Retelling an old story

We went to see the new Dad’s Army film last week. I’d heard good reviews and I was encouraged by the cast, but I love the original Dad’s Army programmes – could this live up to it? We have a tendency to remember what has gone before with a sense that it can never be bettered by the present or the future and to want things to be as they always were and so anything new has a lot to live up to.
We enjoyed Dad’s Army, you could see where the new cast were copying the old cast, you could see various nods to the past, and the story line was a bit silly – but then it always was. But as a stand alone film, it made for a pleasant afternoon, it has the usual components mixing slapstick with farce, a bit of adventure and a lot of misunderstanding and we soon forgot what had gone before, enjoyed the present and the way in which this ensemble told the story.
As we move through Lent to Easter there is a sense of going down old familiar routes. We remember this story ever year, so how can it retain it’s wonder, it’s freshness, its passion. How can we feel the pain of betrayal, isolation, loss when we know that Easter is coming? And how can we know the excitement of new life when it feels much the same as it did last year? One way is open our eyes to the present, to be aware of modern stories of betrayal, isolation, loss; to be aware of lives where the hopefulness of Easter can not be imagined. And then to open our eyes to all that is new, exciting, fresh, and celebrate each moment of resurrected new life that causes us to stop and wonder. Another is to be aware that Jesus continues to carry all our betrayal, isolation, loss – past, present and future to the cross and offer each of us the hope of a new future. That does not change, however blasé, or cynical we may be the Easter adventure continues and someone is going to catch it for the very first time – now that is exciting!
be blessed
Craig

Sanctuary

Our summer news has been dominated by swarms of marauding migrants, threatening our standard of living and social infrastructure. Such is the threat that there have been calls to bring in the Army, to create new detention centres, to speed up deportation procedures. There has been outcry against Songs of Praise for wasting licence payers money by filming at St. Michaels Church in the makeshift camp outside Calais known as  “The Jungle”. And now we are faced with the images of Aylan Gurdi’s little body washed up on the seashore. Perhaps that image will change the rhetoric, but the great tragedy is that when you look beyond the rhetoric the numbers of migrants coming to this country are tiny compared to those faced by the countries that surround Syria or border the Mediterranean Sea and yet this need to de-humanise people seeking a better life for themselves and their families is so high on our political and media agenda.

At the heart of these events are individual human stories of aspiration, achievement, adventure – stories that in other contexts we would want to celebrate. But the moment we de-humanise, we also remove our ability to empathise, encourage, welcome and in doing so we lose some of the basic facets humanity. The bible encourages welcome; whether in Leviticus, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself” [19:34] or on the Day of Judgement, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”, [Matt 25:35] or in early church “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” [Heb 13:2]. Many who de-humanise migrants, are also those who call for Christian Values to return to our country, they seem to have missed the value of welcoming strangers in our midst and in doing so engaging with our own humanity.

We talk about churches as places of Sanctuary, and Coventry is a City of Sanctuary, an organisation I’m pleased to belong to and encourage. We look to find ways to welcome those who seek a new beginning, who invest in their children whilst facing great risks, hardship, discrimination and suspicion. We look to celebrate the skills and insights that peoples stories reveal and in doing so we learn the human story behind scaremongering headlines. This month I hope to share some of those stories as we mark Racial Justice Sunday at St. Columba’s on 6th September and at Stoke Chapel and Hocking Road, Wyken on 13th September and then give thanks for the Harvest on the 20th and 27th September. I look forward to doing so with you.

Be blessed, Craig

The Well at Shibah

Do you remember the well at Shibah, (Genesis 26) where different communities are brought together, where dialogue happens, resources are shared and peace breaks out? I wrote about it last August and thought it was time to draw from there again.
Over the last month we have seen the consequences of those who will not create dialogue; share resources; let peace break out. A gunmen in a Charleston church; (less well reported) the burning of black majority churches across the United States; the shooting of holiday-makers in Tunisia; (less well reported) the bombing of a Mosque in Kuwait; the burden of austerity placed upon the poor; the tightening of border controls and continued demonisation of migrants. The wells of Esak and Sitnah continue to flourish, whilst Reheboth and Shibah grow quiet and fearful.
Yet these terrible actions have brought people together. In Tunisia, Moslem staff formed a human shield to protect their guests, in Charleston people have experienced a message of forgiveness and grace and all across the world musicians have added their verses to a song by Peter Mulvey called “Take Down Your Flag” Mulvey wrote three verses, He invited others to write and record their own second verse, sharing with all who would listen. Each version finishes with the same final verse,

It will take all of the love in all of our hearts,
but it will also take something more.

Take down your flag to half-staff. x3
And then take it down for good.

When across cultures, languages, communities we take down our flags and sing songs of hope, then the gospel of grace and mercy flourishes. In such moments, perhaps the well at Shibah still refreshes and we need to stay there awhile.

be blessed
Craig

Reconciling, Welcoming and Participating

During Holy Week we planted white and red poppy seeds in the grounds around St. Columba’s and Wyken. This is part of a national URC campaign to plant symbols of peace and remembrance with the hope that they will bloom on or around 4 August, the 100 year commemoration of the declaration of the First World War.

Of course seeking peace is not just about commemoration, it is about marking all that divides us today, and seeking reconciliation for a broken world. Fine words, but what does that mean in practice? It means welcoming strangers in our midst, especially those who have fled war ravaged countries. It means supporting the work of Christian Aid, who this year will tell the story of Anoon as she and her family returned to South Sudan to escape the growing tensions for South Sudanese in Khartoum. On her return all she found was bush and her son died from Pneumonia. With the help of CA’s partner Hope Agency for Relief and Development, Anoon was given the means to build a house and till the soil “giving her a sense of dignity and the chance of a life free from fear.”. Christian Aid Week is from 11-17 May and there will be opportunities to collect and donate.

At the end of the month there will be Council and European Elections. A chance to vote for the people who have an impact upon peace or divison within a community. Many of us do not know our MEP’s yet they make decisions that have an impact on human rights, migration, climate change, tax justice and the financial crisis. Closer to home our Councillors create the environment that can make a difference to creating work and homes within Coventry. We need to bring our faith into the political arena and use our vote and our voice to encourage policies that seek peace and reconciliation.

be blessed

Craig

All are welcome

18th January was an interesting day. In the morning we began a process of reviewing the Chapel of Unity’s vision. We were reminded that it began as a Christian Service Centre and we wondered what that meant for today, based in a building in which design took precedence over function.As part of the opening prayers we sang:

Let us build a house where love can dwell 
and all can safely live,

…… all are welcome in this place. 

In conclusion we remembered that the Chapel of Unity is not a building, but a community called into relationship with one another.

In the evening the Winter Night Shelter began. We drew together a  a collection of rough sleepers, of shift volunteers, of co-ordinator’s, of seamstresses, of gifters, of prayers, of faith and of no faith and created community, We welcomed people into a building, but most of all we were came into relationship with one another and with Christ.

Here the outcast and the stranger
bears the image of God’s face;

…… all are welcome in this place. 

The following Wednesday was a Christian Aid meeting, A reminder of our relationship with refugees in South Sudan, farmers in Columbia , corporate tax avoiders in the City of London and UK street collectors.

Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace.

all are welcome in this place.*

The theme for Christian Aid is Fear Less and as we create houses of welcome, we do so drawing courage from our relationship with God and our communities of care.

be blessed, Craig

PS. Look out for a showing of “The UK Gold” a documentary on the UK tax avoidance industry made by Christian Aid in partnership with Oxfam and Action Aid. It is hoped to show it in Coventry at the end of February but the date hasn’t yet been fixed.

* Marty Haugen © Gregorian Institute of America GIA Publications Inc

Making investments

At a recent Tuesday morning Ministers’ prayers, we found ourselves taking about death. In our line of work that is not particularly unusual but as a group we had each been living amongst the dieing and grieving more than normal; deaths that were close to us or significant within our churches and we needed to offload our own emotions upon each other. It is such a joy to work, with such people.

As the conversation moved on we found ourselves talking about the shadow left by predecessors (we were in a jolly mood!). Sometimes that shade is good and positive, at other times it can feel like people are stuck in that past moment, incapable of imagining different futures. As we prayed we gave thanks for all who had gone before us and sought hope in the days to come.

The following morning I led prayers at the Chapel of Unity, reading from Ephesians 1, “so that, … you may know …the riches of his glorious inheritance amongst the saints.” We were reminded of the wealth we inherit – a legacy of love, of wisdom, of history, of purpose. It is often a debt that can not be repaid in person but can be reinvested through our own times, with a healing touch, encouraging words, generous spirits, open hearts, positive outlooks, gracious welcomes, hopeful partings and care-filled endowments.

I’m occasionally aware of predecessors. Some I know, others look down from rogues galleries. They rarely intimidate, occasionally I moan at them and perhaps they grumble back, but mostly I get a sense of being set free to re-imagine, to make fresh investments, to live for now, encouraged into tomorrow by that great communion of saints that has bestowed so much upon us and by God who brings blessing, wisdom, understanding throughout each faithful journey.

be blessed

Craig

The Wyken Labyrinth

The front lawn at Hocking Road, Wyken used to have a willow tree in the middle of it, but it had become unruly, difficult to cut and the roots were getting under the building, so we cut it down and looked at the big open space that had appeared – what could we do with it? At the same time we had put a low fence around the area so as to discourage people from cutting across it and creating a muddy path – but we didn’t really want to say, “Keep out” we wanted to say “Come in”. We talked about landscaping and we talked about prayer and then some said, “What about a Labyrinth?” on first hearing it was a daft idea – it’s an open space next to a busy road, with lots of pedestrians passing, especially before and after school, how could anyone use it as a place of quiet prayfulness? And yet, why not? Of course some people said, “What’s a Labyrinth?’ and so Mhari, a student on placement, brought us a portable Labyrinth and enough people saw the value to say, “Yes, lets do it”. At the same time Synod told us we had to use money from the Bell Green Fund, it had been left to the churches of East Coventry to use for Mission when Bell Green URC closed a number of year ago. The labyrinth would be a landmark, a focal point, a way of exploring player, holding quiet days, retreats – it seemed a good use of the money. And you know what, it’s place next to a busy road is perfect, it’s a not a place to retreat away from the world, but a place in which we can be aware of God-with-us dwelling in the midst of busy, chaotic, travelling lives. It’s a place a peace amongst imperfection.

We explored various ways to do it, something green, something easy to maintain, something simple. We were scared off by a professional quote and then wondered if we could do it ourselves. And so we have designed a labyrinth that will consist of bricks sunk into the grass to create the lines, until you reach the centre point where there will be heathers, herbs and lavenders, scents and colour. The lines are now marked out, the pattern set and this weekend (May 3rd to 5th 2013) we will dig out the lines, sink the bricks, soil the borders and create a labyrinth. The “we” is flexible, there are some indications of help, but the more the merrier will be appreciated – from 10am on Saturday, noonish on Sunday and 10am on Monday – spades, muscles, cakes and enthusiasm welcomed!

After that, we need to use it and encourage others to use it, but that is for the future ….

I’ve stopped …

I’ve stopped walking. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just seemed to sneak up on me and next thing I know I haven’t walked in ages. It’s not just Monday morning which used to be blocked out in my diary for walking, it’s the regular shorter walk most mornings or taking the time to walk to work. The diary had other pressures, so Monday morning was needed for other things, I no longer had a demanding dog. I preferred an extra half-hour sleep or looked at the wind, rain snow and decided that my study looked more appealing. I’ve started looking outside thinking I should go for a walk, but having broken the habit, having discovered that I’m not as fit as I used to be, I make an excuse, squeeze in an extra distraction and jump in the car.

Of course when I walk, I pray, I create, I ponder, I become aware of my environment, of the world around me of the people who share my space, but most of all I pray. I haven’t totally stopped praying, or creating or looking at the world around me – but somehow the quality of such activities is diminished and I know it – but what’s to be done?

I’ve stopped church. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just seemed to sneak up on me and next thing I know I haven’t been in ages. It’s not just Sunday morning ……..Well “I” haven’t of course but my character has, and perhaps you have, or a friend of yours has and you know that somehow life is not quite as prayerful, as creative, as connected as it was but what is to be done? Some encouragement? A fresh purpose? Seeing old friends again? Meeting new folk? Taking that first step, and getting back in the habit?

Time I went for a walk, want to join me?

be blessed

Craig

Prayer Walking

One morning at Summer School we were encouraged to read Joel 2 and to reflect upon it. I found myself stuck on verse 17, “between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” Was that really for me? And what was I to do about it. I walked out of the grounds and across the road was a redundant building, it had been a school but looked like a church and I knew I was being encouraged to pray in a systematic regular way for our churches. Not something I’m very good at doing! – so I need a diaried structure.

Also on my mind was the general lack of enthusiam to make the Prayer Walk idea viable, but we have talked about doing something in September around our three churches and it would be good to do that together. But as I pondered the command to weep, I knew I was being encouraged to walk and pray mainly on my own. Hence, I shall spend Monday mornings walking from Wyken to home, spending time at each church praying for our life together and seeking God’s guidance for our future. If anyone would like to join me at some point, I’m sure that is OK and once I have a sence of the timings I will let you know where I should be when.

Let me leave you with part of prayer by Sue McCoan in the 2010 Prayer Handbook.
When life is good and purpose drives our steps – We praise you.
When we are sure of your steadfast, saving love- We praise you.
When doubts and questions seem to cloud faith – We praise you.
When our courage fails and our way is unclear – We praise you.

Looking at Elijah

The Old Testament readings in June focus on the prophet Elijah. Elijah is the great prophet of Israel’s story, his name means “My God is Yahweh” and he lives at a time when the kingdom was divided and the rulers no longer provide moral or religious leadership. The Kings are failures in every regard and into the story, without warning or preamble comes a larger than life character who knows that Yahweh is life-giving and powerful, who confronts religious and political power, who would know the despair of loneliness and fear the power of a vengeful queen and yet emerge as the leader of a community of prophets speaking the truth into a suspicious world.

In 1 Kings 17 the land is suffering a famine, Elijah seems to be an outsider who begins to collaborate with Yahweh, he looks for life outside Israel and brings life to a widow and her son who declares “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth”.

In 1 Kings 19 Elijah is on the run. He has had a great victory over the prophets of Baal, he has witnessed Yahweh’s power over the forces of death (see 1 Kings 18) but in doing so he has fallen foul of the wicked Queen Jezebel and he is running deep into the desert – where God finds him, feeds him, questions him, encourages him and in the utter silence send him on a new mission, with a new disciple to pave the way for a return to Israel’s true faith.

In 1 Kings 21 we see the revitalised Elijah stand up to the power of Ahab and Jezebel (Sadly the lectionary will reverse the order of 19 & 21). It is a story about the greed of absolute power and the need to challenge those who abuse power, who steal land from the poor and who live by Ivana Trump’s maxim, “Remember girls, don’t get mad, get everything.”*

Elijah leaves the stage (at least until the Transfiguration) in 2 Kings 2. His mantle is handed over to his disciple Elisha and whilst the deeds of Elisha will be greater it will be Elijah who lives on as the greatest of the prophets, the one who will return to herald the coming of the Messiah. It is a story that mixes “the mysterious among the natural – the transcendent in the ugly history of Israel.”*

As we follow these stories through on Sundays and at the (almost) weekly Bible studies we will find many themes that will seem familiar to our world – how do we respond? What will we hear amongst the words and the silence? Where will we see God’s Kingdom at work? When do we run and when do we stand? and might we like Elijah have to answer the question, “What are you doing here?”

Be Blessed

Craig

* With thanks to Roots bible notes for some of the background and the quotes.