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.

 

 

My Facebook life

My Facebook life is not me, it’s a better version of me. Even though I try not to post only about sunsets, talented children and victorious Bible verses, it is inevitable that my life on Facebook has fewer cracks and less boredom than my real life.

So I come to my recent family holiday – we all went skiing and I was sooo keen for the family to be close and happy in the snow. Maybe I was bound to be disappointed by the ordinary awkwardness that happens when adult children and partners get together in a small chalet, with a couple of young grandchildren thrown in.

4b2aa8c1-6e2d-4500-8358-4705716c1235In the end I posted only one image on Facebook – my daughter and son, who are elegant and accomplished skiers, in the sunny brightness of a gorgeous mountain backdrop. It summed up my love for them I guess, and all my memories of our early skiing trips in Australia on the cheap, in borrowed clothes on dodgy cross-country skis. That is where we learned to enjoy the cold, clean whiteness in rather wet conditions, with freezing hands, on home-made runs through the gum trees.

The photo of them as adults so poised on the slopes, is also a reminder for me of friends we skied with, of winter puddings, building igloos and snowball fights. Of the sublime quietness of skiing away from noisy resorts.

On Instagram, I concentrated on the snow, the sunshine and the natural grandeur – it was easy to see God in the beauty of the Alps.

Do I risk making my online life seem sunny and positive all the time?

Last year, a study found that platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have a negative effect because they can exacerbate young people’s body image worries, and worsen sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. Of course, we cannot just blame social media for these things but there is no doubt that constant access to unrealistically beautiful and positive images makes our own lives seem mundane and therefore inadequate.

It’s ironic that ‘social’ media, designed to connect us and “make the world more open” can actually make us feel alone.

But remember that Facebook quickly became a tool to judge fellow Harvard students especially girls.

The other extreme on social media, once we pass teenage years, is to make our online lives appear messy and unorganised – the slummy mummy approach. This is funny and comforting for a while but not totally satisfying as we know that the writers are NOT as useless as they proclaim. Their life of mess is as curated as Tracy Emin’s famous artwork, “My Bed”.

And of course, image driven social media is not good at conveying our intellectual lives. It basks in sound bites and platitudes, not considered opinion. People ‘like’ or hate too easily without even reading the full article or considering the complexities of life.

Several people I follow on Twitter and Facebook face regular vilification because their ‘friends’ are simply too lazy to read posts to the end or seem incapable of understanding nuance or humour. (Thanks Michael Frost, Ben Thurley, Bev Murrill and Lee Grady for continuing to be polite in the face of all that!)

It seems to me that most of us live somewhere in the middle of the good, the bad and the ugly. We all need to be more conscious that the holiday images, the parties and the smiling faces are not 24/7 life; they are curated.

Last year I posted a lot about the women I work with, about causes I think are important and about justice, as well as family. Those posts are my attempts to be more real and to have a Facebook life that is not just fifty shades of happy.

I may appear more justice oriented (and socially conscious) than I actually am (!) but I am trying to faithfully capture the images, ideas and people who are in my life, not just the celebration moments.

So for the sake of truth, let me tell you my skiing holiday was lovely but not without tensions and the odd argument. We drank prosecco not champagne, and I am still just an intermediate skier. It was not the Waltons* but it was not Home Alone either.

It was ordinary, wonderful life.

 

 

 

*you have to be a child of the 70s for that to make sense

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A spoonful of reason

Common sense is not so common – Voltaire

We need a spoonful of common sense and a large dose of wisdom in 2017 after the year that brought us post-truth.

But it’s not looking hopeful. Some nonsensical (or worryingly dangerous) events that have caught my eye this year (and it’s only week 2!):

Glasgow University has warned theology students studying ‘Creation to Apocalypse: Introduction to the Bible (Level 1)’ that a lecture on Jesus and cinema sometimes ‘contains graphic scenes of the crucifixion’. The university says it has a duty of care but I wonder whether they have warning signs outside university bars?

The New Year’s Honours in the UK included many wonderful awards for those who have served the community and delighted the nation with their achievements. But Dominic Johnson, associate treasurer of the Conservative Party earned a CBE, maybe because he gave David Cameron and his family a home to stay in when the PM left Downing Street after the Brexit result.

Easter eggs have already been seen on shelves in Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s, 100 days before Easter!

Judges in Israel have been harassed and threatened for their ruling that an Israeli soldier is guilty of manslaughter for killing a suspected Palestinian terrorist who had already been subdued. These threats come from a part of the community that feels it is OK for Israel to act in any way it wants if it suspects terrorism. And this aggressive jingoism is not just happening in Israel.

Nigel Farage has been given a new job as host of his own radio show, so he can sprout his views in the time honoured tradition of shock jocks in the USA and Australia. I had thought the UK was too sensible to allow free rein to a man who thinks Trump is going to be a great president and who criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for being too gloomy for pointing out social injustice.

People who confronted Jesus (the powerful, the religious, the crowds) often weighed in with half-truths or controversy hoping to catch out this man they could not understand. By turns, Jesus was wise, gentle, debate-ready, scathing or silent in his responses.

May we all be wise in how we respond to the half-truths and hysteria in the media or at the office. And I pray for common sense.

 

 

 

 

 

Side by Side – a parable for 2015

Side by side on the front page of the weekend edition of the New York Times[1] I saw an article about trafficked children who end up in detention in Libya treated as criminals; and one about the record auction price paid for a Picasso – US$179 million.

ny timesMy heart churns at this spectacular juxtaposition of distressing exploitation and unbridled consumerism.

The children in the article on trafficking, a few as young as eight, are some of the thousands of under-18s who travel alone from North Africa, trying to get to Italy through Libya. 13,000 made it to Italy in 2014.

Children are the most vulnerable segment of the 200,000 who tried to get to Europe by boat last year. They are lured by a promise of asylum in Europe but the dream quickly turns to debt and threats. Smugglers demand more than US$3000 from desperately poor parents back home. No payment? The kids are abandoned to detention in Libya. Even for those who get on a boat, the situation is fraught – fifty children drowned with over 650 adults when a boat capsized in April in the Mediterranean. How many more go missing in less noticeable boats?

Most of the children coming from North Africa are from Eritrea (though the roll call of countries includes all the poorest and most fragile nations). The UK, USA and Australia all advise against travel to Eritrea – it is a place of lawless danger. There are very few schools, no jobs and boys want to escape from military service which is akin to slave labour. Of course they have no idea about the lies and cruelty of the smugglers who hunt for prey along the routes to Europe.

This story of exploitation and modern slavery is repeated in the UK where around 3,000 Vietnamese children are in forced labour. Or on the seas off Indonesia where Rohingya refuges crowded on boats are pushed away, unwanted by Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. Australia, my home nation refused to assist 700 Rohingya on a sinking boat. The Rohingya, one of the most persecuted groups in the world, are falling victim to trafficking into Malaysia and Thailand, countries with a poor record of human rights.

How can we respond to desperate need with such callous lack of charity?

The response of some politicians is that rescuing people in the Med or off Indonesia only encourages more people to come.

It’s true, we do need to address the causes of need in Eritrea, Sudan, Vietnam and Burma, which means generous aid and access to economic growth, not cutting the aid budget as Australia has done last month. But we must also give immediate aid to the victims of exploitation because God demands that we do so (or basic human rights if you don’t want to bring God into it). And we need to support those on the front line in Italy or Indonesia so they don’t have the whole burden of providing care.

I am not a liberal lovey or a naïve idealist – I just know that we need to respond.

So once again, talk, chat, argue about these issues to overcome fear and prejudice.

Please write to your Foreign Minister (and send a copy to your local political representative) about this. I have included a sample letter about the Rohingya that you could adapt)

If we do not speak out, politicians will think there is no mandate for compassion.

PS. As for the sale of the Picasso, I do not need to tell you the details – suffice to say that the NY Times estimates that the top 1% of wealthy people in the world have their own hierarchy of ‘inequality’ and that someone who can afford $179 million for a single painting must be in the top 0.0001% of wealthy people. Madness!

PPS. Please pray for local people in Italy, Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia and other places facing an influx of refugees. Pray that they will be open-hearted and pray that other nations in Europe and Asia and North America will not harden their hearts.

Sample Letter about the Rohingya (my thanks to Oddny Gumaer from Partners Relief and Development for drafting this letter)

Dear

I am deeply concerned about the continuing humanitarian crisis we see unfolding in the Andaman Sea, where thousands of Rohingya refugees are trapped in unseaworthy vessels trying to escape persecution in Myanmar/Burma.

I am sure you are aware of the recent crisis involving over 700 people stranded for several weeks. They had no food or water, and many needed urgent medical care. About 1/3 of the refugees were children.

The Rohingya are the most persecuted people group in Myanmar. In 1982, a new Citizenship Law removed their citizenship and rendered them stateless. The law has a very serious impact on the one million Rohingya who cannot move freely, and are denied basic services. In recent years more than 140,000 Rohingya have been forced into camps that many refer to as concentration camps. As life has become more intolerable for the Rohingya, thousands have made the decision to flee by sea.

Malaysian and Thai authorities have said that they will push back boats and deport migrants and refugees, to prevent further arrivals, in contravention of international law.

I want to urge you, to take action on behalf of the Rohingya refugees. Please put pressure on the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments to allow Rohingya boats to land on their shores and urge the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to work towards a humane and just solution to the refugee crisis, including measures to rescue those at sea.

I also ask that you speak up for the rights of Rohingya in Burma, Bangladesh and Malaysia. An urgent response is needed as this vulnerable group is also falling victim to trafficking.

Yours sincerely,

[1] It was the international edition for Sunday May 24

A kitten! (and International Women’s Day)

 

Banksy-Gaza 2

International Women’s Day is still important.  March 8th has only lost its relevance if we use it as a day to promote more privileges for ourselves. But by using it as a day to stand up for women around the world, who are living in poverty and oppression, it is hugely relevant.

Apparently kittens always attract lots of views on youtube. That’s why street artist Banksy did this artwork in Gaza – a cute kitten playing with the debris of bombing. He commented that it was the only way to get attention for the suffering of people caught in the on-going conflict.

So now the kitten’s got your attention, how do we get action for the suffering of millions of women and girls in poverty?

One way is to have an international day devoted to women – and it’s coming up this Sunday the 8th. International Women’s Day.

Do we still need such a day? Does it discriminate against men? And will the day achieve anything for girls and women on all the other days of 2105?

Well, let’s think about Mother’s Day. It’s a short time set aside to celebrate mums but that does not mean we ignore our mothers the rest of the year.

Or wedding anniversaries – try telling your partner that it’s unnecessary to celebrate your anniversary as it doesn’t achieve anything any more. Special days and holidays are reminders of achievement, sacrifice, love and commitment.

Maybe International Women’s Day makes some uncomfortable because it’s a reminder of the continuing low status of women in so many places. Women are more affected by poverty than men and have less stable economic circumstances. All round the world women suffered most in the economic crisis of 2008 – they were the most vulnerable to losing their jobs or having pay cuts. It is their jobs that have been lost in the public service and their children who have been affected by health and education cuts.

In the UK, USA and Australia, if present rates of change continue, it will take another 75 years for women to achieve equal pay. That means not my daughter, or her daughter but my daughter’s grand-daughter may get rewarded fairly for her contribution to society.

Women who have babies never make up the pay gap. And you might say that is OK because life is about more than money, but there needs to be more discussion on International Women’s Day about the economic value of care work, parenting and voluntary work. And men should join that debate. Because the truth is that women perform 66 per cent of the world’s work and produce 50 per cent of its food, but earn only 10 per cent of its income and own one per cent of its property.

In the developing world, women plus poverty can be a deadly equation. The maternal health targets of Millennium Development Goal 5 will fall short – 50% of pregnant women still miss out on adequate health care; and we will not reach the headline target of a 75% drop in maternal deaths (it’s 45%).

I could go on with stories of how women are treated in many places – widows are mis-treated, girls are forced into early marriage, women are cheated out of their inheritance and women who don’t have children are still blamed as failures.

So don’t tell me that a day for women isn’t needed.

Oddny Gunmaer helps women and children affected by conflict to meet basic needs, prevent them being trafficked or exploited, and care for them in crisis situations. So what does she want for women caught in crisis?

“The most obvious answer is that they will be able to have enough to eat, adequate healthcare or the opportunity to go to school. For too many women, these are things they are lacking. I could also say I would wish that they could live in peace without the fear of attacks of soldiers who wish to destroy, rape and kill. This is their daily fear for too many. I wish for freedom to dream, and to pursue those dreams. I wish for their hopes not to die.”

I asked Oddny whether International Women’s Day is still important. She told me, “March 8th has only lost its relevance if we use it as a day to promote more privileges for ourselves. But by using the day as a day to stand up for women around the world, who are living in poverty and oppression, it is a day of great relevance.”

 

Got another 5 minutes?

  1. Watch a 2 minute video of Banksy in Gaza here (including the kitten)
  2. Check out Partners Relief and Development founded by Oddy and Steve Gunmaer.
  3. Like w2wglobal facebook page – it tells you more about issues facing women and how faith intersects with those issues.
  4. Spend less time watching youtube videos of kittens!