Sunday, 13 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 May 2018

Acts 2

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

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

Fellowship

Eating together

     Prayer                                          Breaking bread

Making more disciples

Gladness and generosity

 
     Worship                                                        Sharing Resources

Biblical Teaching

Service


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Making space to connect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Holding on to the song (2)

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


Thursday, 12 April 2018

And there was wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

A People's Weapons Inspection

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


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

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

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

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Litany of Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Holding on to the song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Another way to love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 February 2018

And relax...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludlow

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

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

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Reimagined

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

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

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

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

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

Give us this day our daily bread

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

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

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

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

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

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

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

Amen.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Reflections of a promise

Today is the 2nd February, the feast of Candlemas, or the Presentation at the Temple, and, at least in some traditions, the very end of the Christmas season.

The text of the presentation of Jesus at the temple is, I think, rich in story and imagery; and it sets the tone for so much of that which is to come. Here Jesus is deeply rooted in the history of this chosen people straining to understand the mystery of God, and here too He is identified among the poor, those who could only afford the humble offering of birds. Most of these characters make but a fleeting appearance, encounters one assumes the child Jesus will not even recall, but into whose words and actions are placed the foretelling of the joy and the sorrow of all that is ahead.

Above all, for me (this year at least) the presentation is about promise. It is about promises fulfilled in unexpected ways, and promises proffered from places of prayer. It is about a God who makes promises, and who keeps them, but whose faithfulness reveals itself in surprising, unexpected and sometime uncomfortable ways ... it is about a God I can believe in.

Luke 2: 22-24
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

A child of God
Given to God
For the price of a pigeon
The payment of the poor
Offer, purity, 
and promise

Luke 2: 25-28
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,

A man of God
Listening to God
Revelation of the future
Cradled in elderly arms
Patience, praise, 
and promise

Luke 2: 29-32
Saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

A message of God
Sung back to God
Fulfillment of the past
Possibility for the future
Light, glory, 
and promise

Luke 2: 33-35
The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

A blessing of God
Eyes turned to God
An offer of inclusion
The disturbance of accepted normality
Possibility, pain, 
and promise

Luke 2: 36-38
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

A prophet of God
Dedication to God
From faithful, prayerful presence
Eyes rest on the hope of redemption
Gratitude, prophesy, 
and promise.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

#pray24brum

For the fourth year in a row, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Birmingham Churches Together organised 24 hours of prayer in and for the city, the region and the wider world. This year, St Martin in the Bullring, the oldest city-centre church and a place of prayer for 1000 years welcomed the event to take place within its "prayer-soaked walls". With each hour of prayer led by a different church, group of churches, chaplaincy, school or Christian charity, it was a celebration of the diversity of expressions of prayer which exist within the different Christian traditions.



There are many things to celebrate about #pray24brum and the opportunity it provides for churches to be united in prayer. For me personally, perhaps the principle one is the reminder of the central place of prayer in the life of the church. 

I really believe the routine of daily prayer we lead at Carrs Lane sustains the life we live in Birmingham, but we rarely attract a crowd. Not only in wider society, but even within the life of the church with all those other things we need to 'get on with', it seems there is always a risk of prayer being squeezed to the sidelines and beginning to feel like a niche interest. But I value prayer, and thus I value #pray24brum for its reminder that the thirst for prayer, including for contemplative and silent prayer, is not some freak sideshow but, across different traditions and expressions, is core to the yearning of many in the church. And I, for one, value this moment of journeying together.

Monday, 8 January 2018

12 days

I am a great believer in fully enjoying the Christmas Season ... and I have no problem continuing to wish people a Merry Christmas up until Epiphany, even if many of those around me seemed ready to take the decorations down not much after Boxing Day.

So I thought I'd share the edited highlights of my Christmas Season 2017/18

On the first day of Christmas we were with Matthew's family for a fairly loud, moderately chaotic, fun family Christmas. Much as I love Birmingham city centre, I'll admit that a walk up the Clent Hills, out in the "proper countryside" in the morning (even if it was cold and grey) was a treat; and after four years of hosting Christmas at ours it made a nice change for someone else to be cooking the Christmas dinner!

On the second day of Christmas we had a much calmer day, spending some time visiting Matthew's granny before coming back home.

On the third day of Christmas we headed to the Catholic Worker Farm for the Holy Innocents Retreat. I appreciated the chance for some spiritual input, some good discussion and opportunities to reflect, as well as a reminder that Of Gods and Men is a very, very good film.

On the fourth day of Christmas, for the past as many years as I can really count, we'd have been arriving at a Taize European meeting this day, and my thoughts were with those who were gathering in Basel. I admit, staying away was tinged with sadness, but it also felt right not to be there this year. Instead we stood outside Northwood Military Base which was also a very good place to be. I was reminded, though, that however brightly the sun is shining, you should always wear two (or more) pairs of socks at a vigil in December.

On the fifth day of Christmas it was my family's turn to gather together. Fish and chips was the response to everyone having already filled up on turkey earlier in the week, and a very good idea it was too. I avoided Monopoly with my brothers (a wise move if memories of my teenage years serve me well) and instead spent most of the afternoon being a puppet traffic light (as you do) for a slightly excitable three year old.

On the sixth day of Christmas, I did very little, because down time is good too, right. I finished a book, and started another one. I also tidied my desk... which may not sound either particularly noteworthy or particularly enjoyable but a proper sort out can be quite therapeutic and it is definitely a more usable and less frustrating space now! One of the nice things about this holiday is it felt very unpressured, and I have appreciated time to relax and recover from a busy term. 

On the seventh day of Christmas, we went to see Paddington 2 at the cinema, and if you haven't seen it you definitely should! I laughed and yes, I cried. In a contrast to recent New Years which have been busy and tiring and full of people contact we opted for the complete opposite ... and while I did stay up until midnight, I was in bed not long after!

On the eighth day of Christmas a fairly dreary start gave way to bright blue skies and sunshine which I took advantage of to get outside for a brisk walk, but it was definitely cold enough to justify curling up with hot chocolate and marshmallows when I got back. Plus we more-or-less finished writing our Christmas cards (as I said, its still the Christmas season!)

On the ninth day of Christmas we spent a wonderful day with good friends: there was good food and good conversation, a fair bit of singing and a whole lot of laughter. It was a lovely way to continue the Christmas celebrations and we appreciated the invitation.

On the tenth day of Christmas I went back to work. As expected it was the usual fairly manic beginning of term rush. I try to always remain actively conscious that it is an immense privilege to genuinely enjoy the work I do and to be able to be very content to return to work (which doesn't necessarily mean I didn't want to roll over when the alarm went off!)

On the eleventh day of Christmas, I caught up on lots of the jobs which have been on my to do list for, well, in some cases, quite some time! That sort of suggests I'm now actually up to date, which is never really true, but a few other things are bit more organised than they were. I won't pretend I worked all day though either, because I didn't, and a completed quirkle (a fun and relaxing colour-by-numbers thing I just discovered)  is one of the things to show for the day.

On the twelfth day of Christmas I was at the Sanctuary and back in the classroom. I never cease to be amazed by how wonderful my students are, and it was a pleasure to be back with them after the break. A trip to Birmingham airport doesn't necessarily sound like the most exciting way to fill a Friday evening but it was lovely to welcome Lydia back safe and well - she's been the key person missing from our Christmas celebrations and it is nice to have her back. 

Actually, we did stretch our 12 days slightly, because we waited until Saturday to exchange Christmas gifts with Lydia; and it was yesterday evening before the Christmas decorations finally came down and we declared the season more-or-less closed.

So here's one final "Happy Christmas" to you all!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Antidote (Part 2)

I do believe there is an oft-overlooked inherent challenge in the message of the incarnation, but don't get me wrong, I also get that Christmas is a time of celebration and rejoicing. A time for glitter and face-paint and elf hats. A time for singing with more enthusiasm than talent and for silly games we haven't quite consigned to our childhood. A time for smiling and for laughter, lots and lots of laughter.

Most of all perhaps, it is a time for community. A time for celebrating together with those we love and for expanding the boundaries of those we call friends.

Luke and Matthew may have chosen different people as the first visitors to encounter Jesus, and at first glance they seemingly have little in common, but both shepherds and magi symbolise the outsider invited in: the poor and the foreigner are present at the celebration: not as victims but as actors, not as observers but as sharers in and of the story. The joy and celebration God wants for us finds its fulfillment in the opening wide of who is included.

And so we send cards (an as yet unfinished task in my case) as an annual reminder, should such a thing be needed, that the community of those we love spreads around the country and the world. We create a hiatus in the everyday busy-ness of our lives to gather together with our family and our friends.

We celebrate, together.

I am extremely lucky that my "together" includes so many amazing people and has included so many beautiful celebrations.

Christmas is about hope, and about joy: and about the capacity to keep believing in both. I acknowledge the privilege of being surrounded by many, many people who help me continue to do so. Thank you.

Monday, 1 January 2018

The Antidote (part 1)

December can be a particularly depressing time to live in Birmingham city centre. I realise this is not exactly a cheery upbeat beginning to a blogpost, sorry. But December in Birmingham city centre, even more so than the rest of the year, becomes a frenzy of consumerist excess which seems to have little (for which read absolutely nothing) to do with the forthcoming celebration of Christmas.

It saddens me that the slightly manic hysteria that surrounds Christmas reaches fever pitch so far before the day itself that people are virtually ready to take their Christmas decorations down on boxing day (the shops of course are already doing so on Christmas eve); and that a celebration that should be about innocence and love becomes an excuse for obscene excess and seems to result in so much angst and dischord.

But I'll make a confession: I love Christmas, I really do. I believe this story of the incarnation really matters. It matters because it allows the God I can believe in to exist: a God who is weak and powerless, a God whose own suffering is integral to his identity. A God who is here, in the midst of the mess. And don't get me wrong, I love sparkle and good food and wine and excuses for parties too.

In the midst of all this, then, it isn't always easy to find ways to live the seasons of Advent and Christmas that holds in balance the joy and challenge inherent in this celebration. It remains, though, important to try.

It can be easy to forget what a privilege we have, in our community life here, to regularly make space for silence in our daily life. Our commitment to the rhythm of prayer does, of course, involve sacrifices, but above all it offers an opportunity, day-by-day to pause in the midst of the busyness of life, to rest in the presence of God, to know ourselves to be loved. In Advent, perhaps even more so than usual, it was important to remind myself to appreciate this time.

Each Wednesday morning during Advent, a small group of us gathered outside HSBC, who continue to invest huge sums of money in the arms trade. We met to pray together, to hand out leaflets, to engage with curious passers-by. We stood in the cold to bear witness to the incompatibility of investment in the arms trade with the message of the coming of the prince of peace. It was but a brief interlude each week. It was little more than a gesture. Sometimes, small gestures matter.

After Christmas we found another opportunity to find meaning in the madness of this season. Hot on the heels of the joy of Christmas in the church calendar is the feast of "Holy Innocents": the memorial of the babies of Bethlehem who were killed by Herod in his anger at Jesus' arrival in the world. We spend a couple of days at the Catholic Worker Farm for the Holy Innocents retreat: a chance to reflect with others on this story and what it means for us now. To share together about who are the Herods of our day, and who are the Innocents. To pray for them, and for ourselves as we live out the incarnation in a hurting, violent world. The retreat ended with a vigil outside Northwood Military Base. While it perhaps doesn't sound like a particularly up-beat theme for an end of year retreat, I have consistently found in the Christian peacemaker movement a place of life and vitality, and I was glad to find this space for reflection and companionship, for discussion and for silence, for prayer and for protest.

Christmas is about stars: bright lights that keep on shining when we are wrapped up in darkness; it is about the courage to sing songs of peace on earth however far that seems from the messy reality around us, it is about the promise of new life that comes with the birth of a baby.

So these were some of the pieces in the jigsaw of my efforts to make Advent and Christmas fit more comfortably with my understanding of what this thing is all about.

* There's a part two to follow which picks up the cheerier bits!

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
Inspired 
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,
Smile.

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?