Perhaps many of us know that the moment when you receive a present at Christmas or some other time, you open it with great excitement and it is something brand new. We love it, we are excited by it, but by 3 months later we are still using the old one, the existing games and toys are the ones that continue to be the most popular, the old simple kitchen gadget may not be as fun as the new one but it is easy to use.
As we enter a New Year, there can always be a tendency to banish the past. To get to January this 1st and act as if everything of the previous year is to be forgotten and moved on from. It may well be that many things in 2015 were tough, that there is pain and hurt that lies there, that there are decisions that we wish didn’t get made and choices that we regret, but it is probably to that amidst the shade and dark there was also light (even if only glimmers).
Embracing the New Year is a two fold process, it is about believing in a God of new starts, in a forgiveness and grace, and the potential to put our mistakes behind us. It is also though, about taking the bruises, the knocks, the mistakes of 2015 and before, and embracing the lessons they taught us.
As I write this two days ago Paris and all of us are still reeling from the impact of the brutal and tragic murders at the hands of Isis terrorists. I am also minded that the day before 2 Isis suicide bombs killed 45 people in Lebanon, and that many of us are unaware, or at least scantily aware, of those events. Further to that every day around a hundred people die in Syria in a war with Isis. I write this in no way to make us feel guilty. It is human nature to find it easier to connect with events nearby. Many of us have walked the streets of Paris, we can associate and connect with those places and those scenes. Also the events in Paris tap into our own fears, our own fears about what may happen even closer to home.
Somehow though as Christians we are called to stand in solidarity with those in need around our world. To stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Paris, praying, sending messages of support as many have done. Also to stand shoulder to shoulder with people with whom we have less connection, situations which feel distant and unreal. Many of us can’t imagine standing in a Syrian war zone, or the streets of Lebanon, or indeed the conflict areas of South Sudan, and so many other places in our world. It becomes too baffling, to vast, too overwhelming to even begin to think about the wide needs of our world, but we must surely try to resist this leading to a sense of us and them.
The world will never begin to heal, if we allow tragedy to drive us further apart. All over Facebook this weekend have been words of Martin Luther King “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”. Those people perpetuating evil in our world, are determined to make hatred the guiding principle by which we all live, they are determined that the world may be divided into factions, factions driven by hate, let us be even more determined that love may win.
As I write this, one child is ill, I am sleep deprived, my day has gone totally pear shaped and I am sitting down wondering what earth I can write, and then I realise, that is exactly what to write. Earlier in the month St Mary’s Church was open for a quiet day. My day has gone a little awry that day too, and having planned to go for some time and grab the gift of space, I ended up with a few moments (literally). And yet that in the grabbed moment I reconnected with what mattered that day, I had been gifted special time with the children earlier, and in that moment I believe God reminded me, all that I have that matters.
In a talk entitled “everything is spiritual”, the writer, speaker and thinker Rob Bell says “the issue is not whether or not we think things are spiritual, it’s whether or not our eyes are open and we are aware of it”. He challenges us, “Don’t become a machine that you are so caught up in everything you are doing that you miss the joy the wonder the awe of being human in the midst of this whole world God had made”.
We can all too easily miss the signs of positivity around us, constantly put down conditions which must be met in order for the day to be good, for things to go well, put down conditions in our spirituality, we must have silence, we must have worship music, we must have hymns, we must have Anglican liturgy, we must not have Anglican Liturgy, we must be in a church building, we must be in the great outdoors, and whilst knowing what helps us is a good thing, the challenge for us all is to seek find the spiritual whenever we encounter it, whether things have gone to plan, or pear shaped.
The month of September began with an engaging introduction to Us (the United Society – formerly USPG), and will end with a challenge to be more inclusive (as Rev Bob Callaghan from inclusive church joins us). For several months the news has been full of the dreadful and challenging images of refugees fleeing violence and horror and coming to European shores. Much has been written on this challenging issue from a faith perspective in the last month and we have included a well written article by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the October issue of Highway. We will be looking further at the issue for our next Explore@8 (October 18th, 8pm in St Mary’s) where we will begin in a tented village (the jungle) in the car park, and move into the warm to discuss and reflect honestly together.
My biggest hope at Explore@8 and at other times is that we can be honest. Whatever anyone feels about the leader of the Labour Parties decision not to sing the national anthem at an event this month, and I do not seek to have that discussion here, it was an attempt to be honest, an attempt to not pretend that he supported an institution that he opposed. Honesty, real honesty is hard. It is easier to be silent when someone says something you disagree with fundamentally, and of course there is a time to be diplomatic, but diplomacy so easily slips into perceived tacit support. There is a tendency in many of us to be all things to all people, we can appear to agree with everyone, but sometimes we are I believe called to stand above the parapet and speak from our hearts, risking the consequences. I certainly don’t get this right, far too often I find myself saying what I think someone wants to hear, I find myself avoiding the tough conversation or playing it safe. I hope though that we will together help each other to grow in boldness and confidence in seeking to be a church that is profoundly real and honest. A church where we can come to and when someone asks how are you we don’t feel we have to pretend. A church, not where we put on our best presentation of ourselves, but where we bring our whole selves.
Over the August break we were in the Brecon Beacons and climbed Pen y Fan, a stunning walk up the highest mountain in Southern Britain. It was almost certainly no tougher or more beautiful than the many other peaks in the region many of which were just as accessible, but there is something about a statistic that makes something all the more appealing, and there were hundreds making the climb on the same day as us. Don’t get me wrong, the statistics work very at providing that little bit of motivation for young and old. However, sometimes on a deeper level in life we become a bit too obsessed by the statistics, the headlines. We see people through blinkered eyes, we view something as successful by the numbers game (I am often bad at this). I am obsessed with cricket and it often strikes me how when a batsman is batting, they may be on 2 runs and hit this ball straight to the man on the first slip, who wobbles and drops it. If he had caught it the statistics would have said the batsman had failed, if he goes on to make a double century the statistics have him as a hero, and yet one event entirely outside his control has had a huge influence on which way it went. Sometimes when we hear about someone in the headlines, the statistics guides our view. Perhaps we know a little bit of their story, perhaps one aspect of their lives is public, but we risk missing so much of the real them, if we allow what we already know to guide us too much.
At the end of this month in a joint parish Eucharist Rev Bob Callaghan will speak to us from an organisation called Inclusive Church. I am sure that he will challenge us all to break out of the stereotyping and boxes that we place people in. Do join us. There are a whole range of mountains next to Pen y Fan, which risk being missed by the desire to get to the top of the biggest one, in much the same way there are whole aspects to people around us that we risk not seeing because one particular thing always drags our gaze. Whether it was sitting at a well or in the middle of a bustling crowd, Jesus was constantly able to notice people and to see beyond the surface. So the challenge to us all is how we can seek to do so too.
As I write this I can hear the reverberating cheers coming from the other room in the house as an all engrossing game with “Match Attax” football cards (the current obsession of many primary school children) ensues. For those playing the game there is no knowledge of Daddy next door trying to concentrate on work or indeed of life going on outside of the exciting world of card versions of famous footballers such as Fabergas or Terry.
That is human nature, to see the world in front of us and to struggle to see beyond. It isn’t in itself a bad thing, focussing and putting our energy into the things about which we have the most control. Often when we do choose to be interested in beyond our trajectory is because in some small way it relates to the world we inhabit, a particular story of someone in another country, or someone living in very different circumstances to our own in the UK even if it is simply by virtue of how opposite it is to our own experiences.
But the challenge is not to try and break free of our own vantage point, that is simply impossible, but to find space within that vantage point, for wider perspectives to impact. Ironically it is perhaps the spirituality of the mystics that teaches us something here, they learnt to understand the difference between indifference to the “esteem in which they were held in by others” (Lane,1998 P.192), something which they demonstrated, and false indifference which is the “casual matter of choosing haphazardly to neglect” (Lane, 1998, P.192). By finding space in our own lives for God to speak through silence, through others, and through situations, we can be in the best possible place to be impacted by the wider world and to seek to see beyond the tiny minuscule dots on the plane of humanity that we each inhabit.
In the letter to the Galatians the powerful words “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free” (Galatians 3:28), are words which cut against human nature. We will only ever begin to live our own lives as if those words are true by a concerted effort, and in strength that is not our own.
References are taken from B.Lane (1998) The solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford University Press
There is something beautifully British about our response to the weather. No doubt in the next few months it will not be hard to hear some it not all of the varying complaints; “it’s too cold for Summer“, “it’s too hot I can’t bear it“, “it’s too wet“, “it’s been too dry and there is a hosepipe ban“, “it’s too windy“, “there is no wind and I can’t fly my kite or windsurf“. We become perhaps too individualistic about our attitude to the weather. I shared in Church a few weeks ago how there was a ski resort in Scotland who recently posted a very excited post that an extreme El-nino is forecast for later in the year, and the last time that happened it resulted in an amazing ski season. I am not sure those who may face floods, damaged or destroyed homes or other such desasters as a result would see it quite the same way.
But the truth is there is no point in blaming the ski resort for their comment, they were only voicing what we all do to a lesser extent. we all see the world through our own very narrow eyes. We wish for things to get warmer but when they do we wish for them to be colder, we wish for things to be dryer but when they do we wish for rain. All of us can embrace the challenge of valuing that we have now. For some that will be nearly impossible, perhaps the now is tough and hard and only bearable by hoping for the next. But for most of us most of the time there is always something good to be found in the present.
I saw a clever and tongue in cheek advert recently in a magazine for a holiday destination that said “the Greener Grass is really over here”. Perhaps we are called to look for the Green grass under our feet, nothing wrong with being open to the new, to change, but to do so from a starting point of dissatisfaction will almost always leave us wanting. Perhaps when you read this we will be in a heat wave or a cold spell in the weather or in our lives, but my prayer is that we may be able to see the good things that God is doing in that moment.
This month’s highway is written a few days after a second devastating earthquake in Nepal which has decimated the country, and people are battling not just to survive, but battling fear. Fear of the unstable ground beneath them, fear of more quakes at any time. Fear is one of the hardest and toughest things for any of us to tackle. Because fear can come in any guise and can change its shape and character to meet whatever we throw at it. Fear builds on the rationale, and enlarges it beyond anything conceivable.
The week is also Mental Health Awareness Week, and for some fear is something that haunts them in a way that they can’t explain and those who love them can’t fully understand, but fear is real and can’t simply be ignored and people can’t simply be told to pull themselves together.
There is much to be fearful of, we hear of talk of extremists planning attacks on our streets, people are frightened at the loss of our public services and NHS, there are pervading fears about going to certain places at night. Much of the above is based on real rationale fact, but fear makes us less able to deal with it. Fear makes us irrational, fear makes us enlarge the problem in our minds into being a much greater that it is, even if it is based on something real. My hope and prayer for us all is that somehow we can find the way to hope, find the way to hold onto faith, find the way to believe in the possible. The church must play a key role in creating a society where we get real about mental health, are prepared to talk about it and support those around us who struggle with it.
In society too we must challenge the pervading attitude of fear, not with blind optimism, not with platitudes and twee responses, but with keeping ourselves grounded. In Nepal right now there are medical workers, relief workers, ordinary civilians too who are continuing to keep positive in the midst of disaster, not as James Bondesque, untouchable characters, but as people living alongside, and impacted by the disaster and yet finding the branches of hope and sharing them around. That was what the early apostles did too, as persecution was so prevalent in those early days. They stayed put but they stayed firm. There is a lot to be frightened of around us, but there is also a lot to be confident in and positive about. I pray that we in the church can be an example of that positivity.
I write this looking at the daffodils in my garden (quite an unlikely thing really not because of the daffodils being there but because I am notoriously bad at noticing that sort of detail). I went on retreat one time and my guide commented aren’t the snowdrops lovely. I had been there for several days and not noticed them at all, hundreds if not thousands of them.
All of us sometimes can miss the details going on around us but perhaps most of all we miss the signs of hope and of positivity. In the last year there has been a lot of worry about, from world news about Isis and Ebola, to local stories about national debt, and cuts of public services. Lots of things to be genuinely and rightly worried about. But at Easter we remember a story of complete emptiness and loss, and yet a story of the breaking forth of hope, of a tomb burst open.
Just as the daffodils in my garden have broken out and stare back at me, promising that amidst the ongoing cold weather the Summer is coming (indeed if the weather forecasters are right it may even be that the predicted heatwave has hit by now!), so also amidst all the band news stories, we, the people of faith are called to look for the signs of resurrection, to notice where good things are happening, to notice God’s grace at work. We are called to see the positivies, to notice the daffodils and the snowdrops.
For the first few times this submission from me would reach the desks of the editor in good time, and today I write this at literally the last possible moment. Because that is what can happen, all good intentions about the way that we will be so often slip. Perhaps we hold our ground for a while and then things start to slip.
Two possible ways to respond to this is through criticism, being deeply critical of ourselves or of others. There is a song by the band Chumbawumba, popular around 10 years ago, ‘I get knocked down but I get up again’. The truth is that many of us live like that buy every time we get up again, we do so a little more jaded, a little more bashed and bruised, and certainly more cynical of our own potential. The liberating message of the Christian faith speaks right into that place, it promises the possibility that every time we get up again, every time we begin again, we do so with all possibility ahead of us. Next month just because I was late submitting this month, there is no reason why I can’t be on time, other than the voices in my head.
Just because you have always lost your temper in a certain situation doesn’t mean this time you might not. Just because you have always let someone down, failed to do something, doesn’t mean you will again. We get knocked down we get up again and possibility is reborn.