the gathering mess

IMG_0612Yesterday the gathering had its Advent get together. We remembered Advent as a time of waiting, and asked each other what we were waiting for.  We then remembered that we were part of a big story, stretching back to Adam and Eve, to the dawn of creation even, when we passed the light, our story from generation to generation and adapted Wellsprings Passing on the Light.

As Adam and Eve passed it to their children, and their children and their children … we asked ourselves who would carry the light now, if we do not. After singing our gathering carol, which we wrote as a grop last year, we then enjoyed a meal in which we incorporated a celebration of Eucharist. Gathered around a meal table people of all ages passed bread and wine … but this was no sombre celebration, this was a feast of joy and laughter as we allowed ourselves to hope in our waiting.

At the end I smiled as I looked across the table. The table was a mess. A holy mess, with discarded glasses and crumbs and the remnants of a party. It was exciting because, once again, we met with God in the mess.

but … what if …

646I receive a daily meditation from Richard Rohr. Today he speaks in a way tyhat echoed what I was trying to express yesterday:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

~ Isaiah 61:1

In this reading from Isaiah, the prophet describes the coming Servant of Yahweh. It is precisely this quote that Jesus first uses to announce the exact nature of his own ministry (Luke 4:18-19). In each case Jesus describes his work as moving outside of polite and proper limits and boundaries to reunite things that have been marginalized or excluded by society: the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the downtrodden.

Jesus’ ministry is not to gather the so-called good into a private country club, but to reach out to those on the edge and on the bottom—to tell those who are “last” that they might just be first! That is almost the very job description of the Holy Spirit, and therefore of Jesus. Today some call it God’s unique kind of justice or “restorative justice.” God present with us and in us, Emmanuel, justifies things by restoring them to their true and full identity in Himself, as opposed to “retributive justice” which seeks only reward and punishment.

Jesus ministry is not to gather the clean and sanitised and take them into a private club. Jesus ministry is to those who are told they are unwanted, those whose hurting make us feel uncomfortable because we know our easy ‘pat’ answers have no weight,  those who are stuck in the filth of our society.

But … and a big BUT has hit me today while talking with a group of young people. What if Jesus is talking to us from the other side of this passage? By that I mean, we so easily read this from the oppressed point of view, or from a neutral view where we are called to join in helping the oppressed. We read this from a  viewpoint that sees ourselves as part of the answer.

But … what if we are part of the problem …
What if we are the oppressors?
What if we are the people that break hearts?
What if we are those who imprison?

If we take a global view, then we, in the west, could be assessed as such. On a global scale, we are the rich. With that knowledge, how do we hear those words of Jesus? What is our response? What should be our response? What response is there?

During Advent that is quite a sobering thought.

the filthy sacred

dirty handsToday’s Advent thought talks about holiness. In particular Bodenheim writes about the resistance of Jesus; ‘One of the teachings he resisted was holiness-as-separation‘. Jesus got involved in the dirt and mess of his creation. He touched lepers which ‘the law’ said he could not touch. He healed ‘demoniacs’ which were exiled from the community due to their uncleanness or not being holy according to the law. Jesus simply showed acceptance and compassion.

Jesus upset people doing this as it was a massive challenge to the tidy laws of the time that told who was in an who was out.

This week I spoke with someone who shared a sad story of a Christian person they knew excluded from their church because of their sexuality. This person had been forced out because he did not fit this particular churches purity rules of what is and is not holy, who is in and who is out, who can and can’t be a Christian. The ridiculousness of that very statement just made me LOL! As if anyone can make that decision other than Jesus! This case is both shocking and sad. Someone’s sexuality does not prevent them from being holy. God’s presence makes them holy. God’s love means they are accepted.

This morning I was working on my allotment. As I was praying and pulling up crops and weeds i was conscious of God being with me and walking on Holy ground.  All ground is holy – it must be as God is everywhere. Still today we think of holiness as purity but, today, on my allotment, I was filthy as I was covered in mud and grime and whatever else. It’s easy to forget that the world, created by God, is sacred and yet it is filthy!

God is in the mud and grime and everything else of our creation. God is in the filth. It’s not us being pure that makes us holy, it is God’s presence that makes us holy. It’s not purity that defines how we act with each other, it’s compassion.

As my Advent journey continues I am mindful, again, of Mary travelling on a donkey to Bethlehem. The journey itself would have been filthy and grimy. My thoughts go to the room full of animals. Jesus, THE holy one, was born amongst the hay and crap of a farmyard and yet this IS the most holy occurrence on the planet that has ever happened!

Jesus did not worry about cleanliness at the start of his mission. He did not worry about being born in a pure environment. His coming amongst the crap of a stable showed that healing our communities was far more important to him than being concerned about his own holiness. And Christians we are called to follow the example of Jesus.

This Advent, do we join others in condemning so we keep ourselves pure and clean, or this Advent do we have the courage to step into the filth to help heal brokenness and transform communities. (I call that mission). The choice is ours to make.

simply nothing else …

watching or waitingI have been thinking a lot about how to receive and how to give. Today’s experience has caused me to do a little 180 turn and ask ‘what about when there is nothing to receive or give?’

Today I helped a 15 year old young person mark the anniversary of the death of one of their parents. This young person has no faith, did not mind whether I prayed or not and could not verbalise in any way how they were feeling. They did, however, ask to light a candle and have some ‘time’ while I read something from the BIble (I chose the first few verses of John 14).

The grief in the space was tangible, almost tastable, definitely intoxicating. The sadness was so heavy it moved me to tears. It felt like there was nothing either of us could give, and nothing either of us could receive in this desperately sad situation. The silence in the space was filled with ‘something’ that I have not experienced in such times before. It was like there was a hope, but a fear of realism. A desire for the words of John 14 to be true, but despair at a secular discrediting of those words.

As we sat in silence my mind moved to Mary. Were her feelings similar to this? Was there an expectation balanced against  a fear, a voice of realism suggesting that the miracle she had been told about would not, and could not, happen? Was there just an air pregnant with hope? But a resigned hope with the acknowledgment there was nothing she could do apart from wait?

Today we waited. In silence. Maybe we gave ourselves and received each other ….. a common humanity in hope … because there simply was nothing else there.


to be human

DSC_0554I wrote yesterday that we need to learn how to receive and allow others to serve us even, and possibly importantly, if we feel we are called to serve those that are around us.

Admitting to needing to learn how to receive seems a little strange. It’s hard for myself to admit that I need to learn how to receive things from others with grace and without that immediate desire to return the favour with something better. But I was not always like this. I do not remember having any difficulty receiving when I was a child. We only have to observe children opening presents to realise they have no problem with receiving gifts.

When I was a child I knew how to receive …. so what has happened? I don’t simply need to learn how to receive, I need to remember how to receive. Maybe I need to learn from the children around me.

But why? The niggling question that’s been going around in my head for the last 24 hours is ‘why is it so important to know how to receive?’

I think it is important at this time of Advent in particular because, as Bodenheim shares in her thought for today, ‘Advent is a time of warning and penitence, a time of critical reflection of our faith. During these times we make room for confessions. We drop our defensiveness. We acknowledge that we are not God.’

When we live lives that we control due to technology we lose sight of that fact that we are created. When we are always looking to prove ourselves, to add those little things into conversations in an attempt to show that we kno everything, we lose sight of the fact that we are human. When we use technology to keep going when the seasons imply we should slow down, we lose sight of the fact that we are fallible. It becomes easy to delude ourselves into thinking we are central to all. But we are not. God is.

Advent is a good time to wait and to receive, for in receiving we realise we do not have it all, that we need help, that we are not God …. but that God is here … and God is waiting.

the awkwardness of receipt

A_small_cup_of_coffeeIf Mary is an image of hospitality upon whom we may reflect,  it follows that we have something to learn about receiving. I’ve been thinking about this today, which was prompted by something that happened yesterday.

My work in Gillingham as a pioneer demands that I move around, be seen, get to know people, and through that try to hear what the community is saying. This listening involves listening to the people I come into contact with, and those I deliberately seek out like police officers, local councillors and so on. I am still very much in that listening phase of this work, but soon I hope to be able to ask the question ‘what does loving service look like here?’ In other words what can the ‘church’ give here, how can we help in our God given mission of transforming communities so that they are better places to live in (good news!)

Before we can ask that question, I have started to wonder if maybe we need to learn how to receive from the community first. Maybe we actually need to receive from this community, and experience what that feels like, before we are able to give anything back? Maybe we need to accept that involvement in this community of Gillingham can, and needs to, transform us before we look to join with God’s transformational work in his community.

In pioneering roles it is easy to think that we are called to bring God into the community. I know I have said over and over again over the last decade that God is already rooted in the community, but sometimes it is hard to remember that. It is easier to think we have ‘a message’ to take than it is to look and discern what God is quietly doing and join in with that.

So receiving, being able to receive, learning to receive is my thought for this day as we continue our Advent journey.

And what occurrence yesterday, you may ask, has prompted this thought? Very simply, the person behind the counter in one of the cafes refusing to take my money for the coffee. I felt uncomfortable and wanted to give. I did not want others to think I was looking for freebies. I didn’t want to give an impression of being in need. I felt awkward, and I felt like everyone was watching. Is this what others experience when well-meaning Christians try to help? An awkwardness in accepting a gift?

But … then i realised, in that situation yesterday, which is a unique moment in time, that in my acceptance and receiving I was allowing another to give.

hospitality of Mary

retreat 021Hospitality is a ‘value’ that the gathering takes quite seriously. It is, though, one of those words that can be easily allowed to roll of the tongue but we are finding that it is a value that is so much harder to put into practice then we ever thought it would be.

Many people think they are being hospitable by having open house policy at certain times of the year, or by regularly meeting with friends, sharing meals and that kind of stuff. I’m not sure that is hospitality but more of being friendly and having  good time with friends.

Hospitality is courteous. Hospitality listens. Hospitality is generous with time. Hospitality welcomes … and that applies to the ‘stranger’ or ‘alien’ in a time when we have allowed our media to give us cause to be suspicious and wary of the stranger. Hospitality is something I see missing from everyday life, and something that the gathering is trying to develop, although I do not think we are particularly great at it yet.

So why am I thinking about hospitality at this time of Advent?

It’s because I am starting to wonder whether Mary is an image of hospitality to aspire to? Mary shares everything she has with the creator forming inside her. She gives all, reputation, social standing, her very body. Not only does she share her whole being to enable Christ to grow, but she receives fully without grandiose views of who she is. She remains grounded in her acceptance. The words of the magnificat show her humble acceptance and receiving.

Is hospitality one sided if we learn only how to give? Hospitality requires both a giver and a receiver. Its seems from my limited experience that many of us, particularly in caring or ministry ‘professions’, are far happier to help and give than we are to be humbled and receive. I wonder if true hospitality requires both of us?

Mary … an image of all round hospitality in her giving and receiving is quite a challenge to me today.

and then we listen …

IMG_6380Following from yesterday, I was struck today by the memory that not all Christians have developed with this split between spirit and body. Celtic Christianity speaks of ‘listening to the heartbeat of God’ by noticing and being conscious of the presence of God within creation.

I was walking today with a friend and we were discussing worship. This person had a desire to teach and show the people she works with that worship is not restricted to a special place. As we walked along a rubbish filled noisy Gillingham street I became acutely aware that we were walking on holy ground.

If we believe God is omnipresent, and orthodox Christianity teaches this to be the case, then there are no God vacuums within creation. God is everywhere, God walks everywhere and although some places may seem like ‘thin places‘ due to a heightened awareness of God, that does not dismiss the security and challenge of omnipresence. Not all places are thin places, but all places are God places, all ground is holy.

Thin spaces for me personally are places near the sea. While on retreat I sat in the pitch dark and listened to the sea. The presence of God in that experience was tangible. I’m interested in other’s experience of locations and where they connect with God? Is it possible to find thin spaces in an urban setting, for example?

This advent I am going to try and be more conscious in my travelling of the holiness of the places that I tread.


it starts with a breath

lg day4 007It has become a bit of a personal custom over the past few years for to take extra time to contemplate and think during the season of Advent. A season of waiting. Often I use some material to help me and this year I have chosen to re-read Lisa Bodenheim’s ‘Disturbing Complacency‘ to guide me in my prayer and thinking.

This first day of Advent is an opportunity to ‘unlearn’ some stuff so that we can journey with a fresh mind, open to hearing and experiencing God in a new way . Today Bodenheim gets us to think about how we learned in western Christianity to affirm the spirit but not the body. To separate the two we ’embrace a narrow, superficial vision of God’s gift to us’.

Moltmann says: ‘If we wish to understand the Old Testament word ruach we must forget the word spirit which belongs to Western culture. The Greek word pneuma, the Latin spiritus, and the Germanic geist/ghost were always conceived as antitheses to matter and body. They mean something immaterial … But if we talk in Hebrew about Yahweh’s ruach we are saying: God is a tempest, a storm, a force in body and soul, humanity and nature.’

Is it such a challenging thought to move into Advent and let go of the western body-spirit dualism? As we prepare for the birth of Jesus, can we still hold on to the idea that our spirit is, in some way, superior to our body? How does that hold with how we view the body of Jesus? For … He is the long awaited saviour, fully human and fully divine.


Learning to wait

I stumbled across Take Back the Poetry a little while ago, I think via Jonny’s Blog. Waiting is something I have done, and continue to do, a lot of. The practice of waiting, rather than jumping into action, has been something I have had to learn to be able to do. In a world, and essentially a church, that likes to see action, the practice of waiting is not always welcomed or understood. The value of waiting is not overtly recognised, or valued, but it is vital to growth and change that the church so desperately want or yearns after.

It is through waiting that we learn, it is through waiting that we give up our plans and hear God’s voice, it is through waiting that we can become who we are created to be.

I like this waiting prayer which could be used by many as we soon start our advent journeys:

may we learn to wait
and not run away
may we discover in the darkness
the uncontrollable truth at the heart of all things
…. read more here