Friday, June 13, 2014

Catching up with life

Well, it's been a long time since my last post. Life has been very full and busy - and for the most part, pretty good.

We have a new minister at Bromley - a colleague I've been looking forward to arriving for quite a few months - and I've finished my marking at the end of this academic year (always a moment of joy!). And then last weekend we had a great Pentecost festival, celebrating God's creativity in a variety of ways.

Our festival featured Gareth Davies-Jones, Graham Fish and Rose Hilton, lots of conversations on the High Street and a great mini-music festival in the sun on Sunday afternoon.

Tomorrow we're off to France. I'm speaking at Spring Harvest's site in the Vendee, a new experience for me which I am greatly looking forward to. Tomorrow evening I hope we'll be sitting at one of favourite river-side restaurants in Amiens, our first stop on way south west.

Later in the summer we're off to Sri Lanka again to spend a week with post-graduate students exploring the social history of earliest Christianity at the Graduate Studies Centre in Dehiwalla. This will be followed by ten days in the sun in the hotel we stayed at briefly on our last visit. We're looking forward to catching up with old friends and making new ones.

The summer is shaping up to be a time of transition for us and for the church; bring it on - exciting times.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

creating a stadium-full of community

We went to see Elbow on Wednesday evening. Unexpectedly, we were offered really good tickets to see them at the O2. I have been listening to their latest album since it came out and trying to decide whether it's wonderful or just more of the same high class slightly melancholy songs.

Seeing them perform most of it live made me realise that it's possibly their best work to date - better than Seldom seen kid and rivalling Leaders of the Free world.

Elbow consists of four superb musicians with a frontman who is able to create a community in a stadium full of people. He works the crowd like all good singers do but the songs have already suggested that here is someone who gets the fact that we hurt and that we need others to share our hurt with.

So on Real Life (Angel), he sings to a friend in pain

you with the eyes of the met not forgotten
you with the eyes for the lonely whoever
you with the laugh that could bring down a tenement
talking your way to the heart of the citadel
up on the tables, or shoulders of strangers, or
under my arms we add to the waterfall
my little sister with brothers in common
you'll never need fear a thing in this world
while i have a breath in me; blood in my veins
you'll never need fear thing in this world
while i have a breath in me; blood in my veins
you never need fear a thing in this blue world

It speaks volumes to me about being community, being church. I think it's why Garvey is able to turn a stadium gig into an intimate encounter of a few mates around the piano.

Elsewhere in the song he tells her

go straight to the place where you first lost your balance
and find your feet with the people that you love

before assuring her that she'll pull through this time, stronger and wiser:

and on that hallelujah morning
in the arms of new love, the peace that you feel's real life 

Of course, as a Christian pastor, I can't help take those lines and put them into the mouth of the angel who greets us at the empty tomb of Jesus (as I'll be doing in the morning). I know Garvey has no thought of that in this lyric. Indeed, this album ends with the intensely moving The Blanket of Night where, in a song that seems to be slightly influenced by In the Night Garden on Cbeebies, he fears that he and his daughter might sink under the weight of life's events and especially the parting of ways between her mum and him:

paper cup of a boat
heaving chest of the sea
carry both of us
carry her, carry me

from the place we were born
to the land of the free
carry both of us
carry her, carry me

the ocean that bears us from our home
could sail us or take us for its own
the danger that life should lead us here
my angel could i have steered us clear?

gone, the light from her eyes
with the lives that we made
just the two of us
in the night on the waves

moving silent her lips
by the moon's only light
sowing silver prayers
in the blanket of night

the ocean that bears us from our home
could sail us or take us for its own
the danger that life should lead us here
my angel could i have steered us clear?

paper cup of the boat
heaving chest of the sea
carry both of us
or, swallow her, swallow me

Monday, March 24, 2014

Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven for beginners.

Here's my reflection on the closing of our winter night shelter at the end of the season. 
It'll be in our church magazine this Sunday

 Home is where the heart is. An Englishman’s home is his castle. Home is where we kick our shoes off, put our feet up, sink into our favourite arm chair and feel safe and at ease. Home is where we are surrounded by the people and things that give our lives shape and meaning; our loved ones, our books and music, crochet and cross stitch frames, jigsaw puzzles and board games.

We take home for granted. We can’t imagine being without one. And while we’ve worked hard for it, it’s just there, solid and dependable. We leave it in the morning knowing that it will still be there when we return in the evening.

I was thinking all this as I wheeled Maggie’s* shopping trolley into the place in the bug hut where we’re storing it. Maggie and her brother, Frank, have a shopping trolley each; it’s where they keep all the possessions (spare clothes and underwear, a couple of books and various nick-nacks) that they are unable to carry with them during the day as they move between the library, the housing department, the doctor, social services.

They don’t have a home.

They and six other guests who had lived together – shared a home – at our winter night shelter were leaving their stuff with us as they left on the last morning to see what the day had in store for them. I neatly stored their various bags against the time when they’d need them again. Helen hugged her pillow and told me to take great care of it because her mum gave it to her.

As I put things away I was also thinking about what the Bible says about home, how in the Old Testament the picture of life in the Kingdom of God could be summed up as everyone sitting under their own vine, within the confines of their home, content and at peace. When Isaiah looks forward to the time when God will make all things new, part of what he sees is a land where ‘they will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them or plant and others eat.’ (Isaiah 65:21-22). It’s a vision of a life that satisfies the longing of every human heart, a life lived in a place where we belong, where we are at home. ‘Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven for beginners,’ said the American Presbyterian minister and social reformer, Charles Henry Parkhurst

And as I stacked duvets that we’re keeping in case anyone needs one because they’ll be spending the wee small hours on the night bus touring London on the upper deck or curling up behind the back doors of Primark or McDonald’s, I thought of Bernie. He’s a larger than life Irish construction worker who came to us in January following a break down in a relationship and an accident that left him with a broken leg and unable to work. In his early 40s, he’d worked for the past twenty years building homes and offices around London. ‘It’s ironic,’ he said to me over breakfast one morning, ‘I’ve built thousands of homes but not one for myself’. And I thought of Isaiah 65:22 and wondered when he’d have a place of his own.

Well, Bernie was housed and got his job as a crane driver back (his gaffer rated him as a key part of his team). His life is back on track. And in no small measure that’s because of the winter night shelter, the team of volunteers who every day have provided an evening meal, a warm, dry place to sleep and breakfast. But more than that, the shelter has been a home where guests have found friendship and community. On the morning we closed, they stood in the doorway of the bug hut making sure they each had one another’s mobile number. There were tears and hugs, expressions of thanks and a pledge to stay in touch.

The press has been full of stories about the UK’s housing crisis that we don’t need to rehearse here. But the truth of it is that many vulnerable people will be living on the streets as you read these words and many more will be living in crowded, insecure accommodation where they barely feel safe, let alone able to prosper.

So, let’s pray for them. And let’s pray for government – local and national – seemingly paralysed in the face of a mounting crisis of homelessness that they will have the gumption to do something about it.

A final story. Mehmet is an Iranian born, Swedish national who has been working as a dentist in Chislehurst for the past 12 years. From a patient he contracted hepatitis C for which he about to start treatment. He is already an insulin dependent diabetic. Last autumn his marriage collapsed under the weight of financial and health pressures. He came to the shelter in February. I’m not sure I want to live in a country where a gentle man like this with obvious and pressing health needs will be living on the streets, insecure and increasingly at risk of his health deteriorating.

So, let’s pray for these folk, for the council that it will rise the challenge of homelessness, and for the management group of the winter shelter as we learn the lessons of this year (many) and make plans for next year. The dream is that there will be somewhere better than a three month hand-to-mouth project. So can we pray that God is in that dream?

And we can do this with a spring in our step and hope in heart remembering the words of Desmond Tutu: ‘All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend his Kingdom of shalom – peace and wholeness – of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right at this very moment through us because God believes in us and God loves us.’

(*all the names of guests have been changed and since writing this, Maggie and Frank have been given temporary accommodation; the others are still waiting)