Sunday, 14 July 2019

Baptism

The original opening line of this post "within the last year" is no longer strictly true as it has taken so long for me to finalise, but the rest of it is as valid today as it was when I decided to try and write something on this subject.

Within the last year I have had the privilege to attend three baptisms: each very different from the other, each attached to a sense of huge privilege to be part of the story, each a window into something of the mystery of faith and grace. I feel I want to in some way try to capture here something of what it meant to be a part of three very different expressions of a community of faith welcoming a new member.

The first was Rasul, an Iranian friend, expressing his new found Christian faith by full immersion baptism, as an adult, into the Vineyard church. I knew before I went that this was going to be somewhat outside my church comfort zone. But there was certainly energy and a deep sense of faith. For Rasul, there was also the very tangible, visible expression of great joy and deep peace: an undoubtedly welcome respite in a troubled life.

The next was the baby son of an Eritrean friend, baptised into the Orthodox tradition at forty days old. I think I am probably relatively well-versed in a wider range of different church traditions than many; but this involved spreading my ecumenical wings a little further than they had stretched before. I had little idea what to expect (and a lot of the time, little idea what was going on). I was the obvious outsider (not a bad thing to experience from time to time), and I was made to feel wonderfully welcome, not just by the family who had invited me, but by a wider community who opened their arms to embrace me. It felt like an immense privilege to have been invited into something I will undoubtedly rarely have the opportunity to experience.

And the third was our niece, and now God-daughter, who, at four years old, was being welcomed into her local church community and into the Church of England. This one was a much more familiar tradition, I knew what to expect, how to participate. I too, after all, was baptised, as a four-year-old into this same denomination, and while I may not remember that day itself, it is a tradition which, while it is no longer all of my now many-faceted Christian identity, has certainly played a significant role in forming it, and which still feels comfortable and familiar.

In many ways, everything about these three occasions was different.

One participated with not just full consent but commitment and great joy; another, too small to have any idea at all what was going on; the third, a generally willing participant. One was modern, lively and loud; one deeply rooted in tradition that has probably hardly changed in many generations; the third embraced a certain informality while still drawing on liturgical structures. There were differences of language, and fusions of cultures, and a thousand other ways in which they differed.

Yet at some deeper level they were, in many ways, all exactly the same. Each was a community of faith and love opening its arms in welcome, expressing a willingness to support someone on their journey, desiring to share something that matters deeply to them with another, full of hope for the gifts of the kingdom, however that may be understood. And tea, they all involved tea.

For all three it was important to be there. Important, and a wonderful privilege. To be there as part of a community, to be there to stand as witness and to open arms in welcome. To be there to express a willingness to share in the journeys, wherever they may lead.

I think the reason this has sat for so long as a "draft" is I probably thought I could use it as a vehicle for some significant theological point, but maybe there is no need to do that. Maybe it's fine just to acknowledge the beauty and privilege of being part of these special days for these three different people.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Answers (5)

The next installment of questions and answers ...

21) Where's one place you'd like to go that you haven't visited?

Writing a long list of places I want to visit probably wouldn't be very difficult, but selecting just one is much harder. However, having recently applied for an Irish passport in response to the Brexit debacle (thanks Grandma!), I feel that the Republic of Ireland (a place I have often thought of visiting but never actually have) probably should top my list ... and should be relatively achievable too!

22) Would you prefer to love or to be loved?

I don't actually believe it is possible to make this choice. I think they are so deeply intertwined it is virtually impossible to have one without the other: it is the experience of being loved which not only makes possible, but inevitably inspires love for others. So for me this is not an either / or situation, but a both / and one.

23) What is your favourite book or film of all time and what does it mean to you?

Please note, the question intentionally asks for 'favourite', not best! I debated long and hard about this one: there are, after all, a plethora of books I love, and quite a number of films, but in the end I came back to the confession of my love for The Chalet School Series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (It's ok, I checked with the question master and a series rather than an individual volume was allowed!)

I know, objectively, I probably shouldn't like them: they are, generally, quite badly written; they are very much 'of their era' in terms of gender roles and in some cases race relations too; they are about a privileged elite; the list could probably go on. But they remain my favourite books: not because they are great literature, but because they created a world I could escape into: a world very different to my own, and attractive for exactly that reason. As I have mentioned before, I was not a happy teenager: and I regularly escaped into the world of the characters of the half a dozen volumes I had at that point and all of the imaginary stories I created round them. As an adult, ably assisted by the advent of ebay, I gradually collected the whole series. I can judge when I am stressed or tired because instead of turning to some of the great books lined up and waiting to be read on my bookshelves, I revert to reading and rereading them.

I probably know the whole series, all 62 volumes, virtually off by heart. I can certainly open any of them, to any page, and just start reading, like slipping back into a comfortable friendship. For all their failings, I love them, because love is emotional rather than rational.

24) What are your most important values and how do you try to show them in your everyday life?

I actually found defining this, the values by which I aspire to live, harder than I expected but in the end came down to these two as my answer. 

First, that each person, each individual human being, has inherent and equal worth: that our value is not the result of the defining features of our identity, nor any actions, works or achievements, but is simply the reality of being created in the image of God. That nothing makes us worth more or less than the next person and that our interactions with one another should be founded on that principle. 

And second, that there is always, in all situations, the potential for good to exist and to prevail. For frail flowers to push through cracks in the seemingly unconquerable concrete. Our world can seem a very dark place at times, and there are many reasons for pessimism, but something in me still clings to a believe in the power of good over evil, of life over death. One of my core values, then, is faith in the resurrection. In some mysterious way, I believe it is always possible to have hope.

As for how I show them in my everyday life, perhaps it is for others to judge whether / how I live up to my desire to live by those values.

In a break with tradition, I'm going to publish this with only four questions / answers (which may mean the next one has to have six or I'll be forever confused!) Lydia returns to France this week for the summer holidays, so while we have a couple of questions to think about while she's away, we'll be taking a break for the weekly Q&A until September, so I thought it made sense to just post this as it is now rather than wait until the autumn for answer 25.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Home is where you feel you belong

This week has been Refugee Week, and with it came the culmination of a significant project I have been working on with my students, THE PLAY (and yes, I have been thinking of it in capital letters for quite sometime!) After a very low-key panto before Christmas, and some poetry writing based on memories earlier in the year; I decided to invite the students to pull together an auto-biographical play. And because they are amazing, and because they know I'm a bit bonkers but it'll probably be ok; they said yes probably without, really, having much idea what I was talking about!

From the humble beginnings of just something hopefully both fun and meaningful (oh, and educational) to do in class, it somehow grew into a major project. Deciding to perform during refugee week, putting out an invitation to schools and discovering how receptive they were, all added up to adding a layer of pressure for it to turn out well!

We spent weeks sharing and exploring our stories, building a picture of who we were and what we wanted to share with those around us. With performances scheduled for the 19th June, we finally pulled the script together less than three weeks before, and our first full, uninterrupted run through (with most but not all of the cast able to be present) was on the Monday before we performed to an audience on Wednesday. There were, I confess, a few sleepless nights. There may have been a few other responsibilities that haven't been fulfilled quite as they should have been.

And so we reached performance day. In the end, they performed three times, twice in the day time to a total of over 300 school children, and then an open performance for a hundred-ish in the evening. And it was a fantastic day! The cast were amazing, the confidence with which they spoke to an audience in their second (or third or fourth) language, the courage and grace they stood up and shared some deeply personal stories, the way they overcame their nerves and upped their game were truly inspiring. The audiences, in different ways and at different levels, were receptive and engaged.

The performances were wonderful, but there were highlights in between too. During the long break between the afternoon and evening performance, we could have dispersed, but decided to stay. We ate together (thanks to the students who brought food to share, delicious!), we laughed and we talked. But more than that, it turns out that, given lots of time, a large space, and access to a PA system, mostly what my student will do is dance! I think we covered pretty much every genre: from traditional Persian, Arabic and African dances, to Baby Shark, via La Macarena and YMCA. There was so much joy in that room that day. And this too, is how friends are made.

I think I did a fourteen and a half hour working day. I was very, very tired on Thursday. I have zero regrets. It was a truly beautiful thing. Given the chance, I would do it all again tomorrow.

At the end of the final performance, I was thanked. Once I'd recovered from the intense embarrassment, I know that what the students said was beautiful and deeply humbling. That they know I have offered them something is clear: I only wish they could at least partially understand just how much they have given to me.

Because I don't really have the words to explain what a privilege it has been to be a part of this project. There have been so many stories, so many words, so many conversations and so many cups of tea. There has been so much trust and honesty, so much love and compassion, so much genuine friendship. There has been so much new found confidence, so much discovered, or rediscovered, self-worth. We have all grown, individually and as a community, through the process. There has been so much lived and shared which can't be measured, and can't really be explained.

The title of the play was "Home"; the strapline, "Home is where you feel you belong". It is truly special to 'feel I belong' amongst this amazing group of people.


Sunday, 16 June 2019

Answers (4)

The latest edition of the Q & A series, inspired by Lydia's Christmas gift.

16) Which seven words describe you best?

When we drew this one out of the jar, I suggested we should do it for each other as well as ourselves: we didn't, but I wondered whether the words we came up with to describe ourselves would be the same as how we are seen by others. 

I also thought it'd be easier to come up with words for others than for myself, and vice versa, so I cheated, and put a call out to my facebook friends to make suggestions: I got far more than seven suggestions. It was also probably not good for my ego.

So, after all that, preamble, my seven words (at least for today, I may feel differently tomorrow) are: 
Enthusiastic, Opinionated, Unconventional, Authentic, Impulsive, Compassionate, Linguaphile

17) What makes you feel motivated and inspired?

I think the two are, in fact quite different: the things which motivate me and those which inspire me may sometimes be related,but are certainly not the same. I think I am primarily motivated by a belief in the possibility of making a difference, however small, to the world around me. Feeling inspired is something different: I am inspired by beauty, by the capacity to love, and by the resilience of the human spirit. Perhaps the difference is that I am motivated by what I believe I can change, but I am changed by those things which inspire me. 

18) What is one dream you have yet to accomplish?

We decided this probably ought to be a personal goal rather than political change (my initial answer of "world peace" was apparently too much of a cliche anyway.) So, just over a year ago, inspired by my students, I decided to attempt to start learning Arabic. Given that I've made remarkably little progress, I'm not sure admitting this in public is wise, but hey ho! I don't suppose for a moment I'll ever be properly fluent, but I think I would like to get to the point of being able to have a basic conversation (there's still quite some way to go!)

19) Can you pinpoint the moment in your life when you were the happiest?

Short answer, no, I can't. Happy moments, yes,many of them, but happiest, in my whole life, that is a very big ask! Apparently, though, it wasn't really a yes/no question! So what sprang to mind, and sometimes it pays to go with gut instinct, was not exactly one moment, but a series of moments throughout last summer: lots of trips, to a variety of places, with different combinations of people I love and with a common thread of a whole lot of sunshine, laughter and friendship.  

20) When do you feel most like yourself?

I think generally, it is when I am teaching. Or, to be more precise, when I am helping someone else to learn or understand something, or even more so, to help them find their place in the world, and feel more happy or confident about themselves and the possibilities before them. I am aware that there is a risk in finding your identity from your purpose or something you do or achieve; but I think its also an indication of vocation; so I guess there's a balance!.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Iftar and Elderflower

It feels like there is a lot on at the moment. Possibly even more so than usual.

Work remains as busy as ever, and together with all our various other activities provides plenty of both stimulation and challenge.

Lydia is going through the unenviable process of sitting GCSEs so I have spent lots of evenings helping revise subjects I haven't had to think about for quite some time.

Global politics is, frankly, somewhat depressing.

My head is, as ever, swirling with thoughts and reflections.

It would be easy to feel overwhelmed, and there are certainly points where I have.

But in the midst of it all have been lots of beautiful moments of community and friendship: and I know I am incredibly blessed to have so many friends around me who keep me sane and make me smile. Amongst all the other things which contribute to my busy schedule, I am glad it includes meals with friends, impromptu pub trips, shared cups of tea ...

A couple of weeks ago, on day 15, the midpoint of Ramadan, I had the joy of sharing an iftar meal with many of my students, a handful of alumni, some volunteers, and other loosely associated folks: more than forty of us gathered to share in good food (so much good food!) and friendship. Iftar meals are a time of family and community, and for those far away from their loved ones, it is important to celebrate with new-found friends. For me, it is hard to describe the beauty of being invited in to those shared moments together.

The following week, some of our northern leg friends gathered to mark the end of the Easter season. We picnicked and chatted. We shared and we prayed. And we walked, because you know, that's what we do. As we walked we gathered elderflower, now turned into cordial, potentially awaiting being turned into wine. It took a long time to go any sort of distance but it didn't really matter. The whole gathering was bathed in sunlight and laughter.

Both those occasions were definite highlights of the last month, many of the other shared moments of recent weeks have been much more low-key: but all of them contribute to enriching my life. I know I am an extrovert - I draw my energy from spending time with others who love me and whom I love, and I am grateful to the many friends who help me to live life in all its fullness!

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Juxtaposed

The Friday before last I abandoned my usual responsibilities and headed to London. The reason for the trip was Westminster Abbey's decision to host a service of 'celebration' or 'thanksgiving' for 50 years of 'continuous at-sea deterrent' (for which read, nuclear weapons with the potential to annihilate the planet and its population). Stepping out of my routine on a "school day" isn't something I decide to do lightly, but it felt necessary to be outside Westminster Abbey that day.

I wish, when I had first heard about the event, I had been shocked by it: sadly, I wasn't. Sadly, while it seemed indescribably far from my understanding of the Christian Gospels, it fitted rather better than it should have done with my impression of where the institutional church aligns itself to the powers of empire. I was glad, relieved even, that many of those I told about the event, were in fact shocked that the church (or to be fair one particular, peculiar facet of it) would even dream of doing such a thing.

For me the message of the gospels is crystal clear: Jesus calls us to a ministry of peace. I do not believe that peace is achieved through the threat of violence, but through this radical invitation to love, not only our kin, our community and our neighbours, but even our enemies.

I have, haven't we all, heard the argument that nuclear weapons have, in fact, brought peace. I disagree. For one thing, I don't think the threat of aggression and a semblance of security is in fact peace. Peace is something much deeper,and much more beautiful. More importantly still, I fear that in creating a myth of peace for the wealthy west based on fear, separation, exclusion and the exporting of conflict to be played out in proxy wars in those places where we have decided the human lives have less value; denies the reality of the experiences of many of the world's population. My vision of peace is one which is found in genuine justice and freedom; and it encompasses all of my brothers and sisters,wherever they may be in the world. My vision of peace does not include having the possibility to deploy weapons of mass destruction at a moment's notice.

With attention drawn to the event and media coverage questioning the Abbey's decision to host it, lip-service was paid to it not being about celebrating the potential for mass destruction of this abhorrent weaponry. In the end though, the ringing of the celebratory bells as the invited guests poured out of the Abbey belied all the conciliatory words, and showed its true colours: that at least those sections of the church, monarchy, government and military who gathered in that place, at that time, wanted to celebrate the fact that we could wipe out the world at the flick of a switch.

All of which is, to some extent, preamble for the blogpost I was actually planning to write, which was going to be based on being asked, multiple times, variants on the question "did you enjoy it?" And on my struggle with exactly how it was appropriate to answer.

Because yes, actually, I did. In many ways I had a really lovely day. Much of it was good fun, and there was plenty of energy among those of us who had gathered outside in protest. I believe praying for peace, especially in such contexts, always has beauty and value. I met up with many friends, people who I am glad I know and people who continue to inspire me by their commitment to peace. I had good conversations. I spent a day outdoors in the fresh (ish) air and it didn't rain. It felt like a positive and important gathering and I was glad that the media showed an interest. My personal highlight was the chance to tell a whole bunch of French school kids (and their teachers) about why we were there (probably not a part of the standard London school trip they were expecting but they seemed reasonably interested!)

So yes, I did enjoy it, very much so, but to just say yes feels like it fails to express the complexity of my emotions about the day. I'm not sure I have the right words to describe how I felt, but it's definitely more complicated than just saying I had a nice time. Given that the service in the Abbey was going ahead, I was very glad to be there but I wish, to the very core of my being, that no church would ever even contemplate hosting such an event, rendering the presence of those of us outside superfluous.

For all the joy and sense of hope which such gatherings inspire, there was also something almost sickening about seeing and hearing the glorification of destructive potential, the more so for the fact it was happening in a church, a space in which it should have been the absolute antithesis of what is acceptable as a cause for celebration. The medals and uniforms, the pomp and ceremony, the ringing of the bells, ... It all felt so very, very wrong; so very out of kilter with how I want the world to be: so yes, I enjoyed the day, but I somehow at the same time felt deeply uncomfortable that that was the case.

Whatever the complexities of describing how I felt, I am sure it was the right place to be.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Answers (3)

The third in the series which began with this blog post.

11) "Love is blue not red. It is calm, soothing and loving. It is not fiery and spicy." Do you agree?

I like to be different ... so I said I think love is neither red,nor blue,but rather green. For me green is the colour of new life, and while love can probably at times be both calm and soothing, and fiery and spicy, the hallmark of love, of all different sorts of love,  is that it is what enables growth and new life, what makes more become possible. So yes, for me, love is green: and not one uniform wash of colour, but green in all the multitude of different tones in which it appears.

12) Who is your favourite historical figure?

Once we had defined 'historical figure' as anyone who was now dead (thereby ruling out Jesus because "Jesus is alive!"), this one took some thinking about, and generated a fair amount of discussion about what favourite might mean, and how most inspiring or most significant might have generated different answers. In the end I settled for Br Roger, the founder of the Taize community. My experience of visits to Taize has had a huge impact on my journey and played a huge part in bringing me to the place I am today and turning me into the person I am, as well as the person I aspire to be. It would be an exaggeration to suggest I had 'met' Br Roger, but I think he's also the person in whose presence I have most tangibly felt, wow, yes, you are a saint, and what you have, I want some of that.

13) What is the accomplishment you are most proud of?

Most of the things which immediately sprung to mind were not my own accomplishments, but rather things my students have achieved: both children I have taught in the past and the adults I work with now. Often what they (and in some cases I) have put into their achievements has taken far more effort than my own accomplishments.

In terms of my own achievements or accomplishments, I could probably list things which others would say I could be proud of, but most, genuinely, aren't things I feel particularly proud of. In many cases they are things which I recognise are the result of the inherent privileges of my reality. Not to say I haven't played my part: in the work I have put into things and into the choices I have made, but ultimately, it is by an accident of birth that I have had the freedom and privilege to make the decisions which have lead to many of my 'accomplishments'.

14) What would you like to stop worrying about?

We first established that this was not a case of being able to bring to an end things we worry about, but rather being able to stop worrying about something even without being able to bring it to an end. And I can't really think of anything. The things I worry about, generally, I want to worry about. A bit like the Greta Thunberg quote "I don't want your hope, I want you to panic, and then I want you to act" I don't want to become unconcerned about the issues that frustrate and worry me: climate change, poverty and inequality, the hostile environment, the arms trade and global conflict ... Yes, I occasionally have sleepless nights, though possible not as often as I should given the state of the world, but in general I think my worries are kept in balance by the sources of hope which surround me too.

15) What is your most cherished childhood memory?

I struggled with this one too: I couldn't really think of one,single obvious stand-out moment. Many of my happy memories aren't stand-out moments but gentle and in some ways unmemorable ones: I have many happy memories from summer holiday trips to Weymouth for instance, where my grandparents lived, but as we went every year and the format was more-or-less always the same: playing on the beach, Monday evening fireworks, picnics, clambering on the rocks, fish and chips ... I don't know if that counts as they all roll into one. Likewise memories of moments at home or at school or in other contexts: these things aren't perhaps 'significant' in themselves but maybe I do cherish the fact that I have lots to look back on that was very positive and warm.

To be continued ...

Friday, 26 April 2019

Evidence of the mystery

Last Friday afternoon, after close to 120 miles walking towards Walsingham, I had the chance to stop just before our arrival, and share something with those I had walked alongside. I knew roughly what I wanted to say, but inevitably hadn't fully thought it out. Actually, I think it was less incoherent than I had feared it might be, and this is my attempt to write down, more or less what I said, or maybe what I meant to say.

Earlier in the week someone else had spoken about how Student Cross can be a week away from the rest of our lives: immersed in the community that surrounds us, it can be a chance to switch off and unwind, be that from our own life or world affairs or the insidious presence of social media.I have often said the same: caught up in the bubble it has been a place to forget the stresses and situations which invade my brain the rest of the year. This year I would probably have had even more reason for that to be the case, with the organisational responsibilities of trying to ensure things happened more or less as they were supposed to. In fact it was less true for me this year than it sometimes has been: undoubtedly, I did get wrapped up in the moment, but nonetheless other aspects of life intruded too: stories I still wanted to follow, people I felt I needed to contact, lives and realities I didn't want to or wasn't able to let go of.

Many of those stories come from my work, from those refugees and asylum seekers whose lives I am privileged to share.

In another earlier reflection, someone else had spoken about how we sometimes desire to try and explain what we are doing, and about the impossibility of doing so. The fact that this whole act of pilgrimage, of what we do during Holy Week is in some ways an inexplicable mystery that cannot be tied down with words, is something I agree with whole-heartedly. While it is something I have written about, and spoken about, at length, part of me knows it is something that can be only understood through lived experience.

Which led me to thinking, or confirmed me in my thinking, that the same is true, not just of Student Cross, but of the whole mystery of faith. Faith can be lived, it can be experienced, it can be shared, but it can never really be explained. By definition,that's what makes it faith, if it could be explained and justified, it would simply be fact. Even as a great lover of words, I know there are concepts and experiences where words fail. Faith is one of them.

This is not something new. It is something I have long believed to be true. But I think one of the reasons this struck me so forcefully when it was mentioned earlier in the week is because one of the things I have spent some time doing recently is sharing with those who have been told exactly the opposite: that they must be able to explain and justify their Christian faith; and that a home office official, or possibly a judge will then get to decide, based on their own evidence and that of those who are witnesses to their lives, whether or not their faith is "genuine".

So for the last few weeks I have spent a fair amount thinking about this idea, in relation to my own faith, of justifying myself in a court of law and what that would mean. I realise it is a privilege of birth that this is something I will almost certainly only have to do for the interest of doing it, rather than for real, with all the strain and stress that would entail, and this is in no means intended to belittle those for whom this is their real lived experience.

But given my belief that faith is something mysterious, inexplicable and deeply, deeply, personal: how would I stand in a court and justify myself? What evidence would I present to prove that I am, in fact, a "genuine" Christian? Who would I call on to stand as witnesses to my faith, and what would they be able to say? If faith is a mystery which cannot be explained in words,which of my actions, which of my ways of living my life would 'count' as proof that my faith is real? Would there be sufficient evidence, in the person I am, to convince a judge, or a home office official embedded within the hostile environment and seeking for reasons to refuse, that my faith is genuine?

I don't have an answer to any of these questions. I don't know whether I could prove my faith nor how I would do so; but as our pilgrimage drew to a close, as we got to the end of a very visible act of faith, as we return to the lives we live most of the time, I wanted to leave myself, and perhaps everyone else, with that question: how do we, in the midst of the world, stand as recognisable witnesses to the mystery of our faith? I left it with them, I continue to struggle with it myself, and now I leave it with you too.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Feed my sheep


John 21 has long been one of my favourite gospel passages, and it has lost nothing of its beauty for its familiarity. In the midst of a deeply human scene, a shared breakfast on a beach at sunrise, it none the less expresses something of the mystery of God: this depth of love that even after utter abandonment and searing pain, allows the miracle of forgiveness. Forgiveness, and the trust to say even though you screwed up big time, I still want you to be part of this story.

As with everything in John's gospel, there is deep symbolism in the story, much of which, undoubtedly, I haven't fully understood.

At some point, probably a good few years ago now, I remember it being pointed out to me that the word for fish used here is a word "little fish" used only twice in the gospel: the previous time being at the feeding of the five thousand. There, the boy, humanity, brings the two small fish and Jesus multiplies them to provide enough for everyone to eat their fill. God can do nothing without humanity playing its part, but it is Jesus who works the creative miracle. Here, after the resurrection, the roles are reversed. Jesus brings the two small fish, but it is the disciples, humanity, who are asked to "throw the nets" and bring in a huge haul of fish; to take what is given by God and to work creative miracles of our own.

It seems unlikely that this choice of word, this drawing a parallel between these two stories, is mere coincidence: John doesn't work with coincidences he works with symbolic imagery. Perhaps this, then, is the essence of the resurrection message: just as Jesus during his earthly life stretched wide the boundaries of who was included at the table, who could share the feast, and demonstrated that there was plenty to go round for all those who chose to sit and eat; so we, as witnesses of the resurrection, are called to do the same: to push back the boundaries, to offer unbounded hospitality, to fish in a way that ensures everyone can eat.

Happy Easter!

Monday, 25 March 2019

Answers (2)

For context, you might want to see this blog post, to which this is the follow up.

6) What's the one thing that bothers you most about the world today?

This one was tricky because, oh so many things: the list of things which frustrate me, sadden me and anger me about the world we seem to have created / be creating, is a long one ... In the end, my answer boiled down to something I have written about quite a lot recently: it bothers me,intensely, that so much of our culture, so many of our decisions, seem to be made on the basis of fear rather than of love: that it seems to me is the root of so many of the other issues that seem to be tearing the fabric of our world apart.

7) If you died tomorrow what would you wish you had done?

I guess I would wish I had spent my final day sharing something with all those I love: not just scrolling through facebook to pretend I am up to date with what they are doing! Whenever the time comes, I guess there will be all the people who I care about, who I have all sorts of good intentions about keeping in touch with better but somehow don't: they will be the people who I wish I'd seen one more time, called up one more time, affirmed, laughed with, loved. I know I'm richly blessed to love and be loved by so many people: I hope they know that they matter to me, even if I don't always say so! 

8) If you could be given the date of your death, would you want to know?

This was a question which, round our dinner table with a few different folks, definitely divided opinion. For myself, it was a definite no: I guess I want to live my life to the full irrespective of how long it will last; I want, whenever I die, to have as few regrets as possible and feel I have made the most of my time; but knowing the exact date feels like it would just be such a pressure that it might lead to paralysis and in fact fitting in far less.

9) If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

My initial gut reaction answer was, well, Birmingham; and while I reflected on it at intervals through the week, in the end, I came back to the same answer: tempted though I was by suggestions of sea and sunshine. Birmingham is a place I feel rooted, a place I have come to love as 'home' and while it might well not be somewhere I stay forever, given the option tomorrow, I'd stay exactly where I am: because despite Birmingham's flaws, of which there are undoubtedly many, despite the frequent grey skies, despite all of that, it is a place where I am encircled by a community, or more accurately communities of people who matter, and that is a very good reason to live right here.

10) If you could explore the oceans, travel to outer space, or visit 50 different countries which would you choose and why?

On an immediate, superficial level, I think both exploring the oceans and travelling to outer space would yield much of interest: I can still remember my awe and wonder when I had the chance to see space through a telescope when I was at university, and the beauty of snorkeling in the Philippines. But ultimately I would certainly opt for the countries one: because for me visiting places is never, really, about the landscape: travelling to different countries would give me the chance to discover cultures, and to meet people, and that would win, every single time!

More to follow ...

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