Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Innkeeper's Song

I am sure that the inn keeper of the Christmas story felt he had very good reasons for saying to this tired, dishevelled couple that there was no room at the inn. I am sure of it, because they are all the same reasons we are all still giving to those who are still knocking on the door.

It pains me deeply that too often today the Marys and Josephs of our world still find the doors firmly closed against them, offered at best a stable, at worst a starry sky or a ticket home. It saddens me that locked doors, security gates, border walls, complicated processes and procedures which are designed to keep 'the other' away are an increasingly integral part of the society we are creating. 

It challenges me deeply to know that I too, too often close the door behind the strangers I will never learn to call friends, as I sadly turn away for want of knowing how else to respond. I too am implicated in decisions which leave others out in the cold.

But I am also privileged to be inspired by some of those who, in lots of different ways, keep trying to open doors just a little bit wider and let just a little more light shine through, those who put their toes in the way so that they can't be slammed shut. And I am also privileged to be inspired by some of those who have, whatever the barriers in their way, crossed some of those lines, the visible and the invisible, and have done so with good humour and good grace. 

And so this year's Christmas poem is inspired by the story of an Inn Keeper who, in the end, did at least, open his stable door: 

When strangers came knocking at the door
These unknown folk from a foreign place
Life-worn and travel-weary, I hoped they’d pass on
Seeking elsewhere for a welcoming space.
From my post on the safe side of the door
I chose to say there’s no room
As I made the call to keep the other out
What crowds of thoughts and feelings loom.

I’d like to help them, I told myself
But there’s not enough here to share
I have my own needs to worry about first
Plus there are others inside who need my care.
And as they stood out in the cold and dark
I even told myself it was for their own good
They needed so much more than I could offer
So I withheld even that which I could

The fear I felt was real
Of these people who are not like me
In this our world of violent threat
Who knows what the dangers might be
And what if they bring all that anger and hurt
Of a life that has left them damaged and torn
But what if, what if, from this dark place
This child they bare is born

I can’t quite say what changed my mind
How a whispered voice of love broke through
But I knew as I dared to take this risk
The hope of God was born anew
For these unknown ones are still human
And their painful stories hold great grace
In that sliver of light through an open door
It was to God I offered a space.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Add to the Beauty

My painting, not my words (again). This time the words are the lyrics from a song I love: Add to the Beauty, by Sara Groves.

We come with beautiful secrets
We come with purposes written on our hearts, 
written on our souls
We come to every new morning
With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold

Redemption comes in strange place, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That's burning up inside

It comes in small inspirations
It brings redemption to life and work
To our lives and our work

It comes in loving community
It comes in helping a soul find it's worth

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That's burning up inside

This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful
This is grace, an invitation

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out our best

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That's burning up inside

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The other serenity prayer

(My painting, but not my words. I had assumed they were by that well-known prolific author, Anon, but actually they are by someone called Eleanor Brownn.)

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Beneath the autumn sunshine

On Fridays I have the privilege of teaching an amazing group of students from Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan.

Waking yesterday to bright sunshine and blue skies sparked the slightly crazy, last-minute idea to abandon existing plans (which may make it sound like I'm better prepared for my lessons than is often the case) and head out to the park instead.

The dreary grey outside the window this morning confirms it was a good call. The reactions of my students to being out in such a beautiful space, even more so.

Quite apart from a whole host of new vocabulary and expressions being learned, it generated opportunities for conversation and meaningful cultural exchange. Above all, perhaps, it provided the space and freedom to deepen friendships and to laugh together.

We ended the morning drinking tea while we each wrote "A Poem on a Post-It". This beautifully evocative poem (for which I can only take the credit for the final stanza) was the result.

The title of the poem, said with a smile by one student before she read her post-it poem to her peers, is, to me, an expression of their growing confidence as communicators. They laugh and call me an optimist for saying so, but my students are without doubt poets in their own right. They are able to beautifully express deep meaning in a language not their own.

Listen, and I will inspire you

As I explore places,
Confused and excited
Wondering about the meaning.
Chase the signs,
Looking for answers.

In the lake there are nice different things
I saw a duck swim and have two wings
I like the fountain with ripples for a feature
Near this is some evergreen and deciduous nature.

Green, brown mallard.
This fountain
Water ripples around
To make life nice

Water frequency
Harmony between swans' feathers and water's surface.
Sunshine reflects 
As diamonds on the surface.

A lake as the kingdom guarded by ducks and seagulls
There are lots of moorhens as the kings with crowns 
Settled on the lake like on their thrones.

We see many types of birds... 
Like us from our different countries.
After a while, lonely
It's nice to be in touch with them, so friendly
Try to keep your happiness
Maybe it will last

The frost was cold this morning and my thoughts were too full.
In the autumn open
I looked at the wiggle of the water and we paused for glitter gold reflection.
When we spoke about the word warm, 
I felt it.

Life is here and is going on despite all difficulties.
Ducks are swimming in their eternal house.
I am drowning in nature's beauties.

You can touch the soul of nature
Feel love and life.
You can feel life is going on: children, adults, pensioners,

Laughter sparkles in the sunlight
Hidden here among deep roots 
Is the freedom 
To breathe.

(Written by Group 5 at Cannon Hill Park, November 2017)

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Wearing white

In recent years I have always chosen to wear a white poppy in early November. On a good year, when it doesn't get destroyed by going through the washing machine, I am still wearing one by November 11th.

I wear a white poppy because it commemorates all the victims of war.

I know that those who wear a red poppy will have their own understanding of what it means to them, but the Royal British Legion who distribute them are very clear that it represents only British military deaths: no enemy combatants and no civilians. The failure to recognise those on the other side as equally victims of the systemic violence of war zones seems destined to continue a cycle of violent destruction. Whilst choosing not to remember the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire seems utterly absurd. As technology has advanced, warfare has become increasingly deadly, and it is most often civilians who have born the brunt: those who die, those who are injured, those who suffer as the result of destruction of infrastructure, and those who are displaced from their homes.

Wearing a white poppy is a way to mourn with and for all those who suffer as a result of armed conflict.

I also wear a white poppy because it carries with it an inherent commitment to challenge militarism and work for lasting peace.

In the total destruction of the western front, I can see how the survival of the apparently fragile poppies in the midst of a never-ending sea of mud and corpses served as a sign of hope: surrounded by destruction and death here was a bright glimmer of the possibility of new life. But while it may not always have been the case, the red poppy has, whether we like it or not, become a political symbol: it has become mixed up in questions of identity and patriotism; as well as with support for current military campaigns and the political ideology behind them.

Wearing a white poppy is a way to step outside any association with justifying ongoing military action and to commit to a search for peace.

It is only a symbol. But symbols are important. I will wear one again next year.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Reflecting on Communion (part 2)

As with my last one, this wasn't exactly written to be a blog post but hopefully it makes enough sense to be of interest to those who might be interested!

Reflections on Mark 14:12-26, the story of the Last Supper

The stories of the last supper are deeply familiar to many of us. Instead of looking here at the broad brushstrokes of the story: so familiar, so ingrained in our Christian tradition, I want to draw out and reflect on some of those little details which might just be more significant than they first appear and from them to raise some questions for us to consider together.

At the beginning of the gospel text we see Jesus sending off two disciples to prepare for the celebration of the Passover meal. Later in the passage he himself arrives it says, with the twelve, which suggests to me that these two forerunners were not among his closest friends but were others from his entourage. It makes it, I think, safe to assume, that the meal was shared with a wider community than just the twelve. It makes it, I think, important that we too think about how we invite those beyond our immediate friends to share our communion table.

Those two forerunners are sent to follow ‘a man carrying a water jug’ ... I don’t think they identified the right man by some kind of magic or mystery – a man carrying a water jug would have been an unusual sight in Jerusalem at that time. Water carrying was woman’s work. I don’t know what the significance of Jesus going to a home where a man was carrying water is, but I can’t help feeling there must be some meaning to this seemingly insignificant detail.

And so we come to the Passover meal, the Passover which is a family feast, but which Jesus celebrates in a borrowed room. Admittedly, we don’t know if this unnamed host was friend or stranger; but we do know that Jesus was not, in the traditional sense, the head of the household, the host; for all he takes on that role as the one who blesses and breaks the bread. I sometimes wonder whether the hosts themselves were present and if they were, what did they make of this turning around of the expectations, of this visitor placing himself in the father’s place?

As they eat together, Jesus speaks of the one who will betray him. He knows, too, undoubtedly, that the rest will abandon him and that for the last part of his journey he will tread a lonely road. But this, the one who will betray, and these, the ones who will not stay the course, are none the less invited not only to eat but “to dip bread into the bowl with me”. Do we too dare to invite those who we know will betray and abandon all that we stand for to serve and be served, to share the same meal from the same vessels?

And after bread there is wine. In the Passover meal wine is indeed drunk: four cups of it, each of which has a different symbolism. Blood, on the other hand, is very definitely not drunk, or indeed, in any way consumed. Quite the contrary: it is significant in the Passover story that the blood is poured out, daubed on door frames as a sign of God’s protection, but it is certainly not to be consumed: that is an important part of the whole Passover story. If, as is generally assumed, Jesus as well as taking the role of host, is taking upon himself the role of Passover lamb, the blood, surely, is the one part that should not be consumed, and yet these are his words “This is my blood of the covenant”: deeply powerful and, one can imagine, even offensive to his Jewish audience.  Deeply challenging, if we allow ourselves to really hear them from beyond the familiarity of ritual, even to us.

So what does it mean? Well, to be honest, I'm not sure I know. But perhaps it is the moment of a reuniting of the flesh and the blood of the lamb of the Passover story – the flesh which offered physical strength for the journey, the blood which offered God’s protection, brought into one in the person of Jesus. Or, perhaps it is that God’s protection: previously seen as an external reality from a distant “out there” sort of God is to be consumed and internalised in this new understanding of a now present “in here” sort of God. Perhaps it is something else, I suggest we should certainly think about it.

Whatever its symbolism, as Jesus drinks the wine at the meal table, he states that he will not drink of it again until “the day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” According to the gospel accounts, that next sip of wine, that ‘drinking it anew’ happens not after the resurrection in some glorious new reality but on the cross as he suffers and as he dies. Is this then where we find the kingdom of God? Not in some beautiful, imagined future where all is well, but in this messy reality of daring to carry the power of love to its absolute limits, in the making visible of the extreme depths of pain of truly unconditional love? 

I want to leave you with a final question: If this, the cross, is heaven and this is where we find it; if this is the end of the last supper, of the Passover feast, of the communion table: what now for how we commemorate it today? 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Reflecting on communion (part 1)

For quite some time, the church here has been planning a discussion about how we celebrate communion. Some of those who know me will know that this topic is one which lies close to my heart. I have had both deeply beautiful and deeply painful experiences of the celebration of communion. I have known it both as a wonderful expression of Christian love and as an unwelcome reminder of deep divisions.

Here, the conversation has finally begun, and I was given the opportunity in a service to offer some biblical reflections as we begin to reflect together about what we do and why we do it. Here, as in the service, I offer it in two parts, beginning with a reflection on Exodus 12, the story of the Passover. (This was written to be shared aloud in the context of a church service and I decided against any substantial rewriting so please bear that in mind if there are a few bits that don't quite scan as a blog post!)

*     *     *
I feel the need to begin with a confession: I am not a biblical scholar. Even if I were, there are 2000 years of debate and theological treatises around the topic of communion so anything I can say in the next few paragraphs could never be more than a very limited introduction. When it comes to thinking about the celebration of the Passover, there are another few thousand years of debate to add in to the mix. My intention then, is simply to share a few of my own thoughts on a theme about which I care very deeply and about which I have reflected at length, attempting to help us seek together the heart of God in our exploration of this theme.

While I want to reflect in more depth on the gospel text, the story of the last supper, I think context is hugely significant when we reflect on any biblical theme, and as such I don’t think we can begin to think about communion without first returning to the Passover. 

The Passover celebration was the context in which the disciples, the early church and Jesus himself would have understood what was happening at the Last Supper. As far as I understand it, in Jewish thought and tradition, the celebration of the Passover feast is not just a commemoration of a historical event but is a moment when, in a mysterious way, the God who exists outside of time allows his community to be present in two historical realities at once. At the last supper, Jesus and his disciples would have truly believed they were present to one another both in the upper room, and at the same time in Egypt being led out of slavery.

And so that context: the context of the Passover, which was so important to Jesus when he took bread and wine that evening, is therefore important to us too. It is context which is, I believe, very clear: the Passover is the moment at which God very concretely takes the side of the poor and the oppressed; the Passover is what makes possible the liberation from oppression. 

Admittedly, I’d probably question some of God’s methods on this one: I’m not sure that amount of death and destruction is ever the best solution to a problem, but for me that in no way undermines what this says about the character of God in relation to the weak and powerless, and it in no way undermines the reality of the Passover as a witness to that. For me, in fact, it is this which is the very essence of the whole story.

And if the weak, the powerless and the enslaved are at the heart of the Passover story: it behoves us to consider how we ensure the weak, powerless and enslaved are at the heart of our communion celebration too.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Seasonal Stories (1)

It may be a cultural stereotype, but it is true that there is, if you live in the UK, always plenty to be said (or written) about the weather! 

It was one of those days. Even now, at midday, the winter sun was struggling to make its presence felt through a thick blanket of monotonous grey. The dark mass was insufficiently distinguishable to merit the name clouds but didn’t quite justify being called fog either. It wasn’t raining as such, but the dampness in the air seeped through even the most waterproof of layers leaving him drenched without really knowing how. The bitter wind which whipped across his face stung a painful redness into his cheeks. It was one of those days ... and it perfectly matched his mood.

 *     *     *

There is nothing quite like a thunder storm on a summer evening. Most people hide inside when they see them coming: but she was not “most people”. And so it was that at the first crash, she ran outside, tipping back her face to catch the rain drops. She breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the scent of freshness. Smiling, she imagined the neighbours peering out from behind their floral curtains. She didn’t care. The sight, the sound, the smell, the touch, the taste of it: this, more than almost anything else, reminded her that she was still fully alive.

 *     *     *

When she stepped barefoot into it, the lawn was still wet with dew which sparkled and glistened beneath the rising sun; but the sky already held the promise of a balmy heat which would envelop the later part of the day. There was a near-silence at this hour, too, which would evaporate as quickly as the dew drops on the lush blades tickling her feet. Even the birds seemed to call to each other in more muted tones. She would be happy enough, later, to join in the garden’s endless social whirl. On balance, though, she preferred it like this.

 *     *     *

A blizzard had swirled constantly around their mountain home for the past three days making it impossible to so much as step out of the door. As soon as she woke this morning, though, she could sense something had changed. The air held a hushed stillness, pregnant with promise. She leaped out of bed, silently grateful to the inventor of under-floor heating, and ran to draw back the curtains. Through intricate frost patterns she gazed out at a magical Christmas card landscape. The sun had broken through the clouds at last, and the whole world sparkled and glittered beneath it. 

 *     *     *

Outside the window, the early morning frost sparkled on the bare branches. He would go out soon, making the most of these few precious hours of sunlight. Hanging low in the deep-blue sky, the autumn sun’s rays crept through the woodland canopy creating a dappled light beneath. Sheltered from the autumn rains, the rusty leaves here were brittle and offered a satisfying crunch beneath his feet. Later, he would curl up by an open fire with a slightly battered copy of a favourite book, hot buttered teacakes and a large mug of steaming tea. This was autumn at its best.

*     *     *
* If this post makes no sense, read this one for some context:

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Put Down the Sword

Last weekend, on Peace Sunday, I was offered the opportunity to reflect on an appropriate bible passage. I chose to say something about Matthew 26: 47-52, where Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, at the moment of his betrayal, tells his disciples to put down their swords. This is, more or less, what I said:

This text is one which means a lot to me: it inspired the title of one of the first books which introduced me to active non-violence and inspired the name of the group with whom I have pursued a path of creative peacemaking.

Together with its parallels in the other gospels, it is a text I find both immensely challenging and deeply beautiful because I think it deals with one of the biggest questions we face as people told we are “blessed” when we take up our role as “peacemakers”: the question to which every aspiring pacifist has to have an answer ready to roll off the tongue. The question that asks: peace is all very well in theory, but what does one do, in practice, in the face of great evil? How does one respond to Hitler, al-Assad, to Kim Jong Un? To terrorism or white supremecism or the oppression of empire?

What does one do in the face of the slaughter of the innocents?

For me it is this text which holds the key, the answer of how Jesus calls us to respond to our anger, our fear, and our pain.

When the betrayer comes to condemn innocence to death, Jesus greets him as “Friend”. This is loving your enemies in action. And make no mistake, these were the enemy. They are either a rather unsavoury vigilante mob, or they are the soldiers of an oppressive, militaristic occupying regime, or most probably a combination of both. Let’s not pretend this was somehow easier than the enemies we face today and therefore doesn’t really count.

So Jesus responds by greeting his betrayer as a friend. And his followers ... hmm, not so much. One of them, unnamed here, but according to John’s gospel it is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, draws his sword in defense of the innocent. This is ‘just war theory’ in action, which the majority of the church as well as the majority of society subscribes to. A theory that would have said yes, on this occasion, violence is justified to protect the innocent. Tonight, in the garden, force can be used. This is the culturally comfortable answer.

But it is not Jesus’ answer. The final commandment Jesus offers to his disciples before the passion is “Put down your sword.”

There is never, Jesus says, a just reason to use violence. This is never, he says, the right answer.

And it seems that this is the moment when his followers realise just how serious he is about this whole love your enemies thing: serious to a point where he’s going to get them all killed. And they run away. They run away because guess what, peace is not the easy way out, the soft option. There is a big difference between being passive, and choosing pacifism: and the latter can be a pretty scary place to tread.

Fortunately though, although this is Jesus final commandment to his disciples before his death, it is not by any means the end of the story. Jesus does offer an alternative to violence. He does offer another way out.

He offers the way of resurrection.

Jesus final act of non-violent resistance is to rise from the dead: to tell the empire powers of violence, darkness and death that they will not have the last word and to invite us to be part of a different story instead. The way of resurrection is to offer forgiveness instead of seeking retaliation, to peacefully resist the aggression of the status quo, to dare to love those we are advised to fear or to hate.

The poet Edna St Vincent Millay wrote “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death”. Peace is not some big out there thing beyond our control: it is every thought we nurture, word we speak, decision we make, every prayer we pray. Life and death choices are the bread and butter of our everyday decisions as those who try to follow Jesus. They are our personal pledges to do something, however small, in our own lives and in our interaction with the life of the world, that say we will try, today to put down our swords and to live as people of the resurrection.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


On a notepad somewhere I have scribbled the line:

"In Calais, looking at England's Sky"

They were the words of one of my students, and they were, I thought, going to inspire a poem. They have stayed with me for a number of months. There are a few hesitant ideas to go with them: something about our attempts to draw borders and claim ownership; something about skies scarred by barbed wire fences ...and something about the fact that no-one, really can own the sky.

For whatever reason, it has never come together into any coherent form. There's a good chance it never will.

This week, it may have had another line added to it:

"What happens when England's sky turns black?"

They are my words, my response to hearing from the same student that his case for asylum has been refused and he is likely to end up desperate and destitute.

They are my words from a place of helplessness to do anything about it.

I have the immense privilege of doing a job I love and to work with the most incredible people. I know it is a great blessing to sometimes, even often, feel like I can make a difference, in some small way, to people's lives and to allow them to make a difference to mine.

But it is also a part of reality to learn to manage and live with the fact that sometimes, I can't, actually, do much, or anything at all. Sometimes I think I do it well. Sometimes, I guess,  not so much. But this too is part of the beautiful, challenging life I lead.

Neither line may ever make it in to anything more coherent than this. I still wanted them to see the light of day.

Thursday, 21 September 2017


Last week governments, military officials and private companies from around the world (including from some of the world's most repressive regimes) were, by the invitation of our government, in London buying and selling weapons. 

This is, in my humble opinion, absolutely not OK.

The week before, hundreds of others were, not by explicit invitation of our government, in London trying to creatively and non-violently disrupt and witness against this hideous undertaking, the DSEi arms fair.

This is, in my humble opinion, absolutely more than just 'OK'.

I spent two days outside the ExCeL centre, adding my voice to those who wanted to stand up and be counted, to witness and to take action against this very visible manifestation of the evils of the arms trade. It was deeply encouraging that both the number of people and the variety of creative actions had definitely multiplied since the previous arms fair; making the whole week much more effective both in its capacity to disrupt the set-up of the arms fair, and in its ability to attract broader media attention and raise awareness of the evils of profiting from war and insecurity.

I am generally a fairly law-abiding citizen. At school I'd have been horrified of doing something that might get me in to trouble with the authorities (although my parents will attest that didn't necessarily extend to my home-life!) Even as a teacher, I was often (irrationally) slightly apprehensive if I was summoned to the head teacher's office. And yet two weeks ago I was honoured to be able to support people whose consciences told them they must put themselves at risk of arrest to obey the spirit of a higher law. 

That higher law is one which speaks of justice and peace and fullness of life. It is in direct contradiction to a system in which economic growth is dependent on the continuation or escalation of aggression and war, and in which death and destruction are being sold for profit. I deeply believe that the God who calls us to strive towards life in all its fullness, weeps in the face of bombs and border fences. I deeply believe the same God was there in the joined hands, the standing, the sitting, the lying down, the abseiling off bridges; in the prayers, the dancing, the laughter, the art, the songs and the silence, outside the arms fair earlier this month. 

The road outside the ExCeL centre was a very good place to be. It was a good place to be reminded that, when it is not confined by the rules of institutions and the walls of its buildings, the church is very definitely alive. It is diverse and it is united. It bubbles with energy and passion. It speaks a gospel which has something to offer to a world which needs it. It isn't always the case, but on the streets outside the ExCeL centre I was pleased to count myself as a member of it.

The DSEi Arms Fair takes place once every two years. If we haven't already stopped the arms trade by then (*ever the optimist), I warmly invite you to join me there in September 2019.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The year that was ...

For me, it is August, far more than December, which marks the year's end. A hiatus in the usual rhythm, it is a time when looking back over the preceding 12 months and ahead to the coming ones, makes sense.

I like to think I am quite good at 'living life to the full', but even by my own standards I seem to have squeezed quite a lot into 2016-17.  We have now been in Birmingham for four years, something of a record without moving house, city or country: but it certainly doesn't feel like life has come to a standstill.

At the beginning of September I launched into my new job at St Chad's Sanctuary. Although I knew the Sanctuary well from three years volunteering there, working there was always going to change the dynamics and the role itself was different from anything I had done before (not to mention leaving a secure, permanent contract for a frankly precarious position!) It is a role which has proved, as expected, to be both challenging and rewarding, both exhausting and enriching. I have learned much, laughed often, been humbled frequently, and cried occasionally. A year on, I have no regrets about the choice I made. I remain deeply conscious of the immense privilege of both loving, and passionately believing in, the work I do. I think I have been able to make a positive difference to others' lives. I know they have made a positive difference to mine.

The autumn's other major adventure was house buying and all that it entails: another steep learning curve. Being able to reflect on our role as stewards of our resources and to make use of them in a positive way felt like another positive step on the journey of life we are trying to live. The house was handed over to Hope Projects, and while it is a sad indictment on our society that it should be necessary, it feels right to be able to help in this way. The learning curve continued when the media got hold of the story, and while that part of the whole saga was stressful at times, overall I have no regrets about trying to get a positive message about asylum seekers into the media and to have the opportunity to challenge the failures of the system. In some ways accepting the praise and recognition we got was more challenging than brushing off the hateful comments. I know of many people who are doing much more significant things to make a difference to those around them; I know many others who lack the privileges and opportunities I have so often taken for granted so who don't have the same freedom to make the choices I have made. Buying the house and using it in this way was the right thing to do, but we continue to live a privileged life involing only minimal sacrifices.

Preparations for the Birmingham Taize meeting "Hidden Treasure" dominated much of the year, adding another layer to an already hectic schedule. The meeting finally came together over the May bank holiday and while I can't deny pulling it all together was stressful at times, during the weekend itself it all definitely felt worthwhile. 500 plus young adults from all over Europe came together in this city that I have grown to deeply love. Watching the local neighbourhoods respond to the challenge of hosting them, building relationships between churches and daring to open their doors to total strangers was truly beautiful. And so it came to be that we ate together, learned together, sang together, laughed together, prayed together, built community together.

Throughout the year, people came and went from the community flat, bringing with them all the joys and all the challenges of building and being community together. By the end of May, though, we had our latest, long term "community member" living with us. I use inverted commas because the latest resident is not officially a community member in the way others have been: our fourteen year old Goddaughter has moved in to share our life in term time while she attends school in Birmingham. Adjusting to life with a teenager will undoubtedly bring some changes to our life here (my taste in music has already been severely called into question ...), and she, perhaps even more so, will have to adapt to a whole new reality; but after much prayer and reflection it felt like exactly the right thing to do. Thus far, early days though it may be, all seems to be going well. Perhaps I should reassure those taking on God-parenting responsibilities that this perhaps isn't in the normal order of the role but overall this latest phase of our life feels more exciting than scary.

And that's just the really significant bits! In between we also travelled to Riga for what will likely be our last Taize new year meeting as we have now crossed the age threshold: I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to celebrate new year in such an amazing way, to explore many beautiful places and meet many wonderful people.

Inspired by Dutch tradition, we celebrated our twelve-and-a-half year wedding anniversary surrounded by family and friends: one of many opportunities to spend time with people we love and care about throughout the year. Walking Student Cross, a housemates reunion in Lancaster, Taize Sheffield, and a trip to West Yorkshire; as well as evenings in with friends, birthday parties, a funeral and a baptism all counting among the many other opportunities to love and feel loved.

The Birmingham 24 hours of prayer for the week of prayer for Christian Unity happened for the third consecutive year in a different church, with plans well on the way for next year's event. We also went to Reading to support friends on trial for their blockade of the Burghfield nuclear base last summer ahead of the parliamentary vote on renewing trident (their guilty verdict for obstructing the highway was subsequently overturned) and are now busy preparing for the No Faith in War day outside one of the world's biggest arms fairs due to be held in London in September.

We even fitted in painting the living room! Plus all the regular commitments of of course, not least the routine of prayer which is so much part of life it barely gets a mention and yet remains the source and summit of all the rest.

And so the adventure continues, watch this space!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Through a doorway (2)

The sweet scent of the flower meadow was already drifting through the open window when she was woken by the shaft of sunlight gliding through the gap in the dainty curtains. Barely a moment later, she was flinging wide the double doors and breathing in the fresh spring air. After the harsh grime of London, it was like a doorway to another world. Her ears, accustomed only to the constant buzz and roar of the city, tuned into the twittering dawn chorus. Stepping out, she skipped in unshod feet into the long grass and knew she would be happy here.

*        *        *

As he pulled the door closed behind him, for what he fully expected to be the final time, he wondered if he would miss this place. He found it hard to imagine he would ever be nostalgic for its dusty rooms or yearn for its echoey halls. He had spent most of his formative years here, but they had scarcely been joyful ones. And so he picked up the suitcase at his feet and walked away, without so much as a backward glance at the door which had held so much promise when he had first set eyes on it.

*        *        *

The door slammed shut with a force that made every corner of the tiny cell reverberate but she remained motionless. She stayed curled in on herself, pressed up against the furthest corner of the room. Further away she heard other doors open and slam and, from the midst of her terror, she wondered about who those other women might be. Did they too suffer aching nightmares of guilt and regret. This was not the golden dream that had been painted before she left her home and all her known world behind. This was not how it was meant to be.

*        *        *

There was always something exciting about the sound of the guard making his way along the train: past the hustle and bustle on the platform and the faces pressed up against the sooty glass (an action regretted later when they had to be scrubbed clean). This day had been long-awaited: dates studiously ticked-off on the kitchen calendar, bags packed and repacked to make space for crucial forgotten items, picnic lunches meticulously prepared. But for me, it was always this, the sound of the slamming of so many carriage doors, more than anything else, which signified the holidays had really begun.

*        *        *

The instructor’s voice echoed inside his head as he positioned himself in the open doorway, arching his body to meet the wind. Despite the thorough training, nothing had really prepared him for the sheer terror of looking down into the void beneath. Fingers clutching the metal, for an instant he wondered whether he could really go through with this. And then, almost without realising how it had happened, he was free-falling through the bright blue sky. Nothing had really prepared him for the sense of total exhilaration either. This, he decided, was what it felt like to be truly free.

*        *        *

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Through a doorway (1)

She leant her full weight, such as it was, against the solid oak door, wondering if sheer willpower would be enough to shift it but despite a promising creaking sound, it remained resolutely closed. She scanned the rough wood for clues, running her fingers around the edges but picked up nothing but painful splinters. Turning her back to the unyielding door, she sank to the ground, laying her aching head on her knees. Completely drained, she lacked the energy even to cry. It seemed she had reached the end of the road and there was nowhere else left to go.

*        *        *

Whatever worries the real world held, he knew that as the sun dipped beneath the horizon, he need only bend his head down low and slip through the tiny door hidden beneath the yew tree hedge to disappear into a magical world of fairies and friendship. Here the twilight hours belonged to him, and here in this ephemeral dream world nothing could harm him. Here the world glitters and sparkles under a shimmering layer of elfish dust wrapping up the promise of happiness. Until, that is, a deep, velvety darkness falls and the dream fades into the oblivion of sleep.

*        *        *

The door, ajar when she arrived, slid silently open as she nudged it with the tip of her toes. She stepped inside, drawing it to a close behind her. Finding herself in a wide entrance hall, leading to a richly carpeted staircase, she seemed to have stepped into one of the story books she and her sister had poured over when they were children. She took a couple of tentative steps forward, her footsteps echoing on the marble floor. As she wondered how to draw attention to her presence, she heard a door bang and hurrying footsteps heading towards her.

*        *        *

This was a long awaited moment. She had known, of course, that there would be both deep grief and overwhelming joy in this reunion with the only place she had ever really called home. Nonetheless the sheer physicality of the barrage of emotions that bombarded her as she slowly turned the key and pushed open the front door shocked her. She rested on the threshold for a moment, hands clasping both sides of the once brightly painted now rough and peeling doorframe; before daring to step into a place that for all her years of absence remained intimately, unerringly familiar.

*        *        *

Up until now, it had all seemed so simple. A path laid out before him leading steadily onwards to an unknown but much longed-for destination. Doors had appeared, and doors had opened. This time it was different: ahead, a dead-end, but doors to both his left and his right. Each different, certainly, but nothing which marked one in particular as being right or wrong. A seemingly impossible decision. It was then that he seemed to hear a warm, loving voice whisper, ‘you are free, walk on through the door of your choice and know that I will go with you’.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

A story project

And now for something completely different ...

This is the first of hopefully a number of blogposts inspired initially by a book I picked up called 365. It's a collection of stories, one written every day for a year, each exactly 365 words long. It occurred to me to try and do something similar but I know myself well enough to know there is no way on this earth I would keep that up. So then I wondered about trying to write 100 100word "stories" (not necessarily in 100 days ... there's no point setting myself up for that kind of failure before I even begin!) 

I've written quite a bit of poetry (although not very much recently) but while I've long fancied the idea of trying my hand at story writing it has never actually happened. I looked up the idea of 'national novel writing month' but I know my life is WAY too busy to contemplate writing a novel (ever, let alone in a month!) but 100 words, that should be doable, no? 

It was an idea that had been floating around my head with no concrete outcome for a little while until I led one of the drop-in classes at St Chad's Sanctuary and we talked about doors: we described doors and then told stories about what might happen when you stepped through them. That was the second dose of inspiration I needed to put pen to paper (cursor to screen) and I now have a collection of ten 100 word "stories" loosely about doorways. 

I'm hoping / assuming that at some point another few themes will suggest themselves to me, and that eventually I'll create my collection of 100... don't hold your breath. I'm open to suggestions but not making any promises!

It turns out 100 words is really not very many (anyone who knows me will know I rarely say something in 15 words if I can use 50!) I'm not sure whether what I've written constitutes 'stories', hence the inverted commas. Then again, I'm not sure a story is something particularly easy to define: but perhaps that's a discussion for another day. 

Anyway, for what they are worth, I'll publish them here to be read or ignored at will.

Stories to follow ...

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Reflecting on the Exodus

Peace Sunday is on the 24th September. Fellowship of Reconciliation always produces resources for churches to use to explore the theme of peace, including reflections on the readings. This year I was invited to write one of them (with a strict word limit!): so here it is:

Exodus 16: 2-15

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.” Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.’ ” While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud. The Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’ ” That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

The people of Israel are in the desert.

Earlier, the story makes clear why they are here: they escaped from an oppressive regime under which they were violently persecuted. It is still, sadly, an all too familiar story. And so they seek the Promised Land: a place of freedom from economic oppression and safety from the violence inherent in maintaining it. Among those I have met who are seeking asylum, these two: safety and freedom, feature most frequently among the things they value here.

The passage opens with a very human struggle: from the desert, looking ahead to an amorphous dream, the Promised Land doesn’t glitter as brightly as it did from amongst the ruins of lives lived under an oppressive regime. As they struggle to cling to a belief that something better is possible, their grumbling is directed against the lack of the very basics of what is needed to survive: this is a people who want to live.

So where is God? God is in the desert. God is alongside the Israelites when they fear they will starve. God is by the broken down truck in the Sahara which is running out of water. God is on the MSF boats dragging drowning toddlers out of choppy waters. God is in the Calais camps handing out tarpaulin to those whose shelters have been ripped apart again.

And what does God do? God provides. He provides enough. More than enough, he provides an abundance: not a surplus, but an abundance. I don’t believe that is a contradiction. I also don’t believe it has changed. Biblical economics stands in stark contrast to market economics. The bible suggests God will provide and there will be enough. The market tells us we must grab and hoard more than our share. We must choose who to trust.

There are plenty of people who could write their own exodus story today. Just as God intervenes to change the story for the Israelites, so must we when we hear the cry of those still ‘in the desert’. And thus I hope that they too, through the encounter with His people, will be able to write a story which witnesses to the reality that God was in the desert and God provided enough. 

You can download the booklet with all the reflections (or order paper copies) here:

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Journey

I can take very little credit (ie none) for the content of this particular post. The film below was made by two film studies students as their final year project.

The young men who speak in it are asylum seekers and refugees who I have the privilege to know personally. I think it is an amazingly powerful testimony to their experiences and believe it deserves as wide an audience as possible. It needs no further introduction from me, other than to say watching it is, in my opinion, ten minutes very well spent.

Friday, 2 June 2017

A way of life

 (Micah 6:8)

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. 
Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. 
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

(I saw this quote, based on the one from Micah, on social media and really liked it, but there seems to be some difficulty in finding its exact provenance. Perhaps that doesn't matter. The sentiment remains as valid whether or not we can figure out who said it first)

Thursday, 25 May 2017

On why we pray

 I originally wrote this as a report for the elders of the church where we live, but decided it might be worth sharing with a wider audience, so here it is! 

Last time we reported to elders, we spoke about some of the different projects we were involved in through our volunteering: projects which bring us into contact with many different people and situations in the city. This time, then, it feels appropriate to share something about the prayer which makes all the other aspects possible and sustainable. The rhythm of community prayer is the backbone of our life together. Its benefits aren’t as immediately tangible or easily explicable as some of the other things we do: but this is not an optional extra on the side but the very core of the existence of our community, so while it isn’t easy to explain its purpose or its value, it feels important to try.

For those who have never, or rarely, attended prayer: perhaps a concrete explanation is a good place to begin. We pray together every weekday morning at 7.30 and Monday to Thursday evenings at 7pm. Each prayer lasts between 20 and 30 minutes and includes an extended period of 8-10 minutes in silence. Morning prayer follows a set format with psalms and readings, a song, silence and prayers of intercession. Evening prayer is more varied, but always with that same commitment to reflective, contemplative silence.

The silence is an essential element of our prayer and the only thing which is written in to the community agreement. Silence is alien to a world where we are constantly bombarded by noise; and even in many church settings it is something to which we have ceased to be accustomed. In the midst of the busyness of life, it is perhaps more important than ever to recapture the space to simply be with God. In a world where value is so often determined by purpose, usefulness or achievement, it is important to recall that God is not someone we should only approach when we want something.

One “purpose” fulfilled by the routine of prayer is to provide space to “simply be”. Prayer is not something we achieve, prayer just is. We take time to enter, consciously, into what we already are: beings created and loved by God and called into relationship with him. The prayer is also a space to “simply be” together: over time there have been many who, regularly or occasionally, have found in the prayer here what they needed at a certain moment in time. Some have become friends, others we have seen only once or twice: it feels like an important thing to offer to our city.

The core values of society, I would suggest, are not entirely in keeping with the core values of the gospel. The message that your worth is in what you have, or do, or acquire is proclaimed from every advertising slogan, every shop whose doors we walk through. The message that we should fear one another is proclaimed from every newspaper report, and from many of the policies and procedures which dictate every aspect of our lives. Whatever our rational and intelligent selves tell us, it is very hard, even impossible, not to be influenced by those insidious voices. It is only by consciously placing ourselves where we can hear an alternative message that we find the support to stand for different values. I never leave prayer saying ‘today God has told me I must do this’ but I do believe that the regular routine of prayer supports me as I attempt to live by gospel values rather than society’s ones, that provides the whispered voice of guidance which leads me down, or at least towards, the road I am called to travel. I know some of our decisions are irrational by society’s standards: I think it is inherent in the gospel for that to be the case.

Above all, for me, prayer is about love: it is about consciously exposing ourselves to the unconditional love with which God surrounds us. Praying never means that God loves us more: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, just as there is nothing we can do to make God love us less, because God is love. But while the completeness of God’s love for each one is not in question, love is fulfilled when it exists in relationship: and it is this experience of love, I believe, which enables us to overcome fear, to live life to the full, to live adventurously, to be the people God wants us to be.

I have no doubt that without the prayer, much of what we do, many of the decisions we make would not be possible: I am very happy to have found a place which has enabled us to have a regular routine of prayer. It is this which sustains our community and I remain grateful for the opportunity to have this at the heart of the life I lead.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Finding Hidden Treasure

It's been over two months since I last wrote a blog post ... the longest gap between posts for quite some time, maybe even since I started this blog: but it's certainly not as if nothing worth writing about has happened in the meantime ... 

The most significant recent event in the life of our little community was the Taize Birmingham Hidden Treasure weekend. The culmination of over a year of planning and preparation, this May bank holiday it brought together over 500 young adults from across Europe to discover and share the hidden treasures of our faith and the acts of solidarity towards which it inspired us.

I aspire for this blog to be a place where I am honestly reflective, so I'm not going to lie ... there were times along the way which were both stressful and exhausting. Helping organise an international gathering involving the churches in 9 different neighbourhoods across the city as well as the city centre churches of all denominations while still maintaining all my other responsibilities was, perhaps at times, a step too far.

But that cannot take away from what was a truly beautiful celebration and an amazing opportunity to discover, explore, celebrate and share in some of the hidden treasures which surround us. Highlights, both during the preparation, and during the weekend itself, abounded.

One of the great gifts I received was the opportunity to discover so many different churches across the city and to have the opportunity to be made welcome by so many different communities. As I met with diverse churches working together to prepare to welcome the participants, daring to open their doors to welcome the stranger: my exhortation that their role was not a convenient added extra but was at the very heart of the meeting and its purpose, was both genuine and heartfelt. 

During the weekend itself, as life was shared across denominations, generations, languages and cultural experiences, the atmosphere was one of friendship, love and possibility. In the current context and climate, this was the vision of the Europe I want to be a part of: a Europe in which we are able to see that each of us each of us has something to offer but that none of us are complete on our own; a Europe which dares to come together in order to make the world a better place for those around us; a Europe which is guided by hope and not by fear. 

And then there, in the middle of a bustling city, in the midst of all the laughter and conversation; there at the centre of it all: we prayed together. I don’t have, and maybe don’t need, the words to explain that this too, was a highlight of the whole experience. 

Most readers of this blog already know that the Taize community has been a hugely significant influence on my faith journey: the centrality of both prayer and community which I discovered there has led me on the path that has shaped how I am living my life. There is no doubt in my mind that the rich and fulfilling life I now lead wouldn't have existed without it and I am very grateful. 

It is no secret that Birmingham too, a place about which I perhaps had some initial reservations when we moved here, but a place that I have adopted, or that has adopted me and which I am happy to call home, is a place I have come to deeply love. I love it in its diversity and complexity: I love it for the beauty and possibility it offers to those willing to seek them out. 

My life here for the last three and a half years has, in many ways brought the two together. During the Hidden Treasure weekend I was pleased to be able to share that coming together with so many others.

The weekend was not, for me at least, just an end in itself. Life, now, goes on: with more free evenings and a few less emails, no doubt, but with the same vision: that as churches we can pray, work and live together and that in so doing we stand as witnesses to the possibility of a life lived in all its fullness, a life in which there are a multitude of treasures which we can uncover or help to create, a life guided by hope. 

Other adventures in the life of this city now await and I hope the relationships built by these four beautiful days will be a spring board from which we will journey onwards, together.

*Photo Credit: both by David Ash

Thursday, 9 March 2017

#Share40 week 1

As part of the "Holy Habits" programme, based on the description of the life of the early Christian communities in Acts 2, the Methodist Church in Birmingham came up with the idea of "Share 40": 40 tasks, each of which was designed to encourage us to enter into a deeper relationship with someone else: with a friend or a stranger, with our neighbours and with the wider world.

So for lent, I have taken up this challenge. Some are things I would generally do anyway, so there is perhaps a question of working out what it is the next step, beyond the ordinary; or perhaps it is simply a reminder to appreciate those things in my life, those points of sharing, a little more.

Here's a brief summary of week 1.

Wednesday: "help someone with washing up" I always think of washing up as an integral part of our community life together. If I chose to tick this off first on my share40 list it was because after a particularly washing-up-creation-intensive meal I made a conscious decision to celebrate how good the food was and not to be irritated by how long the washing-up was going to take afterwards!

Thursday: "spend some time in silence with someone else" We have gone through phases of spending an evening each week in silence in the community, and while it hasn't always proved possible to maintain this tradition, it is something I love and value. We have put it in place again on Thursdays during lent.

Friday - "go out for a meal with friends" An enjoyable evening in the Balti triangle: good food, good wine, good company: hardly felt like a Lenten penance! But, you know, any excuse for a good curry.

Saturday - "share a favourite recipe with someone" There are many challenges to a community life in which there are many arrivals and departures, but there are also many joys. More people on the cooking rota is definitely one of them, and each newcomer has added interesting variety to our diet and it is good to introduce others to some of our own favourite dishes too.

Sunday - "Have lunch with friends" Lunch with friends/family, and afternoon tea (via the pub) with another friend is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and certainly something I should do more often. It was a valuable way to take time out from a busy schedule and a reminder that in between everything else that fills my time, these moments are also very important. I could even pretend I took a photo ... but I didn't.

Monday - "Pray with someone else" Prayer remains the centre of the life we have chosen here, and I recognise both the privilege and the challenge of being in a place where it is possible to make that such a priority. It is not uncommon for someone we have never met before comes and prays with us. Some become regular or occasional visitors, some we see only once and never again ... we can only hope that, however people choose to engage with the prayer, it offers them what they seek in that moment. I hope that was true for the young woman who joined us on Monday evening.

Tuesday - "Read the bible with someone else" On the first Tuesday of the month our Taize prayer is always followed by a bring and share meal and a discussion around a bible text. It was good to be able to gather and share with friends old and new, to not only read a bible text with others but also to explore what it might mean for us in our context.