#BeautifulStories

This week I have been humbled and encouraged by the vast number of #BeautifulStories people have shared on Twitter. These are not just stories though; rather, they are testimonies to the ways in which God has created them, and how they have flourished once they realised that.

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”

St Catherine of Siena
Torii, or gates, which mark the space between this world and the sacred

As a new doctoral student, I am interested in these stories of flourishing; our love stories with God, and God’s love stories with humanity. I am really struck by the idea of torii seen in Japan, pictured above, and how these gates mark the space in a journey where one travels from this world to the sacred. The particularly iconic torii at Fushimi Inari above stretch for a few miles, repeating over and over. With each step there is a sense of coming closer to the sacred – it is a truly mesmerising experience.

It struck me that the many #BeautifulStories I have read this week are similar to these gates; each one is unique, there is no one story. Neither are they all necessarily happy: we mustn’t forget the stories which are excluded because they don’t feel very ‘beautiful’, or are too painful or costly to tell, as well as those that have been prematurely cut short. However, each individual story brings us slightly closer to understanding God.

The more we see of the great diversity of God’s creation, the better our view of the glimmer or shimmer of God’s image in and through each of us.

Uniquely made and threaded through God’s complex tapestry of life

My sadness is that these stories were shared as a response to the Church of England (CofE) Evangelical Council’s (CEEC) video, titled The Beautiful Story, and released following the launch of the CofE’s Living in Love and Faith book and resources earlier this month. The video takes viewers through a series of conversations about sexuality from an evangelical Christian standpoint. Whilst regret is expressed in relation to how evangelicals have been posited as homophobic, there remains a clear stance on sexuality, and sex, only being appropriately expressed in marriage between a woman and a man. As a side point, it also suggests that a shift away from this evangelical sexual ethic is responsible for the #MeToo movement. It is also communicated that any change to the CofE understanding of, and teachings on, marriage would lead to people within the CEEC being out of communion with the CofE.

What is deeply concerning about CEEC’s The Beautiful Story is that it expresses minds already made up. It seems to be a battle cry, or a warning, of the red line which cannot be crossed in the eyes of CEEC, regardless of where Living in Love and Faith takes us as a Church. These resources have been offered to help all of us to pray, study and learn together and play our part in discovering what God’s call is to the CofE today. It is the beginning of (yet) another opportunity to listen and to share and to seek to understand those who are different from us – yet this video undermines that spirit and process of discernment.

I was deeply moved by one account of a fellow and much valued priest who, despite being slightly weary from so much listening and so little change over the years, wanted to engage with #LLF. Equally moving was a blog post from another colleague in response to The Beautiful Story – it expresses wonderfully the challenges of growing up, and living, within the margins. I commend both pieces to you.

I too have spent much of my life on the margins. This has been most enduring through my experience of being a lesbian in the church, where the theology espoused in The Beautiful Story at times jeopardised my own love story with God and held me back from seeing myself as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139: 14). Secondly, I think back to living as a foreigner in Japan for four years in my twenties ; and in more recent years, spending five weeks on placement at St Alban’s Anglican-Episcopal Church in Tokyo. I learned so much from this community who were on the margins of the society they lived within because of their status as foreigners in Japan, or their Christian faith which was incongruent with the beliefs of the wider Japanese society.

Whilst being on the margins can feel painful and uncomfortable, there is huge treasure in the realisation that Jesus never fully fitted either. Jesus modelled living from the margins. Jesus, therefore, offers us much as LGBTQ+ Christians who are so often outside, looking in. Yes, it is exhausting, but Jesus, who saw the woman at the well, who healed the lepers, who gave sight to the blind, who did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus sees you and me. Jesus knows you and me. Jesus loves you and me. Jesus calls you and me to be who we were meant to be and set the world on fire – this is our beautiful story!

Holy Ground

This is Holy Ground

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?

Just a Cup

A few thoughts/theological reflections around ‘cup’

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!

Julian of Norwich: lesser festival

Mother Julian

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

Broken beauty

Broken…

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 Bread of Love

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?

#Grateful…

Grateful for tea!

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!

Detention

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.

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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….” 

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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.

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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.

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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 Gate to God?

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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.

Seeking the Holy

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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.