Women, politics and hope

Yesterday evening I enjoyed a lovely meal with a group of girlfriends I hadn’t seen for a while. On previous such occasions the main focus of our conversation would be about the personal details of our lives “how are the kids doing?”, “Where are you going on holiday?”, that type of stuff.

But last night we talked more about politics and cultural shifts in society than anything else. And not in any dry disconnected, impersonal way. We shared deep despair and anxiety about what we see happening around us.

We reflected, and this has been said many times already in the last month, that we have been living through “momentous times” but when I came home from the evening out and heard the news of yet another shooting atrocity, this time in Munich, it struck me that the true nature of this period of history will only actually be known with hindsight.

It had seemed to us, talking quietly in a beautiful garden on a lovely summer evening that the world around us was going mad: children mowed down by a truck at the seaside, an unarmed black man with his hands in the air (a position of total surrender and vulnerability) shot by police in America, racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised by the Brexit vote.

Our lives are touched by these events in different and personal ways, each of us unique. For Matthew, our son, the love of his life is a wonderful girl called Stine, who happens to be Danish and is planning to come over here to live and find work in order to be with the person she loves. There is nothing wrong in that but will she be made to feel welcome, I hope so. Emma and Ben, our daughter and son-in-law, were on holiday near Nice last week and could so easily have been on the seafront but even when not on holiday they both live, work and travel in places that might be considered terrorist risk areas.

One of my friends told me about a mutual friend who has worked for a big national UK company for 20 years and is married to an English woman who was asked by a colleague, in all seriousness, on June 24 “what are you still doing here?”. Our friend is French. My own husband’s firm employs numerous foreign nationals partly because there simply are not UK engineers out there to be recruited.

Even in my local, mainly white, mainly middle-class neighbourhood, someone had gone around posting stickers on lampposts each with the phrase “gas the immigrants”.

“Grossly offensive” doesn’t even begin to cover that message. Horrific shades of extreme right-wing Nazi politics which tapped into the downtrodden and those who felt hard done by in Germany. All this and I tremble when I hear Donald Trump declaring that he is the candidate of the poor and the downtrodden.

I’m sure in many places in the UK and all over Europe groups of friends may have gathered on similar sunny evenings during the summer of 1939. They might have anguished and worried about their world ‘going mad’. Possibly they also knew that they were living in “momentous times” but just how momentous would only be revealed with hindsight.

What’s all this shows is that ALL events and ALL attitudes have the potential to be momentous. All it takes to bring about a huge change is for the myriad small actions and attitudes of people to accumulate to a tipping point. Like the myriad of ‘protest’votes that were cast for the leave campaign “because I really didn’t think it would make any difference”. The upside of this argument is that a myriad of small positive actions and attitudes can also make a huge difference.

Who knows how momentous the summer of 2016 might be for our world or what might unfold in the next few years. But, as in 1939-45, so now: it is the individual acts of kindness, generosity, welcome, inclusion, compassion and forgiveness that are the only thing that will turn the tide against the rise of evil.

When Jesus spoke of the end times he spoke about a diminution of kindness “for many others, the overwhelming spread of evil will do them in, nothing left of their love but amount of ashes”. (Matthew 24:11, 12 Eugene Peterson The Message).

The stories we prefer to recall from World War II are precisely those stories of people who took extraordinary personal risks to save the outcast and oppressed (the Jews), those who showed compassion as well as courage. And also those who, when the darkness was passed, worked hard for reconciliation and peace.

As I’ve reflected on all of this this morning, three things have given me hope.

Firstly, a snippet of information from the Munich news story about social media being used positively by ordinary people to rescue terrified people stranded in Munich city centre after the public transport was closed. On Twitter many city centre residents posted #offeneTur which translates #opendoor, meaning that they would be willing to take in any stranded strangers needing shelter or hospitality.   What a brilliant example of the power of ordinary people to make the world a safer place for complete strangers who they recognise as simply other human beings in need.

Can we also be those who ‘hold the door open’ to our fellow human beings who are frightened, rejected, to the the stranger, or to someone who simply speaks English with an accent or has a different ethnic heritage from our own.

(The whole idea of an open door is a metaphor that resonates very deeply within me – struggling as we do with a physically closed door)

Secondly, we watched a brilliant  documentary about the making of the opening ceremony for the 2012 games in London

Imagine: An extraordinary night http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041g600

This was a reminder of a period in our history only four years ago, when we felt as a nation jaded and cynical, lacking self-confidence. The documentary was a story of how a group of volunteers helped to create the incredible pageantry and story of the opening ceremony in which the lives of ordinary people was celebrated and shown to be powerful.

The opening ceremony was followed by another huge success, not the games themselves necessarily but that other volunteer group called “the games makers”. People who brought transformation because they served selflessly according to values such as welcome, hospitality, kindness, generosity, helpfulness. Values espoused by all major religions but expressed supremely well as the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22.

I recommend this documentary to you if you need a dose of hopefulness in a dark world, to be reminded of the power of creative teamwork and the excitement generated by generous and committed service.

Thirdly, my final encouragement  this week was reading a book called “Wonder” by R J Palacio. A children’s book, it can be read very quickly but is very powerful in its message. Deserving of a review all of its own I will blog about it another time suffice to say that it is the story of a young child going to school for the first time at the age of nine, this child has a severe facial disfigurement due to a genetic problem.

Here is the line that impacted me the most most.

“If it comes down to a choice between being right or being kind: choose kindness”

This has relevance to the political issues this post has been discussing (and aware that not everyone I know, nor everyone who reads this blog or knows me will have voted in the same way all have the same views that I have)

“Faith, hope and love abide” said St Paul, “but the greatest of these is love”



Like water to a thirsty soul…

‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it’  Yogi Brennan.

This brilliant, pithy piece of wisdom has been hugely sustaining for me over the last week or so. I only came across it last week on a retreat day but it seems to sum up much of the journey I have been on for the last few months.

It says something about not being so desperate to be in control of whether or not one choice or another is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  A formulaic approach to God says ‘we have to get things right or God wont love us/cant bless us/life will begin to unravel.’  The reality is God cannot possibly love us any more than he already does and while some choices might be better than others we should not get so hung up  in a Pharisaical, ‘tick the box’ kind of way where we attempt to keep ourselves squarely in the spotlight of God’s blessing.  Like some childish game of not stepping on the cracks in the pavement, we pick our way fastidiously through life hoping to keep on God’s right side not realising that the spotlight of God’s blessing is not dependant on us, but shines on us faithfully whether we are near, far, failing, triumphant, joyful and confident or broken, rejected, unsure, isolated… (Don’t believe me? See Psalm 139: 7-10 or Romans 8: 38-39)

Three books have inspired the title of this blog: they have been ‘like water to a thirsty soul’.

Fear and Trust: God Centred Leadership by David Runcorn (SPCK, 2011) is a study on the leadership of Samuel, Saul, David and Jonathan. Always insightful, David Runcorn looks way deeper than the surface of these ‘sunday school story’ veneer. Made me think completely differently about Saul and Samuel in particular.  But it was the polarity of the two words ‘Fear’ and ‘Trust’ that made this book a potent part of what God was saying to me.

In the House of the Lord: The Journey from Fear to Love Henri Nouwen (Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1986)

Spot the connection! The same two feelings underlined.  Nouwen writes,

‘Without realising it we become fearful, anxious people, caught in the questions of our own survival… we ask if and how questions and  fear filled questions never lead to love filled answers …. Jesus offers us a house of love, not in the afterlife but right now, right in the midst of our anxious world’ 

That quote is more summary than direct quotation but the bit in bold hit me between the eyes.  The whole book is a reflection on how to keep ourselves out of the ‘house of fear’ and keep ourselves firmly residing in the house of love.  I guess you could say he is talking about our state of mind, but its deeper than that, it’s an attitude of heart.

So I have tried each morning to imagine myself standing in front of two doors. Each door leads to an ‘ops room’. An ‘ops room’ is the room from which all operations are carried out – where all strategy is planned, resources deployed, decisions made. Each day I have a choice which ‘ops room’ to inhabit. From what position will my every action and reaction be determined?  One door is labelled ‘Fear’, the other is labelled ‘Love’.  Behind the first door, there is only me – it’s all down to me to sort things out, settle scores, manipulate my way round problems. Behind the second door, there is Jesus and he says stuff like ‘don’t try to work it all out, don’t insist on knowing the outcome, just trust in the fact that I am here and that I love you’.

Now, the reality is that I shuttle all day between one ops room and the other! But at least I’m trying. I ask myself what room am I operating out of as I try to resolve this challenge or listen to this difficult person.

Also I think I am beginning to understand that being in the right ‘ops room’ is more important that whatever decision I make.

Contemplative Youth Ministry Mark Yaconelli (SPCK, 2006) is the final book that has been brought into my hands. (It was a Runcorn recommendation, otherwise the ‘youth’ bit might have put me off).  And surprise, surprise it’s also all about staying in the house of love and away from the house of fear ‘trusting unashamedly that God desires our presence more than our activity’.  Reading these three books in sequence has felt like following a divinely laid treasure trail.  I’ve read them against a background of wading deeply into challenging ethical issues – writing my dissertation. I’ve listened with heart-break to people with messy, mixed up, ‘not evangelically acceptable’ stories and realised that God not only loves them but  he shines out their lives. Finally, I’ve wrangled over one of the hardest personal decisions I’ve ever had to take.

Coming out the other side of that decision and being met on my quiet day by the Yogi Brennan quote with which I started and Yaconelli’s  definition of contemplation as ‘an attitude of the heart, an all embracing hospitality to what is’… makes me whoop for joy.

Life is to be embraced, trustingly not fearfully  so ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it’!


Can a ‘bad’ feeling lead you to a ‘good’ action?

Christians have a hard time admitting ‘bad’ feelings.

Mention ‘anger’, ‘sadness’, ‘fear’, ‘worry’ or ‘envy’ and eyes start to glaze over with a readiness to deny all.  Fearful of sin, many have believed that it is better to deny these feelings any place in our lives. So instead of acknowledging them, confessing them or allowing them to lead us to improved self-awareness, we have been trained to ‘stuff them’: keep them well below the surface of our lives and definitely hidden from public view.

This week I attended a day conference on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality lead by Pete Scazzero whose books I have previously recommended on this blog : ‘Look below the surface’  November 20th 2011

He had a room full of about 400 church leaders. He led us in a little exercise in emotional self-examination. He asked us four simple questions and gave us two minutes of silence to jot down answers to each question. Here are the questions:

What are you angry about?

What are you sad about?

What are you worrying about?

What are you glad about?

At the end of the exercise, he didn’t ask us to share our private revelations but he did ask us to say how we felt about the exercise.

A woman tentatively raised her hand to reply, I couldn’t believe my ears at what she said, my jaw just about hit the floor.

‘It felt a little bit naughty’ 

What???? You’re kidding me? Do you seriously mean that Christians are supposed to maintain a jolly game of ‘let’s pretend’ in front of an all-knowing God? If we can’t be real with God, then who can we be real with?

But she wasn’t alone. At least 10 other people articulated similar feelings of discomfort as well as awareness that this exercise was a new idea to them.

‘I was afraid that once I lifted the lid on these feelings, I might unleash something I couldn’t control’

‘It felt like I was complaining’    

‘It felt like a relief’ 

What is the matter with these people? Don’t they know that well over half the Psalms are full people venting anger, despair, confusion and pain? There is a whole book called ‘Lamentations’ for goodness sake. And what about Jesus – he was so angry about the temple traders, he went in and threw all their tables over. He was so sad when his friend Lazarus died; he stood outside his tomb and wept. He was so worried the night before the cross, he prayed ‘Father if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me’

I’m not aware that Jesus ‘stuffed’ his emotions down below the surface.

(On re-reading this post I’m aware that I sound angry at my fellow Christians and I apologise for that. I’m not angry AT them, but I am angry FOR them. Of course it took courage and honesty from them to express how the exercise made them feel and I respect that. I guess I’m just angry at the evidence that they and many others are still believing a lie which is that ‘God doesn’t like our negative feelings’)

Elsewhere I have written and reflected on my own childhood experience and the limited range of emotions I was permitted to express as a child growing up in a ‘godly Christian home’: ‘too sad’ and you were not ‘trusting God’ (and definitely not ‘counting your blessings’). ‘Too happy’ and you were veering towards ‘counting chickens before they hatched’. (Neither of these ‘counting’ instructions are actually in the Bible but the implication of the second one was that if you were too joyful something might go wrong and then you’d be sorry so best not to be ‘too happy’). Keeping in emotional neutral was almost akin to keeping your head down, stray too far in either direction and God might wake up and notice you, he might either zap you for having ‘no faith’ or slap you down for having ‘too good a time’!

When I reached my thirties I became aware that this dynamic had existed in my past and I committed myself to embracing the further ends of the emotional spectrum. I learnt that actually you don’t really ‘taste’ joy properly until you have allowed yourself to ‘sit in the ashes’ and feel desperately undone.  I may be naïve (obviously I was) but I kind of thought I had learnt something that was already obvious to other people. Judging from the reactions I heard at Tuesdays’ conference, clearly not so.

Christians it seems are the world’s best ‘stuffers’. We behave like it’s a religious duty to maintain an off-putting cheeriness, a refusal to admit that actually for most people (yes, even for us) life is a mixture of good and bad and probably more bad than good.

So to answer my original question: Yes, a bad feeling CAN lead to good action. Today is Action Sunday for Poverty and Homelessness. Here is a prayer from their website that expresses eloquently how listening to our negative feelings need not be a negative thing. Look out for the strongly negative feeling in the first line of each stanza and look where it can take you.

A Franciscan Blessing


May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,

So that we may live deep in the heart of God

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,

So that we may work for justice, freedom and peace

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,

So that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world,

So that we can do what others claim cannot be done.


Pete Scazerro's book