Laban and Jacob have their say on the folly of borders and their control

A cairn marking the boundary between Norway and Sweden in a remote area of the Arctic. Photo by Bjorn Christian Torrissen

The UK Government has announced plans to take “full control” of borders unveiling an Australian-style points system to overhaul immigration law and close our borders to unskilled workers and those who can’t speak English. When we talk about taking “full control of our borders” aren’t we just allowing fear and anxiety to take control of our borders? Are we forgetting border controls escalate and will be reciprocated? Have we given any thought to who in the end will wipe our bums?

This is all part of the deceit of government. I have been intrigued by the stories about Jacob and Laban from Genesis 29-31. Jacob is the “leg-puller”, the “supplanter”, the “deceiver”. Laban is the “white man”. Laban means white. The story of Laban and Jacob is a saga of deception – the white man deceiving the deceiver. Was Jacob the outsmarter of the two?) They come to terms with each other by building a witness heap of stones laid by their families as a commitment to peace. It marked the first bilingual place name recorded in the Bible – Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha and Jacob called it Galeed – the translations of “witness heap” in their respective languages.

Galeed, (we would perhaps call it a cairn) stood as a landmarked prayer. It provided a boundary to their hostility, an end to it. Significantly both Jacob and Laban refuse to take control of their new border. Instead they pray: “The Lord watch between you and me”. The Lord is the one they want to control their border and to watch their limits so that they never cross for harm but only cross for peace.

I wonder when we pray, when we put or hands together, whether we are building a cairn – a knuckle-boned physical structure to mark the limits of our hostility and anxiety, to say “beyond this only peace, beyond this only love”. Are our churches also cairn like landscaped prayers – places to confess our hostility, to find better ways to deal with our differences and markers within our communities beyond which we commit to “go in peace”? “This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” (Genesis 31:51f)

Borders are worse for our control when our export is fear. The boundaries of our Brexit mindset become brickset – walls built against others deconstructing differences, obstructing relationships, restricting trade and exchange.

Where are we building our witness heaps and our places of commitment? How are we replacing walls with cairns? How do we lament our nationalism?

Small Kindnesses – where holiness dwells

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die” we are saying.
and sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder
and for the driver of the red pick up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only those brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here
have my seat.” “Go ahead – you first.” “I like your hat.”

This is a poem by Danusha Laméris from her first collection, The Moons of August which was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. Naomi Shihab Nye has also written a remarkable poem on Kindness.

I like the language of kindness, of kith and kin, that in German children are kinder, that kindness is the making of humankind and that humankind should be qualified by kindness. By themselves small kindnesses are rarely remarkable in the sense that they are newsworthy, but they make our days and open the door to the greater kindnesses of friendship and community. Small kindnesses are usually intuitive, born by habits of the heart grown in rich cultures of difference and longing. In one place the bust stop is a silent waiting room of isolation, in another, like Glasgow, it’s a meeting place. Why the difference? What are the differences in the habits of the heart of both places?

Danusha Laméris asks the question, what if these small kindnesses are the true dwelling of the heart? Should we be surprised when everything about the kingdom of god is small? In two tiny parables Jesus explains the kingdom of God. “He said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ And again he said, ‘to what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:18-20)

So in a simple touch, a smile, a whisper or a word might be folded the holy – just a single seed planted in our lives. There probably isn’t anywhere else for the holy to dwell.

The leadership and ministry of fools (and other outsiders)

The Fool (1944) by Cecil Collins
The Fool features in much of Collins’s art. The Fool represents saint, artist and poet – the saviours of life, according to Collins. He always portrays the fool as an innocent figure who, although finding no place in the modern world, has the vision to find fulfilment and eventual reward. Here the Fool is carrying a heart (for love) and an owl (for wisdom and freedom)

When it comes to power and leadership in the church are we confused by worldly perceptions of power and success?

Recently I have heard about arguments amongst leaders about who sits in the “best seats” in the chancel, and there’s real power politics at play in ecclesiastical processions!

If we are entitled (Rev, Reader etc) what are we entitled to? Cases of abuse show how wrong some of us so entitled have been.

What are the qualifications for leadership? And what is our unconscious bias about those qualifications – and how much potential is wasted by those biases?

Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the case that our understandings of leadership are qualified and conditioned by Hollywood and the leadership of those on the “wild frontier” as portrayed by decades of “westerns”. (Donald Trump fits that well.) Lewis-Anthony talks about “the myth of leadership” and describes the way the myth is told.

Someone comes from the outside, into our failing community. He is a man of mystery, with a barely suppressed air of danger about him. At first he refuses to use his skills to save our community, until there is no alternative, and then righteous violence rains down. The community is rescued from peril, but in doing so the stranger is mortally wounded. He leaves, his sacrifice unnoticed by all.

This is the plot of Shane, Triumph of the Will, Saving Private Ryan and practically every western every made. It is the founding myth of our politics and our society. It tells us that violence works, and that leadership only comes from the imposition of a superman’s will upon the masses, and preferably those masses “out there”, not us.

The new archbishop of Canterbury should be a disciple rather than a leader in The Guardian, 4 February 2013

The Bible is very critical of worldly systems of power and leadership. Walter Brueggemann (in Truth Speaks to Power) makes the point that the pharoah is never named in Exodus, but that he is a metaphor representing “raw, absolute, worldly power”. He is never named “because he could have been any one of a number of candidates, or all of them. Because if you have seen one pharoah, you’ve seen them all. They all act in the same way in their greed, uncaring violent self-sufficiency.” Samuel is scathing about the Israelites’ insistence that they be led like the other nations. He knew (1 Samuel 8:11-17) that those sort of leaders are always on the take (sons, daughters, chariots, horses, fields and livestock – everything).

The ways of God are very different to the ways of preferment and career advancement. Paul is amazed when he surveys his fellow disciples. He wrote to the church of Corinth: “Consider your calling. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Similarly Jesus praised God that she had hidden the things of heaven from the seemingly well qualified. “Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Luke 10:21).

What difference would it make to our CVs if we focused on our foolishness and our weakness? Would it prompt us to realise that power and leadership is found in some very strange places and surprising people? What difference does it make when we recognise that leadership qualifications are the gift of God and that the leadership qualities are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) by which measures pharoahs look hopelessly unqualified.

I have recently had the privilege of reading The Bible and Disability edited by Sarah Melcher, Michael C Parsons and Amos Yong. I quickly realised how pervasive disability is and how important a lens it is to view Christian leadership. Under their prompt it is easy to see how “disabled” the people featured in scripture are. Moses was chosen in spite of his speech impediment. Jacob bore his limp with pride that he wrestled with God (and Israel takes its identity and name from that fight). Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate disability.

I asked the question on Twitter, “would it make a difference in leadership if we focused on disabilities and vulnerabilities rather than just abilities?” Friend Mark Bennett replied: “In Matthew’s gospel Jesus uses parables so that people hear, “see”, understand anew, overcoming disabilities of preconception, prejudice and fear.” Friend Jenny Bridgman replied: “”What are my blind spots?” is a tough but necessary #leadership question. Some more are: What can someone else do better that I can? How can I free them to do that well? Or even – how do my/our disabilities and vulnerabilities make my/our leadership more effective?”

I suspect that as long as we ignore these questions there will always be “us” and “them” – a few privileged by the powers-that-be working “for” (or even “against” as some sort of pharoah) rather than working and living “with” and in love with others.

PS. I didn’t include the title of Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book because it is so flippin’ long – It is You are the Messiah and I should know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a Heresy) .

Nativity – He Qi

He Qi is a Chinese artist who spent the years of the Cultural Revolution painting pictures of Mao Tse Tung in the day time as an alternative to forced labour, and in the evening painting pictures of the Madonna inspired by his fascination with Raphael’s Madonna and Child.

He Qi’s Nativity is typical of his work in terms of colour and vibrancy. His painting resembles stained glass and always feel they have an element of fun. In this picture you can see the sheep virtually dancing in response to the angels. Listening is an important element of this piece. Of course, the sheep stand for all those who know the Lord as their shepherd.

The light in this Nativity comes from heaven and is far more intense than the light any of us can hold. The light Joseph holds is dim compared to the light that Mary holds. – but then Joseph is fading from the picture with his work well and faithfully done.

Mary is pictured in the pink. Normally Mary is dressed in blue, but here He Qi picks up pink as a symbol of marriage and shows Mary as the archetype of the church who holds and treasures Jesus. Jesus is offering a red apple to Mary and the church. This is a reference to the Garden of Eden signifying Jesus as a new Adam and Mary and the church as a new Eve. This is new creation.

The apple is blood red to indicate the nature of God’s offering. Is there also an ambiguity in the shape of the apple? Is it also heart shaped to indicate that this is the new heart promised by God to his disheartened people (Ezekiel 36)?

This is the Nativity. Christus natus est. This is Christmas. Happy Christmas.

Seeing ourselves as others see us

This is Dobri Dobrev who begged in the streets and churches of Sofia, blessing those he met with the words “Rejoice in the Lord!”. He raised thousands for churches and monasteries.

Imagine this.

“A formerly homeless theatre workshop participant searches out the right characters for his tableau; he scans the group, and points to me. He places me in the scene; he lifts my arms and shapes my hand into a dismissive wave; he adjusts my hips and torso; he sculpts my face with his fingers, gently, until I am scowling scornfully. He crouches low, cowering in front of where I stand, and we hold this image. I hold this stance, I become this character.

I feel in my body how he sees people like me, I feel in my body that I am this character. My arms begin to ache; I try to look for cracks in the mould to overwrite this position of scorn, but I am frozen in character before the group. I am implicated.”

That is from Emily Beausoleil’s book The Politics, Science and Art of Receptivity. It was brought to our attention by Al Barrett during a residential conference he facilitated exploring Theology post-Grenfell, post-Brexit (!).

Imagine that. Imagine being so contorted in the eyes of a brother or a sister – someone who is homeless. Imagine what we look like as we step aside, as we look the other way, as we pretend to search our pockets for “no change”. Imagine what we sound like with our feeble excuses and dismissive words. Imagine the ugliness of ignorance and arrogance. Imagine the ugliness of being too busy.

Imagine the hands sculpting our face into scowling impatience and our imposing presence towering over the cowering and crouching.

Then imagine those rough hands at our face again – this time taking our cheek for a kiss, and a “thank you, friend”. What change would there have been in our face, posture and behaviour?

Show me the way to go home.

Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is set in an unnamed village in Derbyshire’s Peak District. On the surface this is a story about what happens to a village community when tragedy strikes. Buried deep is the question of how a community can sustain a compassionate interest in the aftermath of tragedy.

Reservoir 13 opens with a search for a missing girl, Rebecca Shaw. It happened at least thirteen years ago. It’s a common enough tragedy, as evidenced by Jon McGregor’s careful punctuation of the story with reports of similar events on the television news. There are thirteen chapters – one for each of the years since the girl’s disappearance. Each chapter begins with the same words: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks” (including arson) and each chapter follows the same chronological formula. There are no paragraphs, just long lists of observations of events and relationships.

Life does go on. Weather happens, birds carry on nesting, children grow, relationships change, cleaning has to be done, bridges need mending, the reservoirs need maintaining and the cricket team keeps losing. People come and go.

Life goes on. Is that cliche, or is that proverb – wisdom hard won in the teeth of bitter experience? The author is omniscient. He sees it all. There is no moral judgement – except in his poetic retelling of this village life in details which are compellingly compassionate.

This is a book which focuses on what doesn’t happen, rather than what does. A girl goes missing. What are you supposed to do after the search party? This is a story where a girl goes missing twice: when she is on holiday with her parents and when she goes missing from the story.

I remember a similar search where I was living in the Manor estate in Sheffield. A boy had gone missing. Local residents wore themselves out for weeks, joining in search parties, day and night. I can’t remember what happened. I can’t remember whether the boy was found, whether he was dead or alive. I can’t remember his name. Is that to my shame, or is that what happens? Life goes on.

A boy or girl goes missing, but it is only those closest to them who will miss them. We barely remember. That is how we re-cover.

Reservoir13 was winner of the 2017 Costa Novel Award and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017. It was published by Fourth Estate in 2018.

Self-Supporting Ministry – a practical guide by John Lees

John Lees has written a truly practical guide to self-supporting ministry and here I am reviewing it as someone who sees himself far more clearly as a self-supporting minister after reading John’s challenging chapters. John Lees is Bishop’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry for the Diocese of Exeter. He has served as an SSM for fourteen years. He is a career coach well known for his books including How to Get a Job You Love and Secrets of Resilient People.

There is considerable lament in this guide for the ways in which the energies and expectations of self-supporting ministers are increasingly focused on the support that they give to local churches. Lees explores what has happened in the twenty years since the publication of Tentmaking in 1998. The authors then, Francis and Francis, focused on worker priests, MSEs (ministers in secular employment) and bridge ministry. Lees traces these preoccupations of ministry further back and leaves us with a sense that we have lost missional opportunities as energy has focused on local churches rather than ministry which is more liminal. He reminds us that self-supporting ministry is the New Testament model, with Paul being the first self-supporting minister.

Lees reports on the findings of Teresa Morgan’s research[1] (2011). Part of her summary states “few respondents [her sample of self-supporting ministers] saw themselves as having much, if any ministry outside the formal structures of the church”, (Lees, p39), yet “most SSMs spend much of the time outside formal church structures. They are, together with lay people, the natural missionaries to our society.” (p40). The case studies with which John concludes each chapter are testimony to the enormous range of contexts of ministry, but also, there is a unanimity that there is very little done to prepare or encourage SSMs and lay people for this ministry.

Lees is particularly strong when he talks about ministry in the world. His confidence in the world is borne from his ministry in the secular. He writes: “We seem to have lost some of the eagerness of past generations to find God in contemporary life, and we may have lost sight of the way Church and society learn from one another.” (p59). We have become a “frightened church”, an institution under stress, and institutions under stress “respond like human beings, becoming more self-protecting”. (p59).

I was left wondering what the influence of Tentmaking was on John Lees’s call, theology and ministry and what the effect on vocations would be if we were to support, encourage and celebrate the ministries that so many tentmakers, teachers, hairdressers, bankers and waiters have. I was left feeling affirmed in my understanding of my own ministry as being “self-supporting” (albeit with many freedoms and privileges).

And I was left with a strong sense that the most common model of ministry is that of self-supporting ministry, and the context of that ministry being secular. Just a small proportion of those self-supporting ministers are licensed. An even smaller proportion of them are ordained. They represent 29% of licensed parochial clergy in the Church of England (2016). It seems a shame if ministry training, formation and deployment is seen to be organised around stipendiary clergy – a small part of the ministry of the church of God which by and large has to be “self-supporting”.

Arguably Lees should have had a wider focus on other forms of self-supporting ministry than those who are ordained, but John writes from the heart, from his experience as a coach and a priest, and his heart has gone out to his fellow priests who are often left unsupported. There is challenge, care and common sense suggestions that merit a reading for the sake of all those who are self-supporting ministers (often unrecognised) and particularly those who are ordained self-supporting ministers.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Parson and Parish Magazine.


[1] Self-supporting ministry in the Church of England and the Anglican churches of Wales, Scotland and Ireland: report of the national survey 2010.Oxford: Teresa Morgan.