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


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Making space to connect

We are now well into the Easter Season, but I want to look back and reflect on Lent. There are years when I have found a way to do Lent well. There are years when I haven't.

I think this time of fasting is important ... not because I see fasting as being valuable in its own right ... rather I think its value is found in creating the space to encounter God more fully, and having a time of the year set aside to at least attempt to do that feels important. There are years when a traditional form of fasting from food has helped me, and times when creating space for silence has been an important addition to our routine. This year I was looking for something different.

I encounter God in prayer, but I also encounter God in the encounter with others. I really believe in this "created in God's image" thing and that there is something of God in each of those we meet. This year I decided I would make space for God by making space for people.

I set myself the target of writing one card a day, to somebody. Real cards, written with a pen, with envelopes and stamps and everything! Sometimes for events or occasions but mostly just to say "hello, I am thinking of you today". 

It was a way of setting aside time to think about somebody, to stop and remember them, to maybe think about what part they had played or do play in my life, to wonder about what their life looks like right now, their joys and their struggles, the things I know and the things I don't. It proved a different way of engaging to snatched conversations, to a Christmas card written when I have neither the time nor the energy to really think about it, to scrolling past people's lives on social media ... It was a good thing to do.

I wasn't entirely successful. I didn't quite manage every single day but during the 46 days I wrote almost 40 cards which in the midst of everything else feels like a reasonable attempt.

And I know there is no chance I am going to keep up writing to someone every day: I'm not even going to pretend I'm going to try. But something in this discipline has been extremely valuable and maybe there's a chance I will make more time for continuing this than I would have done otherwise.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Holding on to the song (2)

During this year's Student Cross, I wrote this poem.
Like a lot of poetry, it is, I guess, designed as much to be heard as to be read, so here is the spoken word version (with thanks to Ahmed for the photos).


Thursday, 12 April 2018

And there was wine

During our Maundy Thursday liturgy at Carrs Lane we reflected on the different elements of the communion service and why they are important.

I was given "Why wine?" to speak about, and offered the following thoughts:

I am aware there is a huge amount of significance and symbolism in the different cups of wine drunk during the Passover celebration, and therefore at the Last Supper ... Symbolism I know to be deeply important in our understanding of how Jesus enters into, and then transforms his community’s experience of their ongoing journey with God. But I don’t really feel qualified really to explain it, nor did I, if I'm honest have time to do the necessary research ... so I decided I would speak about something else instead.

For me, when I think of wine in the New Testament there is, other than the Last Supper, one main story which comes to mind, and which also has, I think, something important to offer to our understanding of why wine might be an important symbol in our worship. (Well actually there are two: the other being the Good Samaritan, but I decided I didn’t have time to talk about that one as well) So I want to speak about the Wedding at Cana, that celebration at the very beginning of Jesus ministry where Jesus performs his first miracle. Interesting, first of all perhaps, that Jesus ministry (if you don't mind mixing your gospels which is always a bit of a risk) both begins and ends with the sharing of wine.

Weddings in first century Palestine didn’t have guest lists and seating plans. Anyone who considered themselves to be part of your community was invited.  So while it is possible, I guess, that the guests at this wedding were particularly heavy drinkers, it seems to me a more likely explanation is that this family had underestimated just how many people might count themselves as part of their circle.

When there are more people than you expect, you have to make a decision: to turn some of them away or to make what you have stretch. It is a question that is as alive for us today in our current cultural context as it was for the family hosting a wedding feast 2000 years ago. It plays a part in decisions we make as individuals, families, communities and as a country.

My understanding of Jesus’ action in this miracle is that it is not about telling a limited group of people that they can get as drunk as they like ... rather it is about calling us to push back the limits on who we count as “in”, of who belongs to our community. Jesus creates more wine, so that no one has to be turned away. He reminds us that even if all you have left is washing water, you can create a beautiful feast with the doors flung wide to all who want to come. He invites us to trust, and when those in the story dare to do so, a miracle is made possible.

When we drink wine together, it holds, I think, an inherent challenge to extend the boundaries of those we call our community. It is a call that says when you have more than you need, or even when you don’t: build a bigger table, not a higher fence.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

A People's Weapons Inspection

Yesterday morning involved a very early start to be here, outside the gates of the Roxel factory near Kidderminster. This "People's Weapons Inspection" set out to investigate the suspicion that propulsion technology for missiles built here, not so very far from where we live, will, in coming weeks and months, be used to power death and destruction in the deadly conflict in Yemen; where there are well documented reports of war crimes and the breaking of international humanitarian law.


Easter is the Season of Light. The Resurrection is about bringing into the light that which is hidden and about bringing light and life into places of darkness and death.

The energy of yesterday felt like a witness to both of those things: in the making visible of the turning of the wheels of war which is happening, hidden in plain sight, virtually on our doorstep; and in the beautiful creativity of people of good conscious offering time and energy to stand against the powers of darkness.

This is Easter. And this was exactly the right place to be.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Litany of Resistance

During Lent, as during Advent we have been holding a prayer and protest vigil outside HSBC for one hour each week. This time we have opened and closed the time there by praying together the "Litany of Resistance." You can read it in full here.

It is a very powerful prayer which speaks to and of a God who weeps with the suffering of the world, those who are still being crucified by systems and practices which promote death rather than life.

As we have repeated the words each week, one phrase more than any other has spoken to me:

"With the violence of apathy; we will not comply"

I guess it's the juxtaposition of two words which might seem at first glance to be incompatible which seared it in to my consciousness.

Apathy holds a sense of inactivity, of nothingness. And yet I guess this statement stands as a reminder of the fact that to do nothing is to side with the powerful; to choose not to engage is a privilege only the powerful have.

I can only ignore the devastating effects of climate change, the horrific implications of trading in weaponry for profit, the horrifying reality of the "hostile environment for migration", the desperate poverty created by the extraction of resources or imposition of complicated trading legislation, the anxiety and fear caused by cuts imposed by austerity,  because I am one of the privileged few.

I can only say I do not have the energy or the time to fight those battles because to not do so has only a limited, if any, impact on the life I can lead.

And so it stands as a call: not to stick a sticking plaster on a gaping wound, but to find ways to speak against a rhetoric of fear and exclusion and hatred of the other; to find ways to challenge systems and structures of destruction and death; to stand, as God does, with those being 'crucified' today and offer the hope of resurrection.

I find it a deeply beautiful phrase because it reminds us of the potential we have to make a difference. I find it a deeply challenging phrase because I know I have a very long way to go.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Holding on to the song

It is Holy Week, and often, right now, I would be walking with Student Cross. Other commitments mean that this year, I was able to walk the first weekend, and will go back for the very end, but in the interim I am back in Birmingham.

It shouldn't be too hard: I am back in a place I love, with people I care about and commitments I really believe in. But half my heart is walking across the fens this week. This poem: written in the raw space of leaving them behind, I guess tries to say something about why I have learned to love this transient community so much. See you soon Northern Leg.

Beneath a sky stretched out wide, the smiles burn bright
As here rooted, protected a soul dares take flight
So what might cast a shadow, only dapples the light
And the laughter still whispers by day and by night
Preserving uniqueness, we enter the throng
Each playing our part as we hold on to the song

Warmed by fragile spring sun, our hearts dare to thaw
As emotions run deep and emotions run raw
In the hope of the healing of all that is sore
There’s space for the trusting of being unsure
And as we stand by another to journey along
Sometimes it’s our turn to hold on to the song

And though there are tears and exhaustion and pain
A buffeting of wind and a battering of rain
Though there’s something to lose there is much more to gain
And ever and onward is the murmured refrain
And as each of us learn we can’t always be strong
We know there’ll be someone holding on to the song

Where once lines seemed clear, the boundaries are blurred
Creating loving community in action and word
And even the silences strain to be heard
As heart speaks to heart, the divine is inferred
When things seem all right and when things feel all wrong
Through this and through that we’ll hold on to the song

Amidst the intricate beauty of nature’s design
With the black knots of our darkness, the gold strands that dare shine
We’re walking a tapestry as our lives intertwine
And a small thread of your story becomes a small stitch in mine
Each bringing our own self finds a way to belong
Thus creating the harmony, thus holding the song

To ourselves, to another, a message to send
With yet space for the brokenness not ready to mend
We step out together: a stranger, a friend
For the point is the journey, and not journey’s end
And while the ground may seem hard and the road sometimes long,
Somehow together we’ll hold on to the song.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Another way to love

One of the biggest developments in our life this year is one about which I have scarcely written here. There are a whole variety of reasons for that: some relating to what feels sufficiently newsworthy to share, others relating to respecting another person's privacy.

Since May, our now-15-year-old Goddaughter has moved to live, during term times, with us here in Birmingham, and her arrival as a member of our 'family' has been hugely significant. While it may not be appropriate to detail every moment of our journey together, it does feel important to acknowledge and reflect on the impact of this latest adventure, and this is my space to do that.

Of course this change has had a significant impact on our day-to-day life and our responsibilities: sometimes doing things we otherwise wouldn't have, or not doing things we might; doing things together and adapting accordingly to what that looks like; accommodating another person's food preferences, parents' evening from a different side to the one I am used to seeing them and ...

More than any of that, though, I think I have learned / am learning a different way to love: different in ways I can't explain from the love I offer my husband, my family and friends, the students I care about ... Maybe this is something that every parent understands more fully than I ever will, and can explain more coherently too. But for me this unique experience of love is still new, and still hard to express. It is a love which, I think, stems from the wonderful privilege of being offered the chance in a very particular way to love someone just the way they are whilst at the same time journeying with them in shaping who they are destined to become.

I realise 15 is no easy place to be: I get that it is incredibly challenging to exist in this strange space between child and adulthood. While some of us (myself included at times) are perhaps mourning their lost youth, I have no doubt really I would rather be where I am now than in my own teenage angst-ridden skin. And this young person has taken on even more than most: leaving the familiarity of home and school for a whole other set of people and a whole new environment...and she has done so with great grace. I hope she always holds on to the character and quiet courage which have brought her this far, and that it carries her through whatever experiences the world throws at her.

I am not immune to fearing for how she will find her way in this complicated world we inhabit; or of my ability to watch her make mistakes and get hurt as she inevitably will. And it would be dishonest to suggest there are no minor irritations thrown in for good measure (as there are, undoubtedly, for her too!)

But I am continuously encouraged and amazed by her resilience, and proud in ways I didn't know I would be of who she is already and of the potential for who she will be in the future. In the midst of all that, she is simply good company and I am delighted to have the chance to share in the fun and laughter she brings.

I guess, then, perhaps, this post is above all my tribute: to an astonishing young woman, who I love, very deeply, in a way that is unique to her: something she may or may not ever realise. My hope for my own part in this story is that I can in whatever small ways help her, as she continues to grow, to truly know how precious she is and to understand her own inherent value and worth.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

And relax...

Last week was half-term in Birmingham and we took advantage of the week off to leave the city centre behind and head to Ludlow. Notable in particular was the quietness: goodness knows what damage we are doing to our ears by living in the midst of a constant buzz of noise we have come to barely notice except by its absence.

One of the realities of our life here is that we live, to a certain extent, in our workplace: in a place which, for all the beauty and opportunity, carries within it a certain inherent level of stress as well. Being embedded at the very heart of the city is an important part of our life and has shaped what our community tries to be; but we have learned, too, that, perhaps because that is true; getting away, physically removing ourselves to a different reality is important too.

We spent a very lazy week doing not very much: long lies-in, good books to read, a bit of a colouring in, a few short walks spotting signs of the coming spring, plenty of tasty treats, lots of time curled up in front of an open fire... It was bliss.

I'll admit, I am not always very good at relaxation ... I guess it always feels like there is so much to do! But I am learning to find ways to stop and switch off. I am, also, very slowly, learning not to feel guilty about taking time out.

We have a culture which values and judges on "productivity". It seems the most socially acceptable place to be is 'too busy' or on the edge of burn out. A lot of the things which drive us to keep on giving, to keep on doing, are good things which have inherent value in themselves: but perhaps we also, myself included, have an unhealthy machismo about feeling we don't have the option to stop. Step by step I am trying to learn that I can't do it all, nor do I have to. The world will keep on turning.

I have a whole lot still to learn, but last weeks lesson went very well.

Ludlow

Tomorrow, I'll be back at work. I know it is a privilege that, even if I am not especially looking forward to the early morning alarm call, I am genuinely happy about getting back to things: to restarting the routine of prayer, and then to to catching up with colleagues and with my students, to getting my teeth back into projects old and new, to being part of something I really believe in.

But I am learning that it's ok to switch off sometimes and that relaxation has to be part of the rhythm too.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Reimagined

The Lord's prayer has been prayed throughout the whole of Christian history. I'm not about to suggest a rewrite (which almost certain qualifies as heresy) but during one of the #pray24brum hours last month one of the prayer stations invited us to 'personalise it' ... as I saw it, this was an "as well", not an "instead" activity: and these are the results of my reflections on what this age-old prayer says to me, or what I want it to say to the God I believe in.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name

God our father, mother, brother, sister, friend
Who is present in the substance and the spaces, from all time, for all time
The word incarnate who enables all creation to be holy

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven

Help us to build a world that reflects a vision of your kingdom, a kingdom of peace, justice and joy where all are made welcome, a foretaste of the promised land into which you invite us.

Give us this day our daily bread

Give to each of us enough, but to none of us too much; all that we need but not all that we think we want

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

Help us to truly know the forgiveness you offer freely but not cheaply; and through the experience of that unconditional love enable us to forgive our friends, our enemies and even ourselves.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Pulled and pressured by the desires of our society, keep our ears tuned to your whispered voice of love which reminds us that what we are is what we are meant to be
Draw us closer to the promise of the victory of love over hate, of goodness over evil

For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory, for ever and ever

For we are but stewards of a creation which belongs to you, and we trust to the power of your spirit the ability to live as witnesses to that glory.

Amen.