…and a victory of hope

It was the women who went to deal with his body. Early, at dawn. Few would see them. They wouldn’t make much fuss.

They would nurture him in death as they had tended him in life. Washing him with tears and anointing him with oil. Grieving, broken, empty.

But then everything changed.

An empty tomb.
A panic.
An earthquake.
A bright light.
An angel.
A cry.

A greeting.

A RESURRECTION!

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A revolution beyond all expectations.
A victory greater than political autonomy.
A liberation more eternal than simple Earthly freedom.

The victory of Easter is a different sort of victory.
It is a victory that points all of our struggles towards a greater whole.
It is a victory that shines the most brilliant of lights into the darkest of our experiences.

It is a victory that hears our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and frustrations, our disappointment and fear, our dying dreams and our misplaced expectation, and says…

these things do not have the last word.

Easter day is a triumph of:

Joy
over
sorrow

Peace
over
turmoil

Reconciliation
over
conflict

Reunion
over
grief

Good
over
evil

Rest
over
pain

Stillness
over
anxiety

Love
over
hatred

Life
over
death

Light the fireworks!
Uncork the champagne!
Laugh and sing and marvel in awesome wonder!

Today we know not how our story ends, but that our story doesn’t end.
Today is simply the beginning of the eternity of our lives.
Today we mock and laugh at Death himself, knowing that although we bear his scars, he will never again defeat us.

Some questions to enrich, embolden, renew, and restore:

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What new dreams are gestating within you?
What flickers of hope can you see in the darkness?
Where are the safe places emerging in which you can put trust?
Which of your frustrations is opening a door to new, surprising opportunities?

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O grave, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

 

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The death of a dream…

How many of your dreams have died?

The friends of Jesus had a big dream. Political autonomy, religious freedom, an established kingdom. They were planning for revolution.

Everything had pointed towards it. Miracles and healings. Visions and voices from the sky. A herald in the wilderness. Challenges to authority. And a leader who was determined, radical, and not quite of this world.

The tension was mounting. Talk of signs and swords. Decisions of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Predictions of denial and betrayal. Declarations of loyalty. A meal, a prayer, a confrontation…

24 hours later, their revolutionary leader was dead.20160324_155808

How could they have got it so wrong?
Didn’t they see his power?
Didn’t they hear his words?

This was his moment: why didn’t he fight?
They had planned for God’s Kingdom.
All they were left with was a dead body.

Their great leader had failed.
His friends had misplaced their trust.
The dream was dead.

They’d have to watch their backs now too. Rome wasn’t kind to trouble makers. And the Temple authorities had flexed their muscles. Pilate and Herod had shaken hands under a banner of hate. At best, Jesus’ friends would be laughing stocks. The mugs who had fallen for the latest self-styled messiah. At worst, they’d be dead by the end of the week.

Some questions to unsettle:

How many of your dreams have died?
Which of your hopes remain unrealised?
In what or who have you (mis)placed your faith and trust?
Are you carrying frustrated expectations?

This is not the end

Is anybody there?

Is anyone listening?
Does anyone care?

These anguished and lonely cries are as old as human life itself. Wherever there has been life, there has been hardship, suffering, oppression, injustice, cruelty and pain.

I love ancient stories of faith and spirituality. They contain great comfort and wisdom for any of us who are asking these questions.

In our Morning Prayer readings we are hearing again the story of the people of Israel, who have been slaves in Egypt for so long, that they have forgotten who they are.

20160317_103816As they are oppressed, they cry out.
Not to God, but to themselves. To one another.

Honest, angry, anguished and lonely cries.
Just like our own.

Suffering can snatch from us our sense of self.
It erodes our confidence in our own identity.
We forget our own strength.
We neglect to retell our stories.
We lose sight of who we are.

How do we know if anyone listens when we cry out?
How do we know if anyone cares?

We don’t yet know how our own story will end.
We don’t know fully what freedom we will find, or what oppression we will face.
But we can treasure the stories of others.

The story of Israel is precious, because it tells of God’s response to our cries of pain.
We may not feel like anyone has seen, or heard, or knows.
But this is God’s response to the people of Israel, and to us:

I have seen
I see you, struggling.
I watch, as you put in all that effort, for… what?
I notice, when you shed a tear and quickly wipe it away.
I look on, as your busy mind fights the sleep your body so desperately needs.

I have heard
I hear the anxieties that nag at your soul.
I know your thoughts, the moment you think them.
I listen, when no one is there and you allow your grief to rise up.
Do you even hear your own cries?

I know
I know how hard it is.
I know how others treat you.
I know the guilt you carry at how you treat others.
I know things are not fair.
I know that you feel like you’re wading through treacle when you should be soaring on air.
I know you.

I will
I will act.
Circumstances will change.
I will not leave you alone.

You shall
You shall be free.

I Am
I Was.
I Will Be.
I Am.

If you want to read this story for yourself, or you want to know what happens next, you’ll find it in the opening chapters of Exodus, which is the second book of the Bible.

Unexpected blessings in the bagging area

A quick trip to the supermarket at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon. You rush around grabbing the few bits you need, your mind full of a half-recalled shopping list. Your eyes are blind to those around you until the moment they loiter a moment too long at the shelf you want to browse. You tut at the parent whose child is lying face down in the aisle, screaming and kicking. You stamp impatiently at the self-checkout while the gentleman ahead of you scans his items. Carefully, patiently, slowly. Then you whizz through, beep-whirr-ding, and you’re away. You slalom through children and trolleys and charity collection points, and then get stuck at the door behind an elderly lady who is leaning painfully on her trolley, shuffling on. Finally a gap opens, and out you go. Jump in the car, and you’re off.

These days my three year old insists on accompanying me whenever I pop into the supermarket. It’s a pain, to be honest. It slows me down. We can’t slalom and weave. We can’t push past obstacles and squeeze through gaps. We can’t scoot around someone and zoom ahead: his legs don’t work that quickly. I spend most of my time and energy trying to protect him from the trolleys and shoppers to whom he is invisible.

But it is also a great blessing. It gives me time to see things, to hear things, to take notice.

I submit to the discipline of standing behind someone in an aisle and waiting my turn to pick a tin from the shelf. As I wait, I treasure the feeling of my boy’s little hand in mine. And I notice the trolley of the person I am standing behind. It is full of ready meals for one, crowned by a bulging paper bag from the pharmacy.

As we queue at the self checkout, I can chat to my boy about any old nonsense. And I notice the man in front, emptying his wallet of coppers and silvers to pay for four cans of the cheapest own-brand lager. He’ll go home and drink that alone: sat in his coat with the curtains closed and the heating off.

Leaving the store, I watch my boy mimicking my steps, full of life. I resign myself to walking slowly behind the lady who leans on her trolley for dear life. And I notice her ankles. Swollen, and angry, and ulcerated.

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Shops may bring out the worst of us: our intolerance, our selfishness, our impatience.
I am ashamed at how little I notice of others, until I open my eyes.
I am appalled at my own pushing and shoving.
I am embarrassed by my snap judgements and my impatience.

If shops are the temples of our time, then we go there to worship a god who cares little about the slowest, the weakest, the poorest, the smelliest, the loneliest, the nosiest.

Our temper is short and our steps are quick.
Our eyes are closed and our hearts are cold.

As gathering places, shops offer little to those who are seeking community, kindness, and understanding. Our basic need of these things gives rise to the deepest cries of our hearts. We try and find solace in the things we buy as we push and shove through the shop, but the desperate truth is that nothing we spend money on can fill the gaping care-shaped hole in our spirit.

But shops also offer us some of our greatest opportunities to show kindness, tolerance and understanding. A friendly smile for the young mum or dad whose toddler has had enough. A helping hand for the frail gentleman struggling with his bag of tins. An extra bag in the foodbank collection. A few words of encouragement for the member of staff monitoring the malfunctioning self-checkout.

It is shops that bring us together with those who cause us discomfort or inconvenience. If we are the ones who can walk away from the smell, the poverty, the noise, the disturbance, then perhaps it is within our gift to do a much greater thing. What would it cost us to dip into our reserves of patience, grit our teeth, flex our (underused) tolerance muscles, and simply notice, and understand?

We can’t escape from everything that offends, annoys, irritates, or disturbs. Nor should we have any right to do so. This is about looking after one another. Seeing beyond our own comfort and reaching out to others with a shared humanity.

I am still learning and still trying. But I hope that my shopping habits will bring out the best in me, so that those around me in the aisles might flourish, even for a fleeting moment.

“Ducks only”

There was an excellent piece of journalism in the Guardian just over a year ago about the travesty that is defensive architecture: the spikes and bollards and uncomfortable bus stop benches that are supposed to prevent “anti-social” behaviour.

What about defensive signage? That is, the signs around us that are designed to instruct, protect, control and inform. Some of these are good and necessary. Without road signs, for example, driving would be chaotic and perhaps dangerous.

But signs create a certain atmosphere, however unconscious we are of them. As a family we visited an attraction last week that was littered with instructive or prohibitive signs:

No entry for visitors
Disabled parking and drop off only
Private
This area is closed
No access to gardens
No entry (CCTV in operation)
No parking
No
No
NO

(The final three may have been exaggerated)

None of the signs were wrong in themselves. Some were helpful. But the cumulative effect was to create an atmosphere in which we were not cherished guests, but punters to be controlled and definitely not trusted. The atmosphere felt unwelcoming and tense: not very hospitable. A little eavesdropping on conversations between staff suggested they felt the tension too, with a panicky instruction to clear pots off a table quickly (in an otherwise half-empty restaurant) before a supervisor reappeared and saw it was dirty. The signs, and this conversation, reflected a place managed by a desire to control, and encourage ‘good’ behaviour and conformity. We’re not particularly unruly, but we didn’t really feel comfortable and at home here.

If the signs we display affect the atmosphere around us, they must also affect our behaviour and our emotions. On holiday last year in Anglesey, these signs didn’t make me feel especially welcome, as an alien in town:


If I was resident there, how would these signs make me feel? Suspicious, perhaps, of strangers who were not quick to leave? We seem to be increasingly suspicious, perhaps frightened, of those who are unknown and unexpected.

Do we display these signs because we are frightened?
Or
Are we frightened because we display these signs?

This sign, displayed last year on our local playground, with its imperative “do not”, suggested we weren’t in a place of games and fun, but perhaps standing on the edge of a live volcanic crater, or next to live electrical wires:

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I think the problem was actually that the playground surface was in need of repair. The one thing that this sign did was ensure a steady stream of daredevil kids vaulted the fence to play somewhere with such good advertising displayed!

Signs are important. But are we aware of how their tone can create a particular atmosphere, and engender particular feelings or behaviour? Who wouldn’t be put into a slightly better mood by this sign – informative and instructive, but fun – at Martin Mere?

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And so I’m left reflecting…

What signs do we see around us, in our neighbourhoods, and in people we know?
How do they make us feel?

What signs do we display?
On our homes, our clothes, and through our words and our body language?
What messages do they communicate?
Are these messages the ones we’d like to communicate?

Are there things we’d like to tell the world that we could begin to say through the signs we display?