Monday, 30 April 2012

I am and you are

Those of you with particularly good memories might remember that way back in November I wrote a poem inspired by the "I am statements" in John's gospel. ( This second poem and painting, inspired by the same verses along with one of my personal favourites "I have come that you may have life in all its fullness" (John 10:10) is maybe a little more abstract, but if you search for them, I hope you might be able to identify references to all seven "I am" images: the good shepherd, the gate, the bread of life, the way the truth and the life, the resurrection and the life, the vine, and the light of the world.

I am
And you are

Walk my way
Living is being

Called by name
Called to be you

Called in to shelter
Called out to shine
With the light of love

Called to have life
In all its fullness

I in you
You in me
A vine, intertwined

And being

Loving because I am
Loved because you are

Giving myself
Still, I am
Give of yourself
Even more
You will be

I am
And you are
And live!

(John 6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 10:14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1)

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A window on our world

In sharp contrast to our two years in France, where we welcomed many visitors and visited many friends, our social contact this year has lacked the variety we have perhaps come to take for granted; and our opportunities to host visitors have been distinctly limited: which is not to say it has not been a sociable year; it has. Part of our motivation in coming here was an exploration of life in community, and I enjoy sitting down each day to community meals and having a routine of regular community prayers. Our work at TVED is in no small part a social role. As much as ever, we spend a lot of time with other people, the difference from past years being that they are always the same people. It is an interesting reflection that this in some ways intense community experience involves spending nine months with a group of people who, when we say goodbye in a couple of months, there is a strong chance we will not see again.

One of the things we loved about living on the edge of Paris was how many people came and spent time with us: it made me feel very popular, even if the Eiffel Tower was the real attraction, rather than me! We knew this year we were unlikely to receive anywhere near as many visitors (if any at all), and were delighted when one friend decided to make the trip. It was a particular pleasure to welcome Janet when she headed half way round the world to join us during her Easter holidays: I only hope she enjoyed her visit as much as I did. Aside from lots of long conversations putting the world to rights, some extra help in a few lessons, and an excuse to be tourists for a few days; welcoming another European visitor was also a reminder to look again at the world which surrounds us here. A reminder that many of the little things which have just become part of our daily reality are actually very alien and different. An opportunity to reflect again on our experience and open our eyes anew to our environment. Which is as good an excuse as any to publish some photos of our local area, hopefully opening a window, albeit a small one, into our world:

Janet is in the process of publishing her reflections on her trip which can be read here: if you are interested in a different perspective on Cebu.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Island Hopping

The Philippines is made up of more than 7000 islands, and we have no intention of ticking them all off during our time here, but a couple of recent trips have taken our total to 7.

After a late night on Easter eve for the post-vigil karaoke session, we were up early the next morning for a return trip to Bohol, the island we visited after Christmas. We would be back in the classroom on the Tuesday so spent just one night in the jungle hideaway of Nuts Huts. Although it wouldn’t always be convenient, I do approve of places you can only reach on foot: it gives a certain satisfaction to arriving! Not that we were energetic all the time: there was a lot of sitting admiring the view; but we did also kayak up stream to the nearby waterfalls, where, somewhat to my own surprise, I managed to get back into the kayak without capsizing it after a swim in the refreshingly cool plunge pool.

A week later we were back at the port, this time heading to the fabled city of Dumaguete on Negros. Fabled, because, home to one of the other Salesian communities in the Philippines South province, Dumaguete is spoken of with great love by the community here, all of whom would quite like to be assigned there ... and after a couple of days, it was easy to see why it might be a more popular place to stay than Cebu. A much smaller city than Cebu, Dumaguete is quieter, calmer and altogether more attractive. Appeal undoubtedly added to by its sea front promenade and beach, sea you could happily swim in, and spectacular countryside in easy striking distance, including the 30m Casaroro falls. Less accessible since typhoon Sendong destroyed the access path and bridge, it was well worth the scramble over the rocks and through the river to find them.

During our stay on Negros we also added another island to our list, with a day trip to the tiny but idyllic Apo Island. Apart from a brief trip up to the centre of the island we spent the day on the beach and in the perfect blue sea. Neither words, nor photos can really do it justice; and not owning a waterproof camera, you will just have to take my word for the beauty of the underwater world of the coral reef, with its colourful fish and most amazing of all the turtles with whom we swam through the coral.

And if you were wondering, yes, this blog post was really just an excuse to share some holiday photos. 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

After a fortnight without updating my blog, the longest gap since arriving in the Philippines 200 days ago, I have plenty to catch up on, beginning with a greeting:

Happy Easter!

For anyone who is thinking it is already a little late for such a greeting, I disagree. With the Easter season lasting 50 days, I am well within my rights to still be celebrating the resurrection.

It strikes me as significant that in the church calendar, the season of Easter lasts for longer than the forty day period of Lenten fasting which precedes it. This is, to my mind, no mistake and no coincidence: the period of celebration should surpass, not only in time but also in magnitude, the suffering before it. It is sad that all too often, Easter is reduced to one day of gorging on chocolate to mark the end of a time of fasting, rather than being lived as an extended time of joyful celebration. With or without karaoke, Easter should be a party which exhilarates and inspires, and one which lasts.

This is my faith. A faith where joy and celebration outweigh sacrifice and suffering. A faith where self-giving gives birth to the greater joy of loving and living together; and where limitations only serve to engender the deeper freedom of fulfilling true desires.

This is my faith. A faith where eternal life is not a reward for a life of duty to be laboured for and looked forward to, but is a reality to be lived here and now in the fulfilment on each new day.

This is my faith. A faith which encompasses Lent, certainly, but where Lent is immeasurably surpassed by Easter joy.

This is my faith. A faith of resurrection and of life.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

A day of emptiness

Today is Holy Saturday and God is dead.

It is a time of sadness, grieving and desolation.

This week is the biggest week of the church year, and lived and experienced as it should be, it is a roller coaster of an emotional journey. Sandwiched between the suffering of Good Friday and the joy of Easter, the risk is that Holy Saturday becomes little more than a rest day in the midst of a busy liturgical time, or a day of preparation and getting ready for Easter.

But maybe Holy Saturday is an important moment in its own right. This space between crucifixion and resurrection matters.

Most of our liturgy, most of our faith is a celebration of God's presence. Immanuel, God is with us. The incarnation is about God becoming one of us, becoming closer to humanity by becoming part of humanity. And it is right that God's presence with us is the primary focus of our church, our liturgy, our faith.

But what about today?

It is also the incarnation, the same incarnation of God with us, that, at this point, brings us to an intense experience of the absence of God, of a sense of desolation and separation. Today is the only day of the church year when we commemorate not God's presence, but his absence. Written into the calendar of a faith built on God's presence is a day when God is absent. It is a day of emptiness and absence: which presents a challenge we are perhaps tempted to shy away from.

Of course, we know this is not the end of the story. Inherent in the emptiness of Holy Saturday is the anticipation of what is to come. The end of the story never changes. Because of this anticipation, the absence and desolation we feel cannot equal that of the first disciples who really did experience, in the depth of their beings, turning upside down their entire existence, the Death of God; who lived this time as a moment of total absence of consolation and hope.

There is nothing wrong with anticipation. But maybe today is about more than just looking forward to the resurrection, or even back to the crucifixion. Maybe it is too easy to empty today of its meaning, by looking somewhere else or; by pre-anticipating the end of the story and denying this as a time when God is dead.

But maybe today is about stopping and looking in. Maybe today, in the midst of the preparation and anticipation for the resurrection, we need to find time to experience and in some way we don't fully understand, to appreciate the absence of God.

After all, it is this absence and desolation which makes an explosion of joy possible at Easter. It is this emptiness which creates the space for new life to be possible.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Today you will be with me in paradise

As promised, another poem for Good Friday. The footprint on the accompanying picture, incidentally, has nothing to do with yesterday's post. Rather it is part of a (currently incomplete) way of the cross. 

Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, the men crucified either side of Jesus are unlikely to have been common criminals or petty thieves. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for those the Roman Empire saw as a threat to itself, and let us make no mistake, Pilate may have washed his hands, but Jesus’ message of equality for the poor and freedom from oppression was definitely a threat, even if it was preached in love and peace and without violence. It was a threat to the empire, in the same way that Ghandi’s peaceful march to the shore to make salt was a threat to the British Empire in India, and the same way Martin Luther King’s demand for equality was a threat to the establishment in the USA, but I digress.

The point is this, those who are with Jesus in his final moments of human life, those who take up their cross and carry it with him, those who do not abandon him even when all his closest friends have fled, are not just any old criminals. In all likelihood, they were Zealots, the Jews who had taken up arms to try to expel the Roman occupiers. They are those who, at least in part, share his convictions. They share his convictions of freedom from oppression, even if they have chosen the wrong route, to try to share their message, resorting to the violent tools used by the oppressors themselves.

Small wonder, perhaps, that it is to one hanging on a cross beside him that Jesus promises, “You will be with me in paradise”. The ‘repentant criminal’ may not have fully understood the gospel, in the face of hatred and hardship he may have resorted to those same tools of violence, he may not have lived a full and true life of love; but he knew that standing against oppression was worth dying for, and he did.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise”

Abandoned by those he shared his life with
Abandoned as they run away in fear
Abandoned but not yet alone
Those you might not expect remain near

He offered love and consolation
But there is a challenge in being his friend
Take up your cross and follow
Walk this road with me to the end

But somehow when it came to the moment
It was others who were at his side
A man of love between men of violence
As he suffered, as he died

Those other nail-scarred hands
Whose wounds cut just as deep
Whose pain is just as real
Whose friends look on, whose families weep

A fighter against injustice
The courage of a cause that is right
Standing firm in the face of aggression
How sad he chose weapons to fight

To fight against oppression
He chose the oppressor’s way
He raised his hand in violence
He let night be stronger than day

Can love be preached with a sword?
Freedom brought through the barrel of a gun?
Injustice can’t be beaten by violence
But with love the battle can be won

But he saw in that other a hero
A shared conviction, and message to tell
A different route of humble innocence
Let me walk that way as well

The same message against oppression
A shared truth they both believed
Give life to the poor and the outcast
Thus a gospel of truth is weaved

Did he realise in that moment
As violence scarred his flesh
That another way was better
Was it too late to start afresh?

A violent death expected
Maybe a violent death justified
He too chose weapons of destruction
So from violence had no place to hide

But he embraced the other’s innocence
With arms stretched wide on that tree
When you come into your kingdom
Please, Jesus, Remember me

You too have seen the injustice
You too have paid the price
The answer, ever loving
Today, join me in paradise

Thursday, 5 April 2012

On Holy Ground

This week has been marked by the sad demise of my sandals, and after seven and a half years it is time to take them off for the last time. As I do so, inspired by something I was asked to write a few months ago, the verse “Take off your shoes for this is holy ground”, God’s call to Moses from the burning bush, comes to mind. Appropriate, perhaps, that I should be writing this post today when God again calls his disciples to remove their shoes. There is a symbolism of service as Jesus washes his disciples feet, but maybe also a reminder that this ground, this place of encounter, this shared meal, this experience of the every day, is our Holy Ground. A recognition of this place as Holy Ground is the context in which self-giving service becomes a reality.

The death of my sandals, originally bought for our trip to Peru in 2004 is a chance to reflect on some of the Holy Ground they, and I have walked on these past few years. All told, my sandals and I have covered a good few miles (and that’s without counting the miles it has been far too cold to cover in sandals!).

Iquitos in the Amazon jungle was my first experience of visiting a very different and considerably poorer part of the world and my time there undoubtedly contributed significantly to where I am today. Since leaving the Amazon jungle, my Holy Ground has spread out to cover quite a few places in the UK and Europe, as well as a few further afield.

I have walked on Holy Ground in many parts of the UK and Europe surrounded by natural beauty (and sometimes manmade ugliness). I have walked on Holy Ground in Cuba, where despite the imperfections and abuses, there is evidence of a semi-successful attempt to work with a model different to the dominant god of Capitalism. I have walked on Holy Ground in the Philippines, first in the North meeting producers of recycled, far-trade products and being inspired by the reality of making a difference ( and now here in Cebu. I have walked in Taizé, where the Holiness is tangible, holy ground I walk away from each time refreshed and renewed.

My journey across my Holy Ground is a journey which has taken me to a lot of different places in a lot of different ways. It is a journey that has taken me far from home as well as to more familiar surroundings. It is a journey over ground which is easy to recognise as holy, and ground where you have to search for holiness. It is a journey of walking to meet many, many friends old and new. It is a journey which has opened my eyes to different realities and moved me to new places. It is a journey of growth and change (although not of shoe size, fortunately!) My holy ground is truly a complex patchwork of places, people and experiences.

It is a journey I feel hugely privileged to be walking. All of this is my Holy Ground, and with a new pair of sandals, it is time to keep on walking.