Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maundy Thursday: a secret meal, prayer, betrayal and arrest

Mark 14.12-72

Mark's story of Jesus' last week moves towards its climax. On Wednesday Jesus had been anointed for burial by a woman disciple and betrayed to the authorities by one of the twelve men closest to him. On Thursday, the events set in motion by Wednesday unfold.

Holy Thursday is full of drama. In the evening Jesus eats a final meal with his followers and prays for deliverance in Gethsemane; he is betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and deserted by the rest. Arrested in the darkness he is interrogated and condemned to death by the High Priest and his council, the local collaborators with imperial authority. All of this happens before dawn on Friday.

Details of this passage recall the preparations for Jesus' entry into the city on Palm Sunday. In both cases Jesus sends two of his disciples, tells them what to look for and instructs them what to say. In this case the preplanning has to do with secrecy: Mark has Jesus withhold from Judas the precise location of the meal so that Judas can not tell the authorities where Jesus is during this meal. This meal matters and Judas must not be allowed to interfere with its completion.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus knows what will happen. How could he not? He must have known that the noose was tightening, that the cross was approaching. He was not oblivious to the hostility of the authorities and no doubt saw his arrest and execution as inevitable.

With the arrival of evening Jesus and the disciples come to the upstairs room where the arrangements have been made. This final meal has multiple resonances of meaning: it projects backwards to the public activity of Jesus and forward into his death and the post Easter life of Christianity. Jesus' Last Supper will be the First Supper of the future.

We need to remember that Jesus had been repeatedly criticised for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The issue is that Jesus eats with undesirables: with the marginalised and outcast in a society which had sharp social boundaries. It had both religious and political significance: religious because it was done in the name of the Kingdom of God and political because it affirmed a very different vision of society.

As Mark narrates what Jesus did at the meal, he uses four verbs: took, blessed, broke and gave. These four words take us back to an earlier scene concerning food in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with two loaves and three fish. Mark's emphasis on a just distribution of what does not belong to us links that event to the emphasis on the loaf of bread and the cup of wine that are shared amongst all in the New Passover meal. Once again Jesus distributes food already present to all who are there and we might even assume a wider group of followers than the inner twelve.

As a Passover meal, Jesus' Last Supper resonates with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, his people's story of their birth as a nation. A story of bondage, deliverance and liberation, it was their primordial narrative, the most important story they knew because it was, and remains, the celebration of God's greatest act of deliverance.

Mark's version of the Last Supper leaves the connection to Passover implicit. What makes it explicit is the connection to Jesus' impending death and it does so with the "words of institution", familiar to us through their use in the Eucharist. The language of body and blood points to a violent death and without that it would not have been possible to talk of Jesus' death as a blood sacrifice. A correlation between Jesus as the new Paschal Lamb and this final meal as the New Passover becomes possible. The point is neither suffering nor substitution but participation with God through gift or meal.

Earlier in Mark (10.45) Jesus had said The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. That liberation, redemption or salvation is echoed here in Jesus' statement This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. What is not immediately clear is how that is accomplished for many until we recall the challenge (8.34-35) If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it. In other words it was by participation with Jesus and, even more, in Jesus that his followers were to pass through death to resurrection. It is to be noted then that all of the twelve, including Judas partake of the meal: participation in Christ not substitution by Christ.

Turning to Jesus' arrest: again we have the theme of failed discipleship as the disciples, seemingly untouched by Jesus' agitation and distress, are unable to support him through that night. Of course Jesus does not want to go through with it. Who would? Yet he gives himself over to God - Not what I want but what you want.

I think we need to be clear that Jesus' death was not the will of God: it is never God's will that the righteous suffer. The prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but a trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances as a forerunner to Peter, Paul, Thecla and Perpetua and to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the nuns of El Salvador.

Judas now knows the plans for the rest of the evening. He has already left the meal and now Jesus can be arrested in the darkness away from the crowd. He leads the crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the limited paramilitary force allowed to the temple authorities by the Romans. This is not the group Jesus has spent the week in conflict with, merely their enforcers so Judas has to identify Jesus for them to be able to effect an arrest. Why would they know which one Jesus is? He does this with a kiss of greeting and betrayal. There is a scuffle and one of Jesus' followers uses a sword against the temple police. Is this another example of the failure of the disciples in Mark's eyes? In any event Jesus isn't standing for it in his name. Put your sword back; for all who take the sword will perish by it. In the general mele the disciples flee the scene anxious not to share their leader's fate, not to be heard of again until after Easter with the exception of Peter who at least follows the arresting group, presumably at some distance. We hear of Peter next after the trial in his famous denial I do not know this man you are talking about! We shouldn't be too hard on Peter. In our own ways and with our own words and actions or, indeed, in our silences, we too have denied Jesus or played down our association out of expedience. But we jump ahead of ourselves.

Neither do we hear of Judas again: it is left to the other gospels to explain that Judas has an attack of conscience and tries to return the blood money the religious authorities had paid him to betray Jesus. It is left to Matthew to introduce Judas' suicide.

So we reach the trial. We need to remember that according to Mark there were no overt followers of Jesus there. Is the account of the trial a Markan construct or can we surmise a sympathiser at the trial who later reported back? We also need to remember that the Sanhedrin, made up of collaborators as it was, didn't represent the view of the people who so far had been on Jesus' side.

It is not a good start to the trial from the perspective of the authorities: the witnesses lie and disagree amongst themselves. It says something about the Sanhedrin's "commitment to justice" that the trial went ahead from this point. However, in the absence of the three adult male witnesses who needed to agree for a charge to progress, the High Priest goes for a direct confession and challenges Jesus one to one. In response to the question Are you the Messiah, the son of the blessed one? Jesus responds, we are told, quoting Daniel with I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power. On this basis Jesus is found guilty and the High Priest tears his robe as a sign that blasphemy has taken place. Jesus is condemned to death and the emotional and physical abuse begins. He will now be handed over to Pilate. It is not yet daybreak. The end - and the beginning - are near.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wednesday: the smell of perfume and the smell of betrayal

Mark 14.1-11

Once again Mark uses a frame for the main story. The frame is the need for a betrayer and Judas' adoption of that role set around the main incident of the woman and the jar of perfume.

The religious authorities want Jesus executed but are deterred from overt action because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. Following his prophetic and symbolic actions in first, his entrance into Jerusalem to establish God's non-violence against imperial domination and second, his entrance into the temple to establish God's justice against high-priestly collaboration, the crowd currently stands with Jesus against their own religious authorities who oppose him.

The religious authorities need to act in stealth to kill him for they said Not during the Passover, or there may be a riot among the people. They can not arrest him during the festival and after it he would be gone. They give up - unless they can find out where he is apart from the crowd and that leaves 14.2 hanging in the air for the arrival of Judas, the stealthy one, in v10.

One of the things about Mark's Gospel is Mark's relentless criticisms of the disciples for being dense: all too often they simply don't get it. Mark's story of failed discipleship is his gift to us today. We must think of Lent as a penitential period because we know that, like the first disciples, we would like to avoid the implication of the journey with Jesus. We would like its Holy Week conclusion to be about the interior rather than the exterior life, about heaven rather than about earth, about the future rather than the present and above all, about religion safely and securely quarantined from all wider manifestations of politics. Confronting violent political power and unjust religious collaboration is dangerous in all times and places. Just look today at how the African churches are treating LGBT Christians as a simple contemporary example.

Mark's criticism of the disciples is used to good effect as it is now set against the actions of the unnamed woman and her alabaster jar of perfume. She alone seems to have understood Jesus' prophecies of his death and resurrection, has believed them and acted accordingly: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. She is for Mark the first believer and for us the first Christian. She believed the word of Jesus before any discovery of an empty tomb. Hence the unique and supreme praise for her as the first believer and model leader. She represents the perfect disciple-leader and is in contrast to Judas, who represents the worst one possible.

It is worth noting that Mark does not deal at all with Judas' motivation and he is always referred to as Judas, one of the twelve. His betrayal is simply the worst example of how those closest to him failed him dismally in Jerusalem. That is a salutary thought for all disciples today.

And so Wednesday ends and the plot has been set in motion.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Oi Copper!

One of the innovations that has come into the door supervisor role over my career has been the provision of stewards or 'street marshalls' for the vicinity of the premises. These are almost invariably doorstaff. Not well paid or appreciated ones but normally badged and bored. Standing by a taxi-rank or a busy street crossing is not really the highlight of the night. If a smoker however, a short shift in the cold of the night used to be a convenient way of both cooling off and lowering the stress level a little.
Wearing a very bright, big high vis, with the high vis hood up as it was throwing it down I could imagine from a distance that I might be mistaken for a plod. Que a local gentleman of questionable social and intellectual skill, on a bicycle. He went past on the pavement on the other side of the road for the Nth time while I watched over drunken fools trying to work their way home via the limited supply of hackney carriages available on a wet midweek night.
He zips past, tosses a can over into the soggy queue on this side of the street and as he nears the corner, yells out, "Oi Copper, Fuck off!".
This was nothing exceptional except that as he'd paused to misdirect this insult two high vis, hat protected officers emerged around the corner and witnessed both acts of disorderly behaviour. I think by the time they'd finished having an extended word with this select individual he'd wish he'd F'd off instead.

New look

I've clocked up a few comments about the old layout, pale colours on black being hard to read. Time to change it to a more neutral look. I'll slowly try and attempt to get the 230 previous posts into a colour scheme that now works on a light background. I hope this gives a less McCullough-effect distorted viewing event.

Tuesday and the coin.

I left my copy of The Last Week at work yesterday so the following is Borrowed from Rev Maria at Jubilee

All day long on this very busy Tuesday Jesus is engaged in confrontation. The priests, Pharisees, and Scribes and even the Sadducees have been bombarding Jesus with theological questions in both hypothetical situations and very real, politically charged situations. All day long Jesus has been confounding them, telling parables that point out their failings and cleverly evading their attempts to discredit him. And somewhere in the middle of the day a scribe, an educated man employed by the priests or Pharisees, asks a question and agrees with Jesus’ answer. There is no confrontation, no test, no effort to make Jesus look bad or to incriminate himself. This is the only such situation all day.

Read the rest HERE

My own belated contribution relates to one of the stories of challenge and riposte. Jesus is challenged in the temple court before the crowd over paying taxes to Caesar. There is a fawning approach to Jesus Teacher, we know you are sincere and show deference to no one. This passage has reasonably been understood as a comment on the importance of keeping an appropriate relationship and distance between religious and civil authorities: we are to render to God and we are to render to Caesar. Some have argued that Jesus' response is a tacit acceptance that we are to be obedient to the state whatever it requires of us, but to see the passage this narrowly misses the wider context of attack, parry and counter attack, trap, escape and counter trap.

Should we pay taxes to Caesar was a volatile question that went to the heart of Israel's status as a subservient nation. Either answer would get Jesus into trouble: if he were to answer no, he could be charged with denying Roman authority - in short with sedition. If he were to answer yes, he risked discrediting himself with the crowd who resented Roman rule and taxation. Perhaps the plan was to separate Jesus from the crowd and undermine his support.

His response is clever and turns the situation back on his questioners: he sets a counter trap when he asks for a denarius which his interrogators produce. Whose head is this, and whose title? This strategy has led his questioners to disclose to the crowd that they have a coin with Caesar's image on it and in this moment they are discredited. Why? In Israel in the first century there were two types of coin: one type, because of the Jewish prohibition of graven images, had no human or animal images. The second type, including Roman coins, did and many Jews would not carry the second type in obedience to Jewish law. But these Pharisees did. The coin they produced had Caesar's image along with the idolatrous inscription heralding Caesar as divine son of God. They are exposed as part of the politics of collaboration and the crowd sees it. Their trap has been evaded and the counter trap sprung.

His response Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is a non-answer to their original question. It simply means It's Caesar's coin - give it back to him. This is not an endorsement of paying taxes to the occupying force. The second part of his response, though, is both evocative and provocative: Give to God the things that are God's. It raises the question "What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?" Everything belongs to God and by implication, nothing belongs to Caesar.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Monday: Jesus in the Temple and the odd business with the fig tree

Mark 11.12-20

Mark begins this Monday with a hungry Jesus looking for fruit on a fig tree, which he then curses for not being in fruit. We are next taken into the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus effectively closes the place down through his driving out of commercial activity before we return to the fig tree which has withered away to its root.

It is a mistake to see these as separate incidents: Mark's Gospel often contains pairs of incidents that are intended to be interpreted in the light of one another. Mark emphasises two seemingly contradictory elements in his account of the cursing of the fig tree: on the one hand it was Passover week which would have been late March or early April when the fig tree would not have been in fruit. It was not the season for figs. On the other hand Jesus was hungry and having failed to find fruit, cursed the tree to permanent barrenness. This is Mark's way of warning us to treat the event symbolically rather than literally.

If we take the incident literally we see a petulant Jesus abusing his divine power, but taken as a parable the fig tree's failure is a cypher for the temple. The framing fig tree warns us that the temple isn't being cleansed but symbolically destroyed and that, in both cases, the problem is a lack of fruit.

There are some Christians who assume Jesus was objecting to blood sacrifice although this is unlikely. From antiquity human beings knew two basic ways of creating and maintaining relationships with one another - the gift and the meal. How then did they create, maintain or restore good relationships with a divine being? What visible acts could they do to reach an invisible being? Again, they could give a gift or share a meal. In sacrifice as a gift the offeror took a valuable animal or other food and gave it to God by burning it on the altar and the smoke and smell rising upwards symbolized the the transition of the gift from earth to heaven.

In sacrifice as a meal the animal was transferred to God by having its blood pured over the altar and the meat was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a sacred feast with God.

Neither is about suffering or substitution.

There may have been an issue with the ambiguity of the temple as both the House of God on earth and the institutional seat of submission to Rome. The temple's ambiguity was, however, far more ancient than any problem with Caiaphas's collusion with Pilate in particular or High Priestly collaboration with Rome in General: it goes back at least a further half a millennium to the time of the Prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 7 God tells Jeremiah to stand in front of the temple and confront those who enter to worship. Confront them about what? About their false sense of security. They seem to take it for granted that God's presence in the temple guarantees the security of Jerusalem and their own security too. Do you think, charges God through Jeremiah, that divine worship excuses you from divine justice and that all God wants is regular attendance at God's temple rather than an equitable distribution of God's justice? Has this house which is called by my name become a den of robbers in your sight? The people's everyday injustice makes them robbers and they think the temple is their safe house. The temple is not the place where robbery occurs but the place the robbers go for refuge. God does not just insist on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies......But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The temple incident involved both an action by Jesus and a teaching that accompanied and explained it. First the action: Jesus began to drive out the buyers and sellers, he overturned the tables of the money changers, he overturned the seats of the dove sellers and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

All of these activities were perfectly legitimate and absolutely necessary for the temple's normal functioning. What does it mean then that Jesus stopped the temple's perfectly legitimate sacrificial and fiscal activities? It means that Jesus has shut down the temple but in a symbolic rather than a literal shutdown.

At this point the Marcan frames of fig tree and temple coalesce. The tree was shut down for the lack of fruit Jesus looked for - and so also was the temple. In the case of the temple it is not cleansing but symbolic destruction, and the fig tree's fate emphasises that meaning.

Sadly in much modern Christian thought, den is ignored and robbery taken to mean the commerce going on in the outer courts of the temple. This is a symbolic fulfillment of God's threat in Jeremiah. There was nothing wrong with the combination of prayer, worship and sacrifice - they are commanded in the Torah. This is not the problem. God is a God of justice and righteousness and when prayer, worship and sacrifice substitute for justice, God rejects his temple - or, for us today, his church.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Sunday

I have been going through my Vicar School stuff in the hunt for a book my beloved gave me last year before the Easter residential. This led to a huge paper-chase and a mini spring-clean as I sorted through essays and lecture notes and countless photocopies of book chapters we had been given for pre-reading.

I came across my end of year reports and the letter of acceptance on to the Yorkshire Ministry Course (as it became) together with the welcome card I found in my bedroom on my first ever residential. I looked through all the things I'd kept from the two Easter Schools and from the Commendation weekend where I graduated in a service in Wakefield Cathedral. These had been wonderful and moving occasions.

Sitting there surrounded by paper, books, essays, photos and music I had very mixed feelings: nostalgic, proud, a bit emotional and sad and happy in turns. Still the sort out was achieved and the book found.

The Last Week by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan

Psalm Sunday

Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives. His message was about the Kingdom of God and his followers came from the peasant class. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Pilate's procession proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus' Crucifixion.

Pilate's military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. It was standard practice for Roman governors to be present in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival: not out of religious sensitivity but to be in the city in case there was trouble. There often was at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people's liberation from an earlier empire.

According to Roman imperial theology the Emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. For Rome's Jewish subjects, Pilate's procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.

Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus's procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus life.

Mark makes it starkly clear that the ruling Jewish elite worked via the tacit approval of the Roman authorities, the domination system, and were therefore collaborators. The local people were oppressed not just by the Romans and their taxes but by the puppet authorities - which included the Temple Authorities whose primary obligation to Rome was loyalty - and their taxes. Caiaphas must have been particularly skillful as he lasted in office for nearly twenty years.

This was the Jerusalem Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and the role it had come to play in the domination system of empire and Jesus pronounces forgiveness apart from temple sacrifice. Jesus' message and activity put him in conflict with the temple authorities from the moment he arrived in Jerusalem.

As we consider Palm Sunday we need to be clear that the conflict which led to Jesus' crucifixion was not Jesus against Judaism. Jesus was part of Judaism not apart from it. His protest is about a domination system legitimated by God. Jesus' is a Jewish voice arguing about what loyalty to the God of Judaism meant.

Two processions entered Jerusalem that day. Which procession are we in? Which do we yearn to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold.

Friday, March 26, 2010

About Stereotyping

This is for Mimi and anyone else who loves Yorkshire.

He is, of course, perfectly correct.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Games we Play

Now this trade is 99% boredom, on some nights it's 100% boredom. Even the most energetic shifts are only at best 75% activity. Standing around, wandering about, watching drunk people is most of the job and not too energetic or stimulating.
We therefore develop a few games. One of which is the gentle tug on a colleagues shirt while subtly indicating to a group of ladies. The phrase associated with this tug is universally known as "don't fancy yours much". The objective of the game is to tug and suggest the worst looking or worst matched person possible. This is not a sexist game, all sexes, persuasions and ages can play. The same rules apply. No one gets hurt, unless they know about the game already.
When standing at a doorway with passing punters a baseball/volleyball style signing system can be used to great effect to silently rate and comment upon the passing sights.
Giving hope to chavs is one of those little pleasures that can fill an otherwise quiet night. I'll have decided from a long distance that they're not coming in. They'll saunter up, I'll ask for ID, they'll have some, in a back pocket somewhere, I'll inspect it. With luck it'll be theirs. I'll move on to dress code and make sure that all their polo-shirts have collars turned down, that all their socks are dark and their shoes aren't scruffy trainers. Then we'll move on to admission fees and the need to put all their many jackets, scarves, hoodies etc into cloakroom. Just when they think it's all kushty to get in, I suddenly remember they're still barred for another 2 weeks and they can come back then if they so desire. Gives me whole minutes of amusement, every single time.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More Lent Thoughts

Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

Thought: Jesus chose his words deliberately: “Give us today our daily bread.” (Mat 6.9-13) This is not the prayer of the individual. It is the prayer of the group. Whoever prays this prayer does so as part of a community. When we pray this prayer, who exactly are we thinking of? Who is there with us at the table?

In Matthew’s Gospel the Lord’s Prayer is seen as an integral part of the Sermon on the Mount and throughout Jesus’ teaching the crowd is never far away and Matthew presents us with two feeding stories in quick succession, one is generally seen to be a feeding of Jews and the other of Gentiles.

Now when Jesus heard this he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it they followed him there on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them……… (Mat 14. 13-21)

• In v 15, what is the Disciples response?
• How does Jesus reply in v 16?
• Is there a lesson for us here?

Prayer is risky: it commits the one who prays to follow through with corresponding action.

• In v 17, what do the Disciples complain of?

But the key thing here is that the Disciples’ meagre resources become a means of Grace at the hands of Jesus.

• Is there a learning point here?

• Note too in v 21 that the women and children are included. Why is this significant?

The story moves on: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit………

• Is this just a ministry of preaching and teaching or does it include more?

We could argue that by the end of Matthew’s Gospel the Lord’s Prayer is offered to all people everywhere and will become for them a means of expressing their need as well as a reminder to give thanks for God’s continuing care.

Give us this day our daily bread. What does this mean?

God gives daily bread, even without our prayer, to all wicked men; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What is meant by daily bread?

Everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as meat, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and the like. (Martin Luther: The Small Catechism)

• Is it enough that we give thanks to God for our Daily Bread?

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells a story: There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores……… (Luke 16.19-31)

There is no particular evidence in the story that the rich man was a wicked man. He was merely preoccupied with his own affairs and indifferent to the needs of those around him.

• Does that speak to us today?

The community that calls upon God for daily sustenance is made up of all sorts of people, including those who have enough to eat – and to waste, and those who, for lack of even the most basic food, can just barely survive.

• How is it possible for such a discrepancy not only to exist, but to increase in severity as time passes?

Like the gulf between the rich man and Lazarus in Jesus’ story, the gulf between rich and poor today is for many unbridgeable. This can be the frightening result of our overlooking the little words “Give us today our doily bread”

Points for consideration

Prayer is risky: it commits the one who prays to follow through with corresponding action.

What does it mean for us in quite concrete terms to pray “Give us today our daily bread”?

Problems of world hunger are so overwhelming that we are tempted to think like the disciples “Send them away” (out of sight, out of mind) or like the Rich Man: “Send Lazarus from beyond the grave to warn my brothers” (God, you fix it.)

How do we cope with the knowledge that millions are starving?

How do we reconcile this with the biblical concept that God provides for everyone?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Purcell's Dido's Lament

I have long been a fan of Purcell's delightful little opera Dido and Aeneas: in fact since I sang the role of The Sailor as a teenager.

My beloved sent me this link to a BBC Radio4 programme on Dido's Lament, where I discovered this contemporary rendition by Alison Moyet. It is gorgeous.

It seems so appropriate following Steph's funeral too.

Steph Ball 1970-2010

One of my responsibilities at school is that of Professional Mentor to student teachers. That sounds very grand: it isn’t at all but it is one of the best jobs in education as I get to spend time with enthusiastic young people, fresh from college with all the latest subject knowledge at their fingertips. This is how I first came into contact with Steph (“Don’t call me Stephanie”) when she arrived in 2002 as a trainee teacher in the Geography Dept. It was very clear early on that Steph wasn’t quite fitting the stereotype of the Student teacher and that had a lot to do with the fact that she had done a number of things before she came to teaching: she had a very individual approach to her teaching and certainly had an unerring ability to size up teenagers. “Little bugger” was one of her favourites and I remember her returning from one particular lesson quite fraught.

“What’s up Steph?”
“I’ll tell you. I’ve just been paddling in the shallow end of the gene pool.”

You always knew where you stood with Steph.

I didn’t realise at first that Steph was a former student of the school, and when I did mention it I asked whether I had ever taught her.

“Yeah. You were all right you were.” Well, around here that is about as big an accolade as it is possible to give without getting all cissy and in the last week I have heard a lot of such terms applied to Steph in subdued tones by our students:

“She was sound she was.”
“Yeah, she was alright.”
“She was sorted.”

And so she was.

It was clear that one of the things she brought to her teaching, apart from an idiosyncratic approach to administration, was the ability to relate to teenagers and a real gift of humour. Our Headteacher referred last week to her irreverent sense of humour and she certainly had the knack of telling a tale. Not jokes as such, but she had the skill of the story teller: with a little dramatic exaggeration Steph could turn an amusing classroom incident into something that could have you weeping with laughter. Observational humour was her strength.

I have something of a reputation for being a little blunt in the classroom with some of our students. In comparison to Steph I am a rank amateur and this was the advantage of her being a local girl.

“Oy! Just you remember. I know your mother!” and very, very scary down a crowded corridor: “Don’t you forget – I know where your Dad drinks.” I used to have this mental image of some poor bloke going out for a quiet drink and the pub doors bursting open like in a scene from a western and there was Steph the sheriff, like a galleon in full sail come to berate him about his kid’s poor behaviour in Geography.

Steph’s bark was, of course, worse than her bite and beneath her studied cynicism was a very kind a caring teacher and a loyal and supportive colleague. It is evidenced by how many of her students past and present are here today that Steph had an impact for good on those she taught. When we look back on our own school days, who were the teachers we most liked, admired and respected regardless of whether we liked their subject? They were the ones who went the extra mile, who showed that they were decent human being and who showed that they genuinely cared about their students. Steph is in that league of teachers and there is a generation of local young people who have much to thank her for: that she kept them on a tight rein when it came to behaviour management; that she told it as she saw it, quite bluntly in some cases; that she could laugh and joke and keep a happy classroom; that she inspired some very reluctant learners and fostered a real interest in Geography that some took on to university; that she instilled values of fairness and justice and wouldn’t put up with bullying or victimisation while she was standing at the front; that she was unfailingly kind and generous to those she taught – particularly those who were fortunate enough to be in her form group.

And as a colleague? Some of you know that Steph lived just around the corner, about 200m from school but she was unfailingly one of the last to arrive in the morning – often all flustered.

“I tell you! The traffic this morning!”

Steph’s strategy for parking was then very smart: she’d park in the visitor’s spot and if the caretakers caught her, she’d park in the disabled spot. When they got wise to this and threatened to clamp her, she just changed cars and started all over again. After a couple of cycles of this she simply demanded a dedicated parking space.

Steph’s magic food box: there was nothing a hungry teacher might need that Steph couldn’t supply from her mysterious box. I think the rest of us were slow to recognise the potential for challenge here although I suspect the request “Got any caviar Steph?” would have been met by a rummage and a proffered tin. In a previous life I think she may have run a corner shop.

She would probably have appreciated having that box in hospital as she complained that for some strange reason everything came with mashed potatoes: sausage and mash – fair enough, but curry and mash? Pizza and mash? As if!

We learnt quickly never to make eye contact with Steph during staff meetings. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. Well Steph wore her feelings on her face and carefully sat out of the sightline of the Senior Staff! She would also try to put her mates off their stride if they were attempting to deliver a notice and then beam at them with that fabulous smile that said “Go on, try to remember your words now.”

When it came to the sponsored walk she unfailingly got the last and most popular checkpoint and set up with sun-lounger, parasol, cool box and so on. More than one tired, blistered and thirsty child staggered past and was foolish enough to make some comment. “Yeah well, that’s why I’m here and you’re there. That’s life that is. Think on.” She and I were often paired together at Sports Day too – on the High Jump. I was a very good high-jumper in my youth but somehow in the retelling of the story down the years it became Steph who had been a junior Yorkshire High Jump Champion in her youth. It was a little known fact (I’m not even sure that the Yorkshire athletics authority knew) and she feigned modesty about it. She was gentle with the girls but had a unique line in inspirational coaching for the lads on the High Jump. “Get on with it you big girl.” She and I would then have to make a great pretence at conferring as proper track officials do, but that was only because invariably she had set her end of the pole at one height and I had set mine at another. “Just checking you were concentrating.” We were both challenged by the metric system.

We will miss Steph for many things, particularly her vocabulary. No more will we be off for a mooch or be bezzin’ abart; no more being radged or watching out for the nut-job.

I’ve been involved in a number of funerals and on each occasion people have said that their beloved had touched many lives. In my opinion that’s never been as true as it is here today. We can get another Geography teacher but there’ll be a Steph shaped piece missing from our staffroom jigsaw for a long time to come.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Some thoughts in Lent: Given by Grace

(Based on material produced by the Lutheran World Federation)

This first session aims to consider how we see ourselves in relation to others, in relation to God and in relation to the rest of the universe.

Reading 1: Psalm 8.3ff

When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…

Reading 2: Luther, from the Small Catechism

I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me, and still preserves, my body and soul…all the necessities and nourishments for this body and life.

God protects me from all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all.

Reading 3: The first Creation Story (Gen 1.1 – 2.4a)

In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth…

This reads like a poem or hymn and some commentators see it as a liturgical passage for use in the formal worship of the ancient Hebrews. God creates order out of chaos and brings everything into existence where everything is judged to be “very good”.

Reading 4: The second Creation Story (Gen 2.4b – 2.25)

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…

This version concentrates mainly on humankind as the first of God’s creation. The animal world is hardly mentioned and the creation of sun, moon and stars not at all.

Ideas for discussion:

• What do we learn about God’s relationship with his creation (Gen 1.22. 1.24 and 1.28)?
• What do we learn about God’s relationship with us (Gen 2.7)?
• What does Gen 2.9 tell us in addition about our relationship with creation?
• What do we learn of humanity’s status (Gen 1.26)?
• What do we learn about humanity’s responsibilities (Gen 1.28b)?
• According to Gen 2.5 and 2.15 why was humankind created?
• What is the significance of Adam being given responsibility for naming the animals (Gen 2.19)?
• What can we understand about Eve’s status from Gen 2.20b and 2.22?
• How would you describe the attitude of the writer of Ps 8?
• Does that resonate with us today?
• What additional light does Luther’s writing add to our understanding of our relationship with God?

The two creation stories paint an idyllic picture of peace and tranquillity. It presents life on earth as it is intended to be. However, due to our own sinfulness the created order is being damaged and God’s gifts treated as things to be exploited; the gap between rich and poor increases and intimate relationships are breaking down.

Reading 5: The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15 – 11.32)

Jesus continued: There was a man who had two sons. The younger so said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property equally between them...

This is a parable about restoration and God’s gift of grace.

Ideas for discussion:

• How might you characterise the attitude of the younger son?
• What impact on the rest of the community might the division of the estate have had?
• Does anything surprise us about the response of the father on the younger son’s return?

As this is a parable, the key characters represent someone else.

• Who is the father and who the younger son?
• What do we learn about God from this story?
• What do we learn about forgiveness?
• How can we apply this to the wider ideas of stewardship in the modern world?

Wider issues:

• Have we lost our sense of the sacredness of creation?
• What about modern farming and fishing practices?
• What about food waste?
• As God has made us stewards of creation how does this influence the way we care for our own health, the food we eat and the agricultural policies of our community?
• What influence should this have on our attitude to the impact of the wealthy nations on third world farming practices?
• Why does the church not campaign more passionately for a just sharing of resources?

Our Gracious God daily showers us with gifts too numerous to count. The most marvellous amongst these gifts are often those which we have come to take for granted: Seeing vibrant colours;
Touching texture;
Smelling scents;
Hearing uplifting music;
Moving hands and feet;
Tasting flavours;
Experiencing emotion;
Hugging our loved ones.
These are the things that make life truly extraordinary.


Thank you, Gracious God, for satisfying your children’s deepest hungers. When we suffer want, enable us to cling to your promises. Make us ever mindful of our neighbours near and far, whose needs go unfilled.Amen

Monday, March 15, 2010

Night off

Standing in the back of a club, after the bars had finally shut, I'm watching the last desperate attempts to pull from the foolish and unsuccessful.
I have to stand blocking off a doorway to a room that was by that time in the night closed to punters. A lady who has otherwise failed to find a new warm bed for the night approaches me. She's 22-26 years old, brunette, reasonably dressed, reasonably attractive, relatively sober. This rings alarm bells. At this time of the night it's only the inebriated and the odd left.
Nubile, attractive and coherent immediately rings alarm bells.
"So when do you get done?"
"Not 'til the last ones gone home, I've had a drink and a burger, then a long walk home"
"Oh, that's a pity, when's your night off?"
That's an unusual strategy, most of the business is about immediate gratification, most punters don't think past the next drink, the next dance, the next pull. The idea of a strategy that extends beyond the next couple of days is beyond most of the clientele.
"Sorry love, I'm not off 'til Thursday, then I've got some drinking, sleeping and quality TV time to catch up on."
"Oh well that is a real pity. I was hoping you'd take me out and show me the town."
I'm still very sober, very cynical and quite tired.
"Well love, you've made it to 3 in the morning in this town's premium venue, there's little of this town left for you to see and none of that I'd want to drink in. You'll not be seeing me on Thursday."
"Pity, Oh well."
At which juncture, she heads straight out the main door and heads off into the night. I don't need a flag waving to tell me she was flirting, I also don't need a banner waved to tell me that she was serious. I was tired, sober and I don't bring my work home, or onto my night off. There's only one night off a week and I will spend my time drinking with friends, not baby-sitting a nut job while maintaining my night the wrong side of sober for my sole night off.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Face to Faith:

East is not always best. Muslims in the west need to find their own expression of the universal teachings of Islam.

Usama Hasan The Guardian, Saturday 13 March 2010.

One of the problems that Islam and Muslims now have in Europe is that we are often too eastern: from visibly different dress to traditional gender roles to a lack of emphasis on democracy and human rights. Eastern Islam does not sit well in the west, and is often rejected as alien and foreign. Racist individuals and groups can also easily hide their prejudice, pretending that they are upholding western values and ideals. Muslims often still speak about "Islam and the west," whereas we should be speaking about "Islam in the west."

Read the full text here


There will be an unsurprising number of people unwilling to hear what Usma Hasan is saying about the need for British Muslims to forge their own identity. This has nothing to do with whether our society is secular or not and everything to do with how we who are not Muslim understand Islam from what the haters within it say. This is exactly why he is arguing that Muslims need to articulate a different creed in the West and we have fallen into the trap of interpreting Islam from an understanding that Mr Hasan recognises needs updating.

When we discuss Sharia Law, do we do so in the knowledge that The Old Testament is also full of awful, horrific and barberous things? Christianity and Jusaism have largely had their Reformations and Enlightenments (although the Topeka Baptists and their pale immitators would give the lie to that) and view these events as anachronistic and not reflecting the realities of current religious faith. When people like Mr Hasan are encouraging Muslims to go through their Reformations and Enlightenments, which in their turn may well lead to a reappraisal of aspects of their scriptures, shouldn't we welcome that and offer encouragement?

A Western Islamic understanding could well, in its turn, begin to influence Eastern Islam as the Protestant Reformation, over a period of time, tempered much of the Catholicism of its day.

But Islam is reforming in the West, albeit slowly. While some young Muslims remain tied to the conservatism of their parent's or grandparent's villages, many have already moved away from such expressions and as they have integrated they have found a new identity that rejects the very attitudes that Usama Hasan outlines in terms of gender roles, dress codes and democracy. I have no reason to believe that this will not continue but every reason to be pessimistic that Western understandings of Islam will lag behind and be based on what the conservative remnant expresses in its behavious and attitudes.

What many people also miss is the fact that what some of us - and clearly many Muslims - believe to be a part of an Islamic identity has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with cultural add-ons.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wallace and Gromit don't win the Oscar? I demand a recount!

How could this not win the gong for best short animation? Do people have no taste? This is a matter for high level diplomatic intervention before we go to war against Hollywood. We have been slighted.

The Oscars have lost all credibility.

Thought for the Day: Monday 9th March

Rev. Dr. Alan Billings

Many times in recent weeks I have heard people say, "lessons must be learned". Quite often it has been in response to the publication of a report into some failing by a public body - a hospital, a prison, a children's services department. Lessons must be learned.

For various reasons over the years, I've had to read many such reports: serious case reviews, conclusions of enquiries, letters from coroners. They could often be given the same title, which would be: Will someone please get a grip. They highlight a failure of management or supervision or leadership.

But when you turn to the recommendations, your heart sinks. A long list of proposals almost guarantees that lessons will not be learned. Read or Listen Here

Monday, March 1, 2010


Been doing some old fashioned single man shifts at a city centre venue. Not a community local, just a traditional old fashioned venue tailored to real drinkers of real ale, fine wines and a large collection of premium spirits.
Much like the venue, the doorwork is traditional, no large team to back up your call. No town-wide radio to hear the good gossip from, to get an early heads up on the groups and individuals rolling round town causing mayhem. Just relying on wits, experience and confidence in my ability not to get it too wrong too often. If you get it wrong, it's you to blame, if you get it right, it's just another night.
Good old fashioned fun to be had by all, except those on the wrong side of my judgement, then it's good old fashioned sobriety.