Dwelling Spaces

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

hallelujah



Hallelujah or Alleluia...it's that time of year when Christians say it a lot! It means 'praise ye the Lord' or 'Dudes! Let's praise God!'.  We say it to encourage one another to recognise how awesome God is.  It feels a particularly powerful word just after Easter in the Church of England because we have tried to avoid saying it in Lent during the six weeks that run up to Easter.  Why?  Because we are waiting for Jesus to be fully revealed as a different sort of Lord and King.  A King who was enthroned on a cross, killed by those he chose to forgive as he showed that through him - Jesus - nothing can separate us from the love of God.


Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38-9).


After Easter I went off to Spring Harvest with my church.  Spring Harvest is a big Christian conference with thousands of people gathered together to study the bible, pray and sing to God, and learn more about how to live the Christian life.  Whilst I was there we had the privilege to hear from someone who had spent many years in prison in North Korea for being a Christian.  It was a distressing and powerful story to hear which involved the killing of family members, brutal torture, hard labour, and unbearable living conditions.  In this place of sleeping on cold concrete, rat and insect infected, piled up in small rooms with people who died in the night and whose bodies were often not removed for days...in this place the whispered gatherings of a handful of people kept faith and hope alive.


As Christian believers passed each other they would whisper to each other 'hallelujah'.  What an extraordinary word to whisper into the face of unbelievable oppression. Hallelujah.  What is it about Jesus that draws praise from the lips of someone in the midst of such intense suffering?  Hallelujah.  I think it is this truth that there is no place to which God is not prepared to go to with you so that it can be healed and redeemed.  And in that truth is hope. 


Leonard Cohen sings of hallelujahs that are cold, hallelujahs that are broken, hallelujahs that are holy.  Choosing to praise the Lord does not always come from a place of joy and peace. Sometimes it may not even come from a place of hope.  But the hallelujah that emerges as a trailing whisper from the very end of ourselves will always connect us to the One who knows our end from our beginning, who holds our lives together. 





Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Touch



Another thing that struck me in Tanzania was the higher level of physical contact people have with each other.  It was fairly common to see men holding hands with each other, especially when talking one-to-one.  At the end of church services there was a great snake of people as you would shake hands exiting the building and then join the end of the line so everyone ended up shaking everyone else's hand! One of the challenges for me as quite a tactile single person is the lack of human touch I experience day-to-day, and in particular with men.  Commentators are beginning to talk more about the general absence of touch in our society (see for example this recent article from The Guardian) and the implications for our general well-being.  It is lovely holding hands with children as they skip along, or being able to hold someone's hand to offer comfort or reassurance.  I have a few friends who I might hold hands with from time to time, but none of them are men, and I have to admit that I miss that sort of contact.  So it was really great to spend time in Tanzania with lots of married men who thought it perfectly normal to hold my hand when talking!


Given the issues that arise for people in the absence of regular touch, and yet the understandable withdrawal from physical contact out of fear of it being misunderstood or abused, how should we navigate this?  I don't see any obvious easy answer, but I am sure that part of the answer must be reclaiming touch from always having sexual overtones.  When I hold hands with people, it is a sign of sharing life, of being focused in my conversation and attention with that person.  It is not a sign that I want to jump into bed with them.  We don't assume this when we see people of different generations holding hands, but I'm not sure this is our default assumption for people of the same generation holding hands.  And so it takes a lot to be secure enough in your own identity not to be undermined by other people's assumptions about you.  I have been single now for over 20 years, and confident in that as my calling, but I am still susceptible to modifying my behaviour to avoid further speculation from people about me.  If I hold hands with a female friend then perhaps people think I am a lesbian.  If I hold hands with a male friend, I am either being too forward or threatening their marriage.  I'm sure I have probably had the same horrible thoughts about other people, but what I want to do is train myself to think that this is a great sign of friendship first and foremost.  Is that too naïve?  What do you think?






 

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Tension



At the CNC morning service today we were thinking about tension in our faith lives. The Christian faith is full of things we hold in tension: Is Jesus fully human or fully divine? Well...YES! Is the kingdom of God now or not yet? Umm...YES again!  Is God an intimate friend or unapproachably holy? YES!   These and many other things seem like paradoxes, like both can't be true, but they are both true and trying to hold them together can cause us tension.  However, they are also things that we are not necessarily meant to resolve, because they are part of the mystery of God. As created beings we can only know our Creator through revelation, and as we sit in tension, wrestling with questions this should draw us deeper into a relationship with God.


During the service we read Luke 19.29-41.  It is the story of Jesus' triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and although it is a week too soon (!) I wanted to reflect on the story this week.  In these verses we see Jesus proclaimed as king, the one who is coming in the name of the Lord.  The crowds of pilgrims thronging the road waving palm branches seem to finally have realised who Jesus is.  And yet in the midst of the joy and celebration we see Jesus looking over the city laid out beneath him and weeping.  Jesus knows that the people will either turn against him, or be too scared, or unable, to stand with him.  Celebration and profound loss are held together.  It is right that the people should acknowledge Jesus as King, but they are blind, as we often are, to the sort of king Jesus is. When I was in Tanzania, I was with a pastor whose first born babies, twins, had been born the night before.  He said simply to me: "one died and one lived".  We somehow held that loss and joy together before God, trusting that God was present and knew the answers to all our questions.


Sometimes our different perspective leads to a different response to situations.  At the moment at CNC we are in a time of 'stripped back' worship, with no band and plenty of silence with opportunity for people to lead songs or prayers.  This is not a comfortable place for everyone, some are loving it, some are finding it more of a challenge, but together we are holding that tension and seeing where we can see God at work in our midst.


So, some things to ponder this week:
  • As you read Luke 19.29-41, how do you feel about Jesus?  Do you want to welcome him as king?  Do you feel a sense of loss because you can't recognise him as king?
  • Where are the head and heart tensions for you with your faith at the moment? Take time if you can to ask God to show you more of who God is through the tension. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Faces

I was so engaged in Tanzania with the smiles and openness of people’s faces. It was so lovely to see the joy and laughter pouring out of people, and on the flip side to see when people were bored, fed-up or sad.  The contrast to the UK where people seem much more 'closed' was striking.  I wonder if this openness is partly due to the absence at the moment of cameras, and to a degree mirrors...  Following the #liedentity conference I was thinking about our obsession in the UK with our image.  Studies, for example, show that people take an average of 7 minutes to post a selfie, this involves selecting one image from a number of photos, applying filters and choosing good hashtags. I wonder how much this attention to how we look impacts on how we control our facial expressions?

People have often told me I smile a lot.  Even getting off the aeroplane this trip one of the air hostesses stopped me and said 'thank you for smiling - every time I saw you you were smiling'.  Is it really that unusual?!

Having seen the faces of people in Tanzania, I cannot really remember seeing people looking anxious. There were certainly plenty of things to potentially be worried about there with the level of poverty and limited infrastructure. The existence was much more day to day and felt to me much more outside personal control. There was a big contrast with the situations of relative affluence around me in the UK where we believe to an extent we can provide for ourselves and control our lives.  I wonder how much this illusion of control is anxiety inducing?  When Jesus talks in Matthew 6.24-35 about not being anxious food or clothes but instead seeking first the kingdom of God, the passage ends: therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
We in the UK and those in Tanzania all have plenty of troubles to face, some similar and some different, but we are all meant to be living lives in partnership with God and each other.  To do this well we have to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to shake off the desire to control both our image and our independence.  A carefully controlled image will only ever separate us from others, as it becomes harder to maintain integrity between our inner life and what we allow others to see.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Women

During our time in Tanzania we met so many amazing women.  Women who were bringing up large families, women with important jobs, women walking miles with heavy loads on their heads, women doing hard manual labour with babies strapped to them, women who were overlooked despite their skills because of their gender, women who were studying hard, women who exuded joy, women who seemed crushed.  It was a privilege whilst there to have a week as a group teaching and spending time with the students at Lake Tanganyika Theological College. This college runs to train priests and evangelists and anyone who wants to undertake, and can afford to undertake, theological training within the Diocese of Western Tanganyika.
 
At the moment in the diocese, women cannot be ordained priest, and because four of us in the visiting group were ordained women, this generated some great conversations.  Everywhere we went people were very gracious and accepting of our ministry.  The principal of the theological college is keen to encourage women to study and train for ordination in the hope that the diocese will approve the ordination of women in the near future, and one of the things we did during the visit was to lay a foundation stone for a new women's dormitory at the college. Money that has been raised through offerings in Gloucester Diocese, including at my own ordination, have been sent as a gift to help with this building project.  It was a joyous moment to see the building emerging from the mud, and we prayed for the women who would study there.  £25 a month will cover their tuition fees, and sponsorship is needed as it is harder for women to get funded than for men at the moment.


During our time teaching at the college, we looked at several different biblical characters, and the leadership lessons that we could learn from them.  It was a really good learning experience for us and for the students as we looked at the Bible from very different perspectives.  At the end of the week the students gave feedback to the whole college, and it was really encouraging to hear a shift in the perspective of the (all male) students.  I wrote down a couple of things they said:
 
"I learnt from studying Deborah in the book of Judges that the service of God is not just for men but for women. We can support them to become brave. We can empower them to become good leaders."
 
"We learnt women can do everything a man can do. They can be brave strong leaders."

If we did nothing else during our trip, it was worth it to hear these things, and we pray that it has opened the door a little wider for the women God is calling to serve in the church in that diocese.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Markets

I have really enjoyed going round the markets here. Such a huge range of fresh produce and all sorts of other things piled up ready to sell. Haggling is a big feature of buying anything but my heart hasn’t really been in it. Huge juicy pineapples available for 40p and I bought 500g of salt that I’m hoping to get home ok, from a woman who was so pleased that I hadn’t haggled her down from 15p that she gave me lots more! Most of the fruit and vegetable sellers have one or two items to sell, so you walk through the onion area, then sweet potatoes, maize, carrots, spinach, ginger, garlic, mushrooms, peppers, avocados, pineapples, passion fruit, bananas  etc etc. Each seller has a  pile in front of them and they are nicely washed and arranged on a groundsheet. I asked whether people grew their own produce for market but it seems most buy from the farmers and then sell on. I can’t quite imagine what the farmers are being paid if the sellers are making a profit on the prices they sell on.... It feels hard not to buy things from every stand.

Wandering around an unsuspecting visitor has to be careful not to fall in drainage ditches which are all over the place. We’re on the edge of rainy season so have had a short period of heavy rain each day. This makes the red mud into sticky, slippery clay and I’ve had a few close shaves! Once again though the simplicity strikes you. When we haven’t been eating meals at churches we’ve enjoyed bread, tomatoes and avocado followed by pineapple, banana and watermelon with a handful of peanuts. Perhaps I would get bored in the longer term but at the moment it is so good to eat well and simply. I find myself valuing what we have so much more, and it is so good to know it hasn’t travelled more than 5 or 10 miles.

Simplicity is a Christian value, but not widely part of our tradition now, except in monastic life perhaps. But it is good to be reminded in Lent that fullness of life does not come by striving for things.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Greetings

I have been very struck here by greetings. Everywhere we have gone we have been introducing ourselves, and it is very important to say your full name, details of your family, and then to bring greetings from your family and church communities. It has been an interesting thing for me to navigate because if I say I’m single then everyone laughs and nudges all the single men and then I have to deal with endless questions about that. If I send greetings from my parents then everyone thinks they’ve done a bad job by not making sure I’m married at my great age! So I have settled on bringing greetings from ‘my family and my churches’, and that seems to be working!

It is interesting that in the UK when we greet each other we often immediately ask each other what we do, here they say they ask ‘who is your uncle’? Establishing family connections and knowing names helps people connect to each other. There is still such a strong sense of community here, people looking out for each other, and of love and support. It highlights for me another thing that is lost from our society at home. It feels a constant challenge to build a strong sense of community, and I wonder how possible it is when we move in and out of areas much more and are not involved in the lives of our neighbours in the same way? I wonder what it would do if we did ask each other a different question as a greeting? One that values our connections rather than our productivity. Maybe I will have a go when I am back: ‘Hi, I’m Jo, tell me who is important in your life?’