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.

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Strangers and Foreigners

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Last weekend I was privileged to be invited by YMCA White Rose (through my friend Jonathan) to join him on a trip to Budapest where we met folk from KIE (the YMCA in Hungary) and explore possible link projects back to our shared North Sheffield base.

Amongst our many conversations, there was one theme I seemed to keep coming back to – it was the very one that Erzsebet (local KIE leader) had offered for discussion at the Saturday  night youth group – that of “Strangers and Foreigners”. It is perhaps not strange that many of the young people wanted to question, and indeed understand, why the UK had recently voted to leave the EU. It was indeed news to them that whilst England and Wales had both voted in favour of “leave”, the North of Ireland and Scotland had voted “remain”. Indeed that the margins of the result, the divisive nature of the campaign itself, had left many of us with a feeling of not being sure who “we” are and what the future for us holds. I also suggested that in my experience, that the vote was not just about “nationalism”, and indeed any nationalism demonstrated in the victorious Brexit campaign was some particular form of English Nationalism rather than a UK or British Nationalism (regardless of how this was being portrayed within or beyond our boundaries).

These conversations have led me to once again return to the idea of identity, national and other, and to try and understand what part place and space might play in my personal identity (as well as that of my friends and neighbours).

I openly admit I struggle (and always have) to have any sense of what it means to be “English” – I can cope with some sense of being British, in that it is the place where I have spent my life. I acknowledge that the relative wealth I enjoy as a part of this nation (still around the 5th richest in the world) the result of years of imperial power and our part in the slave trade, and because of our status as a successful trading nation. But I cannot identify with being English – I don’t know what it means, I don’t feel an ownership. I’m not being (no matter what politicians and others might hint) unpatriotic in saying this, it just doesn’t feature as part of my identity.

I can say “I’m a Yorkshireman” (and a Northerner) – to me these identify characteristics that I do own. I can feel a pride at times in my “call a spade a spade” bluntness, I feel attached to a history of industrial heritage, of mill towns, coal and steel that I feel a has provided a sense of gritty resilence to many of us living in this part of the world. Indeed I can own a sense of Britishness, born out of a history that I and my family through generations have been a part of (one of my ancestors even sailed with Captain Cook to plant the British flag on “undiscovered” parts of the globe) – and even when these exploits do not bring me a sense of pride (for example the wealth we gained as a nation through systems of slavery and oppression) I still acknowledge it is a part of me. But, I have no concept of Englishness, and when confronted with Little Englander nationalism the more I start to feel a stranger in my own land.

The Bible tells me (Galatians 3.28): “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” my discipleship calls me to identify in this way above the labels the world would set for me. Our UK Prime Minister famously, and recently, said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere…” but that makes me really ask myself what this daughter of an Anglican Vicar also makes of Phillipians 3.20 “…we are citizens of heaven…”

All I can say is this, as I was invited and welcomed into Erzsebets home, as I spent Saturday evening with this group of young people in a cellar in Budapest, and as I sat in St Stephens Basilica on Sunday morning attending a Catholic Mass, in Hungarian and Latin (of which I confess to knowing little of either) I didn’t feel like a stranger and foreigner. As we shared food, sang songs together, and as the faithful shook hands and shared the peace, I knew I was home – a citizen of heaven, belonging and beloved.