Thursday, 29 May 2014

A story of rising, a story of descending

Generally, I try to avoid posting two blog posts in as many days, but today is ascension day, so if I don't post this today I'll have to wait a whole year by which time I might have mislaid it / forgotten about it / decided it wasn't worth posting anyway ... all of which may be a good thing, I guess, but anyway, here it is!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Stations of Light

During Lent I published some pictures and words to accompany the Stations of the Cross. It seems the 'Stations of Light', or 'Stations of the Resurrection' are much less well known. It strikes me that often, as church, despite our words affirming we are people of the resurrection, we are much more comfortable with struggles and sadness than joy and celebration. We fast during Lent with much greater diligence than we feast during Easter. We often seem more at ease with the horrors of crucifixion, than the mystery of Easter morning. We find it easier to believe in incomprehensible suffering and hatred, than incomprehensible life and love.

Of course, it would be equally wrong to celebrate the explosion of Easter joy without acknowledging the place of challenge and suffering in our world and in our faith; but I can't help feeling that generally, we might not have got the balance quite right yet.

In the name of balance, then, I offer these "Stations of the Resurrection", for your reflection:

The First Station: Jesus is Raised from the Dead
A man
Who walked this dust of ours
Now raised from death
Earthquakes and stillness
Force the question
Where now is Holy Ground?

The Second Station: Finding the Empty Tomb
An empty place
Where hope once lay
And fear now seeps
Darkness and confusion
As we seek
Our longed for Holy Ground

The Third Station: Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Jesus
A soft-spoken name
The call to our deepest self
Which speaks
Identity and Love
And sends us out
across familiar Holy Ground

The Fourth Station: Meeting the disciples on the Road to Emmaus
A journey
To walk away
From what might have been
Wondering and lost
Was this audacious hope
Such fragile Holy Ground?

The Fifth Station: Jesus is made known in the breaking of Bread
A simple meal
An invitation to the other
To share this bread
Feasting and companionship
Offers a gift of recognition
In this now Holy Ground

The Sixth Station: Jesus appears to the Disciples in Jerusalem
An upper room
A once so familiar face
An unexpected guest
Uncertainty and excitement
This place, a reminder
Of another Holy Ground

The Seventh Station: Jesus gives his peace
A blessing
With hands outstretched
In inclusive love
Forgiveness and peace
Trusted to create for others
A way into Holy Ground

The Eighth Station: Jesus strengthens the faith of Thomas
A scarred hand
Holding memories of pain
Offered freely but not cheaply
My Lord and My God
Passed through agony
That this might be Holy Ground

The Ninth Station: Jesus appears by the sea of Tiberius
A boat by the shore
Comfort in the familiar
Knowing everything is new
What was and what will be
Sent out into the normality
Of our everyday Holy Ground

The Tenth Station: Jesus forgives Peter and commands him to feed his sheep
A friendship restored
An intimate moment shared
Forgiveness offered freely
Repentance and restoration
Still welcome
To tread this Holy Ground

The Eleventh Station: Jesus commissions the disciples on the mountainside
A mountainside
The place of meeting
Of shared visions of what might be
Promise and challenge
Sent out
To create this Holy Ground

The Twelfth Station: Jesus Ascends into Heaven
A cloud of glory
The promised time has come
To find a new way of being
Ending and beginning
Leave the mountainside
To find your own Holy Ground

The Thirteenth Station: The disciples wait in prayer
A silent waiting
In prayerful contemplation
With God and with each other
Expectancy and hope
This is already Holy Ground

The Fourteenth Station: The day of Pentecost
A new beginning
A precious gift
The confidence of trusting
Wind and fire
No limits to our Holy Ground

In the silence
We stand on holy ground
Be still and watch
But not for long
It is time
To step out
And walk on.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Holidaying close to home

One of the realities of the life we have currently chosen is a lot more of our time is geographically tied to this location. A commitment to morning and evening prayer five days a week means committing to being very much resent in the city centre most of the time. It was something we were very much aware of buying into when we moved here: knowing it would bring both real positives and genuine challenges. Another reality which I was perhaps less conscious of when we begun but has proved itself over the recent months is that the  home / work boundaries are much more blurred than they have been at other points in our lives. Both spaces and activities are harder to place in the "this is leisure" and "this is work" boxes. Again, this brings great positives, as we strive to live a life where every part we do is integrated into a whole, but it also has its challenges.

Setting aside time to step out of that completeness is perhaps proving to be an important part of being able to fully buy into it. Which is why, when looking at our hectic diaries a few months back we set aside one of our completely free weekends and promised ourselves we would just do something different. A generous gift offered with the strict instruction to "spend it on something for yourselves" provided an added impetus.

We conscientiously kept it free of other commitments, but, life being busy, the said weekend approached without us having given too much thought to it. By which point we had missed all the cheap train tickets, usually a deciding factor in any trip away, and we wondered if we should just give it a miss.

But then we had this crazy idea. Really, to have the kind of break we wanted, we weren't going to have to go very far at all. Our chief priorities were just to be somewhere different, away from the distractions of jobs lists and laptops; and ideally go somewhere with a bit of the greenery which the city centre doesn't really offer. It turned out our bus passes could take us to the edge of the West Midlands conurbation, where we could find both of those things with no travel costs at all.

And so it was that we went on holiday on the number 9 bus route. Which may not mean much to anyone else, but just to add a little bit of context: I have taken that bus more times than I can count. It is the route that takes us to my in-laws and, back in 2005, it was the bus I took to and from work every day. And yet, last Saturday morning, when I walked towards the bus stop to catch it, it genuinely felt different. It felt like we were going on holiday. I wonder whether we are the first people who have ever "gone on holiday" by getting a bus from Birmingham to Stourbridge?

Admittedly, the best weather of the year so far definitely helped. Add in a long walk along a very beautiful stretch of canal, another along a disused railway, a cheap hotel, a soak in the bath, a balti restaurant, a good book, a lie-in, a full cooked breakfast, a country house and park, an ice-cream ... and I can think of little more that I would have wanted from this "mini-break". I guess holidays are perhaps less about where we go, and more about managing to change our mindset into a different gear. A change of location definitely helps that process, but maybe the distances don't always need to be as far as we sometimes imagine.

Who'd have thought it? A "holiday" in the Black Country turned out to be exactly what I needed and I arrived home on Sunday afternoon feeling thoroughly refreshed and ready to throw myself back into my hectic life.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Buying happiness

One notable difference about living in the city centre compared to other places we have lived is that, instead of being surrounded by other people's homes, we are surrounded predominantly by retail units. Our nearest neighbours are mostly the temples to Britain's favourite religion, consumerism.

It is an interesting place to find myself because, as some of you may know, I don't really like shopping. I do it because I have to, but it is not something I would ever choose to do for pleasure. The footfall through Birmingham City Centre on a Saturday afternoon suggests that in this, I am somewhat unusual.

Supposedly, everyone else thinks shopping is just brilliant and exactly what they want to be doing with their day off. On the other hand, looking at the faces of those passing by, maybe I'm not so unusual after all, because for a past-time which seems to attract millions, it's surprisingly rare to see people with beaming smiles spread across their faces. Frustration, yes; anger, sometimes; dissatisfaction, predominantly. But joy? No. Not really. That is not what I see on a busy Saturday in Birmingham.

So what is it all about? Why do millions of people spend a lot of time and all their money doing something which brings at best fleeting moments of relief or even euphoria, but which leaves behind a deep-seated dissatisfaction with ourselves and the world around us? A deep dissatisfaction which, not knowing how to shift, we think might just go with the next trip to guess where? Yes, the same old shopping centre to buy that one more thing which will, this time perhaps, solve it.

We all know the cliché that you can't buy happiness, and probably the vast majority of people would nod their heads sagely and agree with its truth. So I don't really want this to be a blog post that just repeats that age old message.

But I do want it to reflect on how the advertisers message that this one more thing which will make you more beautiful, more successful, more loveable, more satisfied, more happy manages to pervade beneath our common sense and deepest values which tell us this is all a load of nonsense. I want it to reflect on how our society has built itself on a system which is dependent on the misery of the majority.

Because sadly, it seems that it is very much in the interest of the revolving door of consumer capitalism to keep us unhappy. Our economic model relies on our dissatisfaction, and on a few people profiting from everyone else being miserable. Our whole economic system of buying power and growth would crumble if we were suddenly all satisfied, or heaven forbid actually happy. Those profiting from the current system are not going to allow it to be shaken easily, and those in power are terrified of the void that would leave behind.

And so almost from the cradle we are surrounded by messages which tell us we should strive to be something better, or stronger, or more beautiful, or more busy, or more intelligent, or more ... than we already are. And because we can never be more of all those things, because we can never satisfy our own ideals, well, then we just have to keep buying more stuff to try and fill the gaps instead.

So it seems it shouldn't be so very difficult. All we have to do is be happy. To find joy in being exactly who we are right now, at this time, in this place. To be satisfied with the messiness of our own complicated life which is never going to be exactly like the next person's. To find spaces where we can love our own humanity.

The freedom we claim to cling to so dearly in our society is to be found in this. Freedom is not to be found in the buying power or the false choices of a privatised economy. The true freedom we are called to is a freedom to be who we truly are. The freedom to know we can't buy happiness. The freedom to find ways to be happy enough to realise the full truth of this.

On a Saturday afternoon in Birmingham, it is pretty obvious there is much work to be done before we live in a society which is really happy and truly free.