Wednesday 21 December 2016

Meeting Didik (and other stories of hope and love)

A terrible old photo of Didik and I in the Bali Rock Cafe
My first real encounter with someone from a different faith to mine, apart from our guest speakers in Faith and Values at high school, was in a pub in Bali. Didik was a Javanese Muslim musician who was making a living playing Credence Clearwater Revival songs around Bali. He was a regular in the pub that we spent many of our evenings dancing in June of 1995. His music was great, but sometimes his lyrics were far from correct. I helped him to edit some of the English lyrics that he had guessed and then we got to talking about faith - as you do. He had never really spoken with a Christian about their faith and I had never spoken with a Muslim about theirs. I recall a large part of our discussion was about where we found God. I remember more his gentleness and humility. I walked away from that encounter struck by how much we had in common, rather than our differences.

My most recent encounter with people from another faith was a few weeks ago. I received a phone call at the church office. A young Muslim man was in town with his friends. They had made a day trip from Perth. He told me that he had found our number and was looking for a mosque in which to pray. After explaining to them that unfortunately there was not a mosque nearby, I invited them to come and use our space if that was suitable. Ten minutes later four young men were washing in our church, preparing for prayer. It was a brief encounter, but I was struck by their immense gratitude for the simple act of hospitality. I wondered what hostility these young men had met living in a society that is gripped by fear of the other. I also felt proud to be part of a wider church that, when not finding a mosque, we were the next place to call to find a place of prayer. 

In between these two encounters are many other stories of grace, open discussion, hospitality and understanding. I have been deeply saddened in recent times reading articles and social media posts that spread fear and damaging generalisations about other faiths. It is true that all faiths have those on the fringe who twist and contort the teachings to suit their own needs. It is true that all faiths have factions that have caused damage and hurt. On almost a weekly basis, I hear stories of people who have been hurt by the Christian church and now turn to other faith traditions or alternative spiritualities. Thank goodness the world listens to more than just these accounts of Christian faith. 

I have been criticised in the past for being more interested in working with people of other faiths rather than ecumenically within the Christian church. These accusations are not completely true, as I have made considerable efforts to work with people of other denominations and continue to work closely with our local Anglican priests. I do believe, however, that working with people of other faiths is vital in our time. The extremists in our faiths are hoping for division, hatred, fear and violence towards the other. This is where their power lies. We need to be building bridges and multiplying love wherever possible. And so, I would like to encourage people to share stories of hope, love, grace and compassion, particularly of those from other faiths, as frequently as possible. The stories are out there and they need to be heard as loud, if not louder, than those of hatred and fear.

Saturday 17 December 2016

A pilgrimage of sorts

Our family is about to embark on a journey of a lifetime. After months of saving and planning, we are ready to leave for our holiday to the United Kingdom. This is my homeland. I will be returning to the places where my life began and reconnecting with family, some of whom I haven't seen since I was eight years old. For me, the planning has been half the fun. Researching, booking accommodation and seeking out the not-to-be-missed sights has certainly been a project in itself.

As much as this is a family holiday, and there will be plenty of light entertainment, I am also seeing this trip as a pilgrimage of sorts. I have chosen to travel with a question. Not that this will consume my time away, but will sit with me much like my camera or perhaps my jacket (its going to be cold). The question is a personal one that was gifted to me by a good friend and will be important for me as we enter 2017.

I have hopes to visit three places that may help me to carry this question. The first is my first faith community, Alan Road Methodist Church in Ipswich. I was baptised there. I learnt about the Bible there. I sang my first hymns there (some of which are still my favourites). I began to learn how to serve other people there. This is where my faith journey began and I have many fond memories. I know it will seem small and 35 years will have seen many changes, but I am interested to see how I feel being there. I am keen to reconnect with this foundational place.

The second place I hope to visit is not too far from my hometown. I am keen to spend some time sitting in Julian's cell in Norwich. Those who have followed this blog for a while will know of my passion for the Mystics. Julian of Norwich was a counsellor and advisor to her community. She is known as the first woman to write a book and her near death experience brought her visions of God's love. She was an amazing thinker and theologian for her time. As with many mystics, she sat on the fringes of the church, but still remained a part. She was an amazing woman and I look forward to a little quiet sitting in her space.

The third place in my pilgrimage is Chalice Well in Glastonbury. This is one of the best known holy wells in Britain and is connected to many spiritual legends. The current theme for the well is "Many Paths, One Source"; a theme which resonates with my own ideas and theology. I see the well as a sacred place of depth, mystery and history. I know as I sit or stand by the well, I will be one of millions who over the centuries have visited this portal in search of hope and healing.

I am trying not to build up my hopes in seeing all three of these places. I know that time and the weather could work against me. So I've set a target of making it to two of them. At each place, and many other stops in between, I will carry my question like a precious stone. I do not know if I will come home with answers, but I will never know if I leave the question at home.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Blue Christmas and Aleppo

For the last five years, about a week before Christmas, I have conducted a Blue Christmas Service in my congregations. Almost every year, I question my sanity. Why do I put myself under pressure by adding another two events to my calendar? But I go ahead anyway, as a dim, glimmer of a memory reminds me this is important. And here is why.

Christmas is a time of "Joy! Joy! Joy!" If you don't get into the Christmas spirit you are frowned upon and, perhaps, guilted into wrapping some tinsel around your front door handle. But the reality is, not everyone is full of joy at Christmas time. Some have lost loved ones during the year, and the season only highlights the emptiness and the loss. Some have struggled financially, and the barrage of advertising only serves as a reminder of the "haves" and the "have nots". Some are living in pain or with illness and the isolation is even more real as families and friends gather together. Some are far away from loved ones, by choice or not. Broken relationships and the ease of travel often leave empty chairs at Christmas dinners. And all of this is before we start to look at the state of our world.

Our Blue Christmas service doesn't fix any of this, but it acknowledges the reality of life. It gives people an opportunity to stop, reflect, cry if they need to and know that it is ok to have feelings other than joy at Christmas time. We remember that the first Christmas story was not as beautiful as we tend to make it. It was a time of great turmoil and unease. We romanticise the stable, but it was probably an extremely unpleasant place to bring a child into the world. At Christmas we remember the coming of Jesus into this world, a man who stood beside the oppressed, the outcasts and the poor.

Our Blue Christmas services never attract crowds, but there is always someone; the woman who had battled breast cancer all year, the man who lost his mother, the woman battling depression and lingering ghosts from the past. Sometimes an unknown face will sneak in the back, shed many tears and leave quietly and anonymously. I may never know that person's need or how their Christmas will be. It's not so much about the words said, the songs listened to or the candles lit. It is more about a safe space created for people to be.

And so, what was going through my heart during this year's services? I thought of a dearly loved congregation member who died during the year. I brought to mind the families of those I have conducted funerals for in 2016. I thought of friends who have lost a young child this year. I wonder about people for whom we have provided food and shelter this year.

But the depth of my heart's cry was for Aleppo. I cannot comprehend what it is like to run for your life. I cannot begin to imagine the horror of seeing loved ones killed in front of me. I don't understand the despair, the nightmare it must be to feel forgotten by much of the world. I feel completely helpless. The enormity of the trauma and destruction is overwhelming. The easiest response is often denial. But I cannot ignore the pictures, the stories and the messages.

At the Blue Christmas service, we invite people to take a blue bauble or a star to hang on their tree or give to someone as a gift. I took a star for Aleppo. As the story goes, a bright star shone in that part of the world 2000 years ago. It was a guiding light, bringing hope to many. My Aleppo star is a constant prayer of hope for a people who have nothing left this Christmas time.