Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Glimmers of Hope

A distant star
In the blackness of night
A fragile twinkle
Of shimmering silver light

A light the eyes can barely see
And only the soul can feel
Distant, intangible,
Yet close at hand and real

In darkness and in doubting
A glimmer shining through
Other dreamed possibilities
Can still one day come true

Clinging to a brighter vision
Showing there’s another way
A fragile glimmer of hope
Born anew each Christmas day.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A fragile power

This latest poem has been work in progress for a week or so, having been primarily inspired by a very blustery walk in spectacular surroundings last week, when we spent a couple of days away from the centre up at Knocklayd. The photos probably don't really do justice to the views, and to more accurately capture the experience I advise you to look at them outside with a very powerful and cold wind blowing into your face (or you can just imagine that part if your prefer!)

A Fragile Power

An autumn twilight
Fierce winds whip across the mountain tops
Untamed energy
Nature battered by uncontrollable elements
An invincible, palpable power?

Or is the power
In outstretched wings
That soar on the currents
And choose

An imposing skyline
Mighty mountains touch the pink-tinged sky
Unyielding rocks
Encapsulating endless time and solid strength
An invincible, palpable power?

Or is the power
In fragile flowers
That cling to the mountain side
And choose

A deep-seated fear
Spirals of merciless anger and violent retribution
Pervasive terror
Resorting to bloody war and brutal destruction
An invincible, palpable power?

Or is the power
In the humble outstretched hands
That cling to hope and forgiveness
And choose

God was not in the earthquake
Or the roaring wind
Or burning fire
The fragile power of God
Is seen
In the sound of sheer silence

The vulnerable power of God

Thursday, 22 November 2012

exploring optimism and hope

I have always thought of myself as an optimist and would guess that most who know me would probably agree that, more often than not, I am a "glass half full" kind of person. Of course, there are times when I can be as cynical as the next person, but there are also a fair few times when I am prepared to be naively optimistic.

So a few things I have heard recently (although this blog post has been in the offing for a while so perhaps not that recently) set me to reflecting further on what it means to be an optimist, and whether this is really what I aspire to.

"The church needs more pessimists, because they are the people who will see how things really are and what isn't possible so make things actually happen" 

I paraphrase from a sermon, primarily because I can't remember the exact words, but that was the gist. A challenge to me as an eternal optimist which I could have dismissed out of hand, but decided to tuck away for further thought.

A few days later, in a different context, a different person said something along these lines:

"One of the first things we are called to do is to use our imagination, to imagine other possibilities, and to hold up before the world a vision of other possibilities"

The latter sat much more comfortably with the optimist in me; it fitted much more closely with how I see the world. Surely this was calling us to optimism and away from cynicism and pessimism.

But then it was a third person who set me thinking again and helped me bring some of these nebulous thoughts together into what I now realise as I write is still a fairly incoherent whole.

"There is a major difference between optimism and hope"

It occurs to me that perhaps pessimism and optimism are just two different sides of the same coin. They are two different ways of looking at the world and struggling with its realities and problems, always seeing the best or the worst in what is already there.

So what of hope?

Hope is something altogether different. It is the tenacious clinging to another vision, to a different possibility. Hope inspires us towards active imagination; towards believing in other, unseen possibilities.

Perhaps that second quote has very little to do with optimism and pessimism and is about more than just how we see the world around us. Perhaps it is just as ok to be cynical about the world around us as it is to be naively idealistic. Both optimists and pessimists with their different views of the world can still be people of hope; people who imagine other possibilities and hold them up for the world to see.

Perhaps it is hope that all prophets, be they the old testament kind or the modern day ones, be they pessimists or optimists in the eyes of the world, have in common. Hope, and the desire to share that hope with others.

Perhaps my optimism, and another's pessimism, are both aspirations towards being people of hope.

Friday, 5 October 2012

The challenges of a public diary

The observant among you will have noticed that, since leaving the Philippines, and more recently arriving in Northern Ireland, the frequency of my blog posts has declined significantly. Given last year’s word count, those still following are probably breathing a sigh of relief, but for myself, if no-one else, I wanted to reflect on some of the reasons I have been here nearly a month, living a multitude of new experiences and have, for the most part, written nothing about them.

I guess the most straightforward excuse has been lack of time. While I can’t deny there have been days when I have reached the end of the day feeling like I have done remarkably little, that remarkably little has filled the hours quite thoroughly. First during induction, and then since starting work almost a fortnight ago, the days, and evenings, have soon filled up: even if that has often been with the important business of socialising and enjoying new friendships

But it is not quite as simple as that.

Another factor has been the social nature of life here. Coventry House, home to the one year volunteers, and a motley collection of others is a sociable place. It is a place where there is always something going on or someone to chat to. It is a place where there is much silliness and banter, but also space for more serious discussions and reflection. It is a place where all the things I would figure out and reflect on and share on my blog last year, I now share in conversations over a cup of tea.

And then there is the challenge of what to write and what not to write. Whether or not anyone is actually reading this, it is, at least theoretically, in the public domain. There have certainly been many benefits of assuming I have an audience: not least forcing me to rationalise my thoughts and being something vaguely approaching concise.

But there are challenges too, which have become more apparent here than they were last year. From day 1, I have been determined that what I write should not just be fact (if such a thing even exists) or a mundane record of what I have done and where I have been: it has been intended to be a personal reflection on and response to the experiences I have lived. In the Philippines that didn’t seem too difficult. My cultural observations, my reflections on life were from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. I was a white westerner commenting on my experiences of my own culture meeting with a very different one: my position as an outsider was never in question. I couldn’t, and I hope didn’t, ever profess to see things as a Filipino would.

Here, it is a little more complex. Northern Ireland is much closer to home and, on the surface at least, the cultural similarities to my own life abound. This is, after all, my own country. It is easy to think of coming here as coming “home” and for both myself, and others to assume I speak as an insider ... but while it is certainly less foreign than the Philippines, a few weeks here has been long enough to make it very clear that this is not my home culture either: Here, I am, if not a total outsider, at least someone on the edge. I am caught between not really belonging and speaking from within, but not really being foreign and speaking from without. It is a cultural complexity which I have found makes the business of writing about here more difficult than I expected.

But don’t worry, I rarely find I am without words for very long ...

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Walking the road

A path well-trodden
Stone with footsteps worn
Journeys shared
With those before
Those now
And others yet to come

A path well-trodden
Yet a road walked only once
Journeys converging
Criss-crossing, parting
In solitude together
Carving a way yet to come

A path well-trodden
Where nothing but everything is new
Journeys of discovery
Through tangled undergrowth
And rocky trails
Of adventures yet to come

A path well-trodden
To live, to laugh, to love
Journeys calling
The whisper
Of faith
In the unknown yet to come

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A room with a view

And so we have arrived, in Corrymeela on the North Coast of County Antrim, our home for the next year.

Somewhat to our surprise, the weather since our arrival in Corrymeela has been remarkably good: with blue skies and sunshine – albeit with a chilly breeze to keep us on the move when outdoors. Sadly, I didn’t take the camera on Tuesday when we went paddling in the sea, so there is no evidence that we braved the waves, you’ll just have to believe me! 

However, with more sunshine yesterday, another walk, past the beach to the local town of Ballycastle, offered the opportunity for a few photos showing off our stunning surroundings.

Meanwhile, with the bags unpacked, and a variety of silly games to get to know our fellow team members, Corrymeela itself is beginning to feel like home; and Coventry House, home to the twelve one year volunteers as well as a motley collection of others, looks like being a slightly chaotic, hectic and loud place, but a very happy home for the next twelve months.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

To pastures new ...

It is two months since we left the Philippines, and having packed a fair amount into the summer, the last adventure is already beginning to feel quite distant ... meaning it must surely be time to set off on the next one!

Once again the bags are packed - this time with a few more jumpers and better quality waterproofs than we took to the Philippines - as we set off to Northern Ireland to join the long term volunteer team at the Corrymeela Community, an ecumenical community promoting and working for peace and reconciliation among the divided communities of Northern Ireland.  

It is an exciting next step. Closer to home certainly, but once again there are new friends to be made and new challenges to be faced. 

And so the blog continues, perhaps with a lower word count than last year, but something makes me think I will still have plenty to say!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Saying goodbye

With this blog now counting over 35000 words, any one still reading deserves my heartfelt congratulations! Thank you for being, in some way, a part of this adventure: I hope you have enjoyed it. Just in case you missed anything, here are the edited highlights courtesy of Wordle:

Tomorrow, almost nine months after arriving in Cebu, we leave the Philippines. It has been quite an experience, and today is a day of very mixed feelings. The next week or so could well prove to be a roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows.

The sadness of leaving, especially knowing the chances are we will never see the people with whom we have shared the last nine months again will be coupled with the sense of satisfaction at having successful completed the main task we were given on coming here and knowing that this is the right time to move on.

The excitement of going home and seeing many family and many friends again will be coupled with the apprehension of going back into a world which is so familiar but as a person changed by having lived a very different experience.

The enjoyment of reminiscing, reflecting and flicking through photos will gradually give way to the excitement tinged with nerves of moving on to new adventures.

So that’s it. The Philippine adventure is over, but plenty more adventures lie ahead. There will be a break from updates for at least a month while we are in Taize, but I guess I’ll probably find plenty more to keep writing about after that.

I leave with lots of wonderful memories and a very large photo collection, and take with me no regrets. It has been a very good year. Salamat Cebu!

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Charity and Justice - part 2

Charity is something I struggle with. I acknowledge its necessity in a world where injustice and poverty persist and I recognise the positive benefits it can bring to individuals and communities. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the presentation of charitable giving as a universal good because while I celebrate its potential benefits, I also fear its dangers. The risks for those receiving charity are well documented, with organisations anxious to show they are providing appropriate and directed assistance and that they are not creating a culture of dependence but rather helping recipients to help themselves; but I fear more for the dangers for those of us on the giving end.

Charity is a necessary evil in a world in which injustice persists. A world which is richer than it has ever been, and yet where children still die of hunger and of treatable diseases. While charity does indeed help some of the victims of injustice, it is not going to bring an end to the persistent injustice which allows the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor sinking deeper into poverty.

If we feel our charitable giving absolves us of our greater responsibilities, as actors in a global system which maintains the oppression of the poor, then it is doing more harm than good. A lot of charity undoubtedly does much good. Meanwhile the effects of the global debt system and the crippling effects of unjust trade continue to do many billions more pounds worth of unspeakable damage.

Charity is never an excuse to allow exploitation to continue. Giving to charity should not be a salve to our consciences to allow life to go on just as it did before. It should not allow us to say, I can continue to live as I do because I have put my pound in the charity box. Rather, it should serve as a reminder that poverty and injustice persist, and as a challenge to fight for justice, equality and change. Giving to charity should not be something we do to make ourselves feel better about the suffering we see as inevitable, but be part of our belief that another world is possible.

Our charitable giving this year has been nine months of our time, and yes, I feel that we have made a difference here. On Tuesday when we handed over the programmes of study and planning that we have spent the year developing to the directors of the eight training centres in the Philippines South province; the reception suggested that our efforts have been worthwhile and are appreciated and valued by those for whom it is intended.

I feel we have made a difference here, but I will not go home thinking I have done my part and done enough. I will go home refreshed and renewed to campaign for justice. I will go home reminded that while the Philippines is not entirely innocent of its own failings; above all else our students have been failed by a global trading and financial system that has kept their country locked in poverty. I will go home knowing that my government can do more to solve the problems in the Philippines than theirs can. I will go home knowing that while giving my time and my money will help these students, the greatest gift I can give them is not my pound in a charity box, nor even my English lessons, but believing in and campaigning for radical change on a global scale.

Friday, 22 June 2012

charity and justice - part 1

At DBTC the badminton court is currently out of action: this is partly because termites are steadily munching their way through the floor boards but primarily because the room is piled high with boxes of books which were sent as charitable donations from the US.

On first appearances, this is a very generous gesture. Most of the books are educational textbooks, sent, undoubtedly, with the very best of intentions to support the education of students in a poorer part of the world. So far, so good. The problem is that, while some of them may be useful, a majority of the books are completely irrelevant and inappropriate, including textbooks for American citizenship courses detailing the minutiae of the American political system, and manuals for outdated computer programmes which are no longer used, not even here. What is more, because the collection is so indiscriminate and disorganized, even those resources which could potentially be useful, take time and energy to find, time and energy which may be better used elsewhere.

Someone has spent a lot of money sending a lot of books which might end up on a bonfire. It is a lesson in the importance of a process of reflection about charitable giving: ensuring donations are directed, appropriate and useful to the recipients. But there are other lessons to be learnt in the badminton court too.

Reflecting a little further, while the shipment of books initially seems very generous, many of the books are clearly out-dated. These are not resources schools in the US are currently using and wish to share with those in the under-funded Philippine Education system: they are books that are no longer wanted and are cluttering up space. They are a gift from our surplus, from what we no longer want or need. They are a gift of that which is no longer good enough for us, but it will do for you. They are a gift which can be given freely because it won’t actually have any impact on our life.

We allow those things that are really worth something to us to touch and shape and change us. If something is really valuable, we give to it not from our surplus but from the depth of our being. Be it time, money, or emotion, what we give to our family and friends comes from deep within our realities, not from what we have left over. If we really care about those receiving our charity, should not the same be true?

When something or someone is really valuable to us, we are prepared to give all that we have; knowing that what we receive in return will more than repay the outlay. Perhaps if we dare to take the risk; giving not of our surplus but from somewhere deep inside ourselves, the return will be beyond what we had imagined; maybe this is what is asked of us when we read “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap” (Luke 6: 38)

More to follow ...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Holding on to what we've got

Whilst there are undoubtedly things poverty covets from our wealth, there are also many things our wealth could also learn from poverty: not least the valuing of what we have got.

Around the streets of Cebu, all different sorts of repair shops, such as this street-side shoe repair stand, are a familiar sight. Meanwhile, in the UK, where cobblers, tailors and the like were also once common, they have all but disappeared from our high streets. Once, shoes were re-heeled and torn clothes mended. Many items which have become disposable with our increasing wealth were once considered too valuable to just throw away. Here, they still are.

Last summer the zip on our tent broke. Determined not to throw away what was, otherwise, a perfectly good tent, we sought to have it repaired, but in the West Midlands, the second biggest conurbation in the country, we could not find a single repair shop that could do the job. For me it came to symbolise our throw-away culture: these places don’t exist, because there is no market for them. If something is broken, even slightly, the common immediate reaction is to throw it away and buy a new one.

And it goes further still, because not only do we throw away and replace that which is broken rather than seeking to repair it, but we don’t even have to think before discarding something which is no longer flavour of the month even if it is in perfect condition. While on one level I appreciate the existence of charity shops full of quality clothes in near-perfect condition, allowing me to clothe myself very cheaply; on another level, this symbol of extravagance distresses me: we live in a culture where good-as-new is already good-to-go.

Here where incomes are lower and budgets tighter, people have to think twice before throwing things away, because “just buying a new one” might not be an option. There is still a sense that “stuff” is worth something and possessions and materials are valued more highly.

As is common in many schools, here the summer holidays were a time of refurbishment and repairs, among which the wooden floor in the gym was replaced. When the floor boards were taken up, they were not thrown away: the ever resourceful TVED department used them to build beds for the incoming boarders. The alternative wasn’t to “just buy a new one”, it was sleeping on the floor.

 In local shops it is common to buy soft drinks in glass bottles; with the expectation that you will drink them immediately, on site, and return the bottle for cleaning and reuse (like milk bottles in the UK) While clean and sterile, it is not unusual for the outside of the bottles to be scuffed and scratched, something which the western market would perhaps find hard to accept, in a culture where even fruit and vegetables are expected to be a uniform shape and colour. Seeking perfection in what things look like has replaced a real sense of valuing what things are worth.

A sign of extreme wealth; our profligate throw-away culture shows not only a disregard for the planet, but maybe tells us that we have got too much.

Maybe we should throw away a bit less, and share a bit more. 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Cebu, Cebu!

For nearly nine months, Cebu has been home. Now, as we think about heading back to the UK, it is time to remind ourselves how many of the things which have become so familiar are actually so foreign and different; how the street scenes which have accompanied our daily life for the past months are ones of which we may not see the like again, certainly not in the near future, and which are completely alien to many of our friends and family.

Cebu is a city of confusion and contrast.
Overloaded tricycles of questionable road-worthiness jostle for space with sparkling chauffeur-driven four-by-fours. Gated estates of sizeable concrete houses overlook the unstable-looking shacks from where large families spill outside on to the streets. A short walk takes you from air-conditioned shopping malls, a haven from the sun and heat, to outdoor market stalls where waving a plastic bag on a stick keeps the flies away.

It is a city of noise and colour.
Struggling motorcycle engines and a cacophony of horns fill the streets and there is invariably karaoke blaring out from somewhere. Vendors of cigarettes, individual sweets and of course, tropical fruit, brighten the sides of the streets. And then there is the jeepney: noise and colour all rolled into one: with their loud engines and drivers shouting for business and their bright coats of paint with religious images and cartoon characters vying for space.

It is a city of the past and the future.
Cebuanos are proud  of their city's history: the place where the Spaniards first came ashore, planting the first seeds of the Catholicism and bringing the beloved Santo Nino. And the place where the Spaniards were first defeated too, independence dreams before colonialism had a hold. But not far from the 500 year old Magellan's Cross you also see Cebu struggling to find its place in the future: young professionals working late into the night to staff call centres serving the other side of the world; and everybody's fingers permanently glued to a mobile phone.

It is a city of pace and patience.
Always busy, with traffic, with people, Cebu is not a place for staying still, it is a place of movement; but with gridlocked streets and engines too small for the vehicles they propel, it is a place where no-one is going anywhere quickly. It is a place which at first glance might seem in a hurry, but really is taking its time: time to say hello, time to stop and smile.

Cebu is even a city which has its own theme tune (in both English and Cebuano versions). With the Filipinos inveterate love of Karaoke, it is not hard to see where a song like "Cebu, Cebu" came from, and it is a song I have more than once had stuck in my head. I am not sure I complete agree with Dandin Ranillo's assessment that Cebu is "the paradise of the orient" but I salute anyone who thinks that "you can go shopping at Gaisano" (a local shopping mall) and "there's barbecue and puso" (hanging rice) are great lyrics for a song! Maybe, like me, it is trying to sum up something of what this place is like. Maybe it can't. I know I can't.

It is a city of which, even now, I am sure I have barely scratched the surface. It is a city to which, in spite of its poverty and its pollution, its traffic and its turmoil, its frustrations and its failings, I will be sad to say goodbye.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Out of Eden - Part 4 - Come, go and live!

As you are probably aware, I have been reflecting on the story of the garden of Eden for some time, and have written quite a lot on the subject. Here, to round of the series, is a poem and accompanying picture which tries to draw together some of the themes and ideas from my theological ramblings through Eden, Gethsemane and the resurrection garden.

Leave this fruit
It is not yours
Leave this knowledge
It means nothing to you
Leave this truth
It is time
To discover your own

Go instead
Go, plant and tend
Go, grow and eat
Go, learn from your own realities
And live

Leave your swords
Put down your violence
Leave your fears
Dare to stretch out empty hands
Leave the way free
It is time
All are welcome here

Come instead
Come, approach and see
Come, draw near and taste
Come, eat the fruit of fulfilment 
And live

Leave this garden
It cannot hold who you are called to become
Leave your hiding place
Face the challenges of uncertainty
Leave the centre
It is time
To live on the edge

Go instead,
Go, step out and look around
Go, take risks and be free
Go to your Galilee
And live

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

It's a year of Jubilee!

Being on the other side of the world, I have, thankfully, been spared much of the hype surrounding the queen’s jubilee celebrations, but now that the bunting has been packed away and the BBC have once again realised there is real news going on in the world, I too have been reflecting on celebrating the jubilee.

The word jubilee has biblical origins. While there is some debate as to the exact etymology of the English word: whether it comes from the Hebrew word “yobel”, a ram’s horn, blown to signal the beginning of the jubilee celebration, or from the Latin “iubilo” meaning shout, the connection with the Leviticus texts seems undisputed.

The Jubilee year, the end of a forty-nine year cycle, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, was indeed intended as a time for celebration: marking the jubilee year by holding street parties in which whole communities come together is probably not too far removed from the original sentiment.  On the other hand, celebrating a system of birth into privilege and the upholding of the inequality of inherited wealth could hardly be more distant from the original idea of the jubilee celebrations.

Written into God’s code for life are policies which combat the cycle of environmental destruction, and break the downward spiral of debt and poverty. The jubilee year is the year when “you will proclaim the liberation of all the country’s inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10) It is the year in which debts are forgiven, slaves are freed and land which has been bought and sold is redistributed in the name of equality.

While, in Britain, the queen celebrates sixty years of living a privileged life at the expense of others, two statistics have come to my attention this week:

1) The government of the Philippines spends 27.1%, more than a quarter, of its total revenue servicing foreign debt, owed to both foreign governments and multinational private corporations, whose lending and vast interest bills often take advantage of countries' poverty. As a slightly-better-off-than-the-very-poorest country, the Philippines has not qualified for any debt relief. As a percentage of government expenditure, its repayments of overseas debts are now second highest in the world.

2) Last Monday marked the beginning of the new school year in the Philippines. Of the students who began their high school career in Filipino public schools last Monday, statistics suggest 65% will not complete the four years of high school. I know from experience that even many of those who make it to the end, will have been badly let down by a substandard system.

I know that poverty in the Philippines is the result of a complex web of realities of which the repayment of foreign debts is only one strand among many; and that the government spending on repaying its overseas debts, and their interest, is not the only factor which has resulted in the Philippines having a sadly inadequate education system, and many young people being forced by circumstances to drop out before completing school.

Nor do I exonerate the Filipino government, past and present, from its share of the blame in the debt problem: irresponsible governments have borrowed thoughtlessly, and in a country where corruption is rife at every level, I suspect much of that borrowed money, some of which may perhaps have been lent with good intentions, will have been misappropriated. Some of it was probably spent on shoes.

But this post isn’t about levelling blame, because I don’t think that is what the jubilee is about either. The jubilee year is about a fresh start. It is about beginning again, not with the same old divisions and inequalities, but with financial disparities rebalanced and the chance to genuinely start anew. A chance which countries trapped in a web of debt and poverty are never offered.

We live in a world fuelled by unsustainable debt and credit. We live in a world where poverty persists. We live in a world that desperately needs us to be celebrating a real jubilee.

Let’s do it!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Out of Eden - Part 3 - Leaving the Garden

This is the third part of my reflections on the Garden of Eden story, which I once again invite you to reflect on, or ignore, as you prefer. 

A significant part of the Garden of Eden story is not just the time Adam and Eve spend in the garden, but their departure from it. In the New Testament garden stories of Gethsemane and the resurrection garden, leaving also features prominently.

The story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit and subsequently leaving the garden is commonly talked about as “the fall.” These words do not appear in the biblical text, although many bibles use them as a sub-heading and this terminology has come to dominate our interpretation of the event, to an extent that this interpretation is rarely even questioned, and this understanding is assumed to be widely accepted.

But perhaps this is no fall from grace, no divine punishment. Perhaps another understanding is possible. Perhaps we do not need to be tied by this traditional understanding. Perhaps the text can be read in another way.

Maybe Adam and Eve did not fall from grace. Maybe they just grew up. Maybe the awakening of knowledge inevitably sends us out from the safety of the garden to the wider world.

It is true that some of the language of the discourse around the departure from the garden sounds at first reading like a punishment, but a closer look made me think maybe it is less clear cut. God speaks of being “accursed”: harsh words indeed ... but at no point does God say humanity is accursed. The snake, yes, the tempter: the temptation to opt for the easy life, the temptation to seek to possess and usurp positions of power, accursed indeed. The soil too (hmm, haven’t quite worked out what that might be about) but humanity is not accursed.

Not accursed, perhaps, but still warned of pain to come. The pain they will face outside the garden could be read as a punishment, yes, but maybe it is just the reality of adulthood. Maybe the experience of pain is something we all learn as we grow from babyhood to adulthood and leave the safety of the garden which can not contain all we are destined to become.

Our biblical faith is a faith that calls us to face up to such realities of life, including its myriad challenges and difficulties: God does not send us out of the Garden as a punishment, he sends us out of the garden and accompanies us out into the big wide world because that is where we are meant to be: living in the real world, getting our hands dirty, earning our food by the sweat of our brow; even if sometimes it hurts. Our faith does not call us to shelter in the security of a garden, or a church social club, it calls us out to live life on the edge.

Jesus too, pulled no punches: he too called people out of the gardens of their security, out of their comfortable lives. He too promised pain: but this is not a threat or punishment, taking up one’s cross is simply a recognition of the reality of what following Jesus, living in a way that is radically different to societal norms and challenging oppressive authority through love and non-violence, brings about.

After the cross, early on the first day of the week, the gospel narrative takes us back into a garden, location of the tomb and setting for, depending which gospel story you are reading, either the first resurrection appearance, or the message of resurrection appearances to come.

As with the garden at Gethsemane, I wonder whether there is an inevitable connection between this garden and the original biblical garden, Eden. In our minds, and more so in the minds of the first audiences of the gospels, when a biblical garden narrative occurs, the Eden story looms large. The sending out is a significant part of that first garden story, and in the resurrection garden too, the message is very clear: this is not where you are called to stay. Once again God, Jesus, sends out those who are in the garden, to go back to their Galilee. Perhaps the clarity of this message, seen not as a punishment but as a commission, can be our reassurance that the first sending out of humanity form Eden was also a part of our faith journey.

In the midst of the clear similarities between these two sending out narratives there are also differences. In the first story, as Adam and Eve leave the garden, the tree of life remains, static, at the centre of the garden: guarded by swords and by its position in a place that can no longer hold the adults we have become.

The resurrection garden tells a different story: Jesus, the tree of life, is not static, nor is he staying in the garden. He has “gone ahead of you to Galilee.” Perhaps in the shared faith journey of God and humanity, out of Eden, out of Egypt, out of Gethsemane, out of the resurrection garden, there is a growing realisation for all of us, including God, that the Tree of Life is not to be found “at the very centre”: that is not where it belongs. It is at the edges that the tree of life takes root and grows an abundance of delicious fruit which we are invited to taste and eat.

So perhaps we too need to go out from the centre: out from centres of power and centres of comfort; out from what we know and what we think we love: out into our Galilees, to the places at the edge; to the places where there is a danger of falling off, for it is only there that fullness of life can be found.

It is time to go to Galilee and live.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Our smiling students

Aware that I have written quite a few lengthy posts recently, I decided it was time to cut down on the words and put some pictures up instead.

This week, the new semester has begun at TVED. For the students it is a time of new beginnings: our senior students are heading out into the real world to begin their on the job training, our juniors are beginning their senior semester and a whole new lot of students, having been put through their paces with the orientation last month are preparing to begin their studies at TVED. While their eyes are focused on new beginnings though, for us it is a reminder our time here is nearing its end.

To the music of the school song, "Ardua non Timeo", or "Fear no Hardships", these are the smiles that have accompanied our last few months:

Saturday, 2 June 2012

A protestant church

A few weeks ago I published a blog post reflecting on catholicism, and its challenging call to a faith which pertains to everything; so in the name of balance and equality, I have also been reflecting on what it means to have a protestant faith.

Familiarity with terminology can breed, if not contempt, at least a certain lack of engagement with their true meaning, but the origin of the word protestant is in little doubt.

Just as I believe all churches are called to seek the inclusivity of being truly catholic, I think we are equally called to be protestant, for to be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, non-violent protestant extraordinaire.

Jesus lived his whole life as a protest: against the oppressive occupation of the Roman regime which ruled by violence and in which economic inequality prevailed and against religious authorities who tried to limit God’s love to a selected few. Perhaps the moment in his life which we most easily associate with the Christ of protest is drives out the stall holders and over-turns the tables of the money changers in the temple. At other times in the gospel, Jesus shows little support for temple-based religion, yet he still chose to expel the traders form a temple he saw as superfluous to worship of God.

It is a story which appears in all four gospels, with Matthew, Mark and Luke placing it at the beginning of the week of Jesus’ passion, creating a clear link with his ending up on a cross; while John places it at the very beginning of Jesus ministry: it is, along with the miracle at Cana which precedes it, his mission statement and the foundation of all that follows.

The temple was a very public place in which to make a statement against economic injustice and the damaging effects of a trade system which took advantage of the poor to enrich the powerful. Jesus was not only protesting against the location of the market he was protesting against a system where two sets of weights and measures allowed traders to defraud with impunity, and where money changers lined their own pockets leaving the poor and vulnerable with no recourse to justice.

2000 years on, trade rules which favour the rich, allowing the rich to get richer, while others are plunged deeper into poverty still sound very familiar.

The temple was also a place to demonstrate the hypocrisy of a system which used religious texts to exclude, yet refused to live by the justice and jubilee principles of those same books. The traders selling animals for religious rites and sacrifices, and the money changers changed the local currency into the specific coins required to pay the temple tax, were part of a religious system which promoted exclusivity. Furthermore, the traders were almost certainly operating within the outer walls of the temple, in the area reserved for the prayers of those not permitted to enter further into the temple. Already kept out of the holiest places, this was a further barrier denying access to God to the gentiles and “unclean”. In clearing this place, Jesus is making a statement, breaking down barriers which exclude.

2000 years on, the reality for many of the experience of exclusion is also little changed.

Perhaps to be truly protestant, and true followers of Christ, our protest too must be against the systems which oppress and impoverish and against barriers which exclude.

Maybe then, in the world as it is, it is impossible to become more catholic without also choosing to be protestant, and to be protestant involves an aspiration towards catholicity ... which makes me wonder why church unity seems so difficult to achieve...

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Out of Eden - part 2 - Accessing the tree of life

This is the next instalment of my theological ramblings about genesis, which I invite you to read or ignore!

Even now, some of the Old Testament stories remain ingrained in our collective consciousness, and biblical literary references abound. Such would have been much more the case for Jesus’ audience and, perhaps even more critically, for the target audiences of the gospel writers. References to defining moments, events and stories from the Old Testament are numerous in the New Testament and perhaps references to gardens are always meant to recall that first biblical garden, Eden.

My theological wanderings have taken me out of the Garden of Eden and into some other biblical gardens, reflecting on possible parallels between these and the Garden of Eden. Around the time of Jesus passion and resurrection, gardens are the setting for key moments: the garden of Gethsemane, scene of the betrayal and arrest; and the garden where the tomb is located and the first resurrection scenes are enacted.

One of the (many) bible verses I have sometimes struggled with is the one in which, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples “if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). In the midst of a Gospel which, to my mind, preaches a consistently non-violent message this verse has always struck me as something of an anomaly. Furthermore, what is the significance of Jesus responding “that is enough” when the disciples present two swords, and why, having expressly asked them to acquire swords does Jesus, at the moment of his arrest, tell the disciples to put down the very weapons he himself instructed them to carry?

Reflecting on these verses in the light of the Genesis story has helped me to come up with a possible explanation about what is going on in this story ... but you might have to bear with me while I try to put my current thoughts into some sort of fairly coherent form.

When the Garden of Eden is created and humanity is placed within it, the tree at the very centre of the garden is the Tree of Life. Access to the tree of life is not limited but Adam and Eve do not choose to eat of its fruit. Later, as Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden, “he posted the great winged creatures and the fiery, flashing sword to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24) At their departure from the garden, swords bar the way to fullness of life; perhaps because in adulthood we find it hard to accept the fullness of life, the world of freedom and possibility, that as children we take for granted. Perhaps the swords are our own limitations, fears, distractions and preoccupations that bar our way to living life in all its fullness, that prevent us from living eternal life as an everyday reality.

In the garden of Gethsemane, we are back inside the garden, and once again, there are swords. Just as God instructed the tree of life to be guarded by swords, it is Jesus, God, who instructs the disciples to bring swords with them to the garden. Perhaps the events in the Gethsemane Garden are a re-enactment and reversal of the tree of life narrative we see when Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden.

If the disciples have brought swords with them to the Garden of Gethsemane it is, undoubtedly, with the intention of protecting Jesus, of guarding the way to him, which in the parallel with the Genesis story puts Jesus in the place of the tree of life. At least for me, there is no great leap of imagination to locate the Jesus who has “come that you may have life in all its fullness” (john 10:10) and has also identified himself as “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5) in the place of the Tree of Life.

The disciples have to bring swords, not because Jesus is going to condone any act of violence, but because this is the moment when the swords guarding the Tree of Life are going to be put down, and the way to fullness of life is reopened. Perhaps this is also what the slightly strange verse in Mark’s gospel “A young man followed with nothing on but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the cloth and ran away naked” (Mark 14: 51-52): could this be the guard from the tree of life running away and leaving the route open? Jesus’ instruction to “put down your swords” which appears in all four gospels, is not just a reaffirmation of his non-violent credentials, but is also a renewal of the unlimited access to the Tree of Life, offering the gift of life in all its fullness.

And who were the first to gain access to the tree of life? The reactions to this reopening of the way to fullness of life appear to be two-fold.

Judas, with his kiss of death, and the soldiers who dragged Jesus away respond with violence and hatred. Just as in the Genesis story the tree of life was accessible to Adam and Eve, symbolic of the whole of humanity, Jesus reaffirms that life in all its fullness, access to the tree of life is open to all, even those who will choose to abuse its vulnerability. But many are they who offered a world of possibility will act in aggressive confrontation rather than reach out and eat a fruit which they feel unworthy to taste.

Meanwhile, the others present, the disciples, all run away in fear: afraid of the violence of the soldiers, or filled with fear at the potential and possibility of this unlimited access to fullness of life? In putting down the swords which guard the way, Jesus reaffirms that life in all its fullness is within our reach. But many are they who dare not risk the small sacrifices required even when they have glimpsed the rewards.

And what about us? Do we run away in fear when we glimpse what life in all its fullness might be like? Do we criticize, ridicule and condemn those who have fullness of life because our fears and anger won’t allow us to eat of its fruit? Or do we reach out, tentatively, and taste the fruit that will allow us to live free, fulfilled and happy?

We are challenged by the gospel to put down the swords we hold in clenched fists which are barring the way for both ourselves and others. We are challenged to approach the tree of life and eat freely of its fruit. 

So how do we ensure we are eating of its fruit, how do we taste and see that it is good, how do we eat our fill and live life to the full? And how do we ensure we are offering its fruits to others? How do we encourage and invite those who gaze from a fearful distance or those who turn their heads in shame or anger to approach? 

More questions than answers, but I am sure it is a path we should all be treading together.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Circles of the Spirit

Happy Pentecost!

Pentecost is a celebration of many things, but for me, I think it is mainly a celebration of universality; it is about the possibility for all to experience the touch of a loving God: a God who reaches out to those on the edge, who unlocks doors of fear and hesitation, who breaks down walls of hatred and division, who overturns the tables of our preconceptions, who challenges power and authority used to oppress, who stands against exclusivity to preach an inclusive message of love.

The giving of the Spirit, the dwelling of God in human hearts, calls all of us to live out that same universality of reaching out a touch of love to those on the margins. Pentecost is a time to remind ourselves that our call is not to build walls that exclude, but to draw circles which include: and if there are people who seem a long way away from our experience, our world view, our comfort zone, then the call is not to hide in the upper room, but to make our circles wider.

Circles of the Spirit

Yet indestructible
Painted with the tender brush strokes
Of love

Reaching out
Drawing close
Dwelling within
Of community not conformity

Drawing in
To circles
Of flickering light

And the spirit dances
Within our doubt

All are welcome
To step inside
To warm frozen toes
By a fire of love

A fire lit
From thorns that pierce
And the crumpled, tattered papers
Of the trials of life

But for those who don’t
Or can’t or won’t

Stretch out your hand
And draw
A larger circle
With broader brush strokes
Drawing in
Even him.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sun, sea and sand

A 4.30am start last Monday morning did feel a little on the early side, but it did mean that even though it was a three hour bus journey to Tabuelan we had arrived at our destination, set up camp, had breakfast and were in the sea shortly after 9 in the morning.

Tabuelan, on the opposite side of Cebu island gets barely a mention in our guide book, but with white sand, palm trees and perfect blue sea, it proved to be an idyllic location for the leadership camp we attended with twenty of the TVED students earlier this week.

This was a residential for which I would not have wanted to complete the risk assessment, but such things are less of a consideration here. After all, it is all very well to be concerned with health and safety, but how are you going to have fresh coconut juice to drink if the students don’t climb up high into the palm trees to throw down the coconuts; and I’m all for food hygiene standards, but barbecued pork cooked on an open fire on the beach behind sand barricades built against the rising tide does taste very good!

Each morning we were up at five thirty (apparently turning the sound system on at that time is not considered anti-social behaviour) and in the water for a swim before breakfast to make the most of the relative cool of the early morning. In fact, in between the activities, which mostly involved the students crawling around blindfolded in the sand, much of the three days was spent in the water: and I spent much of it thinking how privileged I am to be here.

It was a fabulous three days, but we did also return with a renewed appreciation for a bed and the air con!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Telling their stories

As part of the English programme, we asked all the junior students to write their own autobiography. It was a project which seemed to really capture their imagination and I was impressed (and I acknowledge mildly surprised) by the enthusiasm with which they set to work. With planning ahead a distinctly lacking skill here, I set the four week deadline with a degree of trepidation, expecting to spend the week after the deadline reminding them to get started; but no, the only ones not handed in on deadline day were those which the students had submitted early. I had offered that if they handed in a draft ahead of time, I would correct and help improve it, and many took me up on the offer (which rather added to my workload, but aside from that minor irritation I was very impressed!) The final copies, for the most part showed a huge amount of effort had gone in to both the writing and the presentation of their books, and I am delighted that they now all have a beautiful keepsake of their life so far.

Reading them I was touched by the openness and honesty with which they wrote. I had suggested that to make their autobiographies interesting, they should include thoughts, feelings and reflections: and they did. In most cases, what they wrote was an honest and frank account of their ups and downs, theirs successes and failures, their pleasure and pain, their loves and fears, their joys and their sorrows ... and they were happy to share all of that with me.

Much of what they wrote spoke clearly of the universality of the experience of childhood and adolescence: lessons they loved and hated, games, parties and excursions, the shifting parameters of relationships with parents, the importance of friendships and the highs and lows of dating featured prominently among their stories. Parts of what they wrote could have been written by any teenager in the world.

But amidst the mundane stories of day-to-day teenage life, there were plenty of parts that were hard to read, because they also wrote with searing honesty of the struggles and challenges of living with poverty: of not seeing parents who were forced to work away, of dropping out of school when there was no money for the transport to get there, of experiencing the bottom dropping out of their world when a parent lost a job and there was no safety net to catch them, of watching their parents in tears because of financial problems, of feeling hungry and not being able to eat.

They may just be like any other teenagers, but some of them have experienced things no one of any age should ever have to, and I feel extremely privileged to have had such a personal insight into their lives. Thank you to all the juniors.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Reaping the rewards

With the last re-sits of the final exams last week bringing an end to the majority of our teaching, a major part of what we are doing here is now over, a fact of which we are very aware and so are the students. Although we still have six weeks left, it has been nice to feel appreciated, with lots of the students thanking us for teaching them and telling us they will miss us when we go back to our country.

With exams to invigilate and mark for almost 200 students, we had a very busy but on the whole quite positive few days at the end of April. The days of oral exams were particularly intense; a lesson in how much concentration is required to give 100% attention to each student, without thinking about the previous one or the next one or how many more there are to get through. Intense, but also intensely rewarding, especially with the senior students, who showed us that all the hard work had been worthwhile. One of our very first TVED experiences last October was observing the equivalent exam with the previous batch, and there is no doubt that our current students demonstrated more language but particularly more confidence in speaking English: our strongest students spoke fluently, but more rewarding was that even among the weakest students, nobody was tongue-tied and silent.

Once round one was completed, rounds two and three saw gradually dwindling numbers as many students passed and were signed off; but we were no less busy as we had intensive remedial classes with our struggling students (and our lazy ones) in the hope that most would make it through – and most did.

After a full timetable of “last chance” exams last Tuesday, Wednesday was D-Day for the remaining students, the day when we would sign their clearance forms, with good news or bad – and for most it was good news. After each round of exams we have been the bearers of some bad news, but lots of good news. Although it has been difficult to tell some students they haven’t passed, there have also been some real highlights in telling students they have passed: not so much the ones who we knew would pass all along, but those who have had to work very hard to make it through, and have received the well-earned rewards of their labour. The smiling faces with an occasional touch of disbelief, the handshakes, even a hug from one or two; the students who kept coming back to ask to see their score again, just to confirm it was still a pass a few hours later; the 100% pass rate in both subjects from WFT, our weakest class in each year group, through hard work and a lot of solidarity; those are the moments form last Wednesday I will remember and treasure. 

And those who are left, the last 18? Well with our naughtiest class dominating the fail lists, I think even the students, deep down, would admit that a lot of those who failed it may be because they haven’t worked quite as hard as they might have done! But we are not giving up yet and are still hard at it with special assignments (for which read intensive extra classes) and we’re hoping they will all be signed off, before we leave ...

Monday, 14 May 2012

Out of Eden - Part 1 - The Forbidden Fruit

This blog post is rather long, sorry about that, and theological, so anyone not interested in my theological ramblings is welcome to give this one a miss. If anyone does make it to the end - I'd welcome your comments!

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is perhaps one of the best known Old Testament tales but for all its familiarity I wonder how often we pause to think beyond its superficial meanings and dig a little deeper into the soil of this garden. Here I share some of my attempts to do so, although I am certain there are many more layers I have not yet overturned.

In the beginning there is a garden. It is, or at least appears to be, a perfect haven of peace and security. Adam and Eve, humanity, are given the run of the garden; forbidden only from eating the fruit from one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So if the garden represents the totality of creation, why this one forbidden fruit?

I imagine many explanations have been offered for the reason God forbade access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The biblical text itself offers two, one given by God (“you are doomed to die”) and a second by the snake (“your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods”). Just as I am sure many have done before me, I am going to hazard my own explanation for this prohibition.

The suggestion is that the trees in the garden have been planted by God: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the fruit of a tree planted and nurtured by God. Perhaps the reason God does not want humanity to eat fruit from this tree is because it is meaningless knowledge: however delicious and beautiful it may look, you cannot be fed and nourished by the fruit of the tree of someone else’s knowledge of good and evil. God forbids access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because he wants humanity to grow its own trees of the knowledge of good and evil. He does not want us to receive a set of truths, but to grow our own. The knowledge of good and evil, morality, is not an external set of rules, but something each of us must plant, grow and nurture for ourselves.

Maybe God, as parent, as teacher, knows that you cannot feed others from the fruit of your own tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Better, you must give them the tools and the seeds to grow their own tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And what are the tools we need to grow our trees of the knowledge of good and evil? Maybe there are indications in the genesis story that God also gives these tools to humanity.

Adam, humanity, is instructed to “cultivate and take care of” the garden. The Garden of Eden is not a readymade reality, but a place in which humanity is invited to be a co-creator. It is something which is incomplete and open to acts of creativity. Adam is also instructed to name the animals and “each one would bear the name the man gave it.” Names are significant. They are bearers of identity. This is not just about convenient scientific categorisation; the act of naming is a creative act. We are called to be creative.

Adam is given a companion because “it is not right that man should be alone”. From the beginning, the need for collective experience is recognised. Growing and creating are acts we do best with others. We are not meant to exist in isolation, nor will our trees grow best when they are grown out of selfishness or self-interest. We are called to be community.

With the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity is “free to eat of all the trees in the garden.” These may be apples and bananas, but if the two named trees are knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life, we might imagine that the other trees also have symbolic fruits: and humanity is invited, even encouraged to explore and discover for themselves. We are called to be free.

Perhaps the prohibition to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is in itself also one of the tools we need. When we have planted our tree of the knowledge of good and evil and tasted its fruit, our pride in our creation, along with a genuine desire to share something which, to us, is truly beautiful, tempts us to feed our own fruit to others. What God knew, and we too often forget, is that our fruit, acquired through our experience, if we present it as what the fruit of such a tree should be, beautiful though it is to us, risks limiting another’s potential to grow their own tree, of which the fruit may be very different. We are called to be unique.

Growing our own trees of the knowledge of good and evil will take time, the fruit needs to ripen and mature, and, the chances are, even as it does so, it will be blemished and imperfect, but in spite of the imperfections it will be our fruit. It will be the fruit that will nourish us and the fruit that will be beautiful.

These are lessons that any of us who are educators could probably learn from. They are lessons that we, as individuals on a life-long journey of learning, need to recall.

Did God then, as the snake suggests, lie to Adam when he told him that in eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he was “doomed to die”, or did he threaten a punishment which, in the event, he didn’t carry out, or is there another explanation for these words?

I believe in a God of Love, and love is not violent and does not threaten; plus I feel truth is probably inherent to the nature of God, so I felt the need to seek a different possible explanation, which is this: perhaps God was stating a reality. Although eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not bring about Adam and Eve’s physical death, perhaps it prevented them from experiencing life in all its fullness.

In eating of someone else’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we admit our willingness to accept pre-determined realities and perhaps our willingness to accept someone else’s truths prevents us from discovering the world anew with eyes truly open, allowing us to explore and to create new realities, a newness inherent in having life in all its fullness.

In eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are tempted by acquiring something without the effort of producing it, eating of the fruit without being part of the creative and potentially often arduous task of growing it, an active participation inherent in having life in all its fullness.

In eating of the readymade tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we seek to possess what we do not have, rather than to create using what we do have. We stop using the seeds and tools we were given to grow our own trees. We deny our unique individuality and freedom to be someone different, but at the same time individualistic self-fulfilment becomes more important than creative community. And perhaps that is why every time we eat of someone else’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil, something inside us dies and we fail to live life in all its fullness.

Perhaps we need to start planting.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Dreaming of distant shores

It is the end of the semester, the final exams are done and, with the junior students looking forward to their next semester, the seniors preparing for five months of on the job training, and a whole new batch of applicants being put through their paces with the three week orientation programme, it is a time of looking ahead.

For the students at TVED, the skills and qualifications they receive are a route out of poverty, and being able to earn a better living is undoubtedly a key motivation for all of them. Often their desire to earn more is not entirely self-centred: one recurring theme among the students here is their desire, by completing their studies, to assist or support their families.

For many, the idea of travelling abroad to work is an important part of this dream. For most, they don’t have a specific destination in mind: anywhere where their skills will earn them higher wages than they can hope for at home, and from where they can send money back to help their parents or younger siblings to have a better life. With thousands, maybe millions of Filipinos working abroad in every corner of the world (I know, the world is round so it doesn’t have corners, but you know what I mean) for some this may well become a reality.

While I in no way wish to criticize our students for their aspirations, nor cast judgement on their actions, there are two things which sadden me about this dream.

The first is that they feel this is the only option. The only way to leave poverty is to leave the Philippines. With stories of higher wages abroad and surrounded by the evidence (not least in the main fee-paying part of the school) of those who are reaping the financial rewards of working away it is easy to see why this is their dream. There is little debate about the truth of their belief that going abroad offers more opportunities for financial gain than staying here. But in a culture where family and connections are so important and the students talk about close relationships and their love of their families and communities, it seems sad that in order to help those very people they feel they have to go so far away from them. The evidence of the wealth generated by Filipinos working abroad is everywhere here, but there is also plenty of evidence of the damage to social fabric and family relationships. When the children from the main school are discussed, many of the discipline issues come down to students whose parents are abroad, sometimes for years at a time. Abroad, possibly, to give their children a better chance and better education: but is leaving them without parental care really giving them the best hope for the future? What a choice to have to make.

The second is that while the students talk about their desire to travel, the only motivation to do so they ever mention is the desire to earn a better living. I have heard no student speak of wanting to see different environments or experience a different culture, to see the sights or to meet different people. I have not heard them speak of lessons to be learned, nor (even less) of what they have to offer and give to other countries, other than their hours of labour. I feel hugely privileged to have travelled to many different places and met many different people, and I in no way want to suggest the TVED students I work with shouldn’t be able to do the same; nor am I suggesting that those who go abroad will not take part in important cultural exchanges, both giving and receiving, and making many new friends. But it is sad that this aspect of the benefit of travel isn’t even on their radar.

I sincerely hope that all the TVED students have the opportunity to live a better life as a result of their training and if for some that involves going abroad, I hope it is a fruitful and life-giving experience. But I mourn for a world where some can choose to travel to make new friends, and others feel forced to travel leaving friends and family behind; where for some, myself included, travel is an exciting opportunity to discover the world, while others live lives so damaged and limited by poverty they can see no other reason than financial gain.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Reflections on Catholicity

The Philippines (with the exception of a few Muslim areas in Mindanao) is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The Catholic Church which arrived with the Spanish colonisers may have made its first inroads into this country by force, but now Filipinos seem to be willing and enthusiastic followers of the Catholic faith. In a country where one church is so visibly dominant, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on what being Catholic really means.

Although our first association with the word catholic is often the Roman Catholic Church, in reality all the mainstream churches sign up to a creed which states belief in the catholic church: not as an institution but as a deeper reality of the nature of the church, the body of Christ. A church which is catholic, meaning universal, or even more accurately translated (so I am told) “pertaining to everything”. It is this idea of catholicity, universality, or “pertaining to everything” which I think merits further reflection.

Writing as I am half way round the world from my homeland, perhaps the most immediately visible significance of catholicity is that this is faith on a global scale. It is very easy to recognise, here in the Philippines, that the church here is the same church as the church in Europe, because it is, well, the same. But I am not sure this universal sameness is really what is meant by the catholicity of “pertaining to everything”. Perhaps the model of everyone doing the same everywhere comes from a fear that doing things differently creates tension and division, but inculturation is an essential part of the essence of the catholic church, not so as to separate the people of one place from a wider human family, but so that their faith can truly “pertain to everything”, something it strikes me is impossible for a church built on an imported model, which fails to pertain to the culture and reality of people in different situations.

Universality is about far more than just sense of place; it is also about an engagement within our own spheres, wherever in the world they may be. For a truly catholic faith that “pertains to everything” no issue, no question, no debate is “not a faith issue”. Our catholic, universal faith is called to engage with science, with politics, with economics, with social issues, with history and with the future. In order to “pertain to everything” the catholic church needs to be open and active and engaged, responding to different issues and to new realities. We should not be saying everything goes, but nor should we say that we the church already have the answers and know best. We need to be both speaker and listener, both teacher and learner, both expert and infant, both accuser and defender, both supporter and opposition: but never mere bystanders who look the other way.

So far, I have remained in the domain of thoughts and reason, but for me there is also a much more human face to this catholicity – it is a faith which pertains not just to everything, but equally, to everyone. By its very name and very nature the catholic church is called to inclusivity, is called to an openness to all: irrespective of their lifestyle, their culture, even their faith and belief, the definition of catholicity says everyone is in. For me this is the heart of the gospel message, and the heart of the meaning of “catholic”: Jesus, and in turn the church, turns to those on the outside, and draws an ever larger circle until everyone is on the inside. If the church defines itself by exclusivity, by who is in and who is on the outside, has it not lost the very essence of its own identity?

And finally what about on a personal level? What does it mean for me, as an individual to say whether or not my faith is “Catholic”? How should this universality, this “pertaining to everything” play out in my life? I guess it means having no closed doors and nothing that is out of reach. It means putting everything on the table and holding nothing back. It means not saying no, that part of me, that part of my life God can’t touch. It means not convincing ourselves that that part of me, that part of my life, to which I am so attached, God wouldn’t want to touch or change anyway. It means not predetermining what God wants to do with my life because it fits neatly with my own plans. It means praying, not to tell God what to do, but to listen to what he wants me to do.

Am I truly Catholic, well, if I am honest, probably not yet ... but I am working on it...