Tuesday 22 January 2013

Reflecting on Gaillard's "The Smithsons"

I never would have thought of myself as someone who could appreciate Art, but that has changed over the last few years; while I would still hardly say that I'm any sort of authority, I now approach even Modern Art with an open mind. Every now and again I go and wander around the Manchester Art Gallery, and sometimes something jumps out at me. One time it was the extremely clever and amusing bit of curation in the Balcony Gallery - where two pictures are next to each other; one, called "Hush!" (by James Tissot) shows a young lady waiting to play the violin for the entertainment of a large crowd, while next to it is Pettie's "A song without words" showing another vioinist, this time playing for nobody but himself.

The last time I was there though the piece that I found touched me was a short film called "The Smithsons" by Cyprien Gaillard. In it, shots of buildings and skyscrapers on the shoreline of New Jersey, often in the midst of greenery, are displayed to the accompaniment of "Asleep" by The Smiths. The text about the exhibit talks of how this explores the way in which much modern architecture can be thought of as ruins on the verge of being overtaken by nature. A few years ago, I'd have thought "yeah, right" and carried on to the paintings and sculptures that I felt at least looked like something. However, my attitude is now very different.

It was several months ago that I visited the gallery, and if one measure of the success of an artwork is how it can evoke thoughts and reflections at a later date then today has shown me that The Smithsons is as far as I am concerned a success. I was walking towards Blackley Cemetery in Manchester to conduct a funeral, and looking up I could see the bare trees and greenery apparently almost rising up to take over some of the high rise blocks ahead of me; and, there in my mind, I could see again those images of the New Jersey shoreline, hear Morrissey singing "Sing me to sleep, sing me to sleep...."

As I walked along, I reflected on the theme of the artwork. The sights I could see brought it back so vividly, and it made me consider the place that people sometimes assume we hold in this world; that we are the masters of all we survey, able to mould and reshape this world in the way we choose. And yet, if we do that, we delude ourselves. We can make some changes, yes; but how hard we have to fight to maintain them! How quickly our victories can be overturned! Whether it's believing that we can control the rivers well enough to allow building on a flood plain, or just trying to keep a patch of ground free of weeds, sooner or later we are given that rude reminder that actually, no, we are not in charge. Maybe because I was preparing for a funeral, there was also the reminder of mortality - that no matter how fantastic our medical advances, how careful we are to eat the right things or do regular exercise, the lifespan of any individual seems to be capped at 125 at the absolute maximum.

We do not rule this world no matter how much we might like to think otherwise. Nothing we do as human beings will endure forever; if we consider the geological timescales, the age of the Universe, then all humanity's works are not even a blink of an eye. And yet, there is something more:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
(1 Cor. 13:8-12, NIV)

Thursday 20 September 2012

Another side to Clayton

It may have been months since I last blogged, but right now I feel the need to share a few things following the murder of two Greater Manchester Police Officers in Mottram, and the subsequent media coverage.

Clayton Methodist Church - one of those I am currently the Minister of - is within a few hundred yards of the place where, back in August, David Short was murdered - which in turn triggered the manhunt for Dale Cregan, who, it appears, has then lured two Police Officers to their deaths. To say that the initial attack was shocking is an understatement - you don't expect incidents with grenades to be happening close by. That it was then followed by the deaths of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes is nothing less than horrific.

The media coverage has been extensive, but at the same time I don't think it is always helpful. To read some of the pieces, one might think that currently Clayton and Droylsden are War Zones, with gangs armed to the teeth around every corner waiting to shoot each other, and anyone who gets in their way - with Armed Police on every street to try and prevent them.

The reality, as with most things, is not exactly as it has been painted. People have been shocked by the murders, and I don't doubt that there is fear. At the same time, the majority of people who live in the area are ordinary folk trying to go about their everyday lives. Most have no links to the people involved, and no desire to carry weapons - I don't know about them, but in many ways for me there's a sense of unreality that this is happening so close by. Maybe there are more police patrols about, but it's a long way from a patrol car on every street. And life goes on for the residents, and the church - there was no talk of cancelling our Coffee Morning, and on Saturday we're having an event that celebrates the diverse nature of our congregation.

What I'm trying to say is that Clayton should not be seen as the wild west, or as an area devastated by gang warfare. It's a fairly normal part of East Manchester where a few people have been involved in some horrendous incidents - and while I would never want to defend those who have been involved in those incidents, I also don't want the area to be demonised for their actions.

Following the killing of David Short, I addressed this issue in the Clayton Church Magazine. I quote the final paragraph of my letter here:

"The community though remains, and we are part of it. We play an active role in it – there are many groups that come and use our premises, and there are things that we as church do that help others in our local community. We offer people a safe space to come to, a warm welcome, and we offer it out of a desire to show God's love in practical ways to those around us. It's a story that may not make any newspaper, but it is a far more positive one than the one that has made Clayton front page news over the last few weeks; let's make sure that our work and our witness to the love of Christ continue to bring the Good News to our area."

Wednesday 2 November 2011

An Autumn Reflection

This is partly what I did for the Circuit Staff Meeting, complete with a montage of suitable pictures - alas, as I blogged earlier, things didn't go according to plan....

The colours of Autumn give a new splendour to our world. All is golden, russet, brown; thre is an astonishing patchwork of colours. How wonderful God's creation seems, clad in the colours of Autumn.

Yet those colours represent also the beginning of the end: the leaves fall, plants die and decay, and soon will come the starkness of bare branches and lifeless cold of winter. Our faith journey too has times of coldness, and bleak outlook.

But amidst the impending death of Autumn, there is the hope of new life. Fruit and seeds in abundance contain the spark of what is to come when the world once more turns to spring.

Lord Jesus, we remember the Autumn of your ministry; the time in Jerusalem when new colours appeared: purple, crimson, scarlet. We remember the disciples, afraid in the stark winter following your death.

But we rejoice in the glorious spring of your resurrection, for the seeds you had already planted in the Autumn time, and for being able ourselves to look beyond our winter to the promise of your advent in our world.

When Technology goes bad....

Yesterday I was leading devotions for the Circuit Staff Meeting. Or, correction, I was supposed to be leading devotions. With a screen and projector available, I'd done everything on the computer as a presentation - only for the Laptop to decide to throw a wobbly: I've fixed it now, but it took a couple of hours of fiddling as the user profiles had become corrupt and unless you went on in Safe Mode, all you saw was a black screen... given the sound didn't work in safe mode - or the video out - this meant using my own machine wasn't an option.

The problem though was exacerbated by the fact that the presentation I had so carefully crafted was done in OpenOffice Impress.

First of all, let me say that in general I'm all for Open Software. I have an old laptop that would otherwise be useless configured with Ubuntu Linux, and when I upgraded computers back in January I decided to try and live without Microsoft Office and have been using OpenOffice and LibreOffice almost exclusively ever since; and if a Church is looking to do more in terms of projection during Worship but hasn't got the budget for the likes of EasyWorship, then I'd recommend having a look at OpenLP which I have also been experimenting with recently.

Sadly, in my opinion Impress - the Presentation package in Open/LibreOffice - has a particular major flaw that is likely to mean that I head back to MS Office and in particular Powerpoint sooner rather than later. This is the flaw that compounded the problems I had yesterday: that the way Impress handles media files automatically makes it so much harder to transfer a presentation to another computer.

This isn't a new problem and in some ways this makes matters worse: it's known about, and yet nothing has been done to improve the situation.

What happens is that you insert pictures, music, maybe a video into your presentation - and Impress, rather than creating a huge file, saves instead links to the files you are using. As soon as you then copy the presentation to another computer, the links don't work - unless you spend the extra time putting all the files needed into the same directory, and transfer that along with the presentation. This seems to happen even if you try and export the presentation in another format (such as Powerpoint) - and it meant that yesterday, even though I could copy the presentation to another computer, I couldn't use it as most of the pictures and all of the music and video just didn't show up. To be fair, this can be a problem with standard Powerpoint files too - but Powerpoint can at least create a version that includes all of the media using the Package for CD option - Impress just doesn't.

Monday 17 October 2011

Reflectionary: Ends and Means (Matthew 22:34-46 and 1 Thess. 2:1-8)

When I looked at these readings, there was something that leapt out at me, possibly because as well that with the recent weeks of the lectionary following the debate between Jesus and the different groups in the Jewish hierarchy, it's an issue that has been brought to the fore.

That thing was purity of purpose and also action, and my immediate response was to compare this to the works of John le Carre: with the recent film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I have revisted not just the main three Smiley novels, but also the earlier The Spy who came in from the cold. One of the striking things about these Cold War era novels (which, don't forget, were written by someone who was an insider having worked for MI5 and MI6) is that they dispell any illusions about the Western intelligence operations being particularly any more moral than those of their Soviet counterparts. What mattered was not the means, but the ends: the gaining of the intelligence needed by the Western Governments. Blackmail, the encouragement of disloyalty, the creation of suspicion, making alliances with those who are at best distasteful and at worst downright evil because they suit their purposes. In a way, this hidden world - still in many cases unknown to us - that had the tacit approval of governments of all stripes is a proof of the maxim that the ends justify almost any means.

It happens more widely than that of course. In some cases, it is almost expected that people will be dishonest to get what they want. We've just had something through about applying for a school place for our youngest: how many stories will there be, this year, of people trying to game the system to get their child into the best school? How many insurance claims will be padded?

And yet this is not God's way. Jesus has been angry with his questioners, and is still angry here: because they wish him to say something controversial, because they are not actually interested in his answers, because they wish to try and twist God's word and bend it to their own purposes.

On this latter point, we have to admit that Christians have a far from unblemished record. God's word has been used to justify all manner of things that reflect very badly on the faith: from wars to institutional inequality to failing to protect the vulnerable, there has been (and sadly in many cases continues to be) a use of scripture to justify what should not have been tolerated.

Nevertheless, we are encouraged to be prepared to follow Christ and be pure in motive and action - even when that leads us into uncomfortable places. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians of how he and his companions, in spite of how they had been treated as Phillippi, still went out and boldy proclaimed their message in Thessalonica.

So are our motives pure? Are mine? Lord have mercy on us, for the times when we fail to be true about our motives, pure in our actions, and honourable in our methods.....

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Reflectionary: Challenging Authority (Matthew 21:33-46)

One of the first points to make about this reading is that it's well worth putting it into context - specifically last week's reading where the Chief Priests and Elders question Jesus' authority. Jesus has already accused them of not listening to his message - of not recognising where he comes from - now, he questions their own authority and in fact tells them that they are setting themselves against God.

It's tempting - and far too easy - to simply see this as Matthew attacking the Jewish Authorities. After all, isn't this a clear parallel - God as the Vineyard Owner, them as the tenants, the prophets as the servants and then of course Jesus himself the son who is killed? That's certainly one way of looking at it - but the problem I have with this as a preacher is that it runs the risk of coming across as self-congratulatory - that we've got it right, and the temple authorities (not the whole Jewish nation, after all at this point almost all of Jesus' followers are Jewish) have got it wrong, have set themselves against God.

In some ways the thing I want to do is to take this story on, broaden it, turn it into a challenge. Who are the tenants? In context, the Temple Authorities, but if we say God created all of us, then are we not all those tenants? Is it not all of us who have set ourselves against God, who tend not to listen when God calls us, who in fact rely on the reconciling grace of God that Jesus shows us?

And let's take it a step further. This started off about authority, and it should also speak about authority now. It is a challenge to all church leaders, of whatever stripe: are you open to the promptings of God, are you willing to see God doing something different, challenging your understanding? David Lose points out that this passage has been used in part for self-justification by the church - we're following Christ so we know we're right and the others are wrong - but it can also say to us the opposite: God works with and through those who are open to Him, and that sometimes means challenging the established ways of doing things in "The Church". Martin Luther challenged the church. John Wesley challenged the church. So did many others. And in many cases the challenged institution tried to cast them out, silence them, marginalise them. Yet, because they were open to what God wanted them to do, the work they did prospered and continues to this day.

As an institution the Methodist Church is having a bit of a look at itself at the moment, looking at how it can almost get back to its roots - become, as the General Secretary Martyn Atkins put it in his report to Conference, A Discipleship Movement shaped for Mission. My hope and prayer, in the light of this passage from Matthew, is that in doing so we are showing a willingness for the institution I am part of to engage with what God is doing, and be part of it - to not be interested merely in keeping hold of what we have, but to recognise that if we are to be good tenants then we have to listen to what God is telling us and then act upon it. The delight is, as David Lose goes on to say in his article, that God doesn't come and condemn his tenants - us - for going the wrong way, doing the wrong things, but in fact keeps coming to us again and again, prompting us and encouraging us to respond. The resurrection is part of this, and so too is the Holy Spirit: God wants us to join with Him, and He never stops giving us the opportunity to do so.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Reflectionary: Questioning Jesus (Mt 21:23-32)

This isn't necessarily what i will preach about on Sunday, but it does give an idea of where my thoughts are going. If it seems a little disjointed, that's because really it's still a work in progress....

You can argue that asking questions is fundamental to who we are. It's a skill that we learn early on, and the key to so much learning is by being prepared to ask questions.

The problem with questions can sometimes be the answers - or, to be more to the point, the temptation to give answers that do not present a full answer to the question. It's sometimes thought that an essential skill for politicians for example is managing to avoid giving a meaningful answer to an awkward question - and so the answer given obscures the true one, or attempts to argue that if there is a fault it is actually with the question asked.

Sometimes answers can be misleading because they are not complete answers. Anyone with children or experience of them will know that when you are continually asked why something is so, or why or how something happens, and each new answer becomes the source of a new question ad infinitum, the temptation is to try and find a way of ceasing the questions with a pat answer - "it just does", "Because", or similar. Some answers are simplifications, a way of trying to offer a partial explanation because the full answer is deemed too difficult; how many schoolchildren are taught Newton's Laws of motion without it being explained that actually these are a low speed approximation - that actually relativistic motion is the way to go and it's just that because unless you're travelling at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light the other factors are close to zero that you can use Newton's laws for most calculations?

Over at Working Preacher Karl Jacobson makes the point that a lot of people ask questions of Jesus - his followers, John the Baptist, the Jewish Authorities, even Pilate. But in most cases the reason for the question is to serve some sort of self-interest - that the questions are often, as in this reading, loaded questions that are designed not to find something out, but to make a point - whether that is to say "look, I'm a really good follower", or to try and get Jesus to say something controversial.

The Chief Priests and Elders are trying to provoke Jesus, trying to make him take a position that sets him against them - and in doing so allows them to diminish his claims. He threatens their authority: they want to call him out. However, they find themselves asked a question that they dare not answer.

One of the points about the question Jesus asks is that it is not merely a way of avoiding their question: it is a clear indication to them that he is indeed the one that John prophesied about. The Priests and Elders dare not attack John; Jesus then uses the parable to accuse them of not actually doing more than pay lip-service to the message of repentance John gave, and that those who would be thought of as having no place with God had in fact demonstrated their desire to be a part of God's Kingdom by their actions.

Faith isn't about not asking questions. It's about asking the right sort of questions, and being prepared to listen to the answers. I do not believe in a God that demands that I accept everything unquestioningly; I do believe in a God that sometimes gives me answers I don't like!