The year a Gilmore Girl inspired my Lenten fast

It started with an armchair. A gorgeous armchair that I had spotted a year ago, but didn’t buy immediately – which was lucky, as it went on special offer during February. As of a couple of weeks ago, I now have an awesome reading corner in my lounge:

Ikea’s Strandmon armchair & footstool. (As the chair was on offer, obviously it made sense to buy the footstool too…)

The first book I read in my new, fabulously comfortable, reading nook was no weighty theology tome. Nor was it a classic novel, worthy of awards. Nope. It was a celebrity autobiography – star of Gilmore Girls, Lauren Graham’ Talking As Fast As I Can, to be specific. It’s not at all trashy (and includes a diary of the Gilmore revival, a must for all GG fans), but nonetheless I was surprised when something Lauren mentioned provided a seed of an idea that has blossomed into my Lenten challenge for 2017…

One chapter of the book chronicles Lauren’s efforts to write and her determination to get some discipline into her routine. A friend suggested to her the ‘kitchen timer technique’ – otherwise known as Pomodoro. It’s pretty simple (although the explanation goes on for several pages): turn everything distracting off; set a timer; write or journal until it goes off; and repeat. In fact, this wasn’t my first encounter with Pomodoro – regular alarms and noises go off in the Matryoshka Haus office, indicating the passing of time for our resident graphic designer.

It’s a useful tactic to have in one’s arsenal. I’ve been trying to get more disciplined in my writing this year, so it was something to file away. Then I thought about my reading corner, and the pile of worthy books I currently have sitting in my office at church, desperately needing to be read. And I put a few things together. What better way to mark Lent than by ploughing through my To Be Read theology pile?

So, here’s the plan: I pledge to spend half an hour a day in my armchair, reading theology. There’ll be a notebook, a pencil and a timer and an ambition for quality rather than quantity. Read, ponder, wonder – any of those are fine. The important thing is making the time. (Ideally this will happen after my morning prayer on the balcony slot, but that might be too ambitious for mornings when I also need to be at morning prayer at 9am.)

Grateful to my favourite inhabitant of St Denis des Murs for the London Tube themed notebook!

My first book is Rowan Williams’ Being Disciples, which everyone says is simply marvellous. Plus, I’ve committed to read it with one of my oldest friends, so I need to get a wriggle on. Next? Who knows – I need to have a search through my shelves and see what takes my fancy. I’ve recently acquired a stash of feminist theology and missiology thanks to my Mum having a clear out, so some of that needs to be included too. [The ABC’s Dethroning Mammon will be read in regular work time – we’re using it for our Lent series, so it’s an essential – before anyone suggests it.]

Hopefully, my Lenten pledge will turn into a regular habit. I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading theology regularly since I left college. (In part, thanks to my tutor actually telling me that I should take a break for a while because I’d been working so hard.) I’ve read it for research work (when I get paid to read), but the books that come out that everyone says I should read? Not so much.

Here’s to Ash Wednesday, and all that Lent will bring!

Pray for all in authority…

1 Timothy 2:1-7 – Pray for all in authority. Christ Church Highbury, September 18th 2016

A couple of months ago, I received an email from my Dad entitled: “Pray for Jeremy”. Before opening it, I pondered who Jeremy might be. Was it a family friend who had been taken ill? Was it a long-forgotten cousin? As it turned out, it was our constituency MP, Jeremy Corbyn. My Dad had known that earlier that day I’d been at a “Love Islington” rally on Highbury Fields, at which both Islington MPs had spoken, alongside religious leaders, council members and other key people who were speaking out against hate crime. He was also referring back to a service he and the rest of my family had attended at Christ Church – my first Eucharist – in which I had prayed for our MP during the intercessions. It had prompted an interesting chat amongst the family later on. Did I ever pray for the Prime Minister? Were there any objections to praying for an MP who is open about not having a faith? What are the boundaries we need to have between church and politics?

Love Islington

That might sound like a rather heavy conversation, but I come from a family that’s always been interested in politics. In fact, had you met me when I was an idealistic 17-year-old, studying politics A-level, I would have told you that my ambition was to become Britain’s second female prime minister! That ship has most definitely sailed…

On the one hand, for me personally, the Christian call to social action is inseparable from political action and awareness. But that doesn’t mean that I would ever dare to tell people how they should be voting from the pulpit. I’m a member of a political party, but I’ve decided that I can’t campaign because that would be a conflict of interest. I try to get along to the Christian network attached to that party when I can, and find that the most helpful way of engaging with politics and knowing what’s going on.

This congregation has a wide range of political views, and I’m not going to assume that I know what any of them are! That’s not the point of this sermon, or of Paul’s words to Timothy. But, what is important, is that we recognise the important role that we as Christians have to play in supporting those in political authority over us.   

Paul’s words to Timothy:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (Verses 1-2)

These words, written two millennia ago, to Timothy as he led the fledgling church in Ephesus, should resonate strongly with us, in the Britain of 2016. What Paul is trying to emphasise to Timothy and the Ephesians is the role that prayer for the state should have within their Christian discipleship.

The call to pray for those in authority was not a new one. The Jews had been instructed to pray for those in authority over them, and Jesus taught to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). It’s also a theme that Paul repeats in his writing – like the famous passage in his letter to the Romans. 

Romans chapter 13 begins: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Verse 4 continues: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…”

Paul is clear that God establishes the political authorities under which they are living. It is part of God’s will for that nation and its society. In encouraging the church to submit, Paul is also helping the church to gain credibility – for example, in paying taxes and being something akin to model citizens.

So in part, Paul’s words to Timothy are to do with ensuring the protection of the church. But the call to prayer goes much deeper than that. What Paul is actually looking for are the best possible conditions in which the Kingdom of God can grow and thrive. That’s what the prayer is about.

Look again at verse 2. “That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It’s actually the latter part that is most important. It’s not about peace and quiet, it’s about godliness and holiness.

How we pray:

Thinking about our current political climate, it’s easy to forget the role that God has in it all – especially in Britain. How many times have you yelled at the TV or radio when you’ve heard a politician say something with which you’ve strongly disagreed? How many times have you criticised a party’s policies over drinks with friends? How many times have you bemoaned the state of British politics in the last three months alone?? When was the last time you prayed before you voted?

Every week, our prayers of intercession feature specific prayers for those in political authority. We pray for the Queen; often we pray for Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry; usually the government gets a mention. In the liturgy we use for prayers at the 9am service, this section of the intercessions ends with these words:

“Bless and guide Elizabeth our Queen; give wisdom to all in authority;
and direct this and every nation in the ways of justice and of peace;
that we may honour one another, and seek the common good.”

Usually, and I can’t speak for every single one of you, there is a murmured “Hear our Prayer” or “Amen” from the congregation at the end of this prayer. But how often do any of us really think about what we’re praying for? Are we really only keen on praying for those politicians we support? Do we actually want to pray for a politician that we wouldn’t put a vote in the ballot box for?

We pray for those in authority over us regardless of their own faith or beliefs. We know that Jeremy Corbyn describes himself as an atheist; that Sadiq Khan is Muslim; and that our Prime Minister is the daughter of a priest – but we pray for them all the same, because we believe that it is important. And, most importantly, because God calls us to do so.

What Paul – and I – would encourage, based upon his words to Timothy, is that we cover all in authority with prayer. In doing so, we are asking God to equip them to the best job possible, which is important, given just how challenging governing a country is!

Look at it another way: isn’t it bad enough that the party you support lost, without leaving the government without the support of prayer?

Not always clear where God is politics:

Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. When political situations are difficult, it can be hard to see exactly where God is at work, or whether our prayers are having any impact at all.

Sometimes it can be hard because more than one political side may be invoking the name of God in support of their policies and ideas. Historically, this was the case in WW1 – not only did both sides believe theirs was a divinely ordained cause, but Christian imagery was a significant component of the mourning of the lives lost during the conflict. In modern politics, this is something that comes across particularly in nations like the US, where capturing the votes of religious communities is particularly important. How does prayer for the authorities work when both sides use the name of God to achieve power?

There are also times when Paul’s words regarding authority in Romans have to be weighed up against the need for the church to be a prophetic voice in society, speaking out against injustice and abuses of power. In the 1930’s, as the Nazis took control of the German government, and turned the national church into a pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement, a group of Christians came together to work out how best to write a response to these developments. In what became known as the Barmen Declaration, written in 1934, theologians and church leaders rejected the false doctrine that they felt had infiltrated the church through the Nazis’ influence. It also underlined: “the inalienable lordship of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and to the external character of church unity which “can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed”

This document emerged from prayer and conversation. Covering our political leaders doesn’t mean we have to accept their actions unquestioningly. Part of our role as Christians is to pray, listen for God’s response, and determine how best to act. Incidents where the church has stood up against governments acting unjustly – like Nazi Germany, or during the apartheid era in South Africa – are testament to the way in which God moves through the church’s prayers.

Conclusion:

Hopefully the take-home from this sermon is obvious: pray.

But this could be easier said than done! A great piece of advice on how to do this comes from one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration: the theologian Karl Barth.

He once wrote that Christians should: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” We can’t possibly pray adequately for our leaders if we don’t take the time to find out what’s going on.

Keep up to date with the news. Find out who has positions of responsibility in local and national government, so that you can pray for them by name. You could join a political and/or Christian mailing list that keeps you informed of specific issues that might need your prayers – Ekklesia is one organisation that does regular emails highlighting issues relating to faith and politics. Or, you could sign up to one of the politically affiliated groups like Christians on the Left or the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

Before I conclude with a time of prayer, I want to leave you with the words of Paul to Timothy again:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

The Theology of Power – and a Tube map

[An earlier version of this post appeared briefly after my clumsy fingers accidentally published my draft while writing in on the bus home. Ignore it, read this!] 

MA studies continue apace – we’re half way through term two now and have just five official teaching sessions left. [This has literally just dawned on me and is TERRIFYING!! Next term is electives, which are more informal and in small groups.] This term’s main module is “Theology of Power” and it may be the most fun/intellectual stimulation I’ve had in theological college thus far…

Today, our seminar consisted of Show & Tell – that infant school staple. Students with surnames beginning A-H were asked to bring in an object, text or song that they could unpack in the context of ‘power’. The class would then discuss the item and we’d see where it took us. It resulted in 90 minutes of discussion that, quite frankly, were highly entertaining and the epitome of a great grad-school seminar.

There was the Hozier song that contrasts church & sex; a US passport belonging to a child; two syringes; and a couple of tube maps. Yes, I may have been responsible for the final items…

It was fascinating. The discussion from the song was probably fairly predictable from the lyrics (but was really interesting nonetheless, especially as I’d heard the song many times but misheard the words!). The passport prompted debate as to the nature of the USA’s power; the role of passports & citizenship; and whether nationality is a result of fallen humanity. Were the syringes powerful in and of themselves, or only when full of a substance & with a needle attached? How did they have the power to make some of us downright queasy? Vaccination versus drugs & the power of survival. The student who brought them in was a vet pre-theological college and raised the question of euthanasia – she’d used needles like these to end animals’ lives.

1950s Map

And the tube maps? You might think “well, that was predictable!”, but it wasn’t necessarily logical. (For a while I’d contemplated Celine Dion’s version of The Power of Love!) But I’d thought about my 1957 map and how it compared to the current version and how often we Londoners feel powerless in the face of London Transport.

[An example of this is contained in this tweet from late Friday night, post rugby watching.

We were stuck on a dark bus for at least 15mins with a potentially terrifying announcement blaring out across Stratford bus station, all thanks to a moody bus driver and a system that means a person with cash can’t board a bus…]

We have little control over TfL. Our weekend plans are moulded by engineering works. We feel like we can gain power through little victories – like knowing where to stand on a platform so that you alight your train at the exit. The tube map also demonstrates the influence it has had on the city – the Met line resulted in “Metro-Land” and new housing. It also demonstrates the influence on the map that is changes in power bases within the city –  compare 1957 with 2015 and you instantly spot the massive change in the east, with the growth of a financial district in Docklands.

The discussion also went off in tangents that had never even crossed my mind:

  • The merits of walking & cycling and the power they give us by escaping the tube.
  • The way the map demonstrates divisions within society – the power we attribute someone able to afford a zone 1 property.
  • That the tube can demonstrate power dynamics within society, particularly along ethnic lines. How you can see things about the communities above ground based upon the social make-up of the passengers below.

(You might be wondering where the theology comes in. I’m getting there, but it’s important to understand that the theology of power is in part to do with how we, as God created beings, relate to the powers and principalities of earth and heaven.)

The tube discussion took place immediately before lunch and on the stroke of 1pm, I was given the chance to have the final word. This have me the opportunity to share my last thought on the power demonstrated in the tube map – the lasting legacy of religion.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but a significant number of tube station names (and London place names) relate to the church. When we read the map, we get an insight into what has had power in the city throughout history.

Highgate in North London was the “high gate” marking the border of the Bishop of London’s land. The amount of London’s land still owned by the church (I’m guessing) is now significantly less! There are no longer black-cassocked monks praying by the river in Blackfriars. You could argue that, by stealth, the church still has power through its historical legacy on the tube map.

It’s a shame that only four people got chance to share their item this morning – it was a brilliant way to have a discussion that went off on numerous tangents and that everyone got on board with. In a couple of weeks time, the second half of the alphabet get their chance and I have high expectations of another fascinating 90 minutes. In the mean time, I’ll be trying to work out if there’s a way I can write a 5,000 word essay on the theology of the tube…

Friday Fun on January’s Final Friday

Right, let’s get this Friday morning off to an excellent start with a plethora of TfL geekery. I assume you’ll all have seen last week’s Buzzfeed genius ranking of Tube lines by now, but do check it out if you haven’t. Its brilliance can be summed up in its final sentence about the DLR:

“IT’S A MAGICAL ROBOT SKYTRAIN FROM THE FUTURE AND YOU CAN SIT IN THE DRIVING SEAT.”

You may well have also already seen the video proving that the Jubilee Line’s ticket gates fit musically into Blur’s Song 2, but I’m going to share it here regardless, for the following reasons:
1. I have a very soft spot for Blur.
2. I have a slightly less soft spot for the Jubilee Line, but it was my line of commute for five years.

Following the Sherlock-disused stations drama, a map of disused tube stations was shared widely, but it turns out that someone else was hard at work putting together a version that’s even more useful – sharing details such as what is visible above ground. Perfect for anyone who wants to go abandoned station hunting! [As an aside, I was at a meeting earlier this week where I found myself sitting next to someone who also had a passion for such stations – it made small talk so much easier!]

AbandonedStations

Next, a little tube and statistic fun. (Everybody finds statistics fun, right?) Firstly, a neat site that illustrates the the differences in annual entrance/exits of tube stations between certain years.

London Tube Map Stats

Secondly, a mapping tool I discovered during Monday’s lecture on gerantology and theology (that’s the technical term for the study of the elderly), that maps life expectancy and child deprivation data onto the tube map. I liked this firstly because the lecturer shared it with us with the opening line: “I know some of you like the tube – and I’m sure Liz will be especially keen on this”; and secondly, because it combines ONS data with the tube map, which quite frankly is a work of statistical genius. [I should also mention this is the first lecture we’ve had from this member of staff – such is the joy of lecturers following you on Twitter…]

Lives on the line mapThe same team has also mapped London’s surnames, which is similarly fascinating.

Thirdly, a map that’s less statistical and more theological. The genius that is Theologygrams (previously featured for some of their wit on major theologians) has produced a tube-style map of Paul’s missionary journeys. It’s fabulous, on many levels (I particularly liked the proposed extension to Spain). Unsurprisingly, several people saw this and immediately thought to themselves “Theology and the underground?? I must tell Liz about this!”  – the lovely Rhona got in first, literally by only 2 minutes! My friends clearly know me well…

paul-tube-map-final

Oh, and finally, I can’t wrap up a London Transport geek-fest without sharing the gems I bought at the London Transport Museum shop last weekend. (On two separate visits, because that’s how much I love that shop and its sales…)

TfL shoppingSaturday’s purchases: a moquette Christmas tree decoration & River Thames tiles (to be used as coasters).

Tube status magnets Sunday’s purchases: Tube line status magnets – as used on actual status boards, back in the days before they were all electronic screens. Now, if only I had my own list of lines for the fridge…

Friday Fun with Ikea and God

After a bit of an absence, Friday Fun is back and with it, an eclectic range of weird and wonderful things to make the last working day of the week a brighter place.

To start, here’s the obligatory London Transport reference. Some clever person has put together an animation that allows you to switch between the London Underground map of today; what it looks like in ‘real’ geography; and Beck’s original design. You can happily spend several minutes clicking between the three.

Real underground map

The reason so many people are obsessed with this map is simply because it’s a fabulous piece of design. It’s simple, colourful, clear and helps you get where you need to go. Talking of simple and lovely design, I’ve recently discovered The Minimum Bible – who have designed a cover for each of the books of the Bible, both Old and New. It’s clever stuff, after all, what should the cover of the book in which God created the world look like? Or one that’s about the end of days?

GenesisRevelationLove this symmetry between Genesis & Revelation. 

Talking of diagrams and God, may many blessings fall upon the clever and funny people at Theologygrams! Handy venn diagrams, pie charts, and graphs illustrating various theological arguments. Thanks to my many weeks of angst over a 5,000 word exegesis of Galatians earlier this year, this depiction of Paul’s ‘wrath-o-meter’ caused me to chuckle:

galatians

My father, the systematic theologian and Barth fan, will appreciate these:

trinity

washing-line-2

Moving on from theology and on to more sensible, weekend activities – specifically, heading to Ikea and the movies. In fact, why not combine them? Current box office #1 Gravity is a little intense, as is a Saturday or Sunday spent in the environs of Swedish furniture. Thus, some clever person has thought to combine them:

Finally, everyone loves a Friday quiz and what better than a game of Ikea or Death? Is the Scandinavian sounding word an item in the Ikea catalogue or a death metal band? Try your luck… (I scored a fairly respectable 14/20, which owes more to my studious memorisation of Ikea furniture names than my knowledge of obscure and weird looking bands.)

IKEA_or_DEATH_avatar