I came across this sign whilst walking near a memorial in a local park…it made me wonder, what is more holy about the ground where we memorialise compared with the ground which we tread each day…? Last summer I went to a conference for people from a more catholic tradition who wanted to craft worship opportunities in a more creative way. Over the days that we were there the worship space had a sandpit in the middle of it. The sand was used in a variety of ways to illustrate or provoke thought. On one occasion we were invited to take a small jar of the sand away with us, as our little bit of ‘holy ground’. The jar lid did not stay firmly in place and in no time I had bits of holy ground everywhere…but that was the joy of it! All ground is holy, or space where God dwells, surely? How often do we notice it though? How often do we act like it is?
This is a piece of spoken word I wrote a few years ago in anticipation of being ordained priest – I’m using it to help reflect on the elements of bread and wine within Spirit Space today, so this is a bit of a sneak preview!
A lesser festival today, but a festival nevertheless. To remember Julian of Norwich, a spiritual writer and revolutionary woman of her time, Mother Julian (the tortoise) came out of her enclosure for the day. Julian of Norwich used to open her window and offer spiritual guidance to those who sought it; she continues to do so today through her Divine Revelations.
”The greatest honour we can give the Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of His love.”Julian of Norwich
I had a really interesting discussion around beauty recently. It’s something that I often wonder about, with regards to photography. I find it so much easier to ‘receive’ photographs in the natural environment, and find myself feeling less inspired in urban areas. I think so much of this is down to perceptions of beauty…yet what I appreciate in the photography of others is that which makes you think, or question, justice, ethics or morality. Thinking in a theological way, it is absolutely within the images of brokenness that I see Christ, and they take on a sort of ‘beauty’ which is very different from our more worldly understandings. It is in those images, spaces, and cases where we least expect to see Christ, that Christ is revealed….
“Once I can recognise the divine image where I don’t want to see the divine image, then I have learned how to see. It’s really that simple. And here’s the rub: I’m not the one that is doing the seeing. It’s like there is another pair of eyes inside of me seeing through me, seeing with me, seeing in me. God can see God everywhere, and God in me can see God everywhere.”Richard Rohr
The Old Testament reading for Morning Prayer today was about God providing manna for the Israelites in the wilderness. We are also going to be thinking about the road to Emmaus on Sunday. These two pieces of scripture originally sparked me to write this, but I’ve put some photographs round it now…a bit of a sneak preview of something I will be thinking about more on Sunday. What are we doing when we break bread together?
For some reason today has been difficult…I feel like I’m really struggling with aspects of the lockdown, and trying to work as normal. I think this is inevitable, it perhaps just hit me later than it has others. I also think that’s what prayer is about; owning how we feel in this moment, and just ‘being with’ God. This was so much easier with a cup of tea in my hand, and I came out of that time feeling grateful for tea and time with God!
As a former teacher the word detention was unfortunately part of my regular vocabulary whilst working in schools. Something perhaps less well known, thought about or understood though, was that detention was issued often not to punish, but rather with the intention of getting to know a student who was causing some sort of trouble. Troublesome behaviour often turned out to be a cry for attention, for someone to talk to about something which had been playing on their mind, or for affirmation and encouragement. These detentions then were often a new beginning, a starting point to a different way of being…even though at first sight they seemed negative, the result was actually positive.
During my time in Tokyo I visited a detention centre where the word detention seemed to have all the negative connotations and stereotypes that our minds would first jump to. Whilst in the waiting room I met a man who had settled in Japan many years ago as a foreign national. The waiting room was a funny sort of place, one of those places which helps you to forget where you are or why you are there, with a collection of toys in the corner, a television on the wall and quite a bit of coming and going. There was a strange sense of community around shared experience which encouraged conversation between perfect strangers. As conversation was initiated with this man, he was different to the others I had encountered in the waiting room. He did not want to talk, he did not want to admit any association with anything to do with the detention centre. His words still stick in my mind. He was keen for everyone to know that he was here with a friend who was visiting, nothing to do with him; “I came here years ago, but not like this. These people are something else….”
For those who were being detained who I met, the story was rather different. Most who allowed me the privilege of hearing their story had been forced to leave their homes because their lives were in danger, real danger – returning home would result in death, and not because they had committed a crime which was punishable by death. The reasons for these threats to life were based on matters which we, in the UK and the West more widely, take for granted: some may have chosen to follow a different faith to the majority; others to align themselves to an alternative political path than the ruling regime; others still because their birth has brought them into a tribe or group which is hunted. Those I spoke to were desperate to go back to their homes, yet they also wanted that to be a safe place. They did not want to live in Japan, and benefit from all that that society offers, they just wanted to be safe. Safe. It is a small word with huge meaning, with feeling which cannot always be evidenced or explained. Safe. The journey towards which has led to vulnerability and further feelings of fear following any number of years in the detention centre which I visited – most over three or four, some as long as eight years.
Other stories I had the privilege of hearing were about people who had settled in Japan. They had spouses and children, they had lived there for a number of years, and now were detained, for reasons which they could not understand. For those of us on the outside, it is easy to draw conclusions, to claim that there must have been good reason for their arrest and subsequent detention. It can be easier to convince ourselves of that, especially in the face of the deep uncertainty of no apparent reason. The harsh reality seems to be different from good reason though. Neither is it something that is only happening in Japan, far away from our homes, and where we can have any influence. @DetentionAction are working so hard to tell similar stories of people in the UK who have been detained indefinitely, whom the Home Office have detained after years of them working and paying tax in this country.
This Christmas I found myself thinking about the stories I have heard, both at home and abroad, and the real people behind them. As I witnessed the nativity story being acted out and retold in any number of ways by school children, at crib services, and carol services, I noticed how little has changed since these times. Mary and Joseph, as well as Jesus when he arrived on the scene, were refugees far away from home, strangers in a foreign land. To add further complication, once Herod had heard of the little baby born King of the Jews he ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed – Mary and Joseph were then fleeing for the life of this little baby. There was such hostility towards them in these stories as people of difference, people who posed a threat, and sadly that hostility still seems present in our world today, in the stories of those who are still fleeing for safety.
My prayer, as we approach Epiphanytide, is for greater understanding of the stranger, for ears that wish to hear, eyes which are willing to see, and hearts which are burdened with a deep sense of compassion for real people behind real stories, which we may prefer to ignore, yet have a duty to hear….
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Martin Niemöller, 1892-1984
Torii, a link between the sacred and profane – a gate to gods and all that lies beyond. Does this mean that God is there and not here? Are we left without guidance or care unless we search for it? And when we seek, is it enough to pass through, beyond? Who is there to greet us, and how far should we go?
So many questions spring from a deep desire for the divine, to encounter the one who created, formed and fashioned. Yet this Shinto shrine is not where HaShem dwells. Instead people come to pay respects to Kami gods. Does this mean that God is absent, the Alpha and Omega is limited by space and belief?
So often we are guilty of confining God, of organising God within our own understanding. Why is this torii filled expression of God not acceptable? That deep yearning to know, to be heard, to find that which lies beyond propels people to pursue, to purify themselves and pray. It is beautiful and honourable.
Even though these expressions do not fit with that western, middle-class, male driven understanding of God and worship, does that make them second rate, or worse, unacceptable? Must all ritual and practice fit into one single understanding of God and salvation? Is Jesus the Christ absent in this space?
Does Jesus, our intercessor, fail to hear or acknowledge the steady stream of pleas written on ema? Does he refuse to take them to God our Creator? Is this a place where the Holy Spirit refuses to go-between one and another? Is the Trinity absent or unwelcome here? I cannot conceive that it would be so.
God is not limited by time and space – Adonai cares for creation, people and place. God is here as I pass through the Torii, and God is present on my return. God lives in each of us, we see an echo of that divine, perfect face in one another. Torii, rather than being a gate towards the sacred, is a reminder that God is here – now.
I have loved going to places of pilgrimage in Tokyo and blending into the background as I watch the expectation of the sacred or seeking of the experience of the sacred. Yet at Sensouji, it was not so much the obvious places where I found the sacred, but somewhat off the beaten track. Old treasure, lighting, stillness, solitude or the wind offered wonderful reminders of that ever present divinity – if only we will stop long enough to look, to see, to hear and to feel.
What better activity for a wet and dreary Saturday afternoon than to visit a Shinto Shrine? Having been in Tokyo for just a week, working through the jet lag for most of that, I was keen to get out and about.
Slightly surprisingly, we weren’t the only people who had this idea, and the weather was little distraction for most.
But why Meiji Jingū, why this day, why in the rain? Is this about belief, tradition, or something else? In the midst of the busyness of Tokyo life, whether or not Shinto traditions are followed, is there some sort of peace and calm to be found in such a place of pilgrimage?
What draws people to leave their Ema or prayer requests under the divine tree?
Is it really possible to claim that belief in God is on the decline, when people pilgrim from all walks of life, from all stances of belief, to remember those whom they love before the divine?
Could we be doing more to help those who are seeking the light?
Is it possible that such a divine light can be found in many places, if only we were more open to see? In the hands and feet, eyes and ears of one another?
For me, Godly encounters are not in churches, jinjas or temples; though the peaceful, holy presence can be so tangible. Rather, when the rain trickles down my face, and I am amongst something of God’s divine creation – then I feel most alive to the presence of the living God.