How Far Would I Go?

Through her sermon last Sunday, Janine set a big challenge.  She reminded us that our neighbour does not end with the family next door, the people in our street, or even the people in our town or country.  Every human being is a potential ‘neighbour’.

As she observed, it is comparatively easy to give food to the foodbank when we have plenty.  What about sharing with those who have none when we ourselves have little? Or, even more challenging, could we offer the gift of forgiveness to any fellow human who treated us with contempt and cruelty?

Janine told the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman who, with her father and sister sheltered Jewish families from the Nazis.  Working with the resistance, some 800 people passed through their secret room to safety.  They were eventually betrayed and Corrie and her sister, Betsie ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp.  Betsie died.  Their father had died earlier.  Corrie, through an administrative error, was released.

Corrie spent much of the rest of her life writing and public speaking, spreading a message of hope and peace and love.  On one speaking tour she recognised a former guard from Ravensbruck who had been particularly cruel to Betsie.  To her surprise as he held her hand and told his story, Corrie’s initial shock at recognising him turned to warmth and forgiveness.

Like Corrie, a German widow hid Jewish refugees in her home.  Friends became concerned.

“You are risking your own safety,” they told her.

“I know that,” she said.

“Then why do you persist in doing this?”

“I am doing it,” she said, “because the time is now and I am here.”

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Free Speech

I don’t know much about Elon Musk, except that he has something to do with Tesla electric cars, wants to go into space and has recently put in a bid to buy Twitter.

I don’t know much about social media either, except that I have been banned from Facebook.  Wanting to join the morning service one Sunday during lockdown, I pressed the link.  A notice came up insisting I had to join Facebook in order to do so.  I did, but the next time I tried to log into Facebook , I was told I had breached community rules and was banned!

Following his bid to purchase Twitter, Elon Musk has announced that when it comes to ‘free speech’, he is an ‘absolutist’.  I suppose that means that he is in favour of anyone saying anything they like on Twitter, or anywhere else. 

But is anything ‘free’?  Is anything without consequences? Causes may not be clear or immediately known and consequences may not be obvious or foreseen, but we live in a world of cause and effect.  The old childhood rhyme that ends with, “but words will never hurt me”, is wrong.  Words have power.  Ask advertisers, poets and politicians.

Words are connection.  That connection can come from a place of fear and anger, or a place of love.  For some people it seems that such is their hurt and alienation, that the anonymity of social media enables and even encourages them to communicate from a place of prejudice.

It’s OK to debate and disagree, to speak up about unfairness, injustice and abuse.  Jesus did plenty of that.  He also modelled empathy and compassion.  Words can create happiness or suffering.  They can inspire confidence, joy and hope.  Before speaking out it can be useful to check with our emotions.

We could go further and, before we speak, ask ourselves three questions: “Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary?”  They would be good community rules!

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Celebration is Connection

Celebrating on our own feels a little empty.  It’s something we do together with family, friends or the wider community.  Remembering and rejoicing together.  Human beings are made for connection.  When we are connected we thrive.  Disconnected we wither.

In fact we crave connection.  How many people have you seen walking down the pavement, apparently on their own, but talking?  I was at first puzzled by this phenomenon.  Then I realised they were having a conversation on their phone.  Keeping connection.

The French philosopher René Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.”  But that is only one way of seeing things.  It tends to appeal to the clever, competitive side of our nature, the part of us that values separateness and superiority.   It ignores our craving for connection.

How about, “Because you are, I am”?  I only have existence in relationship to you.  Desmond Tutu, in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, introduces the African concept of Ubuntu, one that is predicated on this idea of mutual existence as the very essence of being human.  My humanity is inextricably caught up in yours.  ‘I am human because I belong, I participate, I share’.

“I am because you are”.  When we act on that notion, we become more generous, welcoming, hospitable, caring and compassionate.  We put into practice our other claim as Christians, that we are the body of Christ.  “We are because he is”. 

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rhythms and Rituals

For indigenous communities rituals have always bound their communities together, helped them to celebrate, to mourn and to mark rites of passage and changes in status.  It has helped with coming to terms with the joys and challenges of life and with the traumas of loss and death.

Last week we went down to  Essex to a nephew’s wedding.  Though brought up there, I haven’t visited much in recent years.  And while my home turf is superficially similar, much has changed.  No longer do you hear the sing-song country accent, but the brasher sound of ‘London over the border’. 

The wedding was outside, in a beautiful sunken and secluded garden, with the sun shining.  It was a delight to catch up with family who had gathered from Dundee, Leeds and Oxford as well as ourselves from Stockport.  There was a sense of family and community. Yet I felt some discomfort. 

The groom and his ushers were in formal, waist-coated, buttoned up suits.  The bride and her bridesmaids were in flimsy, low cut, dresses.  The words may have been saying one thing, but to me, more loudly, the clothes said another – about relationships and the role and status of men and women.

We are no longer restricted by the tribe.  We can more or less create what rituals we like.  In fact, for a fee, others will do it for us.  Whatever we choose, we will be sending signals, however unconsciously, about what we think and believe.  It led me to wonder how aware we all are at St. George’s of the signals we give through our rhythms and rituals week by week.

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Who Am I?

On a walk through Bramall Park earlier this week, I found myself studying the trees.  I noticed how many there were, the texture of their trunks and the angles at which some of them were leaning.  I noticed too the seedlings beneath them, each striving upwards towards the light, trying to find their place in the world.

I realised too that what I was seeing was not the whole picture.  Below ground is what has become known as the wood wide web, consisting not only of all the entangled tree roots, but also, and critically, of a web of fungi and their tentacles stretching far and wide.   A web that communicates and sustains.

Random thoughts came to me as I walked and looked.  I went from trees to people.  A beech tree stands there and says ‘I am a beech tree’.  Yet what we see is only a small part of that tree’s existence.  There is as much, if not more, below as above. 

When I say, ‘I am a hairdresser, ‘I am a teacher’, ‘I am a mechanic’ does that encompass who I am?  To say that ‘I am something’ is a very powerful and all embracing  statement.  When Moses asks God who he shall say sent him to the people of Israel, the answer comes back unequivocally, yet enigmatically, “I am who I am”.

Jesus asks us, as he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”.  The events of Holy Week and Easter keep asking the question.  Jesus is asked, “Are you the Son of God?”  He replies, “You say that I am”.  Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”.  Jesus’ reply is , “You have said so”.  It’s as if the questions are too simplistic.  His answers suggest there may be more below than above.

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Boundaries

Apparently at some venues comedians readily use members of the audience as material for their jokes.  They thereby cross a boundary between audience and performer.  Crossing boundaries can be hazardous for all concerned.

At the recent Oscar award ceremony compère and comedian Chris Rock made a joke at the expense of actor Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, sitting in the front row of the audience.  Everyone realised that he was drawing attention to her short hair.  Maybe even mocking it.  What Chris Rock did not know, or ignored if he did, was that Jada’s hair was cut short because of alopecia. 

Much laughter followed.  Everyone seemed to find the joke funny.  From the look on her face, Jada did not.  Her husband was not amused either.  He walked across the stage, straight up to Chris Rock and slapped him hard on the face.  Another boundary crossed.

Boundaries are useful not only to us as individuals, but to families, to groups and nations. They help us with our physical and psychological safety.  They give us a sense of belonging and identity.  At the same time they exclude.  And in excluding they create barriers to connection and communication.  Exclusion can lead to hurt and hostility.

A joke at our expense is a form of exclusion and if we feel hurt enough, we might be tempted to retaliate.  That is, unless we have been able to expand our boundaries to embrace Jesus’ teachings about treating our fellow beings with compassion and love.  Not to mention turning the other cheek.

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Puzzling It Out

Do you like puzzling things out?  Have you joined the Wordle craze? National Daily papers have pages of puzzles and the weekly papers even more.  The Stockport Express has fourteen pages of Brain Teasers each week, including a crossword puzzle with more than a hundred clues.  Quiz Nights are popular – dare I say, particularly with men.

We humans like to name things, to categorise, to work out, to solve.   It’s very satisfying getting the right answer.  It gives us a sense of completeness and control.  There are, of course, times when the right answer just won’t come, even though we know we know it. Then, when we have stopped trying and relax, it just pops into our heads.

There’s a type of puzzle that relies on this ability to let things be and to allow our unconscious mind to make connections.  In  Zen Buddhism it’s called a koan, a puzzle that defies a logical solution.   In fact it leads to frustration if you try to reason it out.  Such a puzzle is a reflection of the complexities of life.  For life is full of  ambiguities and paradoxes.

Jesus knew this.  The Jewish teachings were all about logic and keeping the law.  Keep the law and you live a good life.  You are thereby in a right relationship with God and your fellow men.  The Pharisees often came to Jesus with a puzzle posed to catch him out, to show that he was not keeping the law.

“It’s just the other way around.  The very opposite.”

“What is?”

“Everything.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit….To find yourself you first have to lose yourself….The last shall be first…

Chris Dawson 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yes…..But

“Do I have to?  Yes, I know that the Israelites are suffering under Pharaoh, but Aaron’s a much better speaker than I am.  Much more persuasive.  Send him.  I’m not eloquent.  I stumble over my words.  Pharaoh won’t listen to me.”

It was a pretty big ask, as they say, when God told Moses he wanted him to go to Egypt, to speak to the Pharoah and bring the enslaved Israelites to safety.  He was minding his father-in-law’s sheep and his own business when the angel of the Lord appeared in the burning bush.  He had a nice life.  He didn’t want the responsibility.  It was all too big an effort.  And a bit scary.  He did, of course, go in the end, uprooting his family and setting out on a tough adventure.  He accepted the situation and the challenge.

Moses moved from a “yes….but” position to a “yes….and” position.  The word “but” cancels out everything that has gone before.  “And” acknowledges the situation and takes it forward.  When actors improvise a scene or a piece of comedy, they have to adopt a  “yes…and” stance in response to each other, or things collapse.  They first have to accept what the other person says and does and then they can decide their response.

I was thinking about this in relation to our reactions to climate change after Saturday’s Lent Breakfast.  For me, Grahame Buss, a former Principal Scientist at Shell and now an activist with Extinction Rebellion, set out the situation facing the world quietly, powerfully and convincingly.  I think that most of us present, if not all of us, would have been saying “yes” to what he said.   But did we all follow it with “and”, or is it too challenging and   inconvenient?

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Inflicting Damage, Bringing Peace

What would it have taken for you to become a member of the secret police, a KGB Officer in the old Soviet Union?  What would be success in your eyes?  What attitude would you have had to have towards other human beings?  And if you found yourself a bankrupt ex KGB Officer, stationed in a now free East Germany, what would be your choices and how would you be feeling?

Our identity can be so bound up with our success, however we perceive it, that we pursue that success at all costs.  We hang on tight, too, when we and that success feels threatened.  We hang on to beliefs, ideas and ways of being.  We may misuse our power. It’s not just heads of authoritarian regimes who can trample others on the way.  It happens within families, too.

Herod may have been a puppet king under the Romans, but he was determined to keep the  power he had and, to do so, was prepared to murder innocent children when he felt threatened.  The Old Testament stories of the Kings of Israel also show the abuse of power and the lessons to be learned.  It’s the same down the ages, just a different place and time.

So what do we do to make things better?

American Trappist Monk Thomas Merton was challenging in his answer: “Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and women and love God above all else.  Instead of hating all the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and disorders in your own soul which are the causes of war.”

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Uncommon Humanity

Human beings have an instinctive suspicion of the outsider, of those who are not like us, of those outside our tribe. We are particularly suspicious of those who commit crimes.   Putting them in prison help us to feel safe.  It can also distance us and them from the humanity we all share.

Alastair Campbell, best known as Tony Blair’s former director of communications, tells of a recent visit he made to Pentonville Prison, where he discussed the effects of lockdown:

“For the prisoners, lockdown meant literally that, at least 23 hours in their cells.  At one point, a third of the officers were off sick, two died from Covid early on, a chaplain died too, and on one day, the entire prison had just 39 officers on duty to cover the 35 landings across seven wings.

“So here is the faith restoring bit.  A man in for murder told me that when 7pm on Thursdays came around, he and other prisoners lined up inside their cells to join in the national clapping.  ‘We were clapping for the staff who came in,’ he said.

‘Covid was terrifying at first.  When visits and activities were stopped, and we noticed there were none of the people from outside bodies coming in, it was obvious how serious it was.  We honestly thought there would be loads of deaths.  We knew the screws were still coming in, risked getting it, taking it back to their families, and I think we saw them in a different light because of that.’

“An increase in restrictions usually leads to an increase in trouble.  This time, the opposite seems to have happened.  Assaults down.  Self-harming down.  Prisoner-to-prisoner co-operation and prisoner-to-officer co-operation up.  In ‘normal’ times around 30 of the 1,100 prisoners get ‘nicked’ for some kind of misconduct each day.  It fell to two or three at the height of the crisis.” (New European Feb 17-23, 2022)

Isn’t it wonderful how a crisis can help us to discover our common humanity.

Chris Dawson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment