Re-learning to pray

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At the start of Lent I wrote a piece called Forty Days, one of the tasks I’ve set myself this year during this Lent season, alongside the fasting and casting off of bad habits, is to renew and re-learn parts of my prayer life.

I’ve often used art and creative writing as a method of prayer, and so it is to this place I’ve returned at this time. Again in that previous blog piece I talked about how the Psalms are for me a kind of go to part of scripture when I’m looking for a prayer focus, and how at the start of Lent I was particularly focussed on Psalm 51, and so it is that for the first fortnight of Lent, this psalm has remained a key focus for me. The photo above is of the prayerful artwork that has emerged from some of that reflection, but I wanted to share and record also some of the process and practice behind this art.

My first act of course was to read and re-read the psalm, in a kind lectio-divina manner, allow the words to lodge inside me, and waiting for particular words and sounds to stand out. The first phrase that stood out in this way was “teach me wisdom in my secret heart”*, and so the first thing I did was to use some of the remaining ash from  Ash Wednesday to finger draw a secret heart on the white card. This heart represents that deep inner self the part of us the we hide from others, and even ourselves; it’s the part of us where our insecurities, fears and prejudices sit – the part of us where we hurt in ways we don’t always understand even ourselves, maybe it’s got similarities to what Freud described as the Id, that most primitive and instinctive component of personality.

Next I created  a clean heart** made from clay super imposing it over the secret ash heart. But I wanted somehow to reflect the process by which I might imagine Gods work in the repentance – forgiveness – healing circle, and the whole Grace thing. That’s where I got the idea of the jigsaw pieces from, and the idea that through grace a new picture is created, the cleansed heart is not just clean, it is also re-newed, re-stored, re-created. Initially I took each piece of jigsaw and on the reverse side wrote more phrases from the psalm that had stood out as I read it yet again, things like: Have mercy, Steadfast Love, Abundant mercy, Wash me, Cleanse me, Purge me, You desire truth, Create in me a clean heart. These were then incorporated into the heart, but not neatly and perfectly, not in a joined up way that might suggest the full picture revealed and all issues resolved – but also not in a broken way, I felt a need to express a healing process. The pieces connect, some to each other, but all to the heart.

Finally I took inspiration from the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, a means by which pottery is repaired using a lacquer mixed with gold, silver or sometimes platinum. This practice embraces the flawed and incompleteness of things, and seeks to still see the beauty that is there. Verse 12 in the psalm says:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

For my the gold paint that I used to fill the gaps between the jigsaw pieces, to unify them with the clay heart, represented this plea from a place of repentance – Gods grace can restore us and sustain us, and even (as with the Kintsugi pieces) reflect the beauty of Gods gift in and through our own incompleteness.

 

 

*Verse 6
**Verse 10 (and Isaiah 64.8 Job 10.9)

 

 

 

 

 

Those who hunger …

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“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (Matthew 5.6)

Last weekend, Sheffield Church Action on Poverty held its eighth annual Pilgrimage. As part of this years event I (as Chair of the group) announced the launch of #EndHungerUK a national three year campaign led by Church Action on Poverty and other national organisations that will try to engage people in discussions around poverty and food, and hopefully build  a consensus of opinion and new policy to move on from the place we find ourselves today.

Let’s remind ourselves of what that place looks like in UK 2016:

“Latest Trussell Trust figures show a 2% increase in foodbank use on the previous year with 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis by our network of 424 foodbanks in 2015/16.”

Of course this is a fraction of the story – in Sheffield there are at least, around 16-20 emergency food banks and similar services. three of these are members of Trussell Trust. That one million plus figure is therefore a likely tip of the iceberg.

From our own experience, food bank use is varied. It includes all kinds of people with long term mental health and other associated issues, but it also includes short term emergencies like the person who received no payments from DWP whilst working his first month in hand, like those who’ve been on the receiving end of DWP sanctions, those who seen benefits messed up by the likes of Concentrix, and those who are just struggling because all of a sudden they’ve been hit by an on foreseen event.In our case one thing that is both upsetting and alarming is the rise in families requiring help from the food bank service – in our early days (2010-12) we fed very few families and children, in 2014-15 this had risen to around 1 in every 3 people we fed being children (under the age of 18), and this year we’ve seen that rise again to something approaching 46% of those we are now feeding being children.

Now  lets be clear (if a little controversial) the problem here isn’t really one about food. There is of course food a plenty in the UK just as there is across the first world, so much food in fact that we see alongside food banks large amounts of food waste. There are  moral, and economic, arguments around food waste – how its created, what we can do to prevent it, how it could be re-used (even as a basis for feeding people through charitable means). But food waste is not the experience we address in food banks – the issue there is poverty and fairness.

In the world, we experience food in a number of different ways, lets explore a few here to think about their different impacts.

  • Food as Commodity: This is the most common way we all experience food in the world today, and have for centuries. Whether from the local farmer, market or multi national supermarkets, food is bought and sold across the world. Poverty of course restricts your access to these markets, making choices limited, and putting some options out of reach. Food therefore like every other commodity comes at a price, and if that’s one you can’t afford then you’re left out – looking for another option, or go without. It’s one of the major problems with how we see food in the first world, divorced from its production, separated from nature, simply another commodity to be bought and sold.
  • Food as a Reward & Punishment: Of course sometimes food is given (or withheld) by those with power over others, at a basic level it maybe a parent giving a child a treat if they’ve achieved some task or other, or bottles of wine offered as “bonus rewards” for those who efforts are appreciated at work. Even as adults we will use food to help us in certain situations to gain favour, for example by taking a business partner out for lunch. Of course there’s a dark side too – food withheld from those who fail to perform, or who those with power want to punish.
  • Food as Social Bonding. Food has a real place in the forming and keeping of human bonds and relationships. Families traditionally eat together, celebrations often centre around food of some kind or other. Food undoubtedly has a social value beyond simple nutrition.
  • Food as a Gift: Then there is the food given to others as gifts. Once again this may be as treats for those we care about (presents bought and shared out of love) or it may be through, what Christians would associate with “Agape” (charitable love) where the gift is given with no condition or expectation, and ultimately as an expression that all food (and everything else) is a gift from God.

Increasingly, in the case of food banks in particular (and our response to food and poverty in general) these instances have been causing me more and more concern, as I feel the motives and even the practice are becoming modified by the world beyond.

Food donated to and given by food banks is increasingly being turned into, and seen as, a “commodity”. Charity Commission guidance says that all food should be accounted for and reported in the annual report and returns, thus more and more food banks are resorting to weighing in and out food as a way of measuring its commodity (financial) value.

Most food banks (our own included) operate some kind of “voucher” or “referral” system, exactly how these operate vary from place to place and food bank to food bank, there is no common unified system – because food banks are not, have not been designed to be, part of the system – they are a symptom of the system failure. However, the consequence of the voucher / referral system is that access is through a gatekeeper of one kind or another. Referrers might, and do, include: Social Workers, Health Vistors, Housing Associations, Citizens Advice and yes even the DWP themselves – in addition some food banks have reserved the ability to make in house referrals so no one has to leave hungry. The problem is here though, that somehow in this we’ve created a reward and punishment situation where a referrer has the power to make the decision about when someone (and indeed who) needs to be sent to a food bank.

Meanwhile, as I’m watching our volunteers pack another bag of food, serving a coffee and a sandwich, I try to remind myself (and those around me) this is meant to be a gift. An act of love and solidarity to our neighbours in need – it’s not fair, it can’t be fair. So what are the alternatives available – should we shut the doors and leave people to their own devices and a system that’s failed them? Should we allow ourselves as food banks to be co-opted into a new welfare system based on charity, and therefore seek a more equitable system of food distribution by becoming the system? Or do we continue to struggle through the mess of it all, understanding that only campaigning, and a massive change in policy and the way we together provide for the livelihoods of all citizens will resolve this situation in the end?

Meanwhile we’ll be back again next Friday to do our best, to respond with love and grace.

Vulnerability & Grace

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wp_20160902_09_19_32_proLast week I attended a special evening at St Marks Broomhill to hear the internationally renowned Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz-Webber. It was an inspiring evening, made even better by the presence of many friends and ministry colleagues, come on I even got the latest book signed!

Nadia spoke in a witty, challenging and grace filled way – echoing much of that which she covers in her books. The central message she left me with after over an hour of having my heart “strangely warmed” (I am a Methodist after all) was the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message, that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it other than accept it or deny it. That central message of grace is one we sometimes seem to lose, amongst our own internal church arguments and debates that seem to encompass everything from Gay marriage, to the colours of paint and tiles most appropriate in the new toilet block! Somehow we lose the beautiful simplicity of Gods outrageous love and grace.

Bolz-Webber teaches me to try and understand, and accept, my own flaws (oh yes I have them too) in the same way that she most markedly does, and shares openly. So, for the record: I know at times I lurch into “grumpy old man” mode, I can at times be “tetchy”, in fact I can be outright shouting mad. I sometimes allow my shows of confidence to take on an air of certainty and even boarderline judgementalism and defensiveness, I don’t always listen enough, and am sometimes too keen to offer advice. No doubt my friends and family can pick out other flaws too – but you know what, despite all this I’m still beloved by God. These flaws and frailties are what Nadia Bolz-Webber calls our “jagged edges”. and its in “…the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God…” says Pastor Nadia.

In the other part of my life, I’m a foster carer. If anyone ever tells you that being a foster carer is a great job don’t believe them (at least not entirely) – sure it’s got it rewards, feeling that you can provide some stability and love into the life of a young person that needs that is a more than worthwhile thing to do, but its also tough. By the time you’ve had your fifth conversation with the school, social worker, or police in a week, believe me it gets a little wearing …. and its then that your jagged edges can show, not to the young person necessarily but to others around you, and even to yourself as you begin to doubt what it is you actually might have to offer, and why your best offer just keeps getting rejected and is nowhere near enough. But as we own and even embrace those flaws  the grace gets chance and can shine through, as the rough jagged edges meet we find Gods path of love. So when my autistic ex-foster son (who has significant learning disabilities as well as his autism) went missing again for hours on Monday night – as we and the other professionals searched arrest sheets, hospital admittance lists, RTA casualties descriptions – and and his phone remained un-contactable, the jagged edges grew again. I was scared, I was angry, I was helpless (one state I absolutely hate to be in). Finally at nearly 3am we make contact – he is safe – and the jagged edges retreat, I am overwhelmed with relief and love and grace. “Glad you’re safe – sleep well son” the only words I can muster.

Each of us is vulnerable in our own ways, Pastor Nadia reminded me that sharing that vulnerability as a minister far from being a weakness can be a wonderful means of grace. As she joked last week about the Methodist doctrine of Christian Perfection “…how’s that all working out for you?” (NBW) it’s a long, long road to travel, and pretending we’ve arrived when we haven’t helps no one really. The truth is God loves us, imperfect, jagged edges and all.

In a Strange Land

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bible-art-Theme-verse-exodus.jpgOn the 23rd June the people of this country made a historic decision to leave the European Union, the political, economic, social, and cultural repercussions of this are still being felt.Immediately after the result, I alongside with many others who had hoped for a Remain victory felt myself in a place of lament, here are the words I wrote the day after the referendum:

A Lament on Leaving

“We must leave” he said, “It will be better if we do.”

But I did not want to leave here,

Here I have enjoyed years of peace,

Here I have made friends, loved my neighbour,

Here is my home.

“Here is not a place for decent folk” he said “We must take back control.”

And so I wake to find myself in another place,

No longer knowing anymore where I am,

Or what path lies ahead.

(24th June 2016 – Nick Waterfield)

 

Since then, we have already been given a new Prime Minister, the Conservative, Labour parties and UKIP are all facing, or have faced, not just elections and challenges around the leadership, but ideological struggles for what their party stands for as we move beyond the immediate aftermath, and now there are even calls for a General Election – the outcomes are by no means certain.

Economically the immediate uncertainties have caused short term problems with the longer term consequences still anyones guess.

Socially and culturally it has unearthed and exposed a wave of open hostility and racism, that many of us sensed had been kept “politely” out of sight, but which now seemingly has gained a new found confidence. It has led to increases in overtly racist attacks and abuse, prompting even our own Methodist Conference to take action and issue a statement of opposition last week.

I voted to Remain – I have friends who voted on both sides of the debate – I understand why some of them voted the way they did. I  understand the desire to feel like it was a shot across the bows of the powerful, how it could ultimately be a way of restoring democratic accountability to our own sovereign Parliament, I can even understand (whilst profoundly disagreeing with the sentiment and most certainly the racism that has fed from it) the concerns that immigration has stretched the nations resources rather than assisting them. I understand, but even so I admit that I have spent much of my time since then feeling like “a stranger in a strange land”.

And as I’ve reflected on this feeling I have contemplated two biblical stories:

First, the destruction of the Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, and in particular the words of lament from Psalm 137 which have gone round my head time and again in the past few months, but especially since 24th June:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

(NRSV)

Secondly, and the one I want to focus on here is the escape from Egypt, as we read in the book of Exodus.

I guess many of us know the story from Exodus – the people of God are being held as slaves in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to listen when Moses and Aaron ask that he set them free, so Egypt is beset by a series of plagues. The Jews flee from Egypt and escape through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Finally they are free from the shackles of Egyptian enslavement and the domination of Empire.

BUT it’s then that things get interesting, then that things get complicated, and there I want to start.

It all starts with triumphalism, Miriam (Moses sister) leads the songs of victory, yes they are songs that offer thanks to god for their rescue, yes they are songs of liberation, but they are also songs of death and defeat for the enemy Egypt. “The LORD is a warrior…” (15.3) says the song as it tells of how Pharaohs officers, men chariots and horses were hurled into the sea and drowned, sunk to the depths like a stone. The song continues with a tone of expectant and hopeful conquest:

“The nations will hear and tremble” (15.14)

“The chiefs of Edom will be terrified” (15.15)

“Terror and dread will fall on them.” (15.16)

Celebration of victory always takes place, in war, in politics, in sport, anywhere …. But when we are on the winning side, we need to think about the tone of our triumphalism. John Wesley in his advice on voting concluded by saying …. [Our] “spirits [should not] sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” a sentiment that ultimately rings true whichever side we find ourselves on.

But, back to Exodus. Just some six weeks later (on the 15th day of the second month 16.1) they began their complaining; “In Egypt we had food…” now maybe these divisions were already there, some people no doubt did better out of the Egyptians than others, just like some of our fellow citizens were able to gain advantage from the EU that many others couldn’t. The divisions amongst the Israelites, just like our own, didn’t just appear overnight – they’d been brooding for some time. But here in Exodus we hear that just six weeks after leaving those voices were being heard loud and clear. “In Egypt we had food…”

God responds with love and grace …. (16.4) Manna and Quail are somehow miraculously sent so that the complaints over food are silenced (or quietened) at least for a time.

But still the complaints are there, lurking beneath the surface (dissatisfied voices) but also a distrust and misunderstanding of Gods provision. “Why …” repeat the voices (17.3) “…did you bring us out of Egypt?”

God responds with love and grace …. (17.6) Providing water to come from rock

Next the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, but Joshua defeats them in battle and makes his mark as a future leader.

Jethro (A Midian priest and Moses father in law) hears of the escape from Egypt and everything that has happened since, and although impressed, offer his son in law advice on how to govern well (Chapter 18)

Then in chapters 19 and 20 we get the familiar story of Moses on Mount Sinai, with another rebuttal of God  by the Israelites when they fashion themselves a new idol (The Golden Calf  ) but once again;

God responds with love and grace ….. ( 20.1-17 ) The Ten Commandments unpinning the basic truths that the best way to live is through a Love for God, and Love for Each Other, all underpinned by a knowledge that God loves the World.

So where does this leave us today?

I guess it depends on who we see ourselves as in the story. Perhaps – over the coming days I might ask that each of us will find time to sit with this story, read it again, try to immerse ourselves in it. And that we think of it in terms of where we are now in the United Kingdom 2016 – and what we as individual Christians, and as the people of God, the body of Christ are challenged to be and to do in the season ahead.

I wonder who you might feel most like?

Maybe you’re feeling in  triumphal mood like Miriam?

Or maybe you’re amongst those who simply want to go back?

I wonder who (like Jethro) might be the providers of wisdom in these times – remembering that Jethro himself was an “outsider”?

and

I wonder where might we look for the signs of Gods love and grace amongst the, perhaps inevitable. mess and chaos we are experiencing right now?