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? 

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: http://stepsadventures.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/a-story-project.html

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

Sky

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

#stopDSEi


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’.