Sunday, 24 February 2019

Scarred

My work at the Sanctuary often brings me great joy. It is a privilege to witness the human capacity for hope, and to be surrounded by gestures of sharing, compassion and welcome.

But there are also times when the suffering of the world leaves me feeling exhausted, frustrated and deeply, deeply sad. There are times when I am ashamed of my country's hostile response to the desperate suffering of those who come pleading for help.

There are times where I feel I can make a tangible difference to people's lives. There are times where I know that I can't: when all I can offer is an apology for my country's failings and possibly a hug which might or might not soften the blow.

There is a very fine balance between the necessary resilience of self-care and the risk of becoming hardened or indifferent to the realities of everyday tragedies.

It is so very easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the injustices that surround us and by the seeming impermeability of the systems and structures we have created to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of real human relationships with those beyond our immediate circle. But it is always the individual stories, even those which are very hard to hear, which remind me something of the value of our human lives, and which teach me that our own humanity is irrevocably scarred if we ignore the humanity of the other. Inevitably, some stories, some people somehow effect me more deeply than others; there isn't always a rational logic as to which ones and why.

These moments of encounter pierce my protective shell and enable both laughter, and tears, to well up inside. I hope they always will.

I will be for ever indebted to those who are helping me to learn what it means to be fully human and fully alive.

She arrived to this
Much-vaunted civilisation
Bastion of freedom and democracy

A promised land

Of barbed wire and locked doors
Of detention and deprivation
Of hostility and suspicion

Her tired, shattered body
Confined for the crime
Of believing she had the right
To life

A life
Still mired in memories
Of love and loss
But which dares to dream
Of the healing of aching anguish
And of wings of freedom

We are all
The sum of our stories
The confused and disjointed
The incomplete and incoherent
The wretchedly real

But we took her scarred body
And we refused to believe

After all she has known
It is this
The lack of faith
In her humanity
Which slowly scars her soul

Wings of freedom
Clipped and crumpled
By a system designed to devastate

And yet
Threatened and hesitant
Still she tries
To smile through the tears

Clinging, by fragile finger-tips
To hope
And stretching out
Those beautiful, broken wings

Wondering

Where can I go?

Monday, 11 February 2019

Answers (1)

It turns out Lydia is really good at thoughtful gifts. So for Christmas 2018, she gave us a jar filled with questions ... the idea being that we take out one a week to think about. I am deeply touched by the time, effort and thought that went into creating it; and it is proving a starting point for both reflection and conversation. It's also a good test of patience as I'm having to resist the temptation to peek at what might be coming up later in the year!

As my blog has long been the space I use to share my random rambling thoughts, it seems to make sense to share the answers, or bits of them, or bits of some of them,here too.

1) What's the one thing that people always misunderstand about you?

I guess I think I'm fairly transparent, what you see is more-or-less what you get so I don't think there is that much to misunderstand! I wonder whether, when people first meet me, they might believe me to be more organised than I actually am ... I am quite good, I think, at getting a lot done, and I think that gets mistaken for organisation when in reality the energy, enthusiasm and hard work are genuine, but there's a fair amount of chaos and disorganisation en route to the results!

2) What do you think about when you are alone?

Well, at the moment, these questions, so I'm now thinking about what I think about! But generally, work, a lot, possibly more than is healthy. I think that's always / often been true: it was true when I was a teacher, and it's definitely true now. About activities and ideas, a little; but mostly about people and their stories and experiences; and about my part in sharing in and shaping those realities, and my own story being effected by its interaction with them. I guess, ultimately, its not so much that I think about work, but that I think about people I care about, it just seems that a lot of the people I care about happen to be people at work, but there are certainly others too, perhaps including you.

3) If you had the ability to get rid of something you did in the past, what would it be?

The reality is that many of the things I can think of which haven't entirely worked out as planned, or which have brought with them struggles or challenges, are also the things that have brought me to the place I am today and helped make me the person I am, and as such I have very few regrets. Obviously there are things I might have done differently with the benefit of the hindsight and experience I now have, but that's just not how life works! I guess the thing in my past I am least proud of is probably how I behaved as a teenager (I was very difficult, but the good news is I think I turned out ok!). It came from a place of being deeply unhappy, something I am able to recognise and articulate now in a way that my fourteen yourself never could have done, but I guess maybe I could / should have handled life a little differently.

4) What are the main principles of your life?

It's become somewhat cliched, but if that old chestnut, that "these three things remain,faith,hope and love, and the greatest of these is love" doesn't sum up what guides my life, I at least hope it sums up what I aspire to live by as my guiding principles. That my trust in a loving God, and the rhythm of prayer which allows me to experience it is the firm foundation on which I am trying to build my life; that drawing on that source I am able to remain hopeful,not with some sort of naive and empty optimism, but with a deep sense of hope which inspired me to fight on for the change I believe necessary and keep smiling in the midst of the mess along the way. And that the experience of unconditional love, a love which forgives all my failings (and there are many!) might help me take baby steps towards offering that same love to those around me, those I encounter and those I don't, love expressed through a passion for justice and peace,love expressed in caring, compassionate relationships.  This is the life I want to try and live, but I acknowledge it is aspirational as opposed to accurate, but I guess that's often what principles are ... the place to come back to all those times when I'm not measuring up to my own standards!

5) What is your greatest fear?

I've written a lot about fear, recently, and about trying not to be afraid, so it's tricky to now stop and reflect on what I am afraid of... but I think my deepest fear, at least at the moment, is to feel like I do not have a purpose; to feel like I am not, or that I cannot make a difference to the world around me. I would be the first to say that I do not believe our value is found in what we do or achieve, that we have inherent value irrespective of our achievements because we are beloved children of God ... that our first vocation is to be not to do; despite that, in my heart of hearts I know that the idea of not having a purpose, not being able to contribute, fills me with dread! 

More to follow ...

Thursday, 7 February 2019

In search of unity

The week of prayer for Christian Unity, 18th - 25th January, was marked in Birmingham, once again, by #pray24brum. As it has turned out, this blogpost feels more a collection of my disparate thoughts about this event than a coherent whole.

Now in its fifth year, I have put a fair amount of time and effort into helping this to become an established annual event, part of the life and rhythm of the ecumenical scene of Birmingham's churches. I know that my motivation for doing so is not entirely selfless: as well as believing it is a very good thing for the city, it is an event that really matters to me personally. 

I have long cared deeply about church unity and the deep divides I see in the churches have often been a source of great pain. Finding spaces where Christians of different traditions, including those who don't sit comfortably in anyone box, can come together and be unified across their great diversity is really important to me. 

But my love of, and belief in the importance of #pray24brum is about more than just that: because this is not an event which is about being ecumenical for its own sake. It is not a talking shop where we sit down together and discuss the minutiae of our distinctive church traditions, valuable though that may be at times. I am not one to shy away from theological debate (especially late at night over a glass of red wine!), but #pray24brum offers something different: it is a space where our differences dissolve because we turn together towards God and outwards to the world.

#pray24brum is a reminder that the importance I place on prayer in my life is something that is shared, valued and supported by others; and I know that I need those reminders. I really value our regular routine of prayer, I know that the commitment that sustains it is worthwhile and feeds the life I lead, but I know I also need to have times when I can be supported and carried in and by the prayers of others and #pray24brum is one of those moments for me, moments that are sufficiently rare that they are precious where I find them. 

It is also a symbol that Church Unity is not an end in itself, it is merely the means by which we are most able to be visible witnesses to the love we are called to have for one another. Whatever the differences of theology and practice, in the midst of a diversity of styles of prayer and praise, what united everyone who led and participated throughout those twenty four hours was that we were facing outwards: out from ourselves towards God, out from ourselves towards the world around us; a turning outwards borne of a deep faith that prayer matters and makes a difference, that it matters to us and makes a difference to our world. That it is the source and summit of a loving relationship with God and one another.

This year, towards the beginning of the event, I spoke about #pray24brum on premier Christian radio. I was somewhat thrown off balance by an unexpected opening question about Brexit ... but perhaps the interviewer was right. There was a deep symbolism to what the event in this specific context. Because here was a brief interlude in which we were able to bring together people who might otherwise be deeply divided, but who when we turned outward, united in our concern to being good to those beyond ourselves, therein lies the path to finding common ground.

In the grand scheme of things, #pray24brum is not a ‘big event’: there are plenty of other events which pull a much bigger crowd. During the twenty-four hours there were never less than ten people present, but there were rarely more than thirty. No-one kept count of how many people drifted in or out through the days, because that wasn't the point. But in the peaceful ebb and flow throughout the two days, it felt like an important witness to the place and purpose of prayer in the life of the church, and to the possibility of standing together with those with whom we may at first feel we have little in common, united by our common desire to love and be loved by God, and to show that love to others. I hope it will long be a feature of the beginning of my year.



Sunday, 6 January 2019

On the twelfth day of Christmas

Living in Birmingham city centre we are surrounded by all things Christmas themed from about the end of October; but this year I certainly managed to feel thoroughly un-Christmassy until very close to the end of term. Partly that was an active choice: I am always keen to preserve a sense of Advent as a time of preparation and anticipation, partly it was just due to the busy-ness of everyday life filling my days with plenty to keep my mind firmly off the topic of the coming festivities.

It was worth the wait, and I feel I have been able to enjoy the Christmas Season to the full. Amidst the time at home and the time way, the time with others and the time out, there has been plenty of good food, a host of fun things to do, and a whole lot of joy and laughter. A series of parties and celebrations at work and at home, a not-quite-impromptu pantomime, time spent with family in all its variations, and with friends, Christmas dinner for twelve, heartfelt words and gifts, silly games, just the right amount of dancing, conversations ranging from the silly to the serious, challenges set for the year ahead, all rounded off this afternoon with ice skating without any broken bones.








Above all, throughout, it has been something I have lived as a shared experience with many of those who matter to me. I know I am extremely blessed to be surrounded by so many amazing people who make my life richer: thank you to everyone who is part of the adventure!

Now the cards have all been written (and mostly posted), the decorations have come down, the living room is emptier (and tidier) than it has been for a while and 'normality' is ready to resume. Activities will be resumed, new developments await: but I begin with my heart refreshed and refilled by so much love given and received this Christmas season.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

And yet there is hope

Several of my recent posts will have perhaps made it fairly obvious that I've been thinking a lot about fear. About the tragedy of a society increasingly dictated by fear, about my own complicity in that culture, about how the beauty of the gospel vision is to stand in opposition to an all-pervasive fear-filled way of living.

The Christmas story, the vulnerability of incarnation is at the heart of that message of daring to overcome fear. Sanitised by kids nativity plays and kitsch decorations, and overwhelmed by the commercialism of our era; the Christmas story remains in reality one of great challenge. Everything about the first Christmas has deep fear inherent within it. A hesitant young mother whose pregnancy doesn't correspond to the social, cultural and religious norms. A vicious occupying regime flexing its muscles. A series of outsiders trying to find a space in an unfamiliar place...

And yet there is hope. All of those fears are overcome, by the presence of deep love. 

Amidst a regime of violent oppression
Where bitter hatred invades the atmosphere
There is hope in the birth of a baby
As God himself comes to live among us here
And humble vulnerability shares the promise
“Know that I am with you, do not fear.”

To the poor on the fringes of society
And the stranger who has journeyed and drawn near
There is hope in the singing of the angels
As dark foreboding skies become clear
And a lone bright star bears the message
“Know that I am with you, do not fear.”

And for those of us who build up walls around us
To protect all the wealth we think that we hold dear
There is hope in the loving and the sharing
As rays of light through chinks in armour yet appear
And if we listen he continues still to whisper
“Know that I am with you, do not fear.”

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Mary's Song

And Mary said, 
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 
(Luke 1: 46 - 55) 


In my wonderings about an uncertain future
Looking out on a world I’m not sure I understand
In the midst of fears and questions
There is yet a space for praise.

This Spirit, my spirit, 
The depths of my being 
Here where the spirit lives 
Here where the spirit dances 
I rejoice 
A light which flickers but refuses to be extinguished 
A hope which teeters but refuses to give up
A life which dares believe in the eternal 
A life 
Caught once, perhaps, 
In the passing interest of a camera flash 
Then cut adrift 
In the hidden depths of yesterday’s news 
No space for these forgotten ones
In the world’s bright spotlights
Which circle,
Seeking glamour, wealth and fame. 
But here am I, bathed in light 
Which shines from this 
A tender look of love 
A glance of God 
And while harsh bright lights move on
Leaving behind
The jagged edges of unfulfilled dreams
And unsatisfied desires 
This tender glow, glows on 
And the glance of love will linger 
With a warmth that invades the soul 
This gift of God
A blessing freely given
For this and every moment
Eternity encompassing today. 
This is our God 
Whose gaze digs deep 
Beneath our masks 
Into the furrows of our soul 
Who sees and knows
And does not seek
The price our world has asked

But stretches out an open hand 
To find hidden glitter in the gutters 
To let us know 
That whenever we are hidden 
Behind wars of words or weapons
Behind tales of economic growth or gloom
Behind powerlessness and politics 
Here too 
We are worth the pain 
Of names 
Carved deep into nail-scarred palms. 
And so I seek
With trusting hope
This my God
Who reaches out across time and space

Who fulfils in unexpected ways 
The hopes of days long past 
And the promise of a future not yet born.

Monday, 26 November 2018

There's also Thursdays...

I have written quite a lot about the various different things which make up our life here, but I can't remember the last time (if ever) I wrote about Seedlings, which has been a regular commitment throughout my time in Birmingham; so although I have never wanted my blog to be simply a diary of the things I do, I guess this is my attempt to redress that balance.

Thursday is the only day I reliably leave the city centre. I brave the buses down Stratford Road (not something for the faint-hearted) to spend the morning in Sparkhill, where I help with a Stay and Play group for parents and pre-schoolers called Seedlings, based at St Christopher's Church and connected to the Springfield Children's Centre.

I first thought about writing this blog post a few months ago, when one of the children's centre staff asked me whether I would be able to speak to some people about why I volunteer at Seedlings. I couldn't, as it happens, but I guess it acted as a prompt to think through what I might have said, and as I tend to do when I muse on such things, I guess it made sense to share those thoughts here.

Because to be honest, often, as I wait for a bus which theoretically runs every ten minutes but can't always be relied upon to do so, I do wonder why I do it. Likewise as I find yet another stray ball from the ball pool which needs to be returned to its home, or try to convince a hall full of two year olds that it really is time to tidy away the toys, or even worse, to stay sat in the book corner so we can get the bikes and push-alongs out safely, I have my moments of questioning my sanity at choosing to spend a morning in this way.

Then again, there must be something about it that has kept me going back every week for over five years!

Seedlings runs three times a week, with each family being asked to choose to come to only one. Limited to thirty families a day, the sessions are often full to capacity meaning 90 families benefit from the sessions every week. Its popularity shows that the it is clearly responding to a need in its community and I guess that remains one of my motivations.

It is almost entirely run by volunteers, and while some come and go, others have become not just fellow volunteers, but friends. We live lives which are, in some ways, perhaps, quite different to each other. We are people whose paths might not otherwise have crossed. But we have come to know something of each others stories and struggles. Aside from the families who we serve, I value having these folks, with whom I have shared a lot of laughter, as part of my life.

The structure of the Seedlings sessions is always the same. We begin with a range of different activities for the children to explore: things to play with, things to make and do. We tidy all that away before having snack time, after which the children share books with their parents while we get out the bikes, either out in the garden (weather permitting) or indoors. The children have some active run-around time while the parents get the chance to have a cup of tea, before the next round of tidying up.

Finally, we end each session by gathering everyone together for singing time. We usually get started in the midst of a degree of chaos: there can be a little bit of reluctance to put the bikes away and two-year-old reluctance is generally expressed fairly loudly! But within the space of a couple of action songs we normally have most of the children engaged and singing, or burbling and doing the actions, or bouncing up and down, or smiling. From the privileged position of making a fool of myself at the front, I get to watch those little lit-up faces. And so it is that, even if there are always still a few odds and ends to tidy up afterwards, every week I leave the sessions reminded that THIS is why I do it!

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Of fear, and of trying not to be afraid

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." 
John 14:27

The words "do not be afraid" appear over and over again throughout the bible.

For what it's worth, I don't believe this is because faith in God is some kind of magical cure for being afraid. On the contrary, the constant repetition of the command to not be afraid suggests that fear is very real: an innate human response to many of the situations which confront us. It is repeated as a command precisely because it doesn't come naturally, because it is something that has to be actively chosen, and tirelessly worked at.

But I believe it is also repeated endlessly because it is necessary: it is part of our calling as followers of Jesus.

We live in a world which wants us to be afraid: afraid of one another, afraid even of ourselves. Maybe 'twas ever thus, but whatever may have been the case in the past, it is certainly true today that we are bombarded with messages of fear. Messages of fear that say we have no choice but to lock our doors and keep our heads down and only talk to those we know and trust. Messages of fear that remind us, regretfully perhaps, that we must "protect" our own interests even at the expense of others. Messages of fear that encourage us to be constantly suspicious of the unknown.

It is this fear prevents people from building relationships with one another and which tears communities apart. It is this fear which keeps individuals trapped behind locked doors, communities cowering behind barbed wire topped walls, and countries hidden behind arsenals of increasingly terrifying weaponry.

It is this fear which is so often the root of that which manifests itself on the surface as hate.

It is this fear to which society wants us to succumb. It is succumbing to this fear which the bible so consistently warns against.

A radical commitment to the Gospel, then, is to not allow ourselves to be dragged into a culture of fear. The opposite of fear, the force by which it can be overcome, is love. Radical faith in a loving God means to dare to not be afraid.

I am not there yet, but I am determined to aspire to the fearlessness to which I am called by faith. The fearlessness to look into the eyes of others rather than down at my toes. The fearlessness to smile and offer a welcome to people not like me. The fearlessness to believe more war and weapons are not the answer. The fearlessness to keep believing that we can build a better world.

This is not naivety. It is deliberate choice. It is a choice founded firmly in a life of prayer which allows me to know increasingly deeply the joy of being loved. It is a choice to allow that love to permeate my life and influence the decisions I make about how I engage with the world around me. It is a choice I will try to make and remake each day.

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 
1 John 4:18

Sunday, 7 October 2018

The joy of being together

It was Lancaster University chaplaincy, really, which first taught me about both the importance of, and the possibility of, church unity; and it has remained a passion (and at times source of pain) ever since. I know I am extremely blessed that my faith journey has been enriched by such a diversity of traditions ... none of which are perfect, but all of which have added to the rich tapestry of what it means to me to be part of this community of those seeking to follow Christ and live out the gospel.

I have long since lost my youthful naivety which believed church unity, or at least institutional church unity, is imminently achievable; but I still deeply believe in the gospel call to "be one", not as an end in itself, but to add credibility to our witness to the beautiful and universal love of God. So when I was invited to attend the Churches Together in England National Forum, I was very pleased to be able to accept. The Forum happens once every three years and brings together those from all the different member denominations (47 at last count), from the associated organisations and charities, and from the interim bodies (regional and local churches together groups). I realise it was an immense privilege to be there and to be part of it, and I am grateful for having been offered such a wonderful opportunity. I certainly tried my best to make the most of it.

I went into the forum knowing very little about it. Sure, I had read the emails and skimmed through the programme, but I'm not sure it fully gave me a sense of what I was going to. Perhaps that didn't matter, perhaps it was even a good thing. I hope I went with an open mind to try and embrace whatever it turned out to be.

One thing I had picked up before I set off was, and which proved to be the case in the whole structure and ethos of the event, was that this wasn't seeking to be a decision-making meeting, with concrete outcomes intended at the end. I guess there is a risk in making such a choice: that it could feel like there was a lack of purpose or direction to the gathering. On the contrary, I discovered, that was very far from being the case. Rather it gave a great sense of freedom to allow lives and experiences to be shared.

With no required "outcome", discussion didn't have to be reduced to lowest common denominator platitudes, nor get bogged in irrelevant details. Instead it felt like a space where we could listen to each other, to share with one another the beauty, and the struggle of the Christian journey, lived out in different ways, but lived out with the same integrity and the same yearning. In the organised and in the imprompu, the formal and the informal, in the prayerful as in the pub; a space was created where conversation could flourish.

For three days, then, I talked, and I listened.

Reflecting, during and since, I think there were two things that ran as threads through the time, weaving together my experience of the forum.

The first was that for those present, the theme "The Transforming Power of Christ" was something lived and real; the questioning of this transformative power centred not on "if" but on "how". This was a gathering of people who believed in and were inspired by their faith. Don't get me wrong, nobody was promising perfection: there were plenty of conversations about struggle and challenge and frustration, but there was also an underlying sense of the joy and life of the Christian Faith. Across every tradition, and I spoke to people from a lot of different churches including at least one or two I'd never even heard of, there was a sense that this whole Christian thing was something worth living and worth sharing. Everyone's way of doing so might look very different, but the sense of the value of what we had was tangible across all those very varied representations of it. From the highest of high churches to the most we're-not-really-comfortable-calling-ourselves-a-church-at-all, from the church leaders to the people who didn't really know why they were there, there was a refreshingly unapologetic tone to the conversations about faith.

The second is something about language. It is no secret that I find language fascinating in all sorts of different ways. But throughout the forum I was struck multiple times by the effect and importance of the languages we speak. I am not using the word languages in the plural use accidentally, because I really think our languages of church, and of faith, and of mission and ministry are often like foreign languages to one another. This might seem a bit of a tangent, but I love teaching English in a multi-lingual environment where people have different languages but want to understand one another and communicate with one another. Assimilation happens on both sides: the speaker tries to adjust their words to make them more accessible to the listener; the listener tries to hear what the speaker wants to communicate. As we do so, we realise that, once we find a common language with which to communicate, our realities and our lives, are really not so very different. The forum felt a little bit like that at times. I would hear something which at first sounded alien to my experience, but as I listened, I realised it was in fact very familiar, just being said in a very different way. The beauty of creating spaces of attentive speaking and listening is that it allowed us to find a way to go beyond our very different ways of expressing our faith and realise that, when we could find a shared "lingua franca" our experiences, our vision, our faith, are perhaps not so very different after all.  I hope one thing I have brought away with me is a commitment to being more attentive to speaking and to hearing the deepest kernels of meaning within what is being said.

So what was it all for? Well, I didn't come away with a greatly enhanced understanding of the intricacies of the theologies of the various traditions represented, nor of their styles and practices. I didn't come away feeling I had contributed to resolving any of complicated, uncomfortable questions which keep brothers and sisters in Christ from living out their Christian vocation together. 

But I did come away having talked to lots of people who, like me, are doing their best to journey with God in the contexts where they are, drawing on traditions which have helped them to do so. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the struggles and the strength of these people with whom my path had briefly crossed. I came away feeling a few small steps closer to that vision of being "one".

Even as a self-defined extrovert, I also came away feeling in need of some quiet time to myself to process and reflect. I hope that is a symptom of having made the most of the opportunity! I am certainly very glad I was there.

There is a report on the Forum on the Birmingham Churches Together webpage, and lots of stuff about it on the Churches Together in England one

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Finding beauty

In Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery there are a series of sketches of women by the pre-raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. They are the preparatory designs for a painting, and with their sketched outlines, muted colours and slightly unfinished quality, I really like them.

While I haven't actually seen the real painting, there's a photo of it next to the series. It is bright and vibrant, painted with an assured hand ... and while I am not questioning the great artistic talent, and the time and effort which went into 'perfecting' the final version ... I personally like it far less than the sketches it accompanies.


This poem was inspired by reflecting on that reality.

How often
Do we wait?

Hoping for finished perfection
The vibrant colours of an assured hand
 Contained in these smooth, defined outlines

But this is already beauty

Hidden in the soft lines and blurred edges
In the hesitant shading of an uncertain hand
In the muted colours of drafted designs

So often
We wait

Hoping for finished perfection
The definitive answers to the questions of our time
And somehow neatly-packaged lives

Until looking back
Perhaps we glimpse

That this is already beauty

Hidden in the soft lines and blurred edges
In the hesitant steps into our swirling doubts
In the muted colours of our daily lives

Until we learn
Perhaps

That beauty is not only about completed form

It is found
Here
In the process of creation
In this
Our own
Unfinished
Perfection

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Sunrise over Edinburgh

At the beginning of August, together with our friends from Northern Leg of Student Cross we spent an amazing weekend in Edinburgh. To make the 2am start and 9 hour coach journey worthwhile, I was determined to pack as much as possible into the weekend, and feel like we succeeded in doing exactly that. I came home tired... I have no regrets.

When you only have three days, one way to stretch time is to stay up late, and get up early, and we did both. My particular thanks go to the other crazy people who said yes to my random suggestion of climbing Salisbury Craggs at 4.30 on Sunday morning to watch the sunrise! It was stunningly beautiful. Neither a camera, nor words, can ever adequately capture that kind of thing, but someone mentioned poetry while we sat on the hillside that morning, so I guess that, became this:
Scrambling
Above silent, still-dreaming streets
Sleep rubbed from tired eyes
To turn
Towards mountain, sea and skies

As a glow of warmth
Creeps
Over jagged rock
And softened light
Breaks
Through dappled cloud
To blur
The sharp edges of our lives

This majestic moment
Incompletely captured
By camera’s lens
But safely stored
In the recesses of the mind

Here
Where buffeted in the breeze
Friendship laughs 
Beneath brightening skies
In this
The shared space
Of a daring to say yes
Live experiences
Not soon forgotten

And thus we pause
A brief hiatus in our busy lives

Until coffee and companions
Call us back
To the bustle
Of a city
Just waking to another day

But now
With this divine beauty
Forever nestled in a corner
Of our hearts.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Monday, 20 August 2018

Summer time

It has been a while since my last blog post, and as ever, it is not because there has been nothing to say. Two or three half-written drafts of half-formed ideas are, even now, sitting in a folder, waiting to see if they may or may not ever see the light of day!

The end of the academic year is inevitably a busy time, this year no less so than usual. It has been full of highlights, even if some are tinged with sadness as I know they also mark the end of things which have been full of joy and life. I still very much operate in academic years and so it is this time of year, for me, much more than December / January which is synonymous with endings and new beginnings. There is much to reflect on as another year draws to a close.

Busy it may be, but both in work and out of it, I have been very much enjoying the summer. And while I fear for a planet which is heading into an era of greater climate extremes and instability, and for the collective cognitive dissonance which suggests it's unlikely we're going to do anything about it before it's too late, I can't deny I've been enjoying the long summer days and making the most of the sunshine!

Even if there were not too many to name, a list of the highlights would be somewhat dull, I imagine, for anyone but me, but I am going to indulge in sharing a few photos which hopefully capture something of the laughter and joy of the season.
 
  

There are, should you be interested, plenty more photos of the various summer activities at St Chad's Sanctuary, Northern Leg's trip to Edinburgh, and our trip to Lancaster and Kendal.

The problems of the world have not gone away, tragedies unfold every day around us; and yet somehow, when the sun shines, it seems the world smiles just a little bit more, and maybe that is no bad thing.

And now, my new diary is to hand ... it is time to begin filling it with next year's adventures!

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Investing in Peace

Following weekly vigils in Advent and Lent, Midlands Christian Action (MiChA) the small Christian Peace group we are helping to try and establish has again been holding space outside HSBC, with the aim to have a regular presence, perhaps once a month. We are usually only few in number, and we gather only briefly. Simple prayers, a few placards, leaflets to explain what we are doing to passers-by. It is a tiny drop in the ocean. It feels like an important one.

It is undoubtedly immediately obvious why peacemakers would protest or vigil outside the DSEi arms fair where regimes and companies from around the world come to buy and sell weapons, or why we might place ourselves outside ROXEL, our local bomb-building factory. For some, it seems, the link is perhaps less obvious to HSBC. Engagement with those who stop to speak to us frequently includes responding to questions about why we are there.

I know why I think standing outside HSBC is an important place to be. I know why I believe thinking carefully and making difficult decisions about what to do with our money, as communities and as individuals really, really matters. So this is my attempt to explain it in slightly more detail than the two minute conversations with those who stop to ask.

As part of the peace movement I think, if anything, drawing attention to the role and involvement of finance in the workings of the arms industry is even more important than witnessing outside the factories that build the bombs and the fairs that sell them.

Whether we like it or not, capitalism is the system which currently dictates how our world operates: it dictates our political and economic systems, controls our media, and has seeped in to the majority of our thinking as the "only possible way" to operate.

Financial pundits often seem to want us to believe that the inner workings of capitalism are immensely complicated, and send out the message that we should leave it to the experts who, they hint, have our very best interests at heart. But at its core, capitalism is also incredibly simple: it is based on the premise that capital (the having of money or stuff) should generate more capital (more money or stuff).

As such, I believe, financial involvement in the arms trade, in environmentally destructive practices, in industries which fail to respect human rights and dignity, is not simply an inconvenient by-product: it is the very driving force of making those industries continue to exist and expand.

With some notable exceptions (Triodos, Oikocredit, Shared Interest...) I don't think financial institutions usually choose which industries they invest in for any deep ideological reasons: they choose to invest in things which they believe can make their capital generate more capital, in sectors which they believe are profitable, or which they believe they can influence to be profitable.

If money is to create more money, it relies on selling more stuff. If money is invested in industries whose purpose is destruction and death, then selling more stuff relies on creating more destruction and death. The desire for financial gain from the arms industry is dependent on promoting the proliferation of conflicts, on entrenching divisions, on accelerating militarisation, on reinforcing a message of fear which is contrary to the gospel promise of freedom and love.

HSBC invest obscene sums of money in industries with whose very existence I fundamentally disagree. It is not just them, of course. There are numerous other financial institutions: banks, pension schemes, investment portfolios which are complicit in the exacerbation of global conflict, of human rights abuses, of the destruction of our finite planet. They are guilty too. If we choose to stand outside HSBC it is partly because the global scale of their operation means they are a major player and could be a real game changer in redesigning our economy from one which promotes death to one which enhances life. It is partly because they have just moved their HQ to Birmingham so it feels like an appropriate target. It is partly because just because we can't be everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't be somewhere.

Our next vigil is on Wednesday 18th July at 8.30 - 9.30am and all are welcome to join us.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

ups and downs, for this week, forever

Refugee week, a celebration of the positive contributions refugees make to our country, has just drawn to a close.

Part of what I want this blog post to be, then, is a celebration: of this week and the fun we've had, and of the asylum seekers and refugees who I am privileged to call my friends and who have immeasurably enriched my life.

And it was a very good week: there were stories and poetry and song. There were opportunities for engagement and learning. There was space to spend time together in the sunshine. There was food, and friendship and an abundance of laughter. Lives have been shared and it is has been beautiful.

But in the midst of it, I have also encountered the darker side of what it means to seek Sanctuary in a country which sadly prides itself on its "hostile environment". I have met those who have celebrated in spite of the challenges, but also those for whom this week, intended to enrich and empower them, will have completely passed them by as they struggle to deal with interminable bureaucracy and impossible decisions, with homelessness and destitution, with physical and emotional trauma, with all that seeking asylum entails.

Now the refugee week banners are all being packed away, and the twitter handles will soon have disappeared back into the oblivion of cyber space from whence they were summoned. We will have patted ourselves on the back to congratulate ourselves on a beautiful celebration of all that is good in the welcome we strive to offer in the midst of, even in spite of, the systems. And rightly so: for, whatever else is true, there is much to celebrate, and it is right to take the time to do so; there is much to encourage and inspire, and it is right to recognise and be moved by it.

And thus begins another week.

Another week in which there will still be refugees trying to rebuild a new life far from home.

A week in which there will still be laughter and friendship and celebration; in which there will still be those rejoicing in new found freedom and safety, in which there will be those who are empowered to contribute their gifts and skills to a society infinitely richer for their presence; in which there will be resilience and hope.

And a week in which there will still be those trapped in a system riddled with mistakes and delays which force them to put their lives on hold while someone else holds their life in the balance; in which there will still be those struggling to survive in a system which uses destitution as a policy tool; in which there will still be those who are caught between staying in a country that has told them they're not welcome and being sent back to a place where they fear for their lives; in which there will be terror and despair.

If refugee week is a celebration, it is also a reminder: that while there is much to celebrate, there is also still much to be done. I hope many of those who have encountered the spirit and joy of this week will have found in it the inspiration to take the next steps: to find the next moment of friendship, to offer the next gesture of generosity, to take the next campaign action, to speak the next words of hope in a rhetoric too often dictated by fear.

Refugee week is over, but the beauty, and the challenge of engaging with refugee issues are not going away any time soon: and whatever the struggles, I am deeply inspired by being able to have a small share in living alongside those for whom the paradox of hope in the midst of the seemingly hopeless, and joy in the depths of darkness are an ongoing reality.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

St Chad's Sanctuary, a brief introduction

It is no secret that I love the place where I work and the people with whom I get to spend my days. Alongside my main role of helping co-ordinate the English teaching, I am responsible for the social media and sometimes turn my hand to other things too: almost invariably with plenty of enthusiasm, often with varying degrees of talent!

The idea of having a film which shares something of the work of the Sanctuary has been floating around for sometime, but with no definite deadline, it could easily have stayed on the back-burner indefinitely. So a deadline was set, and a project was brought to life. It received its preview showing at the Sanctuary celebration of the year earlier this week.

I am not a film maker, but I have given it my best attempt. There are things that could be vastly improved (by someone with more talent, or more time, or both), but on balance I am pleased with how it turned out and think it illustrates something of this place which is so special to me. Making it, particularly preparing and recording the contributions for the sound track, was an absolute privilege. I hope, and believe, the beauty and depth of the words the students and volunteers share, more than compensate for the shaky camera work and sometimes clunky editing.

I hope you agree it is worth 12 minutes of your time:

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Accepting the praise when you know it's not enough ...

I have been wrestling with this particular post for quite some time. I'm still not convinced it quite says what I want it to, but I'm not sure I am going to be able to articulate it any more clearly so sometimes you just have to click publish and hope it makes some kind of sense.

It originally grew out of a conversation about our Hope Projects house: a conversation with someone who wanted to thank and affirm us for what we had chosen to do; and yet one which left me feeling strangely deflated and tearful. Admittedly, it came at the end of a long, intense and exhausting day, and I know I was tired. I was also anxious about and frustrated by a number of stories I had recently heard or been involved in, and in which I felt powerless to make a difference but with the nagging sense that there ought to be more I could do.

And so all I could think, as the conversation drew to a close, was "yes, maybe, but it isn't enough." I know I still live in luxury compared to the many asylum seekers and refugees I know, let alone those who have been refused the right to remain by our flawed immigration system. I know I have access to a multitude of opportunities which I can so easily take for granted. I know I remain one of the privileged few.

But as I started trying to write something, I realised I wanted this post to be about more than just that one conversation and my response to it.

I think initially I wanted it to say something about how, perhaps because we have deliberately stayed at arms length from the management of it and it doesn't feel like it impacts significantly on our daily life or that it has involved making any major sacrifices, the Hope Projects house doesn't feel like a "big deal", doesn't necessarily feel worthy of the recognition and praise we have received. I guess I wanted it to reflect the challenge of judging our own or others actions and their 'worthiness' and the struggle of receiving praise which doesn't feel fully deserved.

Then I wanted it to say something about how we deal with the reality that there is and always will be more to be done, and how we deal with knowing we can never do enough. How we hold in tension the uneasy balance of knowing our limits and not trying to go beyond them, but being willing to allow them to stretch to encompass that next thing which we can and maybe even should do. How we avoid both the paralysis of thinking we can't do anything (or anything more), and the exhaustion of feeling we have to do everything (or everything else).

But I also wanted it to say something about the value of affirmation, and about how we respond to it, whether we feel it to be deserved or otherwise. I recognise that affirmation is important: I have seen the damage it can do to feel undervalued, particularly for things which cost great personal effort. Genuine, heartfelt praise, offered in good faith by someone who really means it, (whether or not we agree with their assessment of how deserved it is) is something worth treasuring, and learning to accept it in good grace is something I am working on.

And maybe I even wanted it to say something about how these last two interplay:  Because while perhaps they are two very separate things, perhaps they are not. Perhaps it is the affirmation, the love, which stretches the boundaries. Perhaps our genuine experiences of affirmation and love can help us sit more comfortably in that uncomfortable space between what we can do and what we can't, and draw us draw us onwards to take that next step towards being the best version of ourselves we can possibly be.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Acts 2

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2: 42-47

Over the last couple of years, the Methodist church in Birmingham has been reflecting on the theme of "Holy Habits" inspired by the verses above. There is now a set of resources for churches further afield to use ... and the pictures below are the fruit of me being asked to produce some images to accompany each of the themes. I guess you could call them my first commissioned artwork...

Fellowship

Eating together

     Prayer                                          Breaking bread

Making more disciples

Gladness and generosity

 
     Worship                                                        Sharing Resources

Biblical Teaching

Service