To be a pilgrim

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105885899Saturday 21st October 2017 witnessed the Annual Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Pilgrimage. Every year we use this occasion to visit faith based social action projects, in order to listen to their stories and the issues facing some of this city’s most vulnerable and in need citizens.

As I walked from my new home close to the city centre to begin the Pilgimage (and to lead prayers and reflections) , I myself reflected upon exactly what makes this annual event a “pilgrimage”. In the end, I think, it’s something about an intentional searching for the sacred amongst the day to day life of our city – of witnessing to, and listening for, God in the city. The act of pilgrimage focuses our hearts and minds so that we can do what we should be doing every day, to see God in the people we meet, to hear God in the stories we listen to.

On my short ten minute walk into town it felt like my pilgrimage had already began, as I began to observe the lives around me that are each and every day lived out in our city. On Devonshire Green I saw a man (who I later saw entering the Archer Project at the Cathedral) wrapped in his sleeping bag and holding a coffee after what had been a cold autumnal night. He was watching as the sun rose up over the buildings around, welcoming, dreading or merely witnessing the the arrival of another new day. As I turned the corner, a man on his mobile phone passed me in tears, deep in conversation with someone on the other end of the call about some obvious hurt with a real impact on his and possibly other lives, but that will forever remain unknown to me. People were already busily rushing from bus and tram stops to their places of work, and meanwhile signs of the previous nights activities lay discarded on the pavement, empty cans and polythene packets with pictures that suggested they had contained some or other “recreational” drug. Finally as I waited for the other “pilgrims” to arrive I spent some time talking to the Big Issue seller at the end of Chapel Walk, our conversation was nothing particular of note, we spoke of the weather and Storm Brian, about the inherent unfairness of food banks, and about video games, big business, consumerism and why we are too often moved to buy things we don’t really need.

It is important to remind ourselves that cities are not just buildings and roads, they are not simply economic centres; the city is home to a myriad of lives, all interwined and somehow interdependent for their well being. The places and projects we visit each year are witness to just that, this year we visited (and re-visited):

  • Victoria Hall Methodist Church, where we heard about the work amongst refugees and asylum seekers, as well as other visitors from overseas. We we also introduced to the idea of  The Sheffield Box which the church is looking to roll out as a way of welcoming new families to our city.
  • At the Salvation Army on Duke Street, we heard about their efforts to make real on a  day to day basis the outworking of the love of Jesus in peoples lives. We were told of the food bank and emergency support, as well as numerous other local intiatives.
  • The Emmaus Project in Sheffield offers both accomodation and employment to vulnerable people who would otherwise be homeless. We heard how “companions” live and work alongside each other in a community of mutual support.
  • Finally, at the Cathedral Archer Project (amidst a busy lunchtime session) we heard of the work done there to support homeless people, from subsidised meals and advice with benefits and the like, through to visiting dentistry and chiropody services.

Every year we hear about inspiring and challenging work amongst the citys vulnerable and economically poorest and this year, once again we were inspired and challenged in equal measure. Inspired by the hard work of staff and volunteers, inspired also by  people who are finding ways through the complexities of the hardship they themselves face. But also challenged; challenged to further highlight the way policy and economic structures have worsened the lives and prospects of many of the most vulnerable in our society, challenged to listen more, to do more, to say more when required.

 

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A Picture of Jesus

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This week I was set an interesting challenge by Jane who regularly uses our food bank for additional support, she asked me if “This week when you bring the food parcel …. can you bring me a picture of Jesus …. I want to put it over my bed”. 

Obviously my difficulty  wasn’t for shortage of images that could be found, so many can be easily located just by pressing Jesus in the Google image search engine (and of course this is just what my good friend and colleague Charlotte did). The real challenge came in deciding which one to actually choose from the vast array. Of course there’s  been a push back against the western idealised blue eyed, blond Jesus of the past couple of centuries, but even if these were ruled out it would still leave a vast choice not just of ethnogaphic interpretations, but also of style, stance and theological message.

It made me realise just how personal our choice of “Jesus image” is …. it forces us to ask ourselves, “What am I looking for in my chosen image of Jesus”? For me it would be Jesus as liberator of all humanity, the embodiment of a person wholly human, and wholly divine – a human at one with himself and with God – and the one who showed us what the world could be like in the Kingdom of God. 

Of course the many images some up different aspects of the being and nature of Jesus – and create for us a kind of visual shorthand reference for our theological underpinning; his sacred and holy nature, his forgiveness, his love and protection, his sacrificial nature, his guidance as “shepherd”, along with many others.

In the end I decided I couldn’t (and really shouldn’t) be the one to impose my own choice of image on someone else so I printed two or three different images for her to choose from. A cop out? Maybe. Which did she choose? I didn’t feel the need to ask her – she’ll no doubt tell me if she thinks it’s important for me to know. Will it offer her the peace of mind she sought from it? I really hope and pray it does.

 

 

Choose Love

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There has been much debate and anger in the last few weeks about the above story of a young girl in foster care, it is without doubt that the story as covered in both The Times and the Daily Mail was at best highly inaccurate, and at worst at deliberate distortion of the facts in order to reinforce prejudice about the Islamic faith and Muslims. I don’t want to go over ground already covered here; to talk about photoshopped images, the actual mixed Muslim/Christian heritage of the young girl (AB) at the centre of this case, the complete inaccuracies about the actions of foster carers, instead I want to talk about love.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres”

1 Corinthians. 13.4-7

As well as my “day job” in Pioneer Ministry, I have for the past 10 years plus been a foster carer; I’ve  met and ministered with, and alongside, parents (especially Mums) who have had children removed from their care by social services due to various reasons – I’ve heard and shared their tears, their pain and heartache, their regrets and yes even their anger at the loss they’ve had to face.

In the time we’ve been fostering, we’ve had a number of young people come and go, some have stayed for a long time, and others not. Each comes with their own backstory, their own hurts and issues, sometimes (often) with hurts and issues they do not fully understand themselves and struggle to make sense of. As a foster carer (just like those in the story above) I’m there to provide a number of things; a place of safety, a place where the child or young person can thrive (as best they can) and develop a sense of genuine self worth, a place where they are loved.

But love comes at a cost to all of us. I (and others in my family) have been kicked, punched, and slapped – we been sworn at, spat at, we’ve had things thrown at us, been threatened with knives, seen property deliberately broken, car paintwork scratched and doors and furniture broken. Of course we’ve also had laughs and smiles, holidays where we’ve run through the waves and shared a sense of genuine “freedom” and joy, we’ve seen children grow into young adults and develop their own independence.

Love takes all these things, the ups and downs, the happy and sad, good and bad – it can’t always make things work the way you want, and sometimes it wears you down – completely. You see love isn’t the simple cozy and romantic thing the world often seeks to package and sell it as – love costs.

Jesus knew about the cost of love – it led him to his death and crucifixion, and it’s a choice made by countless others before and since. To love means we make ourselves vulnerable (ironically that’s why so many young people in care find it hard to love and be loved – the cost of that vulnerability feels too high for them – which in turn leaves them truly vulnerable to those whose real intent is abuse not love). But it’s not just them who struggle, sadly other people in sections of our society feel safer hiding from the cost of love. Hiding behind other strong emotions like fear and hate, thinking they can somehow protect themselves in this way, substituting real love, with a false love of things such as money, power, nationhood and even religion. The cost of love is to  be vulnerable, its what the early Christians knew as they were persecuted even to their deaths – but still they chose to love (despite its cost) as to live by fear and hatred was something even worse, or as Martin Luther King Jnr, famously said: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

 

 

 

 

You’re Scared I get it

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Okay I understand that a lot of people are frightened by terrorism (some of you / us even more than you / we outwardly let on). I understand that this fear is not just about life and death, but about the way you /we/they think certain kinds of terrorism represent a direct threat to the way they/ you/ we live.
 
So lets start there – You’re scared I get it.
 
But do not let that fear turn into blind hate, if we want to address terrorism, whether by the “Alt Right Nazis”, “Supremacists” “Islamic” or whatever tendencies lets focus on the politics and power behind it …. lets understand what attracts people to these false ideologies and lets seriously address those, rather than letting fear turns us towards hate. Hate leads to more hate, and will never end the cycle of violence.
 
History and culture are never static, the world moves on – knowledge increases and changes (although sometimes wisdom is lost) and every generation needs to consider past events in the light of current circumstances and knowledge. What may have been “accepted” at one time may rightly be condemned by future generations, Tony Benn once said: “Every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat”.  
In the case of slavery for example, it operated a different form and was underpinned by a different set of ideologies and beliefs under Egyptian, Roman (and other Ancient World) models. Later was re-imagined by Europeans from the 16th & 17th Century onwards, when it became underpinned by the racism that still fuels the “White Supremacists” of today. Now no one can deny the economic wealth brought about in Europe and in the USA through slavery, or the part it played within the global industrial revolution. But equally, no one can deny the human misery and oppression caused through it, and the legacy of racism that still flows as a direct result of it. In the USA the abolition of slavery was at the heart of a Civil War that led to the defeat of the Confederacy of eleven states and deaths of thousands of young men (mainly) who died defending a system of wealth creation that still left them impoverished, whilst living in the false consolation that they were “better” than someone whose skin was a darker shade?
Sadly in 2017 we are having to fight the battles over racism and white supremacy yet again – they are being played out in many places every day, from Charlottesville to Grenfell Tower, and right across the globe.
In the end our survival and that of this planet will rest upon our ability to understand that the world is held together in one humanity (Ubuntu) and one creation; the man made (and they are still “man” made) systems that rule us are disposable as we try and find a path that ultimately might save us and the earth from ourselves and our own destructive tendencies.  Paul describes just this in his letter to the church in Rome around 55AD in it he says: 
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 
Romans 12.2
Shalom

Sabbaths, Retreats and Holidays

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We’ve just got back from five days holidaying in Mid Wales. It has been a great time, just me, Angela (my wife) and our six year old foster child exploring and walking the forest paths above Cwm Einion, marveling at the wildlife, playing on the beaches and in the rivers, making memories together that will hopefully last a lifetime.

Unlike those memories, holidays themselves don’t last forever, and already after just one day back I’m beginning to feel slightly overwhelmed as I catch up on news and events that largely passed me by whilst away.

Whilst away I remembered a phrase I’d heard some months back from Phil Togwell at the Joined Up Conference in Sheffield, he offered some advice to pastors and other church leaders to: “Pause daily ….Sabbath weekly ….Retreat quarterly …. Holiday annually”. It is indeed a good disciple to follow I am sure – making time every day to be still and with God seems the easiest and most available, surely each of us whatever our circumstances, however busy we may find ourselves can find that few minutes (even as we settle down to sleep) to let ourselves become consciously aware of the personal link between us and God. Likewise finding a weekly Sabbath space where we stop and rest from our labours means so much more than “the day we go to church”. Sabbaths are resting times, they are days to take breath and know that life itself is good.

Finding time for Retreats whether quarterly or not, is indeed valuable as I have increasingly found. Trevor Miller writes this description of Retreat for the Northumbria Community: “In its simplest form ‘Retreat’, means ‘to withdraw, to drawback.’ Throughout the ages, the Christian tradition has understood Retreat to be an important part of spiritual formation.  That is, time consciously set aside for God, a change of focus, a deliberate act of stepping outside of normal routine by withdrawing (not running away) from the noise and pressures; the immediate and insistent claims of our social, domestic and workaday responsibilities in order to be in a quiet place where all our senses are open and ready to listen to God.”

And so back again to holidays – or Holy Days to cite their origin. I feel really fortunate to have been able to enjoy five days away with my family; before I left I was strikingly aware of how many of those families I work with and minister alongside in North Sheffield do not always have this same opportunity. I met someone during a food bank session the other week who told me it had been “five years since [she had] been away with the kids”. In the past the Church knew how to celebrate Holy Days within the local communities and neighbourhoods they served – it created festivals and feast days that all could enjoy. Holidays (just like Retreats and Sabbaths) are about rest and time out, but they are also about celebration and enjoyment. On the last night of our holiday in Wales, the three families holidaying on the site, joined with workers and volunteers from the permaculture eco-project in which our accomodation was located, and the farm owner (just out of hospital that day) gathered all together around a fire. As we sat around the open fire pit sharing food, conversation and watching our children play together this sense of Holiday as celebration was real, it was tangible – and amongst it all, at the centre, whether recognised or not was Godness.

Who uses food banks?

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Today has seen coverage in various media reports of yet another study on food banks and food bank use – there’s little new here, and little that those involved haven’t been saying to Government since at least 2012 – but somehow it falls upon closed ears.

This “new” major study from researchers at Oxford University and King’s College London has tried to get beyond the stereotypes, looking at those using the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks.

“In the most basic terms, these are people with many overlapping forms of “destitution”.

They have been missing meals, often for days at a time, going without heating and electricity. One in five had slept rough in recent months.

They are at the lowest end of the low-income spectrum, with an average income below £320 per month, described as living in “extreme financial vulnerability”.

These are usually people of working age, middle-aged rather than young or old, mostly living in rented accommodation.

About five out of six are without a job and depending on benefits”. 

(Source BBC News)
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, famously stumbled early in the election campaign when she seemed to wave off food bank use by describing the reasons people use them as “complex”. Likewise another Tory MP Dominic Raab brought comments when he said that many people use food banks as a response to “cash flow” issues. These responses are deliberately obtuse, or else a callous twisting of the reality of many peoples lives. The precarious nature of many of the poorest incomes do indeed mean that food banks become a lifeline when making harsh financial choices; “Should I put money in the gas meter or buy food?” – “Should I feed my children – or buy the new school shoes I’ve been told to buy to avoid the social worker being called?” Yes these are real comments, yes I’ve heard them directly with my own ears, and if Dominic Raab wants to call that a “cash flow problem”, or Theresa May thinks its all “complex” then I think they need to examine their consciences a little more.
Over the past few weeks our shelves at Pxi-Parson Cross Initiative Projects have been getting more and more depleted, and have required more and more topping up. We’ve spent nearly another £100 this week alone on food in addition to that donated directly.
We are nearing a crisis point – what happens then I genuinely do not know.
 

No Words

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So many events have taken place over the past few weeks, a General Election, terrorist attacks in Manchester, London and overseas, and of course the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower. I have wanted to write about some of these but somehow I could not find the right words.

A Lament is defined in the dictionary as: “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” or “a complaint” – it is both a noun and a verb, a naming and an action.

Today at our weekly writing group I penned these words, a lament; for now I think this will do.