Monday, 9 December 2019

Praying ... together

Of all the aspects which make up our life here, the prayer is the foundation around which everything else revolves. I genuinely believe that without it, it is not just the routine of the day which would change, but the whole of life, what I am involved in and capable of, which would look very, very different. Despite its centrality, it is something not easily defined. I believe there is an inherent value to the routine of prayer, without necessarily being able to articulate why.

From the beginning of our time here in Birmingham, it has always been important to us that the routine of prayer is consistent, and that the times of prayer are open and public. Often we pray alone, but we pray always with the possibility that may not be the case. There have been many, many challenges and barriers (in some cases literal ones) to ensuring this. There are struggles and frustrations. There are times when it seems almost impossible to continue.

And then, one morning or one evening, someone hesitates at the door. They ask tentatively about the prayer. They come in and join us.

Sometimes, they say little or nothing about the experience. Sometimes, they find a way to express very simply that it was what they needed, right then, in that moment.

We may or may not see them again.

In the midst of what can be a challenging environment in which to pray; these are the necessary reminders that perhaps we are doing something right.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

NaNoWriMo

This is partly a post justifying why I haven't written a blog post for a while (which even if you noticed, you probably didn't mind!) but also a bit of a reflection of the writing-shaped-thing that took over the last month instead.

Several years ago I registered on the NaNoWriMo website. This year, for the first time, I actually attempted to complete this crazy challenge which consists of writing a novel (albeit a short one) in just one month.

The idea that I could possibly do this: to write 50,000 words in thirty days, without really giving up anything else or creating additional space in my already overloaded schedule was, frankly, bonkers.

Perhaps needless to say, I didn't manage it.

But, that said, I did commit to writing something, at least, every single day, for thirty days. Which I managed to stick to. In total, in November, I wrote 28,512 words. Which is quite a few.

By any normal standards, that feels like a phenomenal achievement.

So it is an interesting dynamic to still feel somewhat disappointed that I didn't "win" and write the full 50,000 words despite every little bit of my rational brain telling me that it really doesn't matter. I knew by about half way through the month I definitely wasn't going to hit the total. I tried to let go of the pressure of the word count and just enjoy the achievement of writing as much as I did. Mostly, I succeeded, but not entirely.

But if the word count was a pressure and a source of mild frustration or disappointment, it was also a motivation. I have often thought about wanting to do more creative writing, but the NaNoWriMo challenge encouraged me to make it a priority and, mostly, I genuinely enjoyed it. It will be interesting to see whether I manage to carve out time to continue.

A lot of it, unsurprisingly, isn't particularly good. Some of it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. There are plenty of badly written bits that don't scan and inconsistencies and general things that good writing doesn't have. But, in between, there are some bits that I think are perhaps reasonably well written. With a lot of editing some of it might, even, at some point, be something I'd be ready to share. No promises.

So yes, that was November.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Musings on care for the climate

My rational brain tells me that, of all the issues which currently confront us, and let's be honest,the list is quite long, climate change is the most significant. It is both the biggest threat, in that it bears the potential for the total destruction of life as we know it; and the most imminent, in that if we don't do something soon, it will probably be too late to do anything at all. That being the case, I know there is an urgency to this issue which surpasses that of other concerns.

At events and in discussions relating to climate change, that is what I will say: that this is an emergency on which I feel compelled to act. And it is, and I do. I am trying to reflect (with varying degrees of success) on at least some lifestyle choices which will have a positive impact on reducing my carbon footprint. I played a (tiny) part in the Extinction Rebellion protests in London. I marched for the climate with the school strikers and will probably do so again.

And yet ... while this is rationally true, I have to confess it is not the issue about which I feel the most passionate. What ever my brain tells me, somewhere deep in my gut this is not the issue which most stirs my emotions; it is not the issue about which I get most angry, fearful or sad.

I guess one of the things I am trying to figure out is both why not, and whether that is ok.

While my head tells me that all my campaigning energy should be directed to fighting climate change, my heart insists that it is the prevalence of global conflict exacerbated by the global arms trade; the insidious rise of ever-greater financial inequalities; and the creeping, gradual acceptance of destructive, divisive, racist political ideologies which demand my attention.

I know, ultimately, that all of these things matter and that all are interrelated in complicated ways. I know that no social justice issue can be fought in isolation and I guess I will continue to struggle with knowing I can't do it all, and with assessing and evaluating where my energy is best directed. I suspect it will be a lifelong struggle. I think I am prepared to keep struggling.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Take off your shoes

"Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground"
(Exodus 3:5)

This summer (and early autumn) has involved lots of 'taking off your sandals'.

There have been no burning bushes. On the contrary, my 'take of your sandals' moments have generally involved some kind of stream (or the sea, or a waterfall, or a water feature). There is something deeply attractive about water in the sunshine to which my inner child is irresistibly drawn!

 Unlike Moses' experience, my 'take off your sandals' moments have not been when I have been alone in the wilderness, at a distance from my community; rather they have been moments of laughter and friendship, with lots of different people.

I guess there are a fair few other differences between my experience and Moses' too ... aside from the obvious few thousand years and contrasting geographical locations. Not least that Moses was a member of an oppressed people, into whose experience of slavery and oppression a liberating God spoke a promise of freedom: I meanwhile am acutely aware of my position of privilege. I know I have a wonderful life, one for which I am sincerely grateful.

I believe there is something inherently beautiful about the sight and sound of water: be it a gently tumbling stream, or the crashing power of north sea waves. There is something beautiful too about shared moments of joy with those who one loves and by whom one feels loved.

There have been no burning bushes this summer but there has certainly been Holy Ground.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Answers (6)

After a summer interlude, so it continues ...

25) What's one thing I'd like to do more of and why? How can I make it happen?

I'm allowed two, right? I have recently (although not so recently that I should have made as little progress as I have) started learning Arabic. Having decided to do so at all, I guess I'd like to make the time to put a bit more time and effort into it. I have no illusions, language learning, especially of one so different to my own, is really hard, so I'm not, at least at the moment, aiming for fluency, but the capacity for some basic conversation would be nice!

The other is that I would love to write more, particularly to continue developing my creative writing. I have been inspired (or more accurately re-inspired), recently about the power of story and poetry and would like to explore that further. I know that kind of thing takes not only time, but mental energy and I'd like to make more space for it. Apologies in advance for the potential increase in blog posts if this one actually happens ...

26) What are my personal gifts?

The thing that was most obvious in the discussion about this one is just how hard we all find it to celebrate our gifts: to talk about the things we believe we offer to the world. I know there is a fine line, and self-adulation isn't helpful either, (there is plenty of evidence in the political sphere of the damage that can be done by individuals having too high an opinion of themselves!) but it strikes me as also kind of sad that we are so uncomfortable with answering this question among friends. Of course we could all have identified gifts in each other, but there is something about sharing our own gifts, the things we believe to be of value, the things we offer from the deepest part of ourselves, whether or not they are the first things others would identify.

So, after that unnecessarily extended preamble ... I think one of my personal gifts is an ability to approach situations and encounters with enthusiasm and passion and hopefully to communicate some of that to those around me and inspire them too. 

27) What is one thing I'd like to do less of and why? How can I make it happen?

I'd like to come up with something meaningful and profound for this ... but in reality, wasting time scrolling through social media is the main thing that springs to mind! How can I make it happen ... well a bit more self-discipline I guess! Removing the facebook app from my phone has made a difference, but I still log on to the web browser version more often than I should. 

I don't want to give up on social media altogether: I get much of my news from twitter (not necessarily a good idea, I am aware of the echo chamber effect, but it brings me into contact with lots of interesting articles, some of which at least I skim read, others of which I am at least glad to have seen the headline) and I keep in something approaching contact with many friends through scrolling past the highlights of their lives which they choose to share on facebook; and while I know its not a great way to sustain relationships it is potentially better than nothing (I know there are others who would disagree) But I'm not sure I have yet struck the healthy balance I would like to achieve. So I'll keep working on it!

28) If you could tell your younger self one thing right now, what would it be?

I guess this depends, among other things, on just how much younger. 

I think the me who was probably in most need of advice from my older self would be the teenage me, and I guess I'd advise myself not to worry so much about whether you fit in or not: to be myself without worrying too much about trying to get it "right" by the standards of your peers or societal expectations: because if its all a bit of an act, it probably won't work anyway and certainly won't make you happy ... And in the end, you will find people to love you just for being who you really are.

And probably, I'd have ignored my older self, and carried on, because that is just the nature of things, I suspect.

29) What are my most important dreams and desires? How can I make them happen?

I'd been thinking about this for a while and struggling to come up with an answer: and then it was sort of out of the blue, when I wasn't really thinking about this, that the answer I wanted to give came to me.

There are certain people I have met or known who make me feel better about myself or about the world; who enable me to go on into my day, into my life feeling happier, or more optimistic or that more is somehow possible. Some are people I know or have known well; others have been those with whom the encounters have been fleeting but important: their role in my life should not be underestimated. Each of them, in different ways, has helped me to journey forward with trust and hope and joy.  

That. My dream is that I might sometimes, at least a little, be able to be that for others. 

I looked back at the first of these 'answers'posts recently ... My answers seem to have become progressively longer and more convoluted (some of you may not be surprised!) Perhaps I'll try and get back to something a bit more snappy for the next one!

Saturday, 21 September 2019

#GlobalClimateStrike

Yesterday was the global strike for the climate and I knew I wanted to be there. To stand in solidarity with those who would gather here in this place, and in so many other places across the planet. I don't know whether any of this is going to make any difference. I worry that we are too wedded to our greed and privilege to really take the steps needed to avert the catastrophe. I still want to be able to believe that I tried.

Friday is a day I teach at the Sanctuary, though, so it didn't really feel appropriate to strike from teaching refugee kids for whom I am fighting for the right to an education! My plan was to teach my class, and then head down to join the Birmingham protest.

Until I realised that this was a youth-lead strike, and my students might have better reasons than most for understanding the issues and wanting a better future. So I wrote a risk assessment, filled bottles of water (reusable ones, obviously) and rapidly replanned my lesson, to spend the first half of it talking about climate change and the global climate strikes, and the second half joining the climate procession with my little class of teenagers and nearly teenagers.

They did need to be given some vocabulary to know what it was about. The word climate was new to most of them. The word protest, likewise.

But the concepts of both were deeply familiar.

Despite hesitant English they could speak about experiences of protest, both peaceful and violent. And while they might need me to supply the words, they didn't me to explain the impact of climate change: for them it is not some future possibility, but a current reality; summed up for me in this contribution to the conversation "My dad is a farmer in Sudan. There is not enough rain any more."

And so we set off. To play our part. To stand together with others who care.

For these kids, climate change is a matter of life and death in a very real sense. Taking part with them made it all the more meaningful for me. It was a privilege to march alongside them.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Stories of Hope and Home

In this post, I spoke of new adventures ahead, nebulous ideas which I hoped would start to take shape through the autumn. I guess this is the update that follows the "watch this space" with which that ended.

It is all very exciting, but I admit, also slightly daunting. It is an act of faith: and while the parts about believing it's an amazing idea and that it will be a great project are easy; it also requires me to believe that I can make it happen, and that's a different type of confidence which I mostly have, but which sometimes wavers.

The exciting part is that the project now exists. Well, it has a website, a twitter feed, and a facebook page, so it certainly exists in the virtual world; there is probably a little more work to be done for it to become real in the real world. Even there, though, it is slowly starting to take shape, and I am beginning to believe it will happen.

New beginnings involve plenty of dreaming dreams; but mixed in with reflecting on possibilities ahead, there are plenty of mundane realities to put into place too: opening a bank account, looking into public liability insurance (talking to insurance brokers is definitely the most grown-up thing I've ever done), risk assessing, applying for grants and even starting to think about the dreaded GDPR. It is a probably a good indication of how passionate I feel about this undertaking that even these administrative tasks haven't felt overly burdensome, and even things like receiving a debit card in the post has been tinged with excitement (which may be even more the case when the bank balance goes above £00.00).

I know that, for all my enthusiasm, there will be plenty of challenges ahead. The thing I am currently finding most difficult is the bit that involves working out what I am worth, financially speaking, although it comes with all sorts of overtones of how we experience value.

Budgeting probably isn't the greatest strength which I bring to this anyway; but I have had no problem working out costs and asking for money for bus tickets, for tea bags, for paper and printing, for all that stuff which will make running the project possible. What is proving much less comfortable is writing in payment for my time. I am not naive. I know projects like this don't run themselves, that potentially it will take a huge amount of time, energy and commitment to make it a reality. And while I know that I have many failings and things which are not my strengths which I will have to seriously work on, I do think I am the person who has the gifts and skills and perhaps more importantly the passion, to make it happen. I know all that, I think, but it still doesn't sit easily or comfortably to turn that into monetary value. It is perhaps hard to explain why, but writing my working hours into a grant application feels somehow different to applying for a job with an advertised pay scale. I know it needs to be done though, but it has made me reflect on how we place value on ourselves and on our work; perhaps that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.

There will, undoubtedly, be more updates to follow as I attempt to turn a vague idea into a concrete project.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

The sound of sheer silence (2)



He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings: 11 – 13)

Second bit of art (this was the first) in not very many weeks based on this text about Elijah on the mountainside waiting for God, who has promised to pass by. 

First came earthquake, wind and fire. Signs of power. The very same signs of power in which generations earlier, as Moses had stood in this same place, he had experienced and understood the presence of God. Fast forward to a different time, a different context, and here we have Elijah, another man of God, who did not experience God in these forces of nature. 

I guess Elijah would have known the Moses story. Maybe he went out on to the mountain with a tick box list of how God was going to appear based on the cultural assumptions passed down to him through story and scripture. Maybe there was disappointment as the earthquake, wind and fire seemed devoid of God's voice. Maybe there was temptation to define the experience differently from how it was, writing a script for God to follow because of how it was supposed to be. Maybe there was a wondering about the judgement others would make about whether he had experienced God 'properly' if it wasn't how it had been for one who went before.

I love this text for its promise that God speaks in a whispered voice of subtle gestures. But it is also beautiful for its reminder that our own experience of God doesn't have to be defined by how others have found Him / Her / It.

As he stood on the mountainside waiting, Elijah didn't attempt to twist his own experiences to fit a prior understanding of how God was supposed to be. He was able to recognise that, whatever may have been true for Moses, for him God was not in the earthquake, wind or fire. There is no suggestion that he denied the validity of Moses' experience of God in those signs of power, or questioned how another who had stood in this place had seen the face of God. But this was not to be his experience. 

He recognised God's absence from what was perhaps the expected experience ... But he also did not give up on the promise that God would be present to him too. He waited with an expectant openness, and the reward was an experience of the mystery of holiness. If there is a parallel in Moses' and Elijah's experiences, it is precisely this: that the presence of God is experienced in a willingness to wait for the unexpected. Perhaps, if there is a universal experience of God, it is that it will be unique and personal, but it will never be forced, so is dependent on being open to receive. God comes, in unexpected ways, to those who wait. 

It seems to me that Elijah's experience is a reminder that there is no need for us to try and measure our experience of God against somebody else's, or to try and replicate what they may have seen, felt or heard, however beautiful or powerful it may appear to have been. It also communicates that there is no conflict between acknowledging and respecting the authenticity of someone else's experience of God, whilst recognising that it is not one's own. 

Whether it is in approaching intercultural or interfaith relationships, or exploring new expressions of faith which do not sit comfortably with the culture of biblical times (or even the church of the 1950s), an expectant openness that each individual's experience of the divine will be unique and personal, and that different experiences are not necessarily contradictory feels like a healthy starting point for dialogue. Elijah's is a wisdom which it seems to me the world, and the church, would do well to heed. 

Sunday, 8 September 2019

The joys of summer

September has somehow arrived again, constituting, for me and the many others who still work in academic cycles, the new year. And, while I hope there will be at least a few more sunny days ahead, there is no doubt that the evenings are getting shorter and we are heading towards autumn. The summer, then, is drawing to a close, but it was certainly a lot of fun while it lasted!

Usually, we have been highly organised and had our summer plans fixed long in advance. For a variety of reasons, that was far less the case this year. Likewise we have often gone away for an extended trip (or sometimes trips), which again, wasn't on the agenda for this year. Partly, that's been about adapting to our shifting commitments, and to not having the luxury of school holidays at the moment.

But we did close down our community commitments for the best part of two months, and other activities took on a different shape and rhythm so there has certainly been a different feel to July and August. And while we may not have been for away for a major holiday, that has made space for lots of shorter trips and days out with lots of different people. If I was summing up the summer it would above all be this that stands out: that it has been a summer of fun and friendship, characterised by a whole lot of laughter shared with a whole lot of wonderful people. I am very grateful to the many friends who enrich my life: those who have added so much joy to the last couple of months, those with whom deep and important conversations have taken place, those whose love I know I can count on in so many ways!

The highlights have been many and various, but include:

Keeping a promise to walk part of the London loop with a very good friend

Four amazing days out with the families I support at St Chad's Sanctuary; shared with a total of over 100 children and 50 parents and from which I emerged exhausted but exhilirated.

A few relaxing days of beautiful surroundings and good conversations over leisurely meals in Lancaster and Kendal

Beautiful moments of friendship over cups of tea, glasses of wine, or chutney on the roof

The first hot, sunny greenbelt festival for quite some time, with plenty of space to reflect and be inspired

An evening of cricket at Edgbaston

A lovely summer activities week rounding off my time as ESOL co-ordinator.

Impromptu meals with friends and trips to the pub.

Walking in the Malvern Hills in the sunshine and a very rainy trip to Lichfield.

Celebrating results

An amazing road trip to Whitby, including such highlights as swimming in the sea at sunrise, more fish and chips than would be considered healthy, walks on the beach and clambering down to the plunge pool at Falling Fosse.

So that was the summer, and the good news is, the autumn is shaping up to be full of exciting adventures too!

Monday, 2 September 2019

Success

Significant though it is, I rarely write about the dynamics of having our now nearly seventeen year old Goddaughter living with us and sharing in our life. If she has scarcely been mentioned since since this post, it certainly isn't because her presence isn't a major part of my life, it is perhaps primarily because it is only partially my story to tell.

When we began to plan for this summer one date was fixed in our diaries before anything else: GCSE results day.

After the early part of the summer was dominated by revision (I have refreshed my memory on all sorts of topics I haven't thought about for a long time and am not overly sad that I probably won't be thinking about again anytime soon), followed by the stress of exams, an ordeal I frankly wouldn't wish on anyone (I suspect those who claim school is the best days of your life has probably blotted the majority of the experience from their memory); results day was the final stage in this particular part of a journey.

Today, the first day of sixth form college, is the first stage on the next part.

I don't really want this to be a post about GCSE results, because they are not the measure of a person. I hope no young person, ever, feels defined by a series of numbers, though too often I fear they do, enforced by months of messaging from an education system that has all too often forgotten its primary purpose.

This is not, then, about the results themselves, but there is no doubt that this summer is a staging post, a marker in the road, so an appropriate moment to reflect on something of what having a teenager in our lives has brought. The post is entitled 'success' not because she did well in her exams and got the results which will enable her to pursue what she wants to do next, but because I want it to in some way be a celebration of what success really looks like, a celebration of this amazing young woman who has brought so much to my life. I knew, long before that late-August date, that I consider the last two years of her life, a resounding success.

Uprooted, albeit by choice, from all that was familiar: family, friends, school, community. Plunged into a new, and lets face it not entirely conventional, life, with people she ultimately didn't really know. Thrown into an inner city Birmingham school environment which can't always have been easy to navigate. And that's before you get to the normal pressures of being a teenager: the usual toxic mix of academic pressure, social expectation and the marketing of an image of what perfection ought to be, all blended together with a strong dose of hormonal overload and adolescent angst.

None of this has been straightforward. And through all of it, she has not only survived, but thrived.

She has set herself ambitious targets and has worked extremely hard. She has given me some of the best gifts I have ever received. She has helped others with great generosity. She is great at looking after small people. She has built good friendships. She has said yes to new experiences. She makes excellent brownies and a very good malteser cheesecake (among other delicious things). She's a dab hand with an iron and transfer paper. She really thinks about stuff. She has learned to relate well to an enormous diversity of different people. She has massively grown in confidence.

She is, of course, not perfect. Her bedroom is rarely tidy. She is as susceptible as the rest of us to the temptations and trappings of the worst excesses of the world in which we live. But on balance all of the above and so much more is, I think, what constitutes success.

She is,little by little, turning into the person she is destined to be, and that is a very beautiful thing to observe and support.

And so the next stages of the journey await, with fresh beginning and new adventures. I look forward to sharing them with her.

Friday, 9 August 2019

The next adventure

I feel like this is a blog post title I have probably used before ... But it seems fitting once again, even if the 'next adventure(s)' to which it refers are not in this case some concrete plan but a collection of nebulous ideas, which may or may not find a way to leap from the world of my imagination into reality! Hopefully, somewhere, there will be a meeting point between passion and possibility in which something will take shape.

There have been lots of changes at St Chad's Sanctuary in recent months, and while change can be daunting it can also provide a healthy space for reflection and discernment. Healthy doesn't necessarily equate to comfortable or easy, of course, and the last months have certainly also had their challenges as I have struggled with the process of figuring out the 'what now?' There have been tears.

I realise I am in a very privileged position to have a huge amount of freedom to reflect on and seek to pursue my dreams. I have the support of good friends, and I am grateful to those who have journeyed with me through this process. In some mysterious way that I don't even pretend to entirely understand, I believe God has been an important part of the process too.

I have always loved teaching through poetry and story. It is a standing joke that if I cover a class at short notice, my go-to activities usually involve resorting to poetry. This year, perhaps more than ever before, I have seen the power of the story. Through the play "Home" and all that preceded and surrounded it, I have seen the power of individuals whose voices are not normally heard finding their voice, sharing their story and understanding that they have something to say that is well worth hearing.

I saw the impact it had on the students involved: on their confidence and character, on the way they interacted with each other and their world. Others too, who knew and met them, commented on the changes they saw in them. And I also saw the impact it had on those who encountered those stories, confidently shared, by real individuals. I saw the ways those telling their stories could reach out, and make people think and feel differently. I saw a way of sharing this space for human encounter which has changed and shaped me over recent years. I came to the end of that experience thinking, knowing, "we need more of this."

And so, for these reasons and others, after three years of much of my life being intricately intertwined with the life of St Chad's Sanctuary, I am branching out.

I am not moving on completely, and even if I were, St Chad's Sanctuary will always have an extremely special place in my heart. I will never be anything but grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me: for me, no less than for the asylum seekers and refugees it seeks to welcome, it has played a very important part in Birmingham becoming a place I call "Home".

The current incarnation of my plans for the autumn is that I will continue working at the Sanctuary, but only for a few hours a week, running the family learning activities. Many of my other activities and commitments will remain the same. And then, somewhere in the space that is created by stepping back from my ESOL co-ordinator role, I will try to get a project off the ground using story-telling, poetry and drama to help asylum seekers find their voice, share their stories and in so doing contribute to transforming the communities around them.

After much soul searching, I have emerged from a period of inner turmoil with a sense of peace. I am stepping out, again, in faith and hope.

I am not naive. I suspect the coming months will have many challenges. There will, undoubtedly, be times when I feel I have made some wrong decisions. I will need much grace.

When I came back to my previous post, it had been sitting, incomplete, in my drafts folder for over a year. Some parts were less apt than when I started it. But the essence: that I believe in vocation, in a sense of calling, not as a static reality but as a journey of discovery; remains as true now as it did then.

Onwards! The next adventure awaits. It remains to be seen exactly what said adventure may be. Watch this space ...

Friday, 2 August 2019

Vocation

I really believe in the idea of vocation: not as a defined or prescribed direction we have to find and follow, but as a gradual and continual seeking out of God's will for our lives. Contrary to how it is sometimes presented in certain sections of the church, I don't think there is a list of 'vocations' that some people have and others don't ... I believe we all have a vocation, or vocations. Vocation is, I think, about discovering those things which make us feel most fully alive. It is the meeting place where that which will use our talents, that which will bring us joy and satisfaction and that which will do good in the world around us come together in harmony. If we're really lucky, it is also something that pays the bills!

A number of years ago (way back in 2005, long before I was writing a blog!), during a workshop in Taize, I discovered my vocation to be a teacher. I had already been working as a teaching assistant for a few months, and was due to start another teaching assistant post in the autumn, but it was there, in the midst of a reflection about Caravaggio's call of Matthew, that I knew that teaching was the direction I wanted to go. It is the closest I have come to hearing the voice of God in a very immediate way and is a moment I have not forgotten. A copy of the picture hangs above my desk. Come that autumn, it felt like everything fell, very simply, into place. A year later I began teacher training, and another year on I began my first teaching job. I knew that this was what I wanted to do. When we moved to Birmingham and I was looking for work there was not even a blink of hesitation, I knew that I would teach.

It was this love of, this vocation for, teaching which first took me to the doors of St Chad's Sanctuary. I didn't approach the Sanctuary because of a passion for working with and supporting refugees and asylum seekers. It is hard to recall exactly, but I was, I suspect, deeply ignorant of the related issues. I went because someone had mentioned that they needed English teachers and I thought I could probably help.

3 years later, I was faced with a choice: the job at St Chad's Sanctuary would of course involve teaching: I wouldn't be giving that up entirely, but it was certainly a change of direction and of priorities. There was much soul-searching. Partly because I was giving up a stable job for one which was distinctly precarious, but also because it was moving away from teaching in the traditional sense. I think it has been clear from many, many posts here, that I have no regrets about the decision I made. I also don't think it changed the realities of my earlier discovery of my vocation to teach: I think it was simply a reminder that vocation, like so much else about the lives we lead, is a journey not a destination, and mine was now taking me down a different road.

I am coming to the end of my third year working at the Sanctuary, but in some ways my role is unrecognisable from how it began. This too has been not a static vocation but a journey of discovery and adventure. I am aware it has been a privilege to have had a huge amount of freedom to develop new ideas, to bring much of myself: my own passions and gifts (as well as my own failings) to this place that I love. I am aware it has been a privilege to allow my vocation to have been shaped by so many precious encounters and beautiful relationships.

Family learning didn't exist at all when I first started, and the growth of first the Learn and Play group for parents and pre-schoolers, and then the Little School project for newly arrived children waiting for school has been a source of great joy (and only occasional stress!). I looked at the statistics recently. We ran our first family trip in the summer of 2016, with 5 mums and 8 children. This summer, on our most recent trip out, we took 37 parents and 78 children ... and it was truly beautiful!

I have had all sorts of opportunities to try out different creative teaching strategies (not least in the creation of Home, the play which took over much of my life earlier this term). I have worked with groups of students to produce two wonderful newsletters celebrating their love of the Sanctuary. I have answered queries with varying degrees of success or ability to make a difference. I have listened to stories which have evoked the whole spectrum of human experience. I have visited all sorts of places in the company of some wonderful people. I have shared delicious food. I have watched friendships blossom. I have had opportunities to share something of what is so special about this place and these people with lots of others, and hopefully, story by human story, helped challenge and change perceptions. I have learned far, far more than I have taught.

Most of all perhaps, I have had the privilege of standing alongside some of the most courageous, resilient and hope-filled people I know in a place which has provided a safe space for tears, as well as lots and lots of laughter.

I have, undoubtedly, discovered much about the vocation(s) I feel called to live out.

There are new adventures ahead, shaped and informed by all of the above, but this post is already quite long enough so I think the story of the next steps will just have to wait!

Saturday, 27 July 2019

The sound of sheer silence


He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire 

a sound of sheer silence. 

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. 

(1 Kings: 11 – 13)

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!