Tuesday, 31 December 2013

In this new year...

In this new year
I will
not check Twitter
while the kids are splashing
in the bath
and put away
the phone and iPad and laptop
by 10pm
and go to bed
the things
I have been thankful for
and try to remember
to do the laundry
and give up
and walk more
and try again
to grow vegetables
and embrace
and spend a day
each month
with some nuns
and hand-write
plenty of thank-you notes
and pray
for those
I've said
I'll pray for
and go swimming
in the odd gap
in my working week
and grab
more chances
to go on hot dates
with my wife
and think twice
in the middle
of arguments
and turn anger
into action
and not just retweets
on Twitter
and work on
quality not quantity
with friends
and strangers
and knock
on more doors
to find out
my neighbours
care about
and take
the time
to read
and poems
and spend
more time
eating and drinking
and pick up
some new
and celebrate
of the small things
and breathe
more consciously
and write
a PhD
and less
'To do' lists

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Waiting for dawn to break (Midnight Mass sermon 2013)

[a bit of a rough and ready draft, with deep gratitude to Julian Dobson, whose brilliant blogpost ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’ (http://livingwithrats.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/a-truce-and-common-christmas-story.html) helped both shape and 'earth' my more disparate thoughts]

The rabbi asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of the dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of the students suggested: “When from a distance you can see the difference between a dog and a sheep?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Is it when you can tell the difference between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student. “No,” the rabbi said. “Please tell us the answer then,” said the students. “It is dawn,” said the wise teacher, “when you look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us.”

Two years ago, in the middle of this church, a tent appeared, just before Advent, with a sign over its opening, ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of God’. It was a sign of revolutionary hope, at a time when tents were springing up all over the place, from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, to Wall Street and the City of London – canvas occupations of places the powerful thought they had under control; places where, all of a sudden, the hungry were being fed, all who were sick were being treated, the voiceless were being heard, impossible dreams were being dreamed.

But then, what? What has changed? A question echoing down the years not just from 2011, but from two millennia before. “Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.” What has changed?

In the House of Commons last week, government ministers and their colleagues laughed and jeered, or just didn’t bother turning up, for a debate on the causes of the spiralling increase in foodbank use, and then within days launched vicious attacks on the Trussell Trust, Church Action on Poverty, and others for daring to ask why people are going hungry in one of the richest nations in the world.

Less reported, for the first time this Christmas, people in prison have been banned from receiving parcels from their loved ones, including stationery, books, and clothes – under new rules introduced by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

And then are stories which won’t reach the newspapers at all, of men and women, young and old, stripped of even their pittance of jobseeker’s allowance over Christmas, for reasons as arbitrary and as unjust as not being able to attend the JobCentre because of a hospitalising illness.[i]

It is still night, and darkness is still with us. There is not enough light, it seems, to look into the faces of our fellow human beings and recognise them as our sisters and brothers. We are still too immersed in our own ideologies, our own self-interests, our own agendas, to hear the love-song the angels bring.

And yet...

In a Mexican slum there is a destitute old woman who each year puts up an extensive nativity set. The Christ Child is in the centre, of course, and around him she places dozens and dozens of figures of people and animals. This is no matched set! None of the figurines match; and they are not in scale with each other, some only an inch high, some several feet tall. She just clutters the set with whatever figurines she can find. But there is a great truth hidden in this mish-mash of nativity characters. Although the senora cannot read or write, she has seen something that is all too easily missed. In the Bethlehem stable, there is room for all. From the highest to the lowest, from king to shepherd, from old woman to new born baby.

On one level, it is merely a chaotic, mismatching nativity set. An eccentric tradition. A futile gesture. But on another level, it ‘prefigures’ a different world, a place where ‘what-is-not-yet’ breaks in to ‘what-is’. Just like the alternative spaces that Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London Stock Exchange, and many more, created. However fragile, however temporary, however imperfect. Places in which to practice living differently. Places where we can learn to recognise each other as sisters and brothers.[ii]

The pictures of Rembrandt are striking in many ways, but perhaps most so for the way he uses light and shade. Have a look at his picture of the Nativity. There is a man with a lamp, but the stable is not lit by the lamp. The light comes from the manger, the light from the newborn Jesus lights up the faces of those around him, enabling us to see them, and enabling them to see each other.[iii] This is where night ends, and dawn begins. In the stable. In the manger.

On the day of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I led a small, quiet Requiem Mass in this church. I was accompanied by five men, as they remembered the uncle of one of them, who had recently died. They came from five different African countries, countries which have, at times, been at war with each other. Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, and others. And as we remembered those who had died, and shared bread and wine together, we recalled the words Archbishop Rowan Williams had used recently to describe Nelson Mandela:

“Most politicians,” he said, “represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.”

‘Prefiguring’ a different world, a place where ‘what-is-not-yet’ breaks in to ‘what-is’. A place not fully a reality in today’s South Africa, by any means. But a place glimpsed, touched, tasted.

And I was reminded too of the words of another Archbishop, Christoph Munizihirwa, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bukavu, Zaire, who was killed by Rwandan soldiers in the process of surrendering himself, in the hope that two companions might be able to escape in his car:

“One cannot wait for conditions to be easy in order to act,” said Archbishop Munzihirwa, not long before his death. “People of good will must never be disheartened... There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried... In the midst of it all, the seed sown in the soil of our heart slowly germinates. God knows that there is no better way for him to express himself than through the weakness of a child. This is love telling us that it comes unarmed.”

The seed in the soil. The light in the stable. The tent in the city square. The nativity scene in the slum. The prisoner who forgives his enemies. The martyred Archbishop. The child in the manger. These are the small, fragile beginnings of revolution. And those in power do not like them one bit. And so they send armed police in to clear the tents. They attack churches and faith organisations for ‘scaremongering’, and, bizarrely, for creating the demand for food banks in the first place. And a threatened king in Jerusalem orders the massacre of all Bethlehem’s babies.

And what do we do? We keep on beginning the revolution. Returning to the stable. Planting new seeds. Putting up new tents. Forgiving new enemies. Hearing to speech as-yet-unheard voices.

There is a place not far from Reading in Berkshire called ‘Christmas Common’. It is the site, according to the history books, of a Christmas truce in 1643 during the English Civil War. A dangerous, if fleeting, moment of daring to recognise enemies as brothers or sisters, even in the darkness of the battlefield. But Commons like Christmas Common – and perhaps even a Common much closer to home – are also enduring places of shared resource, open to and cared for a whole community, places where ‘commoners’ of all backgrounds and circumstances can meet each other as equals, as neighbours, as sisters and brothers, and work, and play, and eat, and celebrate together.[iv] We have a dream for just such a common in the wasteland we’ve renamed ‘Bromford Meadow’. A seed sown in the soil, slowly germinating.

Our twice-weekly 'Open Door' is another such space where 'what-is-not-yet' breaks in to 'what-is'. It is what it says: an open door. And a warm welcome, a hot cup of tea, some friendly faces, and listening ears. A place where people might come in with 'I need', but discover among friends an 'I can', perhaps for the first time.

We get a taste of ‘what-is-not-yet’, too, every time we share communion together, whether it’s shared in a circle, where we can see the faces of our sisters and brothers; or shared in a moment together, each waiting to eat until all present have food in their hands – our own small ‘prefiguring’ of the time when no one goes hungry.

In 1990, the year that Nelson Mandela made his ‘long walk to freedom’, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (who also died this year) was translating a Greek epic telling the story of the Trojan War. It gave him some of his most well-quoted words. They are words for a night like this, as we celebrate once again the Word-made-flesh, and as we wait for dawn to break:

“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme” 

[i] I’m deeply grateful to Julian Dobson for highlighting these 3 examples in his brilliant blog post, ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’ (http://livingwithrats.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/a-truce-and-common-christmas-story.html)
[iv] Julian Dobson, ‘A truce and a common: a Christmas story’

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