Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Consolation and transformation

While I lead prayer regularly, it is rare that I get the opportunity to preach. But having been very involved in the organisation of the Birmingham Churches Together 24 hours of prayer hosted by Carrs Lane last weekend (more on that to follow) I was also invited to be part of the Sunday morning service which rounded the whole event off. If you are going to only preach very occasionally, some would suggest that doing it when completely sleep deprived might not be the best plan ... on the other hand, doing so after spending the previous night and day praying and being inspired by the beauty of the church and all it could be is probably no bad thing. Anyway, this is, if you're interested, what I had to say:

I want to reflect briefly on how the beatitudes, for me, speak into the experience of both consolation and transformation.

I suspect I am not the only one to say I love the beatitudes; even if they have risked becoming clichéd and losing something of their radical power through overexposure. The beatitudes have inspired me to draw and to write. They have, I hope, more significantly, helped inspire me to live the life I am called to.

It seems to me the beatitudes come in three parts (like all good sermons). The first ones speak of those things which just are, over which we have often have no, or very little, control: places into which the God of consolation enters. When things are tough, just because they are, there is no sticking-plaster God who comes to make it all better. God does not promise we will not know poverty or mourning, but he does promise a greater joy. Blessed, or happy are they. This is no clichéd “it’ll all be ok in the end” God, rather it is the invitation to discover great depths of love and joy.

But that is not the end. The gospel doesn’t stop with this consolation. It doesn’t stop with this offer of unconditional love. By beatitude number 3, Jesus has moved on. These next beatitudes are no longer about things that just are, they are about things that can be. Things made possible by the unconditional love of God. The gospel which calls us forward into places of transformation. They Gospel that says not only can you do and be these things, but that they will be sources of deep joy. Made possible by the love of God, these beatitudes are those which we continually journey towards with faltering steps. Experiencing the depths of joy we discover in radical choices made as a response to the transformative love of God inspires us again and again to take new steps in the direction of our calling. I could give so many examples of living this experience of the blessing of joy leading forward to new places. Stepping out in front of armoured vehicles at the London arms fair, surrounded by others in prayerful protest; discovering hope amongst those who have been to the depths of human experience in my volunteering with refugees and asylum seekers ...

So what next? Well, the word blessed, or happy, aside the last beatitudes don’t make for particularly cheerful reading: promising, as they do, persecution and hardship. I don’t believe this is Jesus telling us to seek out suffering for its own sake: no, I think this is something both much simpler, and much more challenging. I think this promise is nothing more than the inevitable consequence of truly living out the other beatitudes. If we really do all that other stuff, if we truly dare to challenge injustice, and power and violence and the status quo, then we aren’t likely to be winning any popularity contests any time soon.

Which brings us back to where we began... because if we are going to live lives so radically transformed by our faith that they challenge the very fabric of society we need first to experience, the consolation of God’s unconditional love, and we need to keep returning to it again and again.

And here we are, drawing to a close 24 hours of a space to do just that... because this is the source and summit of that love: to open ourselves to God in prayer; not to do ro even to ask or to thank, but simply to be. Not just by ourselves but as a community, knowing we are loved by God both individually and together. The last twenty four hours have been a truly beautiful experience: a real celebration of our diversity, as well as of our unity in seeking this promised joy. For me at least, it has served as the inspiration I need for the next steps, whatever they might be, with and towards they God who loves me and wants me, and all of us, to know great joy.

*Probably ought to acknowledge a degree of plagiarism from my husband for a few of the ideas!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Silent Nights

One of our innovations in community this academic year has been to spend one evening most weeks in silence. Not every single week, as there are some other intrusions which are unavoidable, but as a general rule, Wednesdays are booked out, not to DO anything; in fact, exactly the opposite.

We eat a simple meal, usually soup and bread, together in silence; have evening prayer as usual, then spend the evening in silence until we close with very short night prayer at 9.15.

For me, at least, this silent space has not just been about not talking to each other: it is also the evening when my phone is switched off and laptop lid stays resolutely closed. No facebook, no email. No marking or planning or sorting diary dates. No getting jobs done or adding more things to a never-ending jobs list.

A time to read or sometimes to write. To draw or to paint. To walk, to sit, to reflect, to pray; and sometimes, for a time, to do absolutely nothing at all.

Those who know me personally will know that quiet isn't perhaps the very first word that springs to mind. Silent, definitely not.

And yet this promise of silence each week, this time to stop and say I do not always have to do, has been a lifeline, a release valve and a beautiful space.

I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

Do you set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our wareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and others a habit of dependence on God's guidance for each day? Hold yourself in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.
(Quaker Advices and Queries 4.)

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Paris and beyond

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, since returning from Paris where we went to join the action towards the end of the COP21 climate summit, but the busy-ness of the end of term, and then Christmas got in the way!

The media have long since moved on from what might have been discussed or decided at COP21 so this post is distinctly less topical than it might have been. However, in retrospect, perhaps that is no bad thing.... because if climate change is one of the biggest threats facing our future, then the fact that we have stopped talking about it a month after the supposedly historic climate deal is perhaps somewhat worrying. Unless it has escaped my attention, we haven't even started to make the radical changes we might need to, so writing about it now is no less relevant than before Christmas.

Enough has probably been written about the deal itself: the politicians and much of the mainstream media heralding a historic deal; most aid agencies and campaign groups dismissing it as empty words which even if they were legally binding, which they are not, do not go anywhere near far enough to keep us away from the dangerous tipping points of climate chaos. In reality George Monbiot's assessment "By comparison to what it could have been it's a miracle; by comparison to what it should have been, it's a disaster" probably hits the mark.

We arrived in Paris the middle of week two of the talks, and apart from eating good food, drinking good wine and catching up with good friends, we spent much of our time in the "climate action zone" a centre set up for activists and others to come together to listen, learn, discuss, plan, and take action. We arrived to be told it was already clear that the climate deal, if it were reached, would be completely ineffective in facing the challenges ahead.

Such an introduction, you might think, could have made for a very depressing beginning to our few days. Well, actually, no. With that fact accepted as an inevitable reality, the climate action zone, and most of those we met, were focused on creating spaces for real politics and real change. Being in Paris wasn't really about influencing the politicians and diplomats holed up in a private airport, it was about inspiring and enthusing ourselves: the groups and the individuals, the incredibly committed and the vaguely concerned, the very knowledgeable and the slightly confused. It was a space to reflect on the effectiveness of non-violent direct action, to share tips for lifestyle choices, to discuss how to make divestment from fossil fuels a reality, to challenge prevalent economic models, the list could go on ...

And then, to coincide with the ending of the summit, there would be people on the streets saying we too want to be those who have the last word. It is perhaps worthy of mention that the long-planned protests at the summit were, as it turned out, taking place in a particularly difficult context. The state of emergency declared after the Paris terrorist attacks was being used to close down all public protest gatherings: meaning speaking out on the last day of the summit was going to require both creativity and commitment.

Creativity was much in evidence at the day's first protest, where the need for a large gathering was avoided by sending out lots and lots of small groups across the city to take photos and "geolocalise" on a website in order to spell out the message "Climate Justice Peace". Minor technical hitches aside (!) it was a safe, easy way for lots of people to get involved, and even accessible to the reluctant protester.

Warnings about how to handle tear gas and police batons featured heavily in the training for the principle protest of the day, with which organisers intended to press ahead despite its being banned. (although by the time it took place was in the ambiguous position of being "neither forbidden nor permitted"). Escalation, from both protesters and police, is after all very well documented in French protest history! My initial response to the training was, I admit, apprehension: but surrounded by the energy and enthusiasm of others, it soon felt like it would still be the right place to be. And it was. Of all the gatherings that day, this "red lines" protest was the one that felt the most vibrant and alive, while still remaining peaceful and controlled. Coming together to form the "red lines" which cannot be crossed to avoid climate chaos, there was deep symbolism that it is us ourselves, by where we place our own bodies, who can ultimately decide what happens next: but symbolic doesn't have to mean staid, and it was a space full of colour and laughter and hope and joy. Oh and free vegan food and giant inflatable cobble stones, also good additions to the proceedings!

News was received the day before that the final gathering and rally under the Eiffel tower was going to be allowed by the police. Whether it was because of this, or the incredibly thorough security checks on the way in, or just because it was later in the day and you can only sustain that kind of energy for so long, this felt like it lacked some of the vitality of the earlier gathering. That said, I am very glad there was a safe space where everyone who wanted to felt able to participate in making their voices about climate change heard, and I am glad to have stood up to be counted as part of that crowd. For me, perhaps what stood out most about this final gathering was that even before the crowds drifted away, volunteer littler pickers started the clear-up. I was struck by it because it summed up much of what the few days had been about: it is, in the end, what we choose to DO that matters most.

Being in Paris was about knowing we are not alone. It was about believing that there are other possibilities. It was about knowing there is still hope.

That, ultimately, is why I am very glad I was there.