’, found house prices (and rental prices) driven sky high. And a debate that began with the proposed housing benefit cap in November 2010 continues. For David Cameron and his mates, apparently the solution is simple: the poor should move out of expensive areas. Social – and often inevitably ethnic – cleansing.

All very convenient. An economic crisis caused by the rich, in which the rich still end up getting richer, targets the poor, slashes and burns the benefits safety net, and tells the poorest that they have no right to live near rich people anyway. Demonising, marginalising, displacing, disappearing. Out of sight, out of mind – as well as out of public finances, out of pocket, out of long-standing homes and communities…

So maybe benefit payments of £26,000 are crazy. But what’s the root of the madness? It’s easy to pile blame on ‘indolent’ individuals – and again, very convenient, so that we don’t ask questions about the system itself. But what is the morality of a ‘market’ that allows house prices to sky-rocket in areas that, thanks to the choices of the rich, have become ‘desirable’, pushing out the non-rich in the process? If instead we valued stability and diversity of relationships and community; if we genuinely believed in knowing, and loving, our neighbours (and not just those who look, and sound, and earn, like us); then we would turn our attention to ensuring a mixed economy of housing provision, outside or beyond the socially destructive forces of the ‘free market’. Housing affordable for all, where rich and poor can live side-by-side, and where, as neighbours begin to look into each other’s faces, even those inequalities of wealth begin to break down.

Jesus’ parable, the one about ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’, doesn’t end well for the rich man. And it’ll be no use blaming the poor, or the market, then…