The Uncivil War

I work with 5 churches totalling some 250 people who cover a very broad swathe of opinion on most issues and I need to understand all sides if I’m to be able to do my job. I have opinions on the same things as most people but I tend not to share them because I don’t want to be placed in a particular group. I would rather understand all sides.

The Reverend Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference, recently sent out a statement about the state of debate in politics at this time. It followed on from a great deal of emotional name calling on both sides of the Brexit debate in Parliament, particularly the words of Boris Johnson as he found himself stymied at every turn.

https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/news/latest-news/all-news/statement-on-political-situation/?fbclid=IwAR3ptDIBoQBRUXqXndJg7RyVDPFw7e2OqiRlbr4l1Q6BScV_02fYi-zHk6U

Reading it got me thinking. I’m not sure if the language and behaviour in parliament is a reflection of the country as a whole or if the country is a reflection of Parliament but in many ways we have lost the ability for civilised debate. Looking at Brexit, Remainers characterise Brexiteers as racists, xenophobes or morons. Brexiteers call remainers traitors and sulking babies. Both sides, in their belief that they are correct in their aims, view the other as stupid or evil.

For every Brexiteer that wants to bring back the British Empire or believes that Brussels is trying to build a super state based on misinformation, there are thousands who have genuine and reasonable concerns about the EU and honestly believe we will be better off, recognising it may not be so in the short term, leaving and forging our own path. For every remainer who wants to hand over sovereignty and be part of a European super state there are thousands who believe leaving will do serious economic harm to our country and harm our children’s future for decades to come. Name calling will not change minds, it will entrench people in their political fox holes.

There is a lot of talk appearing about the need to build, or rebuild, community to take the place of the growing tribalism. Tribes connect people based on their large number of similarities and their animosity to those who are different. Community is willing to encompass difference in the recognition of the value difference brings.

So how do we move forward. First, we need to acknowledge that some minds cannot be changed. Some people are so entrenched in their beliefs that they will deny actual, physical, incontrovertible proof. Second, accept the possibility you may be wrong. We are talking about the outcome of things that have yet to happen. Financial modelling and the like can do a great job of predicting the outcome of events but it is not infallible. Third, be prepared to listen. Genuine fears should not just be dismissed as stupid. If you don’t listen, you cannot understand. If you do not understand, you cannot have a proper conversation. Without conversation, debate, no progress is made.  Fourth, consider others first. You may be in the perfect position if your particular side of the argument wins but what about others? At the moment there are a lot of parents with disabled children who are concerned they won’t have access to the life-saving medicine their children need. That may or may not be the case but talk of sovereignty and empire is not going to engage them if they think their children’s lives are at risk. Calling them traitors for wanting to stay in the EU is not going to win them to your cause. Many in Northern towns and cities are in favour of Leave. They feel their jobs and homes are at risk because of immigration. Calling them racist will not change their opinion.

The remain argument has largely run on appealing to facts. You can argue their accuracy but they are presenting facts. The Leave side has run mainly on emotion. It’s told personal stories about disappearing neighbourhoods and muggings and crime and laid it, fairly or not, at the foot of immigrants. Both sides, if they want to change others minds and rebuild the community of this country, need to take a leaf out of the other’s book. Remain needs to offer stories that show the human cost it believes is at stake, Leave needs to offer more reliable facts, not hyperbole, about what Britain will look like after Brexit.

The only way fences get mended is if name calling stops and people start to understand each other’s position. If we can’t do that we can look forward to everything getting worse. We can change the world from the ground up and be an example to those in parliament and elsewhere.

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Dealing with Death

It’s a side affect of longer lifespans that we become less familiar with the reality of death. It’s always there on TV in action movies and police series and more but death is more a part of our entertainment than part of our everyday life.

The average life expectancy has increased by 10 years since 1970. In 1870 it was approximately half what it is now at around 40 years of age. Death is becoming less of a part of life and many of us don’t know how to talk about it or deal with it. We don’t know how to talk about what we want to happen.

I’m not suggesting death should be our focus but it’s good to give some thoughts to what you want to happen when you die, particularly when there are so many options now. “I don’t care. I’ll be dead.” is an unhelpful response at best for those who are left behind. When burials were the only option and the church ran funerals it was okay to leave things. Now there’s more burial options than you can shake a stick at, there are tree burials and green funerals and traditional burials, you can be cremated and your remains can be scattered or made into pencils or pressed into jewellery, or made into a vinyl record, or made into fireworks and the list goes on. If you make some decisions before hand family have a much easier time and can focus on grieving rather than second guessing you.

With all this in mind Swanmore Methodist Church hosted a Dealing with Death training event aimed at running pop up cafes to look at this subject and help people to have those conversations without fear or worry. The workshop was headed by Kathy O’Loughlin from the Southern and Islands Region Learning Network who started the morning with a potted history of death which was an eye opener for many who attended.

The workshop then moved into a café session where attendees were introduced to the Grave Talk cards and spent an hour talking through the varied subjects that come up on them. This worked incredibly well and some groups could have talked into the evening judging by the animated conversations going on. Finally we came back together and talked about how we could take this forward to support our congregations and the local communities. Several of the 20 or more people there mentioned ideas about how they could use the cards and the ideas they’d heard and several more were working through ideas in their heads.

It was a great morning, and as one person said “strangely relaxing”.

The stories we tell ourselves.

There is an enormous power to the stories we tell ourselves. They control how we interact with the world around us and the people we encounter. Everything can be understood in terms of the stories we tell ourselves and while it is tempting to apply this only to the things we perceive as negative it affects the things we feel positive attitudes towards as well.

I’m going to share a story I tell myself. It may strike you as silly, or sad or a hundred other things. But it’s a true story and I tell it purely to illustrate a point.

Putting it as delicately as possible I have problems with digestion. Nothing totally debilitating, often just annoying but these problems go back to at least me late teens and have always been put down to food allergies or intolerances. If they kick in I need to be in close proximity of toilet facilities so they make spontenaity difficult but I’m not a particularly spontaneous person so that’sokay.

Sporadically it gets worse though, prompted probably by stress, at which point I make a half-hearted attempt to investigate it.  The last time was about 8 months ago when I saw a gastroenterologist. After various non-invasive tests he offered me his medical opinion. He said it was most likely a food allergy. It had been stable and relatively unchanged in severity for many years so it was unlikely to be anything serious like cancer (a possibility that had not occurred to me up to that point). He offered to refer me to a dietician but said that was a tortuous process and it would be easier if I simply cut food groups from my diet for a period of months to see if it made any difference. If things didn’t improve He would be happy to see me again and make further investigations. He suggested I start by cutting out milk based products as these were a common problem.

So I cut out dairy and things improved dramatically. I missed living on chocolate but that aside things were definitely improved. I began to recognise the part stress played in things and that I needed to eat at regular periods.

Everything was good.

Then I developed an umbilical hernia (called Albert) and went to the doctors to look at getting it corrected. The doctor referred me and I ended up visiting a service run for the NHS by a private company. I saw a surgeon who asked a handful of questions and then decided he wanted an endoscopy and a colonoscopy performed before he touched the hernia. This was irritating and seemed wasteful to me, but I didn’t question it. When I got home I grumped about him wasting NHS money. Later that evening I thought about the questions he’d asked, which were few in number, and through the miracle of Google I researched what he may have suspected that caused him to request further investigation. Computer says Bowel Cancer.

Environment affects the stories we tell ourselves. My dad died some ten years ago from the effects of brain tumours and about two years after I developed a problem with bad and frequent headaches. The story I told myself was that I had brain tumours and these things were probably hereditary and I was going to die. It turned out I needed glasses. Something I was aware of but hadn’t paid attention to how it was affecting me.

I come from a family of pessimists so imagining the worst, telling myself the worst possible story was not out of character.

Anyway, back in the present. I have the Colonoscopy and endoscopy on 1st of October. Despite having been told by a gastroenterologist that cancer wasn’t an issue, despite knowing that I have a sensitive stomach (where I hold my stress and tension) and that a hernia could upset it and has previously, despite my wife, who works for the NHS, telling me that the surgeon is just being extra cautious and there’s no need to worry despite all this, the story I choose to tell myself is at odds with this. Having lost my father and father-in-law to cancer, having become aware of the reach of cancer and that it’s not just an old person’s disease or a smoker’s disease, I choose, subconsciously, to tell myself that it could be cancer. In my darkest moments I tell myself it probably is cancer and that story affects the rest of my day to day life.

I am trying to tell myself a different story but it’s hard. Environment and upbringing particularly define the kinds of stories you tell. When we tell ourselves stories with no basis in fact, stories based on gut feelings, we run the risk of damaging ourselves and our world.

I haven’t shared this story looking for sympathy or attention. It is likely to be nothing, and the NHS will be billed for two unnecessary procedures.  I want to use it purely to draw attention to how our thinking, our stories can harm us. It is also worth remembering that the stories we tell ourselves affect not only us but others as well. Stories can be used to share great truths that we would ignore if given to us as “facts” but they can also share great harm if we do not check them ourselves.

An Ocean in One Drop

“You are not just a drop in the ocean,

You are the entire ocean in one drop”

Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

It’s a beautiful quote from a poem by the best selling poet in the US today. Impressive for an Arab poet who was born over 800 years ago but clearly continues to speak to people today.

A short diversion. Social media can be a two edged sword. It can introduce us to a multitude of people who share our foibles, prejudices, interests and entrench us in the belief that our opinions are fact. That’s the potential downside. It can also broaden our world, introduce us to people from other countries, other cultures, other beliefs, other worlds and help us see that all of us are people, human beings, with more to connect us than divide us.

Through a friend on Twitter I encountered Mariam Hakim and the book she had just had published called “An Ocean in One Drop”. All I saw was the cover and the title but I was intrigued. The cover was a beautiful and almost abstract collection of colours around a droplet shape with background patterns that spoke lightly of another culture. The wonderful title was written in clear blue brush strokes, unfussy but showing real skill if they were done by hand.

Mariam was celebrating the book launch and in a matter of a few tweets I connected her to October Books, our local and very excellent independent bookshop. They happily were interested in the book and before I knew it they had copies for sale and an arrangement for Mariam to appear there next year. So today I bought my copy.

Me outside October Books with my copy of An Ocean in One Drop.

The book though. It is the story of Hajar (Hagar for my Christian friends) and the fascinating and pivotal role she plays in Islamic culture. “An Ocean in One Drop” is the tale of her journey through the desert with her son Isma’il, and how her faith in God ensured not only that she and her son survived their perilous trek but how that faith lead to the founding of Mecca (Makkah) and to the great pilgrimage of Hajj, which every able bodied Muslim who can is expected to make at least once in their life time.

Except that’s not what it’s about. It’s about Jamila and her relationship with her grandmother who has just returned from Hajj. There’s clearly a special bond between the two which is shown through the beautiful artwork and the wonderful smile on Jamila’s face.

Except that’s not what it’s about either. At it’s very heart the book is about the power of love and faith, Hajar’s love for her son, God’s love for them both, Jamila’s love for her grandmother and the grandmother’s love for her granddaughter. The Grandmother is elderly, walks with a stick and appears to be wearing surgical stockings, although that might be me reading to much in. She clearly adores her granddaughter though taking the time to explain the Hajj to Jamila and bring her Zamzam water.

The two artists deserve special mention for their work in bringing this story to life. Laila Aldubaisi and Hameedah Hamadah both worked on the book and I would guess the artwork was split with one artist doing the modern parts with Jamila and her Grandmother and the other doing the story of Hajar. I’ve no idea which did what but both did an amazing job. The pages with Jamila and her grandmother are very clean and modern looking with what looks like a slight manga influence, the palette is a mix of subtle greens, gold and ochres and everything suggests two people who are very happy and comfortable in each other’s company.

The other artist, working on the story of Hajar, takes a much more ornate and almost abstract or dreamlike approach. The artwork is full of subtle patterns that suggest the kind of patterns you see on Islamic tiles and doubtless other places too. there are glimpses of the city to follow the founding of Hajar’s well too. And from end paper to end paper there is a small, crested bird moving through the book like a silent witness to eternity.

This book has taught me so much in 28 pages of pictures and text. This story of a grandmother’s love for her grand daughter, a mother’s love for her child and God’s love for us all is a universal story that demonstrates how little separates us in the end.

Four days of Festival (and the rest)

There aren’t many jobs that pay you to spend four days at a music festival but one of the key events in my working year is when we take the Elemental Tent to Wickham Music Festival. That doesn’t mean I got to spend four days watching great bands on stage oh no. The vast part of my fourteen hour days there were spent in or around the Elemental Tent doing what I love; talking to people.

If you’ve ever been to a festival you will be aware that everyone there wants your money. There are traders selling colourful goods from around the world, crafts people trading their wares, food vendors selling street food of many nations and bars and coffee vendors, in a lot of ways it’s like the market in Alladin, a riot of colour and noise and bustling bodies trying to take everything in as they decide who gets to separate them from their cash. It makes for a very exciting time and is a massive part of the festival atmosphere. But in that sea of commerce is an island, the Elemental Tent.

Sunset from the Elemental Tent

Our purpose with the tent was two-fold. Firstly to offer a safe space where people could relax, enjoy crafts and hospitality for free and just receive a blessing from the church. Secondly, we wanted to have a space where spiritual conversations could take place with people of different faiths and no faith. No one in the tent is there with an agenda. We’re not looking to make converts, we’re not handing out tracts or bibles. We are there to bless people without expectation of anything in return.

Pioneer Pete in his traditional Festival Flower Crown caught taking a break.

So we made lots of tea and coffee, offered lots of cake, made crafts with kids and adults, made adults purr with hand massages and talked. Oh, how we talked. The conversations we had. We talked music and commerce, we talked about footfall, we talked about mental health, we talked about loss and bereavement, we waxed nostalgic over Graham Nash and Judy Collins and Gilbert O’Sullivan, we talked net making and storytelling and painting and art and, of course, music. And in amongst all that we talked with people about God (whoever they saw him as), we talked about forgiveness and Grace, we talked about love and spiritual journeys, we talked about Karma (that was a fun one), we talked about how God sees us and how He loves us and we did our best to bless people in as many ways as we could.

A lovely, short Harvest Festival Service in the Elemental Tent

I like to think that whatever it is we are doing, we are blessing people and they are receiving that blessing and feeling lifted or changed by it. Each year since our first year we have returned by invitation of the Festival organisers and each year over 60 volunteers have given up 3 or more hours a day to man the tent and be part of the Elemental experience. Many of those volunteers came away as blessed as the people they met. So, in the words of Dave Allen “Thank you, goodnight, and may your God go with you”.

How we all felt by the last day.

Relay For Life

It’s late on Saturday evening and I’m stood by a running track in a leisure centre in Portsmouth. Around the outside of the track are some 1200 little white bags, each one decorated and containing a battery-operated tea light. There are tents and gazebos all along the inner side of the track and people walking and running around it in blue or purple t-shirts. Some are stopping to read the messages and names on the lit bags as they pass. There’s the sound of a bagpiper and everyone is drawn towards where the music comes from. A few minutes later and everyone is on the track, the floodlights go off and everyone walks this candlelight vigil, many holding glowsticks. The scene is quietly sad yet strangely uplifting as well. Each candle along the track is in memory of someone who has been lost in the fight against cancer, a commemoration of the fallen. As the walkers pass me I step onto the track and walk with them. I haven’t placed a candle for those I’ve lost to this disease but I draw some strength for the fact that I’m not alone in having to deal with loss. When cancer takes someone it’s very easy to feel like you’re the only person ever to face that loss and knowing you are not alone is, in some strange way, a comfort.

As we walked I could feel the cold line of the tears rolling down my cheeks. I walked alone though many walked in pairs or groups, holding hands and comforting each other. At one point we all pass a wall with the word “HOPE” written on it in giant letters, lit up somehow but I’m to misty eyed and tearful to care how.

That is my lasting memory of being at the Portsmouth Relay For Life, a Cancer Research event that brings together hundreds of people to commemorate those who are fighting cancer now, survivors and those who have been lost and raises money so that one day it will be totally conquerable.

This weekend saw the Cancer Research event “Relay for Life” take place at The Mountbatten Centre in Portsmouth and I was there as part of the Elemental Tent Team.

This is an emotional event bringing together cancer survivors and families and friends who’s lives have been affected by cancer. Hundreds of people come together to walk or run for or both for 24 hours, in relay teams, to raise money for Cancer Research in the hope of seeing an end to cancer.

Jean and Eric Gamblin have been supporting the event for several years, first as part of a team of walkers/runners and then taking the Elemental Tent there providing support for all those taking part. They and the tent have become such a part of the community there that they are specifically invited back for what they bring to the event.

Jean and Eric and the people they bring with them, which included me this year, brought a safe space where people could take a moment to step away from the emotionally charged relay, where conversations could take place and maybe offer some spiritual comfort and where kids of all ages could cut loose in water-fights, play gungy games and enjoy peace with a puppet show.

Possibly the nicest thing was to see the churches pull together to support Jean and Eric in something that is important to them. As Christians we should always be looking to ways we can demonstrate God’s love in the world around us but it’s also incredibly important that we support each other and build one another up as it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.”

Wickham Music Festival

Church is a weird thing. People think it’s about Sundays and getting together to sing songs and listen to someone talk about the Bible. It can be that but to assume that’s all it is, is to limit it.

Church, at it’s core, is about people in community, living life together and thinking about God in some way, shape or form. Church can take place on a Thursday night in a pub, over coffee and cake at a toddler group or once a year at a music festival.

When the Elemental Tent sets up at Wickham Music Festival it is there as church in it’s most basic form. People who have met with God looking to make it possible for people who haven’t to meet with Him. There’s food, there’s drink, there’s prayer and a willingness to talk about God with people who don’t know him in ways that make him accessible to them. We use imagery and ideas within the Elemental Tent that are accessible to spiritual people who don’t know Christ but have a history within Christianity.

My son, Harry, visiting the Elemental Tent at the Wickham Festival

A prime example is The Green Man. The oldest historical examples of the Green Man come from church architecture. Images of The Green Man were incorporated into many early church buildings. He was very likely “borrowed” from local religions and treated, perhaps, as an image of Jesus as “the true vine” to make a bridge between old religions and Christianity. He really only reasserted his pagan connection through the Victorian fascination with collecting folklore but these were denied the power they would have originally had, treated more as a puckish faerie than the Earth God he may have originally been. By adopting such images and building bridges in such a way Christianity made it possible for people to become Christians but reaching in to their culture. In much the same way we now have Forest Church and Heavy Metal Church and Minecraft Church that leans into people’s cultures.

Working in other cultures, on line, music festival, ecological or whatever does not mean that Christianity changes it’s root beliefs. We still believe that Jesus is the way. We still want others to reach that same conclusion and just because we enter into, for example, festival culture, doesn’t mean we condone some of it’s less savoury features. It means that, we hope, by showing God’s love to people they will allow Jesus into their lives so that He can change them. Working within other cultures is about meeting people where they are and, like Jesus and the Samarian woman at the well, letting the enormity of God’s love work it’s change on them.