I guess lots of people have been waiting for the announcement of Jade Goody’s death before letting loose with their feelings. I am still staggered by the amount of vitriolic nastiness some people can pour out on blogs and in other media. I don’t know whether it comes from some sort of transferred self-loathing or some sort of bitterness about the world, but it is not pleasant to see.

The emphasis Jade put on her sons and her concern for their future made it all the more sad that her death came in the early hours of Mothering Sunday. Many will question the values (especially in relation to money) she expressed regarding her children, but nobody can deny the seriousness with which she took motherhood and the responsibilities it brings.

jade-goody1Jade Goody is surely an icon of our times. She was a poorly educated girl from South London who, when exposing her ignorances on global television, made a lot of people want to protect her from herself. She epitomised a culture that – in the infamous fantasy slogan of the National Lottery (‘It could be you!’) – promised instant wealth and fame without you having to do anything to earn it. It told the lie that the capricious finger of ‘God’ might choose you to have it all and have now. She was the face of a superficial culture of celebrity for its own sake, supported (and funded) by a public hungry for voyeuristic entertainment. It is clear that many commentators looked at Jade Goody in such a way as to betray a superior gratitude that they were not like her. Snobbery comes in many forms.

But, despite the publicity-seeking girl who cashed in on her fame, Jade Goody also demonstrated that people need to take responsibility for their life and stop blaming everyone else for their lack of success, progress or acquisition. She grabbed an opportunity, exploited it mercilessly and then had the guts to see her dying and death as part of her life and let the world in on the action.

I am not alone in wishing she had retreated sooner and learned the art of privacy. There is even something not quite right about a publicist, Max Clifford, asking for people to give the family privacy… while speaking to cameras and perpetuating the story with snippets of information from inside the dying girl’s home. But she chose not to and I respect that.

What Jade Goody has done is confront an escapist culture with the reality of human mortality. Whatever the magazines and films tell us, we shall all die. And our living to some extent is shaped by our approach to and understanding of our dying. Jade let the world in on a young woman who knew she was going to die being able to give a vocabulary to her family and friends (as well as the watching world) for a part of their life they might otherwise not know how to handle. Some of us (in pastoral work) are used to preparing people (and their families) for their death and to helping the bereaved express their feelings while looking afresh at their own life and meaning. Jade has made that conversation easier for a lot of people.

She wasn’t a plaster saint whose theology was thought through and carefully articulated; she was an ordinary woman who said it as it was and seemed incapable of dressing it up in ways others might find more acceptable.

Since learning of the terminal nature of her illness, Jade has read bits of the Bible (I don’t know which), been baptised, had her children baptised and then prepared her own funeral. I have no idea – and nor does anyone else – what she thought or understood about life and death and God and the meaning of life. I could not know what she thinks happens after death – she certainly came out with some weird folk-religion stuff about Jesus and stars. But, I think it is safe to say (as if it was any of our business, anyway) that she grasped the simple fact that a mortal human being needs to know she is loved infinitely and that the Lover will not let her or her children go. The only security left for her was that her death would not negate her life.

My final word on this is simply that the root of Christian faith is the confidence that death itself cannot separate us from the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ. The narrative of this world says that violence, death and destruction have the final word and ultimate power: the cross and an empty tomb say appearances can be deceptive. God who creates, sustains, redeems and loves has the final word and that word is ‘resurrection’.

Now we pray for Jade Goody’s family as they endure their public bereavement.

Here in deepest Surrey, Ash Wednesday begins in murky, misty greyness. It seems peculiarly apt for the beginning of Lent with its associations of privation, discipline, funlessness and restriction.

But Lent is not just about these things for the sake of being miserable or holy. The ‘end’ of Lent is greater holiness and a greater engagement with the reality of God, the world, of life and oneself in relation to God. It is a hard time of self-examination, an escape from fantasy and a stripping away of the illusions that get in the way.

c-of-e-lentThe Church of England is offering two innovative ways of engaging with this – not as a quick fix, but as an aid to using Lent properly and helpfully -  especially for a generation brought up on a diet of self-fulfilment.

Love Life Live Lent (via Facebook or website) offers simple, but creative ways of living positively through Lent. You can also use Twitter. Apparently.

cockburn-lscn-coverI was listening to the last Bruce Cockburn CD, Life Short Call Now, in the car this morning. Stuck in a miserable traffic jam, I heard afresh the deceptively simple song Mystery and the poetry hit me again.

‘You can’t tell me there is no mystery… It’s everywhere I turn.’

But it was the fourth verse that I had to play again and again: ‘Infinity always gives me vertigo… And fills me up with grace.’ Isn’t this precisely what the Psalmist was on about when he contemplated the vastness of the heavens and wondered aloud about the place and value of himself as a small human being? That’s the mystery that has to be lived with; when you think you’ve got that one nailed, you’ve almost certainly lost the plot.

Cockburn ends with the invitation: ‘So all you stumblers who believe love rules… Stand up and let it shine.’

cockburn_slice_o_life_cover(The new CD is released on 31 March 2009 and is called Slice o Life – a compilation of  live solo recordings.)

The Bethlem Royal Hospital (from where we get the term ‘bedlam‘) in Croydon is an amazing place and I spent most of today there. I try to go there for a day each year (at least). I go for several reasons: firstly, to support the excellent chaplaincy staff; secondly, to support the excellent other staff and residents; thirdly, to keep abreast of what is happening in the whole area of mental health care provision. (There is also an excellent and intriguing museum which is well worth visiting.)

225px-bethlemroyalhospital1Today involved a service of healing in the forensic wing, a Bible study with staff, volunteers and residents, and meetings with a variety of people. It concluded with a Eucharist in the chapel. And I loved every minute of it, meeting some wonderful (and some very challenging) people in the different contexts.

I don’t want to say too much about the contents of the day, but do want to register the importance of this work. mental health work is sometimes seen as the bits of society most of us would prefer to pretend isn’t there. There is also a danger that bishops such as me think mainly of the Church as being the parishes and those that pay the Parish Share. But chaplaincy work here is both demanding and exhausting, relentless and integral to the ministry of Anglican churches. I don’t want the chaplains, the volunteers or the institution to fall of my radar or that of the wider church.

At a quick meeting with the senior management I stressed the importance of religious identity (not just ‘spirituality’) being integral to any human being, thus observing that any holistic view of a human being must take seriously any religious identity or worldview. Religion is not and cannot be an ‘add-on’ once physical and psychological stuff has been addressed. It was very good to hear this affirmed by the professionals who, I think, do superb work.

kurelekThe Bethlem is not only served by excellent chaplains, but also by volunteers who give of themselves to serve and help people whose lives are often pretty messed up. I have massive respect for them and for those organisations in this area that work hard for people with mental health problems – especially when many people wish they would simply be hidden away.

Tomorrow (Monday) is a bad day to be issuing a press notice about this blog. I am driving down to Lee Abbey in Devon to speak at a conference there until Friday. Now, that is very nice because Lee Abbey is set in a wonderfully beautiful environment where nature is at its wildest best. But it is also a place where there is no mobile phone signal and no wireless broadband internet access. So, I’ll be driving up the hill once a day to get phone and text messages – and I’ll have to find a way to get my emails and do some blogging.

The theme of the week is based on the earlier title of one of my books: Jesus and People Like Us (now re-issued as Scandal of Grace). It follows Jesus and his friends along a journey that is sometimes missed by people who read the gospels with a prejudiced eye. The Church is sometimes good at taking ‘heroes’ of the faith, putting plates around their head in stained-glass windows and calling them saints. At one stroke we make them people who are not like us.

But read the Bible and it is full of people who mess life up a million times and still find God on their side. The disciples of Jesus discover this as they journey from the hills of the north to a gallows outside the city walls of Jerusalem and an empty tomb in a garden. Life is transformed for them, but there is nothing religiously romantic about it.

This week at Lee Abbey will be an attempt to encourage people in their Christian faith by taking a fresh look at the gospels and the people in them – who are just like us. If I can get online during the week, I will explain more as we go along. Furthermore, I will do so in the context of Obama’s inauguration in the USA…

In the summer of 2008 I went to a day of lectures at the University of Cambridge to commemorate the ecumenical visit of a group of Germans to England in 1908 (reciprocated in 1909). The morning lecture was just brilliant: the retired German theologian Jurgen Moltmann giving an overview of German theology from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Now this might not sound the most exciting way to spend a hot summer day, but this elderly academic, speaking in superb, faultless English, was interesting, funny, wise and perceptive. To anyone interested in theological development in the last century it was a unique opportunity to hear the great man do his stuff.

Over lunch I mentioned to him that I would like to read his autobiography, but wanted to read it in German and not English. I immediately forgot the title of the book and thereafter kept forgetting to order it.

A couple of months later I was with a group of bishops at Lambeth Palace for a theology day with the Archbishop of Canterbury – another brilliant, stimulating and challenging day. After lunch I approached the Archbishop with a query I had been too embarrassed to ask Moltmann in Cambridge. During his lecture Moltmann had suddenly quoted something that sounded deep and ‘old’. I wanted to ask where it came from, but thought I would look conspicuously ignorant among a load of keen Cambridge academics. So, I asked Rowan if he knew where this had come from – the Desert Fathers perhaps? It went like this:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

Rowan thought about it for a moment and then said: ‘I think he was probably quoting himself.’

Was I embarrassed? Of course I was! But at least I learned something. Anyway, I finally got a copy of the book when I was at a theological conference near Dusseldorf last November. And the German title of the book? ‘Weite Raum’ – Wide Space. Rowan was right… and I am hopelessly ignorant.

But I love the description of God that Moltmann gives. We often try to narrow God down so that he reflects our own limited experience, expectations or prejudices. But God, as can be seen in the biblical narratives, occupies the wide spaces which offer uncertainty and threat as well as the fearful hints of his presence. It seems that God strides about in the wide spaces and won’t be pinned down by our own small-mindedness. But it also chimes in with the stuff I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ which refuses to hold back from God the contradictory realities of human/Christian life from God: we offer both the ‘broken and the holy hallelujah’ (missed out in the Alexandra Burke version).

Perhaps it is only people who are open to the wide spaces that truly enjoy God. Perhaps it is only such people who can find the wide spaces for seeking imaginative and bold potential resolutions of conflicts such as that in Israel and Gaza. Perhaps the frenzied protection of narrow self-interest is the natural and unavoidable fruit of abandoning the ‘wide space’ of God.

So, which version of the great song is going to hit the Christmas number one spot tomorrow? In one sense, I don’t really care. Cohen goes to the bank and recovers some of the millions his finance bloke nicked and a brilliant example of song-writing gets heard by a generation growing up on pap.

Mark suggests that this is music for adolescents and I wonder how old he is. Why? Because I grew up in the seventies when Leonard Cohen’s songs were called ‘songs to slit your wrists to’ – dour, morose and ‘deep’. But, contrary to Mark’s perception, I have found Cohen’s lyrics still haunt me after all these years in a way that few others’ do. Cockburn is a poet, Dylan gets behind the safe places of the mind and scratches away, Clapton captures the blues in a way few others can – and Cohen is a craftsman who creates lyrics that work at lots of levels.

Whatever we conclude about taste, though, the powerful thing about ‘Hallelujah’ is the way he suffuses spirituality with physicality and vice versa. He refuses to allow the dichotomy that disembodies spirituality and tacitly embraces Plato. This is why I think it is so good that this Christmas we will have a song at number one in the charts that ‘gets’ the point of Christmas: God opting into a messy and complicated world – not helping people escape from it. That, it seems to me, is what the Incarnation is all about. The Word became flesh – and we shouldn’t try to reverse the process just because it is less complicated.

Anyway, I’m visiting my parents in Liverpool and will reflect in the next couple of days on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interviews on the global financial crisis and the possibilities for disestablishment of the Church of England. I bet you can’t wait…

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