Saturday, 24 December 2016

Seen from a Scene




I sleep fitfully, aware of you close by, so new, so needy, so I wake quickly to the sound.

A kind of humming, gaining in volume, a resounding harmony of resonance. It pulls at my soul, something deep within, a knowledge I didn’t know of. 

And then the light. First a chink of light, snaking down the mud-packed wall, a crack in the fabric which makes no sense in the dead of night. I glance around; you are sleeping quietly, making little muffled sounds and furling and unfurling tiny fists. A rush pounds through me. Beside you, my husband slumbers, his hand on your makeshift cradle.

The fissure of light bursts into a rift, rending our shelter apart; we are open to the world. Outside, I know it is silent, dark, so cold it bites at my fingers; but through the crevasse I see something more.
Something otherworldly.

A cavernous space, like a palace, lit with a thousand lights glowing with an impossible brightness. In one corner a tree stands tall and strange, nothing like the olive trees of my surroundings. Something perhaps more like a cypress tree, strewn with more light and objects richer than I have ever seen; silver and gold glinting through inexplicable radiance. Under the tree lie objects I can only guess at, shapes and colours I cannot comprehend, shining ribbons twirling around them.

The humming is louder, echoing through the space and captivating me. I am bruised and battered; exhausted and drained, but you are perfect and peace flows over me as I watch.

Wooden doors fly open and an eruption of noise and colour gusts through the place as a hundred or more children crowd in, their garments so strange, some with only a little familiar head-coverings with patterns I cannot understand. Some all in white with a remarkable glittering material tied round their waists and heads, strangely beautiful. Some jumping and screeching. One comes close to me and you, peers right through the fissure, his gaze curious and serious all at once. He points a finger. ‘Jesus.’ He smiles so widely his face must crack, and bounds away, and my heart warms. He is talking of you.

Later, they sing, and I know they are singing of you and of me. Their tongue is strange but somehow I can comprehend each word. I shiver as I hear the words. Smile, too. Tonight wasn’t very silent, or really very calm. I remember the desperation, stumbling through the locked-up town, the cold and the pain gripping me like iron, finding a place far from bright. But it was holy. Holiness pervaded it like a great wave crashing over me, drowning me in perfect love.

They sing of more than your birth, though. They sing of the dawn of redeeming grace and my heart hammers in my chest. They sing of adoring you, of falling down to worship you, and I am warmed. Then they sing of nails and spears, piercing you through, and I am broken. They sing of glad tidings, of a wondrous gift, of joy to the world, and I am honoured beyond my wildest dreams. In this dream of mine, this rend in my time, they are worshipping you, dear one, the Son of God.

Later, they make a scene near the tree, and it is oddly resonant of where I sit with you safe close by. The little ones clad in white stand with arms held high, shimmering material cascading down, a little girl holding something like a baby in her arms, a blue shawl draped over her head.

Later still, the children are gone and more people stream through the doors, this time faces lit up with candlelight and beautiful voices streaming in harmony through the space, flowing over me. In a quiet moment, a woman approaches you and me and kneels. I notice her face is etched with pain, her brows drawn together, her lips pulled tight. She brings her hands together and whispers. ‘Dear Jesus, how can I celebrate this season when you took him? Why did you take him?’

She weeps.

There’s a whisper through the silence, and the woman looks up, gazing around her.

Immanuel.’

The woman brings her hands to her face, and I watch as tears leak from between her gnarled fingers.

‘God with us.’

The woman stands, and another woman is alongside her, bringing her into a warm embrace.

‘God with us.’

I watch as they light a candle together and place it on a stand near to you and me. And then more and more come, gazing upon you, crying out to you, washed in your peace as you sleep, the Light in the darkness, the babe so small, but the all in all, the Creator among them. Among us. I watch as they light candles and close their eyes, and listen to the whisper all around the space, echoing through the fissure and through eternity.

‘Immanuel.’

I watch the pain of a broken world, the suffering that I will know too much of, and the peace beyond understanding that floods the place before me and the place I am in. I hold in my heart the truth: In two thousand years, your redeeming grace will still be surging over broken lives, still be cascading over cold hearts, still be rebuilding and restoring and transforming, just as it always has and always will.  Ashes turned into beauty, sorrow into joy.

God with us.

The crack is beginning to heal up, the beautiful scene before me dissipating and waning until all I see is a mud-packed wall. Beside me, you sleep, your tiny mouth puckered, dark downy hair swept over your smooth brow, and I wonder at the miracle. 

The miracle of Immanuel.


Monday, 1 August 2016

A Walk Through Sacred





On the last but one night at New Wine 2016, I took a walk through the camp.

A normal stroll, an everyday thing. An achievement for me, certainly, but it turned out to be so much more, because the ordinary hurtled me headlong into the sacred.

It was a balmy evening, the last rays of sunshine bathing the showground in a gentle light, the only sign of a huge deluge a few hours before a few puddles where welly-clad toddlers jumped with joy. I walked past Stomping Ground where a crowd of 8-11 year olds were doing the Cha-Cha Slide, playing arcade games and getting their nails done. I walked on past Boulder Gang and Rock Solid to the Youth corner.

I felt old.

Vibe was very loud and Flava full of gangs of happy kids, and outside were crowds of teens doing that preening thing at one another. My daughter was highly embarassed by my very presence, so I walked on, recalling how earlier, me and a friend had been thrown out of Thirst ('we don't do adults here') and were quite relieved, really. They didn't have any chairs and it was a bit smelly.

I stopped for a second to breathe in the air, the atmosphere full of joy and shouts of laughter, of hope. That's the word. Hope soaked the place, and I began to reflect that this might be something of what the Kingdom is like.

I walked past the Tearfund tent where a late night singer-songwriter strummed his guitar, his plaintive tones echoing out into the night. I watched as folk in the cafe relaxed to the music, and more crowds spilled out onto the pavement outside, chatting and drinking and laughing and singing. Smiling at me as I strolled past, taking it all in.

Then there was Hungry, where people were still utterly lost in worship, abandoned and glowing as they did what they are created for. This is the quieter venue and the sound was beautiful, violins singing on the breeze and husky vocals carrying the hope onwards.

In the food court opposite, long tables were packed with people enjoying a hot donut or a tray of chips. I wondered what the food sellers thought of this bunch of crazy Christians. I wonder if they saw anything different. If they saw Jesus at all. I hope so. I think so.

I ambled through to the Impact venue which was still rocking big time, the young band giving it their all with their techo-drums and beat-boxer, lights streaking though the tent and out into the night in rainbow colours, touching every corner and every heart. The more energetic worshippers among us were pounding the boards in there and the hope was tangible. The freedom more intense than can be described.

On past the Marketplace where dozens of organisations represented their tireless work for the poor, the persecuted, the vulnerable, and where art and creativity in many forms were celebrated. At the centre of it all the Flame International cafe buzzed with more laughter and even more hope.

Walking through past the now quiet Groundbreakers, the sounds of the Arena drifted up the avenue; the place where a little earlier I'd encountered God in profound intimacy. Now the Late Night Live band blasted out 80s covers in style and I jigged a (little) bit.

The sounds of a night alive with joy faded as I carried on and came to the Open Doors refugee camp, where people were gathered in the falling dusk with candles and prayers, interceding for refugees worldwide. Something in the juxtaposition of the fun and laughter with this tender and heartbreaking scene brought me to tears, reminding me of how God's Kingdom will be a place where there is no more pain, no more mourning, no more tears. Where there is joy and life and laughter and peace, for all eternity. The glimpses of how this would look were paired with the bittersweet beauty of God's people in prayer for those who are in the most desperate of circumstances.

Come soon, Lord.

As I walked on past the camp and into the more residential area of the showground, I passed the Pebbles marquee and stopped for a moment, my mind racing backwards to when my children were little. Toddling through Gems, running free and joy-filled through Pebbles then pelting into Groundbreakers, their little hearts so full of all they learned, their legs tired from jumping and playing and dancing. I reflected on how blessed we were to have New Wine as a home for so long now. This is the first year they are both out of the kids' stuff and into the youth, and I was a little bit sad, but more than a little bit happy, too. And to see the girl go and work on the Pebbles team, giving something back, was the most amazing thing. She's now New Wine team-hooked forever.

So then I walked through this mini-city of tents and caravans, pockets of laughter lighting up the night, and thought again of God's Kingdom, of how everyone is here together to worship, to be united, and that is only the smallest glimpse of what it will one day be. I wonder if there will be so much mud?

I walked through the hope-soaked sacred that night, and it changed me, again.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Bridges, not barriers.


I'm feeling desperately sad.

Not just because of the referendum result, though that's part of it, but because of how it is polarising people in the UK (and beyond) even more than before. On social media, I'm observing fights break out between folks I love, ugly words, unpleasant judgments.

If #Bremain had won, there would doubtless be the same polarisation. I don't claim to have the answer. But the process has left me in little doubt that there is a rising tide of xenophobia in this country. Not everyone who voted leave, not anywhere near, but watching some of the news broadcasts from around the nation has opened my eyes.

Some of the comments I noted:

'I voted leave because no white kids can get in at my local school, it's all taken over by the immigrants.'
'I voted leave because our country is full up.'
'I voted leave because I want to get England how it was before all the immigrants moved in and spoiled it.'
'I voted leave because it will sort out all those Muslims.'
'I voted leave because they take benefits from us and I can't get a doctor's appointment because of them.' (whoever 'they' are.)
'I voted leave because they take all our houses and we're left with the worst ones.'

It went on and on in this vein.

The statments about leaving because of sovereignty and democracy I had much more time for, but in general I felt that we were stronger for being part of something bigger, for working together with other countries. I also felt that EU directives on worker's rights, the environment and human rights were important factors I felt it would be problematic to possibly lose. There's the miniscule worry for me that I simply don't trust our government as it is to 'take back control', but that's not the only reason I voted Remain.

I have no idea what the future will look like. There are dire predictions of the economy going down the pan, of the pound in free fall, of job losses and cuts harder than we ever knew before (if we thought Tory austerity was severe, we might be looking back on those cuts with fondness for former times.) I don't know if any of this will be reality.

What I do know is that we are at a crossroads, now. We can rally all we like at the vote; the prevalence of the older population voting Leave, the fact that it was actually only 38% of the electorate who voted Leave at all, the many rumours circulating of Brexiters who wished they could take their vote back because they believed Nige and BoJo about that £350 million thing. But I don't think a petition for another referendum will do anything, ultimately, because in the end, this was democratic, and the Leave side won. Therefore, what we must do is work together to step into the future, whatver it may be. To stop backbiting, namecalling, hate tweets and everything else that only further polarises. In the end, we are all human beings together. The great majority of us - whatever 'side' - want what is best for everyone. We may think some are misguided, they may think we are, but we don't have the right to spew hatred. No one does.

This doesn't mean that I can't say what I think, but that I think that personal attacks (some I saw today: 'I thought better of you, I thought you had more sense than that, I'm de-friending you) are never a helpful thing. Never good.

So how can we go forward? We just bumble along, I suppose, like we always do. And we support one another. I know of someone who has already been made redundant due to the referendum, and of many who are worried for their jobs. How can we help?

I like what the Archbishops of York and Canterbury have said in their statement about the referendum:

As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.

This is what I want to see. This is why I am worried about all those statements I posted above. I would love to see a society where we all welcome one another as fellow humans, loved and precious, uniquely formed in God's image. I hope that this can turn to something good, to something generous and forward-looking.

I kind of fear that it won't.