Monday, 16 December 2013

Open doors, inevitable disappointments, and the stable in the world

We've found a great re-telling of the Christmas story for this year's Christmas Eve All-age Nativity Service. Called 'Knock Knock - Who's There?', it revolves around a door, through which enters each character from the story, finding their way into the stable. It ends with a reflection on Holman Hunt's famous painting, 'The Light of the World'...

Jesus is knocking at our door, the reflection suggests - the door of our home, our life, our heart - and he is waiting for us to open up, invite him in, to be our friend. It's a simple - and, to many of us, familiar - message. The trouble is, I'm not sure I know what it means any more - if I ever did. Maybe the childlike simplicity of a 'Yes' is enough, at least as a beginning, or even as a repeated practice over the years.

But 'what happens next?' is my 'wondering' question. What is it that then makes a difference to our lives, to make it 'good news' worth sharing, in neighbourhoods like mine, among friends and neighbours who are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table; who are out of work or in insecure, zero-hours, low-paid work; on whose doormats the latest ATOS work capability assessment has landed; whose sense of pride or self-esteem is constantly battered by media labelling, stereotyping and demonising; or who rarely encounter the friendly face of another human being, other than the occasional professional, dealing with their 'problems' (or dealing with them as a 'problem')?

In Hodge Hill, we (Hodge Hill Church) have been running 'Open Door' for almost a year and a half now. A drop-in, now twice a week, for a couple of hours on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. A place where you will always find a warm welcome, the offer of a cuppa and some toast, some friendly people to talk with, and some practical support using computers and accessing the internet, putting together a CV and searching for jobs, finding advice on benefits entitlements, and more. It's run by volunteers, on a shoestring, and one of the most important things about it is that we're interested in the people who come through the door not as 'clients', but as people who come with gifts, passions, knowledge, and skills (even if they might not be the kind that would instantly find their way onto a CV or job application), and that Open Door is a place where such strangers can become friends, where such gifted people can find ways of saying 'I can', among their neighbours, and within the wider community.

Open Door has been an early example of the Birmingham-wide network of 'Places of Welcome' which has begun to emerge from the Social Inclusion process in the city, and at times has been hailed, even in the upper echelons of Birmingham City Council, as a great example of an innovative, sustainable approach to supporting local people - at a time when Neighbourhood Offices and advice centres run by paid staff are being stripped to the bone by wave upon wave of funding cuts rolled down from central government. We're certainly quite proud of it - never more so than when someone who began as a 'visitor' ends up not only with a satisfying (enough) paid job, but also as an Open Door volunteer, welcoming and supporting fresh visitors through the door; or when another Open Door 'visitor' finds herself gradually more and more embedded in all kinds of other neighbourhood activities, from Women's Group to community lunches. At its best, it encapsulates so much of our proclaimed vision as a church here, of 'Growing Loving Community - in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill'.


There is, inevitably, a 'but...'

There are times when the open door has to close. There have been times where we've had to say, politely but firmly, 'I'm afraid that's not what we're here for', and had to ask people to leave. There have been times when the door, then locked, has been hammered and kicked repeatedly, out of anger and frustration.

And there have been plenty more times when people have gone away disappointed. Because they have been seeking something, and not found it. Because they have needed a particular kind of help, but we've not been able to give it. Or because life has simply been shit, and actually, short of a cup of tea and a listening ear, there has been nothing any of us have been able to do, in two hours one morning, to make it any less shit.

We will probably disappoint - if we haven't already - those senior Council officers who hailed our boldness and innovation. Apart from anything else, the numbers through our Open Door are pretty small. The numbers 'into work' (one of those ever-present, all-demanding statistics of 21st Century Britain) are even smaller. Our 'volunteer base' is committed, but fragile, and although we have pretty much managed to open the door every week of the year, with a week off each for Christmas and Easter, our rota is always vulnerable to one or two people being struck down with flu, or having to attend to a family crisis.

One of the dangers, when you call something 'Open Door', or when you stick up a strapline about 'Growing Loving Community', is that you will inevitably disappoint. Not everybody, all of the time. But probably most people, sometimes. Because such phrases describe our highest aspirations, our best intentions. And as limited, fragile, complex and entangled human beings, we are rarely able to reach our highest aspirations, or consistently carry out our best intentions. We certainly can't - and don't pretend to - meet the 'targets', solve the 'problems', or provide the 'models' that the world of spreadsheets would like to demand of us. But even by our own measures, our door cannot always be open, and we are not always as loving (or as growing) as we would like to be.

Instead, we offer something more modest. While it is rarely possible to be clear at the outset what we can do and what we can't, we try to do what we can. We try to prop the door open as wide as we can. We try to let 'growing loving community' shape as much of who we are and what we do, as we can. And when we fail, or find our limits, or just get it wrong, we try to be as honest as we can, and seek out ways of mending and reconciling, rather than attempting to cover up or run away.

The liberation, in it all, is that we are not, ultimately, the Innkeepers of the stable, 'keeping the door', issuing the invitations in, and deciding when there is 'no room'. We too are invited guests, having to bend our heads low, just like everyone else, to get through the door, and finding our places amidst the hay bales and stench of animal faeces. The door, in fact, has been flung open, never to be shut. We are all, already in the stable. Our job is to let our eyes adjust to its shadows and, by the strange light that seems to come from the newborn child in the manger, to recognise around us all those strangers who are in fact our neighbours.

On our 'Journey to the Stable' this year, we have welcomed more than 200 local school children into this awe-filled place, and moved a few of them to tears in the process. On Christmas Eve, that stable, of cardboard and straw, will occupy the centre of the worship space at church, and we will all, defying the laws of physics (but perhaps just within the laws of Doctor Who), be invited into it. And as we hear, and join in, the words of the beautiful song of John Bell's that I've copied just below, I hope we will discover afresh that the doorway into the stable is, in fact, the doorway into our neighbourhoods, and into our world.

1.         The love of God comes close
            Where stands an open door
            To let the stranger in,
            To mingle rich and poor:
            The love of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

2.         The peace of God comes close
            To those caught in a storm,
            Forgoing lives of ease
            To ease the lives forlorn:
            The peace of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

3.         The joy of God comes close
            Where faith encounters fears,
            Where heights and depths of life
            Are found through smiles and tears:
            The joy of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

4.         The grace of God comes close
            To those whose grace is spent,
            When hearts are tired and sore
            And hope is bruised and bent:
            The grace of God is here to stay
            Embracing those who walk his way.

5.         The Son of God comes close
To those who wait tonight.
To those who sit in darkness,
He comes to shine his light.
The Son of God is here to stay
Embracing those who walk his way.
                      John L. Bell  © 1988, 1997 WGRG, (v.5 altd.)
Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland

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