Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas in Hodge Hill


It’s Monday evening, and a small group of us from church are in Hodge Hill Grange nursing home, singing carols to the residents – elderly people, many seriously ill and frail, many living with the acute memory loss of Alzheimer’s

Among the handful of residents in the main living room are a couple of ladies, holding baby dolls, cuddling them, stroking them, rocking them, feeding them from pretend milk bottles. And as we sing ‘Away in a manger’, and as they cuddle and stroke and rock and feed their baby dolls, we can see tears rolling down their cheeks. These ladies, who can barely remember what they did 5 minutes ago, who are able to do so little themselves, are suddenly young mums again, children even – given a precious, precious gift, from an angel called Jenny – something, someone, to look after, to care for, to love – something, someone, who turns them in an instant from ‘nobodies’ into ‘somebodies’.


It’s Tuesday afternoon now, at The Hub on the Bromford. There must be a good 30 or 40 children, with mums or dads or nans, busily munching mince pies, getting their faces painted, and excitedly queuing to meet Santa.

Towards the end of the afternoon, those who want to come and find a costume and dress up and join in our own little ‘Bromford Nativity’. A 7-year-old girl finds the shiny blue dress for Mary, but none of the boys seem particularly keen on playing Joseph. In the end, our ‘Mary’ finds Carl, a teenaged lad who’s spent the afternoon refusing to wear a Santa hat. As if by magic, there stands Joseph, complete with brown robe and tea towel head-dress, all of a sudden with the willingness of a small child.


Wednesday next, and I brave the snow and ice to visit Mariam [not her real name]. A Muslim mum from Pakistan, with four boys, she’s been in Birmingham for 5 years. Her visa expired earlier this year, and since then, she’s not been able to work, or draw benefits, and so hasn’t been able to pay her rent, or buy clothes or food or toys for her sons.

People at church here have been incredibly generous – buying clothes, knitting clothes, rooting around to find books and toys that would make good presents for four boys.

So laden with bags, I ring her doorbell, and there’s no answer. After a few minutes, a next-door neighbour comes along. ‘I think she’s moved,’ he says, and my heart sinks. ‘She might be calling back to the house in the evening.’ So in the evening, I phone, and again, no answer.


It’s Thursday morning now, and it’s early, because our boiler’s broken down. In the midst of trying to fix it, I phone Mariam again, and she answers the phone. She’s moving into a hostel today. I ask her if that’s good news or bad news. She says it’s good news – she and her family will be fed, and they won’t have to worry about the rent they’ve not paid.

So we agree to meet in the afternoon at the house she’s just about to leave, me on my way to Heartlands Hospital. She opens the door with a beaming smile – we exchange greetings, ‘Salaam aleikum’, ‘Peace be with you’. Her children couldn’t have been more excited if I’d had a big red suit and a fluffy white beard. And I find myself, a strange traveller in an unfamiliar place, kneeling down on her bare living room floor, offering precious gifts to a family on the move – on the move because a hostile government has made it that way.

Thursday again

Half an hour later, and barely half a mile down the road, Janey and I watch as a 9cm-long baby, a mere twelve weeks and two days from nothing, but already with eyes, nose and mouth, legs and arms and beating heart, dances in her womb. I wonder at the miracle of it, and ponder the responsibility, entrusted to fallible hands like ours.

The truth of Christmas is right in the middle of the story – that’s where we need to make our home. Who will we find waiting for us there?

(preached on Christmas Morning 2010, St Philip & St James, Hodge Hill – a not-entirely-typical, but true, week in the life of this local parish priest)

Monday, 13 December 2010

Advent reflection #2 – Hope in 4 dimensions

The group of friends, 5 adults and a toddler, sat around the kitchen table, looking at a large photocopied map. The map was a plan of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire, the place that designs, manufactures and maintains Britain’s multi-billion-pound weapons of mass destruction.

Around the kichen table, armed with felt tips and crayons, the 5 adults and a toddler began re-designing the site. A micro-brewery went in here, a deer sanctuary there, a hot tub with a bar, a church and a mosque, and some allotments, all found their places on the plans.

When the re-designing was done, mum and toddler stayed behind to do prayer and emailing, and the other 4 piled into the car and headed off to Aldermaston. Two of the friends waited by the car with cameras at the ready, the other two climbed over the fence, and began wandering the site, placing labels, attached to big glow-sticks, where their imagined new developments would go.

It was 45 minutes later that the MoD Police turned up, seven officers, with dogs and guns. The two friends explained what they were doing – surveying the site for these exciting new developments – and invited the police to join in. As they were taken off to Newbury police station, some of the officers chipped in some bright ideas of their own.

For the few hours they were in custody, the two friends prayed and sang. In their interviews, they told the Police Officers of their vision for a transformed world. They were released on bail, and a few months later the charges were dropped, without explanation

What do we mean when we talk about hope?

Because it’s not remotely the same thing as optimism. It’s not a fuzzy ‘things can only get better’, ‘always look on the bright side of life’ feeling, or a carefully-evidenced prediction based on the best available data, like a weather forecast, say.

Hope is a choice. A choice in 4 dimensions:

1. Hope is a choice to imagine the world differently – not ‘what’s the most likely future?’, but ‘what could the future look like?’

2. Hope is a choice to desire, to passionately long for that imagined future to become reality

3. Hope is a choice to believe that it can & will come true... As one radical Christian activist, Jim Wallis, puts it, “Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change”

4. And hope is a choice to act – to start living as if the hoped-for future has already become reality

Take Isaiah’s vision (Isa.35:1-10), for example:

  • a dry, dead desert bursting into life;
  • springs and streams and pools of water bubbling up from parched ground;
  • plants and flowers springing up and blossoming abundantly;
  • places of fear and danger made safe and happy;
  • a fearful, exiled, grieving people getting to their feet and coming home, singing for joy as they walk, their weak hands made strong, their feeble knees made firm.

Or take John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-6) for another: the great ‘ground-clearer’, road-builder, sending messengers from his prison cell to find out if Jesus is the one he’s been preparing the way for. And what does Jesus say? “Go and tell John what you hear and see... recognise the kingdom of God when you see it – people’s bodies are being made well, life is coming where there was death, the poor are for the first time waking up to good news...” Does it look like the kingdom of God is springing up around you? Then that’ll be exactly what’s happening!

And what about Mary? The church invites us, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, to the Magnificat, Mary’s song of the powerful brought down and the rich emptied out, of the hungry filled with good things and the humble lifted high. One Yes to an angel, and Mary – an unmarried girl with a tiny child growing in her womb – has become a revolutionary. She sings of a world turned upside-down – and she sings of these outrageous, impossible, world-changing things as if they have already happened. Mary has chosen hope – she has chosen to live as if the world has changed into the world of God’s promises

So here’s the deal:

God invites us to imagine a different world

  • a world where the places of death and danger and dereliction blossom with streams of water and beautiful flowers
  • a world where people live in safety, and peace, and delight with their neighbours
  • a world where bodies are made well, the hungry are full, and the poor wake up to good news for a change

God invites us to imagine this different world, and to long for it with all that we are

And God invites us to believe it is possible, in spite of the evidence, and to live and act and talk and sing as if it has already happened – and to watch the world change around us. That’s the deal – that’s what Christian hope means.

But what does it mean for us in our neighbourhoods? Here on the Firs & Bromford estates? Or wherever you, reading this, find yourself? What would Isaiah, and John, and Mary see, and sing of, right here?

Here in Hodge Hill, at the beginning of November, in our first ‘Big Conversation’ as a church here, we identified 5 signs of the kingdom of God in our neighbourhoods, 5 ‘markers’, by which we might recognise God’s new world springing up around us, and which we will seek to nurture and encourage where we find them, and plant them where they are not. Those 5 things are: compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope. It’s the beginning of our own work of ‘imagining’ our neighbourhoods as they can be – as God longs for them to be – as truly ‘flourishing’. Our next task is to be equipped to go out and look and listen for these things, in the lives and relationships of the people of our parish, and in the work of volunteers and organisations around the place. And to celebrate those things where we find them. And to long for, and believe in, and begin to incarnate those things where they are not.

But for each and every one of us, the work of hope begins right now.

Let’s put our faith in Isaiah’s promise, that God will strengthen our hearts (however fearful), our hands (however weak), our knees (however fearful).

Let’s start looking and listening around us, like John the Baptist’s messengers, to signs and whispers of the kingdom of God, that new, transformed world, coming in our midst.

And let us, like Mary, say our ‘Yes’s to God, and live and act and talk and sing as if that new, transformed world has already come.

And we will begin to see the world change around us.

Launching books and choosing your voice…

I helped launch a book last Thursday. It’s a really good book, actually. ‘Presiding Like a Woman’ (eds. Nicola Slee & Stephen Burns,

As one of the contributors, I was invited to say something. And somewhere between opening my mouth and closing it again, I realised something I’d not been conscious of for a while – that every time you speak, you (to some extent, at least) choose your ‘voice’. On this occasion, partly intentional, partly by accident of the moment, I chose ‘apologetic’. When it’s working at its best for me, it’s a mildly Hugh Grant self-effacing Englishman kind of voice. But I don’t think it was working at its best on this occasion. I was an Anglican priest among four Anglican priests – and someone had already apologised for that, so I felt I needed to do likewise. But I was also the one man in a panel (and a book, quite understandably, given the title) full of women – and so I apologised for that too.

But reflecting back, I realised I could equally well have chosen other voices. Delight at being among friends (and some personal heroines) for one. And for another: excitement at having been given the privilege of a space in which to journey into discoveries, theological and personal, that I feel much the richer for, and the richer for being able to share with others too.

So here’s what I could have said…

The Christian tradition has had a near-2000-year history of making the audacious claim that the person who finds themself standing at the altar somehow ‘stands in’ for someone else. ‘In persona Christi’ is the Latin phrase – at once bold and ambiguous. But the ‘gender trouble’ that has accompanied that audacious claim over the years is rooted in an over-definiteness about who that ‘someone else’ is: ‘Jesus was a man, therefore…’.

So ‘presiding like a woman’ gave me an excuse to tease out a bit of a christology – a theology of what we mean when we say ‘Christ’. And naturally, I turned to the gospels. But what I found in them were the seeds of something more expansive, relational, and subversive than a narrow focus on the singular male body traditionally allows. There are incidents, quite crucial to the narrative, of interactions between – as it happens – women and Jesus, where it is really not clear where the ‘christliness’ of the encounter is located: if not ‘in Jesus’, then perhaps ‘in this woman’, but more precisely ‘in the space between this man and this woman’. Look at the encounters between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman in Mark 7:24-31, Jesus and the woman with the haemorrhage (Mark 5:21-34), and Jesus and the anointing woman (Mark 14:1-9). Who takes the initiative? Who changes whom? Whose actions – and passions – most clearly embody God as we know her/him?

This ain’t writing Jesus out of the picture. That’d be pretty difficult to do – especially for someone who takes the gospels as the best kind of trustworthy source for revealing who God is and how God works. But it is discovering there is room in christology (or, as I rather clumsily try and re-write it in the article, christ-( )-logy)… for us. And for more than just us. Christ-( )-logy has a space at its heart for encounter, interaction, challenge, questioning, touch, embrace, and mutual transformation. It has space within it for interruptions to what we think we should be doing. It has space within it for the kind of creative improvisation that goes on between people who discover in their interaction something more than any of their individual contributions – and a creative improvisation (what theatrical improvisers call ‘over-accepting’) that can even weave potentially negative, destructive contributions into something life-expanding.

The liturgical ‘presider’, I go on to suggest, “might seek never to occupy for long one of the ‘foci’ of the christ-( )-logical space, but, instead, to move back-and-forth across and to the very edges and doorways of the space (close enough to touch those who may be there and to establish genuine, reciprocal relationship with them), enabling and encouraging the movement of others, and, in the process, making visible and tangible the ‘incarnational flow’ within the ‘space between’”.

And if that sounds far too complicated or abstract, I suggest that little children offer us the best examples of this kind of ‘presiding’ in action:

“It is not just in their ‘interruptions’ that [little children] question ‘the world as it is’ and gesture towards ‘the world as it could be’. They also are adept at re-shaping liturgical space, transgressing divisions and barriers, finding routes around, over and underneath, and freely walking across allegedly ‘sacred’ spaces. They will, given half a chance, touch those ‘holy things’ which are usually in only the presider’s hands, and with unconstrained imaginations, reverence the most mundane objects as holy. They have a knack of reaching out to those who are at their most fragile, and infusing the most serious moment with surreal comedy. Within the last year, I have witnessed a little child ‘preside’ from behind a pillar in a rabbit costume, minister to each member of the ‘communion circle’ while clinging to the altar rail, comfort a tearful woman from the neighbouring pew, and ‘absolve’ much of a congregation with delighted splashes of font water.”

But lastly, and this is where I think the theological rubber really begins to hit the practical road, these kind of subverted christ-( )-logical spaces begin to unfold outwards:

“We tend to imagine liturgy as a ‘strategic’ activity: safe in ‘our own place’, we are gathered, shaped and empowered for ‘managed’ engagement with ‘the world outside’. Little children introduce us, however, to what Michel de Certeau calls ‘tactics’: opportunist, surprising, ‘ad hoc engagements’ within a space which we do not possess.

“As a parish priest in an area of urban regeneration, Sam Wells discovered that ‘the power of the church’ lay not in the ‘strategies’ of the ‘parent’ – ‘greater resources, more experience, greater physical strength’ – but in the ‘tactics’ of the ‘child’ – ‘stubbornness and doggedness, and the tendency to ask awkward or embarrassing questions… still learning, potentially disruptive.’ What, then, if we were to perform our liturgies not ‘strategically’, but ‘tactically’?

“Presiders and congregations who seek to learn the way of discipleship by embracing, ‘overaccepting’, the interruptive initiatives of little children might, I suspect, be slowly but surely trained themselves in the child-like art of interrupting, and playfully, creatively, ‘overaccepting’ (rather than simply ‘yielding’ to), the ‘liturgies’ of the world: drawing attention to the ‘holes, silences, inabilities’ in the world’s cosmologies that tyrannically claim comprehensiveness; and temporarily creating, or occupying, spaces which subvert the controlling gaze of the state, through an attentive, transgressive touching of the apparently ‘untouchable’. Like the children crying out ‘Hosanna’ in the Temple, we may well anger the authorities (in and out of church), but through such child-like performances the ‘saving word’ might just be heard, the ‘incarnational flow’ between the divine and the human be manifest.”

I wrote these words about a year ago now, and the world, in some ways, now looks very different. The kind of ‘liturgies of the world’ I had in mind then were the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the myth of nuclear ‘deterrent’, the equally destructive myth that we can – and should – ‘buy ourselves’ out of an economic crisis, and the subtly but powerfully formative ‘school for consumers’ running in the background of the Labour government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda.

There are other liturgies that have now joined them, that need just as much child-like passion, vigour and creativity in interrupting: the unspoken dividing lines between the apparently ‘deserving rich’ (and their ‘tax-efficient’ corporations) and the ‘undeserving poor’ (who, out of choice, apparently, sit around on their bums drawing luxurious benefits from the state); and the myth that central government can make us all better citizens and better neighbours by telling us to be so, and by investing less in public services so that we naturally feel the urge to plug the gaps.

From student protests to UKUncut’s tactics of occupation, from the Coalition of Resistance to the Common Wealth network, we’re beginning to see what ‘interruption’ might look like in this harsh new world. But what of the playful, creative ‘over-accepting’ of what the current government seeks to ‘offer’ us? For the predominantly middle-class ranks of the Church of England, there will be much to be said about a radical, sacrificial generosity from our own pockets, to establish genuine, touching, face-to-face solidarity with those of our neighbours who are much closer to the bread line. Movements like ‘Giving What We Can’ ( and ‘Relational Tithe’ ( are showing the way here. An embracing of a model of ‘community organising’ (taking Saul Alinsky seriously) that genuinely empowers the powerless to ‘speak truth to power’ has got to be another candidate.

But we’ve got a whole lot more to learn. And personally, I’m looking to my toddler for leads…

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Advent reflection #1 – ‘Why are we waiting?’

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

(T.S. Eliot, East Coker)

In the heady ‘80s, adverts for Access credit cards had the slogan, ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. Three decades on, ‘waiting’ is, for many people, almost an alien concept, ‘credit’ seems, unbelievably, to have survived the tumultuous events of the last couple of years as a currency in its own right, and ‘wanting’ is what economies like ours are still apparently relying on to give them ‘health’. Our society needs us and values us, still, by our ability to want, and buy, and consume – and instils in us both a ‘need’ for instant satisfaction, but also a rapid dis-satisfaction and a need for ‘more, more, more…’.

So T.S. Eliot is on to something: “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing”. Our desires need a health check – or even a revolution. And for that to happen, we need to learn to wait.

I say ‘we’. Those who have least money already know what it means to wait. Waiting for the bus, when the service is infrequent, unreliable – an ‘out-of-control-ness’ that those of us with cars can avoid, if we choose. Waiting for pay-day, in those last few days when the meter’s on ‘emergency’ and there’s no food left in the cupboard and there are bills that need paying. And others too – waiting for that operation that will make life more liveable; waiting for the death that is around the corner, but God knows when; waiting for the birth, the due date circled in red on the calendar. Some of us are schooled in waiting, in some places, at some times. But many of us are captive to that need – to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’…

So the questions that ‘Advent waiting’ asks us… What are the things we “can’t wait” for? Where does impatience run our lives? What are the ‘wants’ (we might often call them ‘needs’, even) that we need to painstakingly strip away, distance ourselves from, begin to say ‘No’ to? And how might we do so, as individuals, as households, as churches?

The clamouring voices and images around us, says poet Jan Richardson, “will never tell us what we really want, what we really long for, what we desire with heart and soul. Those who have sat in the darkness know how the shadows give way to desire. Without sight, without our heads swimming with the images of what others tell us we want, we can turn our gaze inward and search our souls.”

And Richardson invites us to ‘plumb the depths of our waiting… “What speaks to us? What calls to us? What dreams have we buried? What wounds cry out for healing? What longs to be born in us this season? What is the yearning which we have not dared to name? Our desires reveal to us what we think about God, about ourselves, and about the world.

“In her remarkable book of prayers entitled All Desires Known, Janet Morley writes, ‘I understand the Christian life to be about the integration of desire: our personal desires, our political vision, and our longing for God. So far from being separate or in competition with one another, I believe that our deepest desires ultimately spring from the same source.’ Advent offers the opportunity to explore that source, to discern our desires and to find their common ground.”

As we learn to wait, what are the things we discover, deep down, that we really long for? And how, practically, might we begin to ‘inhabit’ those desires, dwell in them, and live out of them?

Or, as another poet, Carola Moosbach, puts it…

are we really waiting for
and what are the things
we need more
than ever
and how
should there be a beginning
of what
and who
still hopes at all
for what
and when
will it break
this day
of light
and who
still believes in it?

(Carola Moosbach)