A non-passive madonna

I love art galleries – wandering in the muted light and stillness, amazed by the liveliness or colour or beauty of an artist’s imagination.

My favourite places are the small gems – the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, the Frick in NY, or the glory of the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met. Or places like the Boston gallery, where the building sings of creativity as much as the artworks.

In the less popular rooms of many galleries are the medieval religious works, with static haloed figures or obscenely ornate crucifixes.

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But sometimes I stand in wonder in front of the Christmas nativity scenes – Mary holding her baby,  dressed in 14th century robes surrounded by saints or gazing with love at her child who will be the Saviour of the world.

The painting by Venetian artist Vivarini shows us such a Mary, gazing down with a background of sumptuous gold (real gold!)

 

 

And Lorenzetti shows us an enigmatic Mary locking us with her eyes. She is remotely beautiful, and yet seems protective of her baby boy.IMG_0858

Mary often looks passive and serious, but the Bible tells us she ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2:19) – the angel’s visit, the birth, the shepherds, the star.

Of course she did! A teenage girl whose life has been turned upside down by the visitation of an angel. And she is thoughtful because somehow she understands both the love and sorrow that Jesus will bring her.

 

Foreshadowed in the gifts of the wise men is Jesus’ kingship (gold) but also his suffering and death (the offering spice of frankincense and the burial perfume of myrhh)

I love the painting by Philippe de Champaigne (though it’s not medieval).

IMG_0853It shows the visit of Elizabeth to her younger cousin, Mary. They are both wrapped in the happiness of pregnancy as they are also wrapped in their capes. They embrace in a moment of feminine mutual support. The men (presumably their husbands) are in the background, out of the main action.

And I love that Mary is tall and proud, and her clothes are bold red and blue.

Mary is not a passive pushover. Her song in Luke Chapter 1 (still sung in many traditional churches as the Magnificat) is a bold declaration that God’s rule will bring justice for the poor and hungry, and salvation for his people.

So this Christmas, I ponder again like Mary, the mystery of a virgin birth, a humble teenage girl and a song of justice and freedom that rings true today just as it did in Palestine over 2,000 years ago.

Have a happy and holy and just Christmas.

And here is Mary’s song:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favour on his humble servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

 

 

God’s police

I’m fascinated and appalled by the way many people still like to stereotype women and girls as either pure goodness or immoral seductress.

In a rape trial last week in Ireland, the defence barrister (a woman) asked the teenage victim to hold up her lace underpants worn on the night of the attack. The implication for the jury was that any girl who wore underwear like that was asking for trouble. The man was found not guilty (though I cannot know how important that part of the evidence was in the jury’s mind).

Story tellers in Hollywood Westerns used to draw the same simplistic picture – women on the frontiers of white settlement were either virtuous wives and homemakers bringing civilising values or bold bar girls with revealing clothes and little virtue.

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In ‘Stagecoach’, a classic John Wayne and John Ford Western, the stereotypes are certainly there: the doc who drinks too much and the sanctimonious women of the Virtue League. But the coach passengers include Dallas, a girl of ‘easy virtue’ (their male clients are never described like that!) with a good heart. Wayne’s character, Ringo Kid, is drawn to her lack of hypocrisy and they fall in love. The ‘moral’ characters evoke little sympathy.

Maybe we need to allow for more Dallas models in our Barbie collections.

 

Wives in British colonial settings also carried the flame for moral rectitude and civilised values: in the face of challenging cultures where western men had affairs with local girls, British memsaabs were charged with upholding Victorian values. That meant church values too.

Australian historian Anne Summers summed up the colonial mindset in Australia with a wonderful phrase – women were either ‘damned whores or God’s police’. She argued that colonisation reduced 19th-century women settlers to one of two narrow roles: virtuous wives and mothers, “God’s police” who made sure colonists did not get drunk or gamble; or the transgressive “damned whores” who answered the repressed needs of men, in a colony where females were in short supply.

Bible commentators do the same thing – put the Bible’s women into one of 2 columns – very good or very bad.

Jezebel is ‘very bad’, so is Potiphar’s wife, so is Herod’s wife. And it’s mostly to do with sexual sin – these women tempt men to sinful behaviour. Eve is described as a temptress and blamed for causing Adam to sin.

On the ‘very good’ side we have young women who are usually described as beautiful, like Ruth, Esther or Mary.

I think this is why Billy Graham’s ‘rule’ about not meeting with women in private has been taken up so enthusiastically by a new generation – we still see women as unbalanced tempters and men as victims.

Billy Graham was a famous figure who I am sure attracted all sorts of needy people who wanted his attention – men and women. He was travelling a lot, away from his circle of support. He also knew that the media would pounce on any whiff of indiscretion.

I do not criticise his way of dealing with the issue of temptation but somehow now, we leave the man’s response out of the equation as if they do not have intelligence and strength to deal with vulnerable men and women.

(Well maybe they don’t, considering the huge number of cases of male leaders who have abused their power and influence over young lives)

We all have to get better at acknowledging the whole spectrum of behaviour of women. We don’t want to see women as static romantic heroines of chivalry but we don’t want the opposite either. Women are loving, nurturing, strong, brave, impetuous, emotional, intellectual, frail…..the list goes on.

It worries me that in these days of hate-filled discourse, there is a revival of idealising ‘traditional’ roles, and putting a soft glow on the complementarian idea that women are sort-of-equal, but just not equal enough to lead or teach.

Some women and men are totally happy to be homemakers, family builders and supporters of others. If that is their gifting and desire, fantastic.

But for those who are called and gifted to be teachers, preachers and leaders, we should not be vilified, and random Bible verses should not be quoted to imply that we are rebellious. The ‘blame women’ thread in contemporary commentary needs to stop.

 

 

 

 

An Open Wound

Another week of revelations about abuse and cover-up in the Church. Pope Francis visits Ireland last week and the topic on everyone’s lips was unfortunately sexual abuse. Everyone who admired Willow Creek Church in Chicago, which has influenced thinking about effective church growth for a generation of evangelicals, has been stunned by allegations of sexual harassment

I try to be deliberate and positive in my blogs because there is so much vitriol online. However, it makes me angry and very sad that Christian leaders – overwhelmingly men – are willing to compromise the character of God whom they say they serve, to satisfy their own desires for power and then lie to protect their jobs, their colleagues or their power.

The stories are so frequent and so widespread – an investigation into sex abuse by the Church in Australia said that 7% of all Australian RC priests were involved in sex abuse in the last 60 years – that the worldwide church should be contrite, and sorrowful, and determined to change poisonous practices.

But there are still excuses and still a tendency by male pastors and some of their followers (both male and female) to blame the victims. It happens across denominations and across nations.

Here are some ‘excuses’ we might hear that need to be exposed as lies.

EXCUSE: The victims are too pretty, too needy or too easy to seduce and therefore somehow it is not the man’s fault.

I have heard this argument from a number of men. Women who come to pastors for counsel or prayer may be needy and vulnerable but ‘pastoral’ care means discerning wise action and taking steps as a shepherd and leader to be both caring and careful.

Men, especially leaders in the church should be strong enough to walk away or call for female back-up if they feel tempted. It’s a good reason for having male and female leadership of all ages so that there can be accountability and support.

EXCUSE: Women and children who have suffered abuse should stay quiet to protect the church from scandal.

A number of women who have come forward about historical abuse have said they felt explicit or implicit pressure to be silent about what happened.

In the case of Willow Creek, Hybel’s assistant, who has accused her former pastor of fondling, inappropriate touching and more, says she felt enormous loyalty to the church ad the leadership and did not want to wreck reputations. (The church leadership initially backed Hybels when he denied allegations but has since apologised for its initial inaction.)

Since when is it the role of a victim to protect the powerful? It is the job of those with authority in the Church to protect their flock and anyone who has been exploited by a church leader or in a Christian institution.

If there has been criminal activity, the police should be involved. The Church cannot think it can quietly push aside serious allegations of any sort – financial, sexual or violent misconduct.

Churches, especially those with powerful and charismatic leaders, need to examine their governance and accountability.

EXCUSE: Women should quietly forgive – their submissive attitude will lead the perpetrator back to God.

This argument is especially used when the abuse is within marriage. If there is no sign of repentance, no genuine change, can a woman stay in a destructive situation that threatens her wellbeing and that of her children?

If it was your daughter being abused, would you ever say, “You just need to submit more, forgive more?” In some cultures there may seem to be no way out, but the Church exists to transform cultural practices to reflect more of God’s values.

That means releasing men to be loving and servant hearted and releasing women to be the same.

EXCUSE: Some women are dangerous – they have a ‘Jezebel spirit’.

Women are not always innocent and some do tell lies about abuse or deliberately try to provoke a man. Their wrong behaviour should be called out just as much as bad behaviour by men. Jezebel is the archetype of the wicked woman – the wife of King Ahab who encouraged the worship of Baal and clashed with Elijah and Elisha. She was cruel and unjust.

She was definitely a bad woman.

But is there a Jezebel spirit? Surely a number of Judah and Israel’s kings were just as cruel, vicious and ungodly. Why do we hear so much about Jezebel’s evil?

Maybe because Bible commentators (overwhelmingly male) want to believe in the purity and goodness of women and anyone outside that model must be totally evil, evil that is very often seen in sexual terms. Whereas Biblical men are allowed to be imperfect – indeed we celebrate the humanity of heroes like King David, Abraham and Peter, the church (and the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day) is less forgiving of weakness in women.

Recently in the US, a pastor who admitted to his church that he had strayed as a youth pastor twenty years before, was given a standing ovation for being open and honest.  I understand the need to forgive but his action was criminal (the girl was only 17) and it seems there has been no justice for her (she was told to stay quiet by two pastors at the church).

So I plead for women to speak out about abuse, and for male leaders to champion truth and justice rather than shuffling their feet or thinking that the whole issue has got a bit out of control (another excuse!)

Pray for wisdom and humility for church leaders who must respond to abuse allegations. We do not want people to be wrongly accused but we do not want victims to be ignored.

Pray for the Church to be truly repentant. The Pope talked in Dublin this weekend of ongoing abuse being an “open wound”. He went on, “I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family.”

 

 

A backlash of civility

Niceness is an under-rated quality – it tends to be associated with tepid talent and muted colour. The definition of nice (see the Oxford Dictionary) is positive, “Pleasant, satisfying or attractive.” But modern usage also hints at blandness – a nice meal is OK but will not leave you raving.

I want to revive the classic dictionary meaning and praise ‘nice’ – a nice person is good-natured, kind and careful. In politics, media and business we are overdue to appreciate nice men and women.

So I was pleased to see Roger Federer praised for his niceness recently. As a winner, he is gracious and generous to his opponents and has self-deprecating humour. As a loser, he is magnanimous and always polite. No histrionics, no bad behaviour.

But strength too, to overcome the injuries and the years of losing to return with more determination and more niceness. No wonder he is adored and often described as simply ‘nice’.

And it was also wonderfully refreshing to see the manager of the English football team, Gareth Southgate, praised for being a nice guy. #SouthgateforPM became a semi-serious meme – if he could revive the team spirit and skill of a bunch of young footballers and (briefly) fill English hearts with hope, surely he could negotiate Brexit! Southgate, it was noted, always had time for young fans, he praised his mentors, he encouraged disciplined team spirit and he knew how to handle defeat (he could even turn his missed penalty in 1996 into a positive learning experience).

Niceness is not weakness. There is a steel core to Federer and Southgate. Jesus was nice – meek, kind to outsiders; he made time for children. But he was also quite able to deal with time-wasters and was not manipulated by the powerful.

Jesus was good, not just pleasant. And I do not want to miss that distinction. He suffered little children, not hypocrites. Niceness needs to be aligned to goodness and determination to be the best we can be without succumbing to vanity or selfish ambition.

Beth Moore is a Christian leader from Texas (blonde!) with 859k Twitter followers. She writes with Southern charm about scripture, family, America and the Church. She sometimes gets online abuse full of meanness and hatred. Determined to remain strong and nice, she has called for “a backlash of civility”.

After one recent vicious thread, she tweeted: “Somehow I don’t think we are going to get to the other side of this life and go, man, I wish I’d been mad at people longer. We won’t be glad we stayed mad. We’ll just be sad.”

Too often we underestimate the power of nice actions from good people. The praise for Federer and Southgate hints at an invaluable combination of politeness and integrity, kindness and insight, gentleness and strength.

I’d vote for that in politics, I’d cheer for that on the sports field. I pray for that in all public life.

 

 

 

Prostitution is not a career choice

You would think that all women would be united in seeing prostitution as exploitation – it is wrong for women to sell their bodies to strangers for sex.

But somehow in the 90s in the rush to support prostitutes rather than condemn them, some feminists and sex workers claimed that women could choose sex work and that it could be empowering: if women wanted to make money selling their bodies to pay for their degree course or the rent, that was a legitimate choice.

This scenario of the high class call girl making her own way in the world was an early storyline in The West Wing. Sam, a speechwriter for the new President, discovers that an attractive woman he met at a party and had sex with, is actually a call girl. Laurie is paying her way through law school and does not want to be ‘rescued’ by the well-meaning Sam. Over a number of episodes, he learns to accept her choice and by implication, the audience is asked to accept her decision too.

The trouble is that the storyline about Laurie is NOT the experience of 99% of women in the sex industry. But it creates the idea prostitution is an acceptable line of business and nowadays you can be criticised for thinking girls need to escape from its clutches.

When I was in Amsterdam a week ago to plan for a meeting (ironically) about empowering global women leaders, we met in the YWAM office right in the heart of the bar and sex district. I was struck by the groups wandering through the red-light district with their tour guides, who were being invited to gawp at women on display in windows as if sordid sex with strangers is just another part of the fun in the city. On a walking tour, you can meet ex-prostitutes and ask them “any question you like”. You can see the world’s first condom shop and prostitutes in the red & blue-lit window brothels. This is all marketed as part of vibrant Dutch ‘culture’.

The Netherlands is a source, destination, and transit country for women, men and children for sex trafficking. Dutch girls are enticed by young “loverboys,” who prey on vulnerable girls intimidating them into sexual exploitation; unaccompanied children seeking asylum are targeted outside asylum centres; and young women are brought in from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, lured by sham job promises.

This is a picture repeated in many places across the world, as the horrifying story of the girls in Rochdale UK testifies. But in the Netherlands where the sex industry is legal, the emphasis is on a liberated approach to sex and not on the suffering.

What is going on here? Sex work is overwhelmingly a miserable experience for women and girls (and young men too). Along with the slavery of trafficking are the drugs, diseases, violence and money laundering.

 

Sex is not about sniggering at women in red-lit windows, or legitimising prostitution as girls mothering poor men who have a lonely life – it is an industry of power and exploitation.

MajoorThat is why I was so pleased to come across the bronze statue of Majoor Alida Bosshardt in the centre of Amsterdam. In the same district where semi-naked women are paraded in glass booths, Major Bosshardt sits in her prim Salvation Army uniform. In her 30s, she rented a house to offer help to the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes.

For over 50 years (from the 1940s), she dedicated herself to restoring dignity to the most vulnerable, and rescuing any who wanted to take the leap into a fresh life. She was well-known on television as well as the streets of the city.

She said, “To serve God means to serve people and to serve people is to serve God”.

In 2009, two years after her death, the Majoor (as she was always known), was voted the Greatest Amsterdammer of All Time.

Yet I did not see the tour groups stopping before her statue.

In her attitude to the women she helped, the Majoor never pretended that the work of a prostitute was empowering. And if you asked girls on the street they may not want our pity but they do want recognition of their exploitation.

You can’t dress it up as anything else.

 

Digging deeper As with most issues, there are complexities to the issue of prostitution.

Should prostitution be decriminalised? For more information on actions taken by governments to tackle prostitution, eg the pros and cons of the Swedish model, see: http://time.com/3005687/what-the-swedish-model-gets-wrong-about-prostitution/?#

Can we ever say that prostitution is a valid career choice? Read more here: http://theihti.org/swedens-model-uncovered/

What about the men who use prostitutes?  You can read a depressing article about research on men who use prostitutes here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jan/15/why-men-use-prostitutes

PRAY for and support Christian groups like the Salvation Army, A21 and IJM that reach out to prostitutes who are the victims of trafficking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shop till we all drop

A friend confessed to me the other day how hard it is to be an ethical clothes shopper. “So many pitfalls even when I am trying to do the right thing.”

I sympathise with her dilemma. The more you know about clothes – who makes them, how the fashion cycle works, the environmental impact – the more difficult it seems to choose wisely.

As a woman (or man), trying to be ethical and secretly also wanting to look attractive in the clothes we wear, we have to find ways to buy well.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that I need to acknowledge my consumer sins and be aware of how I can take real practical steps.

I want to see clothing as pieces I can love over many years. I am old enough to have clothes that I bought 10 or 15 years that are still perfectly good and give me great pleasure to wear. So I try to buy quality that I can afford (I love shopping the sales and second hand).

I have to confess that after years of being a mum who spent money on my children before thinking of spending money on my own clothes, I have enjoyed shopping for me in recent years. And I have to be careful, especially online.

So I try not to impulse buy and I try to buy so that I replace something that is wearing out.

Some clothing companies are making a real effort to be more ethical. Baptist World Aid in Australia produces a really useful annual report which rates fashion brands on where their clothes come from, what fabrics are used and wages and working conditions for workers. This year, Zara received an A-, H&M a B+. Reports like this are genuinely making a difference – companies don’t want to be bottom of the list (transparency about suppliers has gone up 8% in one year) and consumers are demanding more information on where their clothes come from.

So check out the report (most brands are international) and support the brands that are making a genuine effort.  And talk to your friends about your shopping choices based on ‘happy’ clothes.

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There has been a campaign #imadeyourclothes that highlights the skills of tailors and wants to remind us that clothes workers should be given dignity and fair pay. It is impossible to produce tshirts, coats and trousers for rock bottom prices without someone being exploited. We can be stylish without being slaves to trends that last six months.

I want to live in the belief that ‘strength and dignity are my clothing’ (Proverbs 31:25) and that means not robbing someone else’s dignity to get cheap jeans.

 

All of us need to get off the fast fashion treadmill and buy clothing we can love and appreciate over many years, made by people who actually get satisfaction out of their work.

So I try to support local initiatives that are using fairly paid labour and which are doing the right thing.

What I can’t do is shrug my shoulders, brush off my guilt and say ‘It’s all too hard’.

I can make better choices for people and planet.

So check out ethical brands here (I know they tend to be more pricey but see if it can work for you).

Check out eternal creation and visible clothing. And i61 clothing.

Rather than contributing to the landfill nightmare of yesterday’s fast fashion, take up the mantra of Yves Saint Laurent  – ‘Fashions fade, style is eternal.’

For more inspiration on being an ethical consumer, check out:

‘Consumer Detox’ by Mark Powley (Zondervan, 2010) is a wonderfully practical and non-judgemental book.

For inspiration about fashion and faith:

The Character of Fashion by Simon Ward (wb publishing, 2016) shows how fashion (in all its facets from education, design, media, retail, modelling) can be reclaimed for ethical and Godly values

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has religion ever done for me?

There is an increasingly loud voice of secularism in the West which rejects all religion as at best, irrelevant and at worst, dangerously intolerant extremism.

Certainly, Stephen Hawking, the physicist famous for his insights and intellect who passed away this month, thought God was an invention we no longer needed. Rightly influential as a scientist and writer, Hawking was also well known for rejecting the idea of a personal or creator God:  “Before we understood science, it [was] natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation,” he said.

Hawking reasoned that man had to invent God because we needed to understand the world. But now we can rely on human reason and science.

Am I then a fool for loving the revelations of science whilst also believing that everything cannot be understood by the power of reason?

What has religion done for me?

  • A tenet of humanism is that we are making progress as a civilisation:[1] religion holds us back because of superstition but humans who trust in scientific fact will continue to move forward to greater enlightened thinking.

But human experience repudiates this idea. Our cleverness does not make us morally better with the passing of time. We make strides forward in some ways eg we no longer accept child labour in the west but sink into ‘mediaeval’ behaviour when we allow global trade in children’s lives for labour or sex; when we allow guns to be put in the hands of child soldiers or when we turn a blind eye to rich men abusing younger female staff.

How do we account for such actions if we accept no moral compass beyond our own individual benefit?

If we have a moral standard beyond our own, we have a universal and eternal standard of rightness that holds us to account – that allows us to praise good and condemn trespasses in individuals and as a society. I don’t have to kid myself that we are constantly improving – I can work for justice and right whilst also knowing that those things  are imperfect because only God is perfect.

  • Many people, not just Christians, accept that materialism and individualism are empty replacements for religion, but they are not sure how to address the mess. Does it lie in mindfulness?

Meditation and other forms of slowing down are good ways to stop our bodies and minds from overload but I have issues with finding the solutions to my problems purely in my own resources.

But believing in God gives me a sense of purpose, comfort and balance that is in my heart and mind but also beyond me. God helps me see my life and the state of the world through a bigger lens.

  • Science invites us to measure things and downplays things that can’t be empirically proved but how can we measure the efficacy of prayer? or totally understand why music can calm the agitations of a person with dementia?

I’m OK with some mystery in life, with not being able to understand everything. I don’t think it is laziness, just a sense that we cannot know or control everything, and that if humans did, that might be very dangerous.

Science is grappling with this dilemma now as artificial intelligence gets more ‘intelligent’. Where do morality and goodness fit into the programming of a robot? And if we teach morality to a robot, whose morality is it – a PhD nerd’s in silicon valley?

God’s values put human life above all else, say we should love our neighbours as ourselves, remind us we are NOT the most important thing in the world, and puts sacrificial love as the highest value.

  • Believing in God does not make me stupid or superstitious. It helps me to appreciate that I am wonderfully made but also makes me humble when I realise how much God has done to create relationship with me.

In one of my favourite films, Blade Runner, a key question is What makes us human? The simple answer is a very Biblical concept: that love and freedom make us human. Can we experience those without God? Of course. But understanding God is the only way to truly appreciate my ‘spiritual’ humanity and my place in a mysteriously wonderful yet perplexing world.

 

 

[1] Steven Pinker says in his new book Enlightenment Now, that the ending of the slave trade coincided with the Enlightenment. But he fails to acknowledge that leaders of the anti-slavery movement in the UK and USA were Christian Quakers and groups like the Clapham sect who were motivated by faith.