All travelling safely home: A meditation for Epiphany

On January 6th, we reach the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Christian calendar celebrates The Feast of the Epiphany: the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, bringing gifts for the promised Jewish saviour. 

But these men were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). I have tried to write this meditation from a “farthest corner” of my own – the deflated sense of normality that I return to after our Christmas celebrations, in what ought to be one of the most joyous times of the Christian year. Perhaps in the relative stillness of “normality”, away from the distractions of Christmas, we might receive again the real gift of Christmas: the love, acceptance and adventure of a life with God.

As ever, use this as it is helpful, and ignore it as it is not. 


On the thirteenth day of Christmas
The tree is well away
The house is hauntingly empty 
And the wind seems so much colder.

January’s darkness is not like December’s:
Pregnant with anticipation
As light and warmth swell
And holiday loiters promisingly on the horizon.

January’s darkness is bleak:
The embers of Christmas grow dim
And we notice (as if for the first time)
The gloomy days filled with worry and bustle.

But on the dark chill of Christmas’s thirteenth day
A band of angels gathers
As a day is just yet dawning
And a quiet herald whispers poems of hope.

In our darkest, furthest corners
Something in our souls is stirred.
A hand reaches in, to lead us from our gloom
As December’s embers flame again.

Star is swallowed by brilliant sunrise, and
Rising, we leave our emptiness behind
Drawn by Epiphany’s brightest light
To join a company of kindly strangers

All travelling safely 
Home.

Arise, shine; for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee

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Donald Trump: The fairy godmother

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world”. Socrates.

Why has Donald Trump been elected president today?

That’s a question I’ve seen asked time and again on social media this morning. I’m not an expert in American politics, and the reasons for Trump’s rise to power are complex. But there is a subtle factor in his success that isn’t unique to the USA.

Across the Western world, privileged people are feeling disempowered. Those who have always done well, socially and economically, suddenly find themselves feeling hard done by.

There is a mistrust of the establishment and a suspicion of institutions. We can speculate on events of the past decade that have fed this ill feeling.

A vote for Trump, or (in the UK) for Brexit, or UKIP or Corbyn is, for some, an anti-establishment protest vote. Here are people or movements, set slightly apart from the establishment, who promise a voice to those who have been told that they are voiceless.

(This in itself deserves some unpacking. What has gone so wrong that those who have most privilege, most opportunity, most wealth, feel like they actually have least? What about those who are truly voiceless: victims of violence, racism and trafficking, asylum seekers, those who can’t afford to eat or stay warm – who is giving them a voice?)

Amidst the fear and anxiety and disempowerment appears a man who can promise to make all our dreams come true. He hears these narratives of disappointment and disillusionment, and he tells a winning story. The shady tycoon plays the part of fairy godmother. What does he offer that is so attractive that it sells to the USA a man so otherwise repulsive?

These quotes are from his victory speech this morning:

Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, we have to get together.

I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me.

We will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream.

Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

We will double our growth and have the strongest economy anywhere in the world.

Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach.

We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring.

While we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone.

Sounds pretty good right? The perfect remedy, in fact, to fear and anxiety about the future. The people will come together. Every man and woman will be encouraged to reach their full potential. No one will feel forgotten any longer. Jobs will be created and wealth generated. America will be safe, secure and successful. The dream will come true.

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But these words are the first bricks in the wall that will shut the privileged in, and everyone else out. There are no bridges promised here. Here is America saying me, me, me. In Trump’s references to international relationships he made it clear that any such relationships would be on America’s terms:

We will get along with all other nations [pause] willing to get along with us.

Watching this speech live, Trump’s pause was deliberate, manipulative and threatening.

This is a fairly tale that feeds fear and denies America’s responsibilities as citizens of the world. It reassures the disempowered by offering them safety and security at a cost that they won’t have to pay. America’s dream becomes the world’s nightmare.

There has to be another way. What story can people of faith – the everyday theologians on the ground – tell, to counter these narratives of fear and the fairy tales that promise all and deliver little?

One of the greatest challenges facing faith communities this century is the rise of religious and political extremism. I heard Rowan Williams speak recently about how the Desert Fathers and Mothers – the theologians of 2000 years ago – were “thinking through what it means to live as a guest in God’s world”.

Here is the seed of a radical theology of hospitality. We are not citizens of our nation, but of the world. And this is not our world, but God’s world. God is the host, and we are his guests. The people we hate are his guests too. You and I, Donald Trump and the jihadist fighter – all guests of God.

How does this begin to reshape our narratives of fear, anxiety and disempowerment?

Bridging the (generation) gap

Generalisations are as good as it gets!
Ann Morisy, in Borrowing from the Future (2011).

It’s been quite a day. The consequences and opportunities of today’s Brexit will not be clear for some time. Our politicians, civil servants and economists have a massive job ahead.

The rest of us need to start building some bridges. The best people, nay, the only people, up to this task are you and I. Where to start: Social class? Nationality? Politics?

How about age?

Lord Ashcroft Polls have shown that in the EU Referendum, the older the voter, the more likely they were to vote to leave the EU. Social media was quick in its condemnation: the youngest in society (many of whom were not allowed to vote) will pay the price (and arguably bear the brunt) of this decision, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Baby Boomers have been pitched against Millenials (and before you read further, revisit Ann Morisy’s quote at the top of this post!).

Here’s the thing: I’m a Millennial. At times I feel undervalued, disenfranchised, hard done by, and misunderstood. I am frustrated that the Establishment doesn’t seem to hear or value my opinions, probably because fewer of my contemporaries vote than those of older generations. I feel sad that my generation and younger are often caricatured as lazy, uncaring and disengaged. I believe that for someone in their teens, 20s or early 30s life is tougher now than it was a generation or two ago.

But I spend a lot of time with Baby Boomers. I see how hard life can be for someone living on a state pension. I hear how uninspired, confused, and frightened many Boomers are by the pace of change that my generation seem to thrive and capitalise on. I know how painfully aware Boomers are that they may be ‘out of touch’ with younger generations. And, critically, I am yet to meet someone of my parent’s or grandparent’s generation who doesn’t care about the future of their children or grandchildren.

The problem seems complex, and yet it’s actually very simple. The problem is this: The world is changing so fast around us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another. The pace of change we are trying so desperately to keep up with affects not only our technology. It has an impact on our relationships, our behaviour, and our language. And it has hit our inter-generational relationships especially hard.

Maybe we have lost the ability to say and hear (Boomers to Millenials, and Millenials to Boomers):

I care about you.
I feel let down by you.
I want the best for you.
I am worried about you.
I’m confused.
I feel that life is hard for me.
I’d like you to challenge yourself.
Life isn’t like that for me.
It seems like you had/have things so easy.
I’m frightened about the future.
I don’t understand.
Please tell me about…
I love you.

We have bridges to build. So let’s talk. Let’s talk free of blame and guilt and anger.

Boomers, hear us when we say that life is so very different for us than it was for you. Some things are much easier. Other things are tougher – or different. Let us tell our stories of hardship without feeling that we are blaming you. Listen to our cries for help – our need for your wisdom of experience and your encouraging words of comfort that remind us of what is really important (and we know it’s not property, pensions or prosperity!).*

Millenials, know that Boomers care deeply about our future. Open your eyes to see that they carry a burden of guilt, bewilderment and responsibility about the fact that so few of them were able to sustain such a good quality of life for more than a generation or two. Hear their words of wisdom about life’s real priorities. Listen to stories of what has made their lives so wonderful (and know that it is not wages or wealth).

Perhaps, just perhaps, as we talk, and as we hear, we may come to a better understanding of one another. We are parents and children. Grandparents and grandchildren. We want to see each other happy and we love one another dearly.

Listening, really listening, is rarely comfortable. It will challenge and move us, sadden and gladden us. Hearing one another’s stories will ask us to acknowledge our own weaknesses and fallibilities.

And yet what bricks do we have for our bridge, but our stories and our questions and our ears? The rebuilding must start now, and it must happen quickly. Without this bridge, we will lose something precious and irretrievable. We will lose each other.


* And a personal note. Thank you to those Boomers – Ann Morisy and my parents and many, many others – friends and relatives and colleagues – who have noticed and drawn attention to the plight of Millenials. Thank you to every person who has already listened, and heard, and understood, and asked. You have taught me so much.

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A Lament for Love

We gather
Under storm clouds of our own bigotry
As Spite pours down his torrent upon our heads.

Clouds settle
Marring our vision and dimming our light
As Darkness binds and chokes and snatches hope.

Thunder rumbles
Silencing words that stick in our throats
As Grief cries loud his pangs of painful wrath.

Lightening burns
Casting eerie shadows on our down-lit faces
As Fear takes hold and rests in our bright eyes.

We gather
Sharing tight the umbrella of our likeness
As Hate, invited, batters and beats us cold.

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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.

The milk of human kindness: A plea to the Women’s Institute

Another day. Another headline about a woman being asked not to breastfeed her baby. This time the lady in question was asked not to attend meetings of her local branch of the Women’s Institute until her child was weaned. Apparently “this is a common policy at WI meetings, as many WI members see the meetings as an escape from family life where they can concentrate on themselves and meeting other women”. The WI have since apologised and stated that this policy does not extend to breastfeeding mothers.

There is not much of a case to be made by anyone seeking to stop women breastfeeding freely pretty much wherever they like. The argument has been well rehearsed elsewhere and I won’t rehash it here. Opinion on this is strong, and the debate has been had.

But it seems to me that where clashes about breastfeeding occur, they are often not about breastfeeding at all.

However a new mother (or father) feeds her (or his) baby, the parent and child need time together to bond. Bonding is rarely instantaneous, but is a process that happens over weeks, months… perhaps years. Certainly the first few months of the child’s life are vitally formational in this respect. Bonding happens through physical contact and verbal and non-verbal communication, and the time this is most likely to happen is when the baby is being fed, by breast or bottle. Put simply, if a parent and their young child are to bond well in those first few months, they need to spend as much time together as possible.

A new mum is also at risk of becoming dangerously isolated very quickly. Looking after a baby is physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually demanding. And it can be incredibly lonely, particularly if a partner returns to work soon after the birth. No wonder that one charity estimates that as many as 3 in 10 new mums suffer from postnatal depression. It seems clear that parents of babies, and mums especially, need support, love, company, kindness and community.

So…
Babies and parents need one another’s company.
And…
Parents of young children need community and support.

If parents and their babies are to have the best chance of flourishing, they need to be welcomed together into social circles, organisations, meetings and events. If a parent is told they are unable to enter a specific place with their baby, this is potentially damaging for both parent and child. Either the parent and child have to part company for a time, where they could otherwise spend time bonding with one another. Or the parent remains with the baby, but becomes even more isolated.

This is not about how a child is fed. In the case outlined above, the Women’s Institute acknowledges the “right and freedom of every woman to breastfeed”. But what about if a woman who bottle fed her baby was placed in the same situation? Would her baby not be allowed to attend meetings, where the breastfed baby was? Both babies, at that stage, need the physical contact and communication with mum that both breast and bottle supply. The development of both babies is important, and the wellbeing of both mums is important.

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This is not about breastfeeding. It’s probably not even about new parents and babies, exclusively. This is about how we become community. It’s about how we live in such a way as to provide hospitality to one another. It’s about pushing beyond our own comfort zones, overcoming fear of the unknown or “escape” from the uncomfortable, to advance our mutual flourishing.

We exclude those who makes us feel uncomfortable at great cost. So dear Women’s Institute, this Christmas time please think again about your “child free zone” policy, because you may find your meetings are enriched, bolstered and blessed by young mums and their babes and toddlers. Just as you enrich, bolster and bless those families in return.

Compassion: our beating heart

We’ve become an increasingly harsh world, and when we become harsh with each other and forget our humanity then we end up in these standoff positions… We need to rediscover what it is to be a human, and that every human being matters.

Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, Bishop of Dover, as reported here

Compassion is not sympathy. It is not kindness or charity.

Compassion is unnatural, counter-intuitive, unglamorous.

There is little reward for compassion. It won’t further our own prospects. It is unlikely to secure our safety in a world obsessed with survival of the fittest.

Yet compassion is the beating heart of humanity. It looks out for the least. It cares for the vulnerable. It stands in solidarity with those who cannot talk, or fight, or act for themselves.

True compassion (meaning literally, ‘to suffer with’) is hard to find and harder to practice.

Compassion calls us to sit with suffering. Not to turn away, nor to fight it, but to welcome it as the shadowy guest that lurks in the most frightening corners of our imagination.

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It’s easier to deal with suffering if we dehumanise it. Human beings become ‘cockroaches’ who ‘swarm’. A ‘swarm’ can be eradicated, treated, exterminated, stamped on, forgotten about, moved on from.

To dehumanise suffering; to turn away, mock it and use it to sell newspapers or buy votes, is the very antithesis of compassion.

And without compassion, our beating heart has stopped.

So who is less human? The ‘swarms’ of migrants? Or those of us who surround ourselves with comfort, turn away our faces, and switch off the TV?

A patchwork of diversity

Reflections adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross, Timperley for Trinity 7…

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

Ephesians 2:19-22

We are people of different ages, different traditions, different heritage, different ethnicities, different sexualities, different genders, different life experiences, different ways of speaking and behaving, and different stories… We are all different. All unique.

And yet even within the church (and not just this church!) we get frustrated with the differences we see in one another. We talk about the older generations or the younger generations. We talk about liberal Christians and orthodox Christians. We talk about Evangelicals and Catholics. But actually, there are no such groups in our church. Instead, we have Mildred, and Cliff, and Karen, and Doris, and Linda, and Carolyn, and everyone else who enters into our building…

Beyond our church doors, we meet even more diversity, and in this we find great richness. The media love to set up one group of people against another, and bad news stories about immigration, or the generation gap, or the poverty gap do sell. Beware what you read in your daily newspaper. Beware what they say about young people or pensioners. Beware what they say about the rich, or the poor. About activists and politicians. About bishops and beggars. About millionaires and the homeless. Before you believe the press, go and meet the people, hear their stories, appreciate the diversity you find, and then make up your own mind.

The media would love us to believe that life is black and white. That there are saints and sinners. Insiders and outsiders. But life is not black and white. It is very human to want to label people, or put each other into neat boxes. To decide whether someone is a saint or a sinner. But we Christians know that we are all sinners, and all saints.

We are as diverse as a patchwork quilt. Each person, each square, has its own flavour. There is a unique pattern to each part of the quilt. Each square is free to be beautiful in its own way. But knitted together, the squares form a better whole: diverse, colourful, and able to achieve much more than any one square could do alone.

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In a church and a world that is becoming increasingly diverse, let’s not entrench ourselves. If we place people into boxes based on what they are for or against, if we label them as a saint or a sinner, we isolate one another and ourselves. Instead, let’s celebrate our diversity and beauty it gives us. We are all different, and our richness as the Body of Christ is found in our diversity. We are free to be ourselves, and yet knitted to one another in all our individuality.

This is especially important at the present moment. Our precious church – our community of faith – is once more in a fragile state, just as was the early church. Every piece of research confirms that the established church is declining at a frightening speed. More than ever, we need to be open to welcoming the stranger, and making space for them on our patchwork quilt.

And as the Body of Christ, as this patchwork quilt of diversity, we have a role to play outside of church too. Out in our communities, as we talk with our friends and neighbours, or around the family dinner table, let us be known by how we celebrate our diversity. Let our distinctiveness as Christians be shown in how we treat and how we talk about those who are different to us. Because we, of all people, know that even in difference, we can be united as one body, as one patchwork quilt.