Wednesday, 22 February 2012

And why did he die?

It is Ash Wednesday, and as this is a time for repenting sins rather than committing them, I won't lie and say I have written this poem especially for the occasion. In between teaching, marking and unsuccessful trips to the immigration office, I haven't had a lot of time this week. However, in true Blue Peter style "here is one I made earlier" and today seemed like an appropriate moment to share this peom, and its accompanying picture.

And why did he die?

As he kneels in fervent prayer
To a God he knows as Abba
A prayer that asks for an easier road
But knows nothing hurts like love
With a cry of deepest anguish
What depths of suffering humanity
And what did he do? And why did he die?

As the lash cuts deep in flesh
And his heart is torn apart
The pain of divided communities
And of those who society excludes
With a cry of searing pain
What deep scars mark his soul
And what did he do? And why did he die?

As he wears his thorny crown
And calls for a different authority
A fight fought without weapons
As he stands against oppression
With a cry of hidden glory
What painful kingship this
And what did he do? And why did he die?

As he dares to lift this burden
And offer the gift of freedom
The release from violent force
And the possibility of life to the full
With a cry of torturous effort
What heavy burdens borne
And what did he do? And why did he die?

As his arms stretch wide in love
To live love and forgiveness to the end
A gesture of poverty and weakness
But with the hidden strength of God
With a cry of final abandonment
What vulnerability of love
And what did he do? And why did he die?

I wish you all a reflective and fruitful season of lent.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

In their own words

Recently, we set our students a group project in English, to produce a brochure and TV advert for TVED. Here in their own words (but with a few spelling and grammatical errors corrected) is what some of the students have to say about their school:

“All I can say is it’s the best training I ever experienced. The training centre conducts an orientation to test how determined you are about studying here in Don Bosco. The student must be poor and interested to study because if you are poor there are scholarships to be offered.”

“TVED department has low tuition fees and it is a good school for me because they train you well and give you the opportunity that you are looking forward for.”

“I’m so glad when I was “in” because my first dream came true. Don Bosco teaches mostly about the values and morality and the spiritual things. He encouraged mostly the poor children and the young who are in bad ways.”

“The orientation is a kind of endurance that will measure or test the determination of the applicants if they are willing to be part of the team as Bosconians. Most of the challenges are to test your patience. It is also to measure your creativeness, attitudes and strength, to help us know if you are really capable to be a Bosconian.”

"If you are qualified to become a Bosconian you always remember the saying of the Bosconians, not only to remember it but to do it be a good Christian and honest citizen.”

“TVED is a training centre that teaches skills such as technical and intellectual and being here every day is worth it because you are learning new things every hour of the day”

“Like St John Bosco they teach young people the knowledge that they could use in life and to improve their skills like technical skills and also in sports, in using musical instruments like guitar, flute, beat-box, organ and drums.”

“There are many courses that TVED offers like IE, MT, HST and WFT. TVED has 200 plus students, 8 instructors, 2 teachers from England, 1 training coordinator and 1 training director. For me TVED is the best vocational training center because they have time about God like every morning has a mass except Saturday”

“After we log in we went to the chapel to have a mass. When the mass is ended the next task is chores. It is nice to see when everyone can work independently. After that we have a morning assembly. One student leads the prayers. We sing the Philippine National Anthem and someone will give a morning talk. When the talk is finished that is the time of our class hours. We have also different subjects but more on technical which is related to our courses. Before we end our training we have our hobbies, during this time I see the true meaning of life. It is nice to see when everyone is living together in harmony. We end our activities with afternoon assembly”

“DBTC-TVED just only helps you to learn something new that you never knew before. So be wise to use the time given to you for the hobby so that in the end you will be proud that even though you’re too busy for your study, you also learned some skills. The DBTC-TVED only wants you to learn not only in subjects but also in skills because we need an enjoyment in ourselves to continue to live life.”

“The most exciting day of Intramurals is the championship day. The winner of the game will be the champion and the champion will be proud of their team. The loser will be sad but the most important part of the game is that you do your best and most especially enjoy the game and show good sportsmanship.”

“When retreat day came we were all very excited. We all believed and expected that this retreat will give us the chance to discover our inner self. We entered the retreat house. It is situated in Mantalongon. It is a very suited place for people who wanted to relax and have peace of mind.”

“As a trainee here in TVED you are practising the good deeds of St John Bosco by doing your tasks extraordinarily well. Being a Bosconian is not easy especially doing things that are new for you but if you believe in yourself doing what is right and keep in mind that it is for your own good and you will become a good Christian and honest citizen because it is the only one thing that Don Bosco wants us to be.”

Saturday, 11 February 2012

What we take for granted, part 2

I would probably have returned to this theme sooner, but a lot has happened and there has been a lot to reflect on in the last couple of months. February has brought with it a return to something vaguely approaching routine, and so, with the celebrations out of the way for a time, it seems appropriate to reflect further on the main part of our life here, our work with the vocational students.

Working with the students at TVED continues to open my eyes to the many things we take for granted, the many privileges we have come to see as rights, rarely pausing to consider that many are luxuries a large part of the world's population can only dream of.

There are plenty of signs of poverty among the students of TVED, but there are certain things in life which are so much part of meeting our basic needs that not only do we think of them as rights, but so should we, and so should everyone: surely something as fundamental as sleep shouldn't be considered a privilege? Probably not, but some of the students here certainly don't get as much as they need.

The TVED programme is all encompassing - the students are expected to dedicate themselves to the course and give 100% - not only to learning their practical skills, but to the social and religious elements of life too: TVED is forming characters as well as employees. It means an 11 hour day, six days a week, which alone is a pretty intensive programme. There are no optional extras here, it is all or nothing, and lateness and absence are not tolerated.

For most of us, a sixty-six hour week probably already sounds like more than enough, but for some of the students, that is not all they do. Although the fees at TVED are low, and not all of the students even pay those,  they still have to live. I don't want to exaggerate, many of the students are supported to study here by their families, but there are a fair number who, either before school or after, or in some cases both, have to work. Considering they have to be on site for 6.30am, that is no small thing. Some students earn money by driving the bicycle taxis in the early morning and evening, at least one we know does odd jobs at the home of a wealthy Filipino to support himself.

As a teacher, I find it very irritating when students doze off in my classes, but although I wake them up and ask them to concentrate, part of me can't help feeling that anyone who is tired enough to sleep on a hard wooden chair with their head on a desk, possibly needs the sleep more even than they need the English lesson!

So when you go to bed tonight, sleep well!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Shaken not stirred

Another week, another experience ...

Shortly before lunchtime on Monday, Negros island, the next island to the west of us here in Cebu, was struck by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. They are still searching for the missing but so far about fifty people are thought to have lost their lives. Travelling to the north of Negros island is currently pretty tricky as a lot of the bridges have been damaged.

Hopefully, if anyone was worried about us, you know by now that we are fine. Here, the reverberations from the earthquake were significant enough to be exciting, but not serious enough to be scary. Cebu is, by Philippine standards relatively safe. Negros, like many islands here is volcanic, but Cebu is a coral island so at much less risk from this kind of thing.

I can safely say that earthquakes have much the same effect on students as fire alarms do, causing much excitement and unsettledness! The students were sent home on Monday afternoon, as a precaution, which did mean some of them arrived back on Tuesday morning asking if we could "have another earthquake today please"!

The damage at TVED amounted to a couple of broken windows, and part of the ceiling falling down in one of the classrooms where we teach (although that possibly says more about the shoddy construction of the building than about the severity of the earthquake!)

The aftershocks are continuing as the fault settles back into place, one of which woke me up at 5 this morning meaning I am now quite tired. Later in the morning I think the overreaction to a very minor tremor suggested the students were just looking for an excuse for a break! Earthquakes or no earthquakes though, the teaching must go on, so if the third floor classrooms were too risky, we decamped to the outdoor areas and carried on regardless!

Monday, 6 February 2012

The challenge of David - part 4

You will be pleased to hear that I think this may be the final part of my current series of reflections!

All of this thinking about David has led me to also reflect on Jesus’ life and in what ways he might be seen as David’s successor, an identity he is given in at least some of the Gospels.

Geographically, Jesus and David both grew up far away from the corrupting influences of armies and palaces of the centres of power, and David, a shepherd and Jesus a carpenter, were hardly those at the centre of political and financial power. It is there, at the outskirts of society that both grow in wisdom and learn to listen to God. It is there, too, that both experienced intense moments of receiving the gift of God’s spirit, David, anointed in the fields by Samuel, Jesus, baptised in the desert by John.

Both came into contact with sin and both, eventually, made their way to the centres of power, but their chosen routes and responses were very different. Perhaps it is these different choices which show how Jesus became truly the king after God’s own heart that David had been unable to be.

Like David in the cave on the hillside, Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, in the face of violence and danger to his own life, understood God’s call to non-violence. David and Jesus both told their followers to put down their swords. It was a vocation to peaceful, non-violent resistance from which David was tempted to stray by the trappings of wealth and power, but to which Jesus remained faithful to the point of death.

Like David, Jesus encountered both sexual sin, and financial crimes: but while David lamented his adultery while continuing to justify his vast wealth, Jesus shows himself forgiving and understanding with those who have committed sexual sins (for example, the woman caught in adultery in John 8) whilst he reserves his harshest condemnation for those who oppress others, who refuse to share their riches, and who live a hypocritical life condemning the sins of others whilst justifying their own immoral lifestyles.

While geographically Jesus followed David to Jerusalem, to the centre of power, and by some at least was heralded for kingship, ideologically Jesus rejected this place at the centre. He refused to collaborate with those currently in power, but nor did he agree to become a political opposition leader in a power struggle; rather he rejected the prevalent model of domination and authority, maintained by armies and aggression.

I think the stories that immediately follow Jesus entry into Jerusalem on palm Sunday in the different gospels are hugely significant in demonstrating Jesus’ response to entering the centre of power. In both Matthew and Marks’ gospels, immediately after his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus leaves again to spend the evening outside the city in Bethany, symbolic of his rejection of this place at the centre of power; and while in Luke it does not say he leaves, his reaction to arriving in the city is lamentation.

The first story John tells after Jesus arrival in Jerusalem, that of two Greeks asking to meet Jesus, perhaps adds a further dimension to our understanding of Jesus relationship with this centre of power. Perhaps if Jesus is going to come to the centre of power, he is determined that so is everyone else: the centre of power cannot be a place of exclusivity, but a place of welcome for all. Only in opening the power centres of our communities to be places to which everyone has access, and which do not define themselves by those who are in and those who are out, can we create a true kingdom of God.

Maybe the message of David’s life, and of Jesus’, is how hard it is to listen to the voice of God from the centres of wealth and power: to really hear what God is saying, maybe we have to choose to stay on the edge: which is a huge challenge, because how do I, as a Brit, as one of the richest few percent of people on earth, and very much from the centres of financial and political power, continue to live on the edge and hear God’s voice. Perhaps there are some very difficult choices to be made ...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The challenge of David - part 3

As well as the sin of sleeping with Bathsheba, David compounds matters by the state-sponsored murder of Uriah. So why the change, from the man who refused to kill Saul to the one who hardly had a second thought about ordering the death of Uriah: could it be the riches and the palaces, could it be the money and wealth that drives a non-violent man to surround himself with armies? Perhaps it is always inequality that makes us hide behind violence and aggression.

And just maybe, the different kingship, the ‘kingship after God’s own heart’ to which David was called, and to which God hoped he would be true was actually a rejection of all of this. A rejection of the palaces and the armies. Maybe the reason he was anointed for kingship as he came in from the fields to a family meal is because this was the kingship God was looking for, this was the kingship of service that would have made David a ‘king after God’s own heart.’ Perhaps the many “blessings” that David received from God in the form of riches and wealth were written into the story later, a justification of power, nationhood and empire; when God abides not in the centres of power, but at the edges of society, and alongside the poor.

How often are we tempted to justify our wealth: by giving token amounts to good causes to salve our consciences, by claiming God has blessed us with our possessions and our ability to oppress others. How true the words “How poor is the rich man who thinks he’s been blessed, by God, for the wealth that he hoards, how poor is the rich man who’s doing his best, to justify serving two Lords.” (Garth Hewitt)

Uriah is the named individual who suffers at the hands of a king maintaining his power and position by military might: but actually his death is no more of a crime than the thousands of others who die alongside him on the battlefield, for whose deaths David expresses no remorse, or even recognition that their deaths are a crime. Not much has changed. The nameless corpses on the global battlefields continue to pile higher and no one is repenting the deaths of the “unknown soldiers” and “unknown civilians” all around the world.  As the bodies pile higher no-one is even keeping count, let alone able to name, the victims of violence and aggression.

But maybe David’s prior step of accepting wealth and power, is also our preceding sin. The violence and aggression which we see as essential, as "protecting our security", are a side-effect of the local, regional and global inequalities which persist in our world and which most of us hardly even pause to question: or certainly not for long enough to make the sacrifices that are necessary to bring it to an end.

We claim that security and peace are high priorities, and most of us, if asked, would say it is wrong that children die of hunger while other countries are bowed by the pressures of over-indulgence and greed; but are we willing to step away from our palaces if that is the cost of setting things right. Do we, like David, cling to the centres of power, resorting to violence to defend them, or are we prepared for that truly different kind of kingship, that of God’s own heart?

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The challenge of David - part 2

The story continues though (if you are wondering from what, please read part 1 first!), and somehow, it all seems to go very badly wrong. Taking up kingship, David, who has been anointed to be a different sort of king, a ‘king after God’s own heart’, seems to resort to exactly the same strategies as his predecessor, maintaining his power through violence and military might, and living in the midst of riches and wealth. When God called David to a different kind of kingship, I have to question whether this is quite what he had in mind.

David commits what is, probably, his most famous sin: Taking the wife of another man, and then to cover the deed, causing the man to die ... how different this from the David who refused to kill another man, even when some would have justified him doing so as self-defence.

Another prophet comes on the scene, and Nathan recounts to David his sin, through the use of a parable (2 Samuel 12). Sleeping with Bathsheba is generally recognised as being the sin from which David needs to repent, but reading the story more closely, I wonder whether Nathan actually identifies a far greater sin of which David is guilty: it is not just killing and eating the poor man’s ewe lamb which is the sin, but the preceding reality of having many flocks and herds in the first place, while another man has virtually nothing. The sin which allows the man of the parable to take the poor man’s lamb, the sin which leads David to think it is acceptable to claim another man’s wife as his own, is the sin of allowing the inequalities in the distribution of wealth to persist, and of justifying that this inequality is acceptable, even right.

Heading off at a slight tangent, this brought to mind the Sodom story (Genesis 19). In a church which can seem to be obsessed with the gravity of sexual sin while ignoring other far greater sins which are much more actively condemned by the bible, this story is usually presented as God’s wrath against sexual sin. However there is, in the text, another explanation of God’s anger: the sin of refusing to offer hospitality, the sin of refusing to share what you have with those who have nothing, the sin of excluding the outsider.

Maybe sexual sin is an easier and less challenging target for our condemnation than the acquisition of riches. Maybe we can be tempted to hide behind condemnation of the sexual sin to avoid the greater challenge of the call to open our doors to outsiders and to share what we have.  Maybe we, like David, are repenting of our peripheral sins while, with our eyes blinded by wealth and privilege, ignoring or even justifying our most significant ones.

To be continued ...

Friday, 3 February 2012

The challenge of David - part 1

At daily mass recently the readings have been following the books of Samuel and the story of David, shepherd boy, anointed by a prophet of God and destined for kingship. They have prompted some reflections which I share here in case you are interested in my theological ramblings.  I am not setting out to be a biblical scholar, so these are just my thoughts, in some sort of hopefully semi-cohesive form.

I have particularly been reflecting on the incident where David, in hiding from Saul’s violence, has the opportunity to kill the man from whom he is fleeing (1 Samuel 24). His companions urge him to do so, reminding him that the Lord has promised to ‘deliver Saul into your hands’. David throws down his sword, and instead of killing Saul, offers himself to him in humble, loving service. Saul’s response is, at least temporarily, repentance.

Perhaps it is this moment that marks David out as a true Man of God: his understanding that when God delivers Saul into his hands, he does not ask for violence: God never calls us to aggression. Rather, that Saul has been delivered into David’s hands through love, and it is to love than David is called. The recognition of this call to loving service is what proves David is really listening to God. And the message he hears is that meeting Saul’s aggression with love is the response that God himself asks. And Saul’s response, at least in the short term, is repentance. David either already knows, or learns in that moment that love holds a power greater than violence.

It is a tough call. David, literally, takes his life into his hands when he goes out empty-handed before the king and his armies who have headed to the hills with the express purpose of killing him. How often, not in the face of death perhaps, but risking ridicule or even just questions, do we opt for the easier path of aggression, be it actions, words or just in thoughts, rather than the self-sacrificing choice of loving service. 

David comes out of the cave empty-handed. When he offers himself and rejects violence he does it openly, visibly on the hillside. The choice to reject violence is not just about putting down the sword, it is about him coming out from the shadows, leaving his hiding place and approaching in vulnerability and weakness. It would be unrealistic to suggest that for all who choose this route the outcome is as fortunate as David’s. The route of loving service can also be the path to martyrdom. But maybe it would lead to a situation like David’s more often than we think. 

If only we had the courage to put down our weapons, to put down our harsh words, to come out from behind the masks which have become our security and to give it a try.

There is more, but this is long enough for one post – watch this space for the sequel!