Thursday, 13 August 2009

Too much information - You have been warned

The One Thing I hated about France...

I lived there for five years, but never went to the swimming pool. Well I did go there twice, but was refused entry. Why? Because I wanted to wear cycling shorts (clean, bought for the purpose of swimming only) rather than the glorified underwear that passes for swimwear. I even offered to buy another clean, brand new pair, and leave it at the swimming pool, so they would know it was only used there, but of course, that wouldn't be practical, if everyone did it... so they wouldn't let me.

In a hot climate, it's understandable that they didn't want people wearing the same shorts in the pool that they had worn all day. Maybe they didn't want the homeless using the pool as a bathroom. (Another argument for another day, I think.) But the rule they apply is far too general and officiously applied, and results in cases like this. It was only a matter of time before an Islamic woman would demand her right to use public amenities wearing a swimsuit that would allow her privacy and personal integrity in line with her religious beliefs.

In a country where identity is so closely linked with sexual identity, it is not surprising that Sarkozy believes that to hide women behind veils is a denial of their individuality. "In a major policy speech that month, President Nicolas Sarkozy said the burka - a garment covering women from head to toe - reduced them to servitude and undermined their dignity.
"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity," Mr Sarkozy told a special session of parliament in Versailles.

Certainly, a burka may be imposed by others, but imposed nakedness is not the solution! Surely if we want women to be included in social life, it would be really good for them to be able to make use of public amenities like swimming pools, (especially as a way to mix with other mothers with small children) without having to deny their personal modesty or their religious beliefs!

That will take a long time to change... In the meantime, may we not choose to keep private any parts of our bodies which we choose to reserve for intimate relationships? The French rule is enforced nakedness - in my view, a breach of human dignity and social exclusion on the basis of religion, ethnicity and hirsuteness!

Since I came back from France, I've been wearing an adult-sized sunsuit to the pool, usually over the top of an ordinary swimsuit. For sure, people still stare, but they are staring at the tellytubby suit, not me. I choose when I want to be different, where I want to draw the line between fitting in and challenging cultural expectations. I choose when I want to look sexy and when I want to be relaxed and comfortable. Isn't that the Freedom the French should be offering to the world?Liberty, Egality, Fraternity ... Hmm.

P.S. There is a real fear of Islam in France. I have a hunch that the fear of the Burka is a symbolic one, because it is so visible. Many French women will find freedom in the modesty and respect of Islamic practice; if Sarkozy hopes to minimise the influence of Islam in France, attacking some of Islam's more liberating qualities will not be the way to go about it. Making sure that Women get every opportunity to be included in and participate in society, and rise to the top as Muslims, and raise their children as successful and responsible citizens, will be one way of ensuring that the Islam that prevails for future generations in the West is benign, rather than hostile.

P.P.S. Alan in Belfast sent me this, which serves to remind me that men, as well as women, may be uncomfortable with enforced near-nudity.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Mental Health ward suicides

Wondering... are there chaplains appointed to work within mental health care institutions?
Ekklesia's daily bulletin is one of those emails I don't usually manage to read, but today I did. And found there something I didn't hear mentioned on any of the national radio news bulletins so full of swine flu and the death of someone or other (though I now see the Daily Mirror had it in all of three sentences!) - The final report of the Mental Health Act Commission (which is now replaced by the Care Quality Commission) says that 39& of deaths on wards by hanging or self-strangulation between 2001 and 2008 happened when the patient was subject to observation by staff at 15-minute intervals or less, including some under continuous observation. In the case of one suicide, there was evidence to suggest the patient was not checked for three hours, despite being subject to 15 minute observations. Six patients who died of hanging or self-strangulation since 2005 were supposedly under continuous observation.

I can't imagine what it must be like to have as one's job the constant observation of someone unhappy, but of a number of deeply distressed and suicidal people... The stress of prison staff and of staff in mental health wards, of having a constant presence of negativity, of self-destructive (and other-destructive) minds and behaviour must be either hellish or numbing.

Add to that short-staffing and the possibility of many other things to do, and the sense of pointlessness - I can imagine thinking, "She was fine every time I checked her all of the last three weeks... She'll be fine."

Over time, I can imagine the frustration too, of trying to protect miserable people from "putting themselves out of their misery". Some people's lives may just seem too painful, too hard to fix, too difficult to re-envision with purpose and joy. If I didn't have faith in a Lord who does transform the hopeless, (albeit not in the way or the timescales I would like to dictate) I can see how easily I would lose a sense of purpose in such a role.

I'm inspired to pray more for the people who endure the violence and negative atmosphere of difficult places and people. And I'm wondering how many of my sermons or services and prayers would ever have encouraged or empowered my congregation to go into these dark places to love the most hopelessly lost.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

I was a stranger, and....

Just home from an evening at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in South Belfast, where South Belfast Presbytery had arranged an evening's worship, reflection and solidarity on the theme of "I was a stranger and......." It was a response to the recent violence against local immigrant citizens, and a way to call us all to do whatever we can to change the tide, and save "the soul of Ulster", by speaking up for outsiders, and making them welcome among us. The service used Old and New Testament scripture to remind us that we too were once foreigners, our ancestors once needed hospitality... and that Jesus tests the seriousness of our commitment to him by how we respond to those around us who are in need. "I was a stranger, and...." what comes next is the blank that we must fill in.

I'm a foreigner myself - always have been, always will be - though I was born here! Personally, I'm passionate about how we welcome international students, many of whom arrive in August to improve their English before they can pursue other courses. It's a tough transition...

So I'd love to hear from folk who are interested in befriending an international student or two, showing them around, feeding them, introducing them to our family life, sports, music and culture.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Inspired by Stafford

Yes, I am suitably impressed with our incoming moderator's blog, and it has inspired me more than all the guilt-trips and good topics available, to take up the quill again. The intervening months have spanned Christmas through to Lent and Easter, and I've had plenty to keep me busy. Three family bereavements (one grandmother, two aunts) have caused some adjustments in mindset, I suspect. And a busier than planned preaching schedule.

And then of course, there's the Water exhibition... but for that, I'll write a fresh post.

What I've been learning through organising the Water Exhibition though, relates to Stafford's post on seeker-sensitivity in planning worship. He rightly balances the need for our worship to be intelligible and accessible by outsiders, with the focus of our worship being what pleases God. (That begs the question, of course, can God be pleased with worship that, by its complexity, wordiness, dourness, triviality, excludes the broken, the simple, the outsiders whom Jesus longs to include?)

The exhibition came out of a discussion with Tearfund's Louise & Miriam on how to engage students in a social justice group. My feeling was that you can't engage students in groups any more - not at the newer universities anyway... So we decided to offer them the chance to participate in a public exhibition, using Tearfund's theme for the year: Water and Sanitation. Well, I wimped out of the sanitation part in the title - the word's too Latin, too...sanitised, and not very arty! (And let's be honest, I didn't want a hundred versions of great white thrones, porcelain telephones etc. Not for my first attempt at such a venture anyway!)

What I've realised is that there are lots of folk out there who might be interested in what Jesus has to say, and the values his kingdom offers. What they aren't interested in is pre-packaged theology that gives them answers to questions they haven't asked yet. So lots of students (and staff and alumni) were willing to donate time and energy and pieces of work for the exhibition, raising money for a development charity that is primarily Christian, not because they want to support the spread of a theological package, but because they value human life and the quality of life of our neighbours in developing countries. OK some also submitted work because it's good experience and publicity for them as artists. But they were willing to let themselves be associated with a Christian charity.

The opportunity to get to know some students and staff through this process is in itself a journey for me. And a privilege, offering to others the chance to opt in to some of Christ's values - to care for the people Christ cares for... It may not be the whole Gospel, but it contributes to the possibility of belonging, - and important relational help to those who are willing to believe in the One who says Blessed are the poor...

And the Cross? We'll get there eventually. But not too quickly. Even Jesus' closest friends ran away... just a few dear women and John seem to be there at the end. Which of us dares explain away this mystery in theological arithmetic, until our feet have bled with him on that road to blessing the poor and forgiving our enemies?