Unless you become like a child…

I made a grown man cry today. No, I didn’t stand on his toes. Nor did I fold up a map the wrong way in front of him. Nor did I bump his car with mine. All I did was tell him a story…

Perhaps I should explain.

I’m currently at New Wine. No, it’s not a Bacchanalian celebration of the skills of the vintner, but a chance for people of faith – particularly Christian faith – to get themselves a spiritual recharge. For two weeks, the Royal Bath and West Showground near Shepton Mallet in Somerset becomes home to thousands of intrepid campers and caravanners, all searching for that one common purpose – to meet with God and his people and see where that takes them.

In the Market Place where I am, there are many charities, all telling stories of despair, hope, transformation, challenges and injustice. Each one has its supporters, each one is hoping to touch people’s hearts with what’s being done in the name of God.

It’s intriguing to watch how different people come into the Market Place. Many are more than happy to exchange pleasant greetings, small talk and banter – while others keep their heads down and refuse to catch your eye. Their fear? The possibility that you might jump out at them, grab them in a headlock and refuse to let them go until they’ve signed up to a massive direct debit.

The truth is much more complex. I would be lying if I said that we didn’t go to New Wine hoping to get financial support. Christians have an uncomfortable relationship with money – particularly when asking for money from others. It’s the ‘dirty’ side of charity work – explain you’re a fundraiser and people eye you with the same suspicion they eye the taxman. Or the Bond villain.

So we are hoping that Us, the charity I work for, will gain new supporters and that more people will sign up to donate to us. But it’s more than that. One of the reasons New Wine is so successful is that people who come to it have a real heart for understanding God’s calling.

That might mean the spiritual equivalent of a kick into the middle of next week, or it might mean some sacrificial giving, or chucking in a job to go and work overseas. Who knows? As CS Lewis points out in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ Aslan isn’t safe to be with, but he is the  only King worth following.

The trouble is that we often put up barriers to listening to what’s going on around us. We can’t fail to be moved by what’s going on in Gaza, or the Ukraine or any of the other troubled parts of the world. And many of us will respond by giving generously to the emergency appeals that all too often grace our television screens. But giving in the quieter times? That’s more complicated.

As I have been walking around the Market Place, looking at other people’s stalls, I’ve been struck by the number that are offering incentives to give. In return for giving money, you get something in return.

I have to admit, I am a bit uncomfortable with that. But I also quite like the idea of getting a ‘free’ gift in return for something I’ve done or given. And yet, God calls on us to give without counting the cost. He calls us to be good stewards. And he calls us to look around us and care for those in need. He calls for us to care and give unconditionally, just as we have been loved and blessed by him.

It was a little girl who brought this home to me. She couldn’t have been more than about eight or nine years old. She was walking through the Market Place, when she stopped to look at the stand of the charity I work for, Us. She looked at the picture of the woman who’d survived domestic violence and she read the words, ‘Without your help, I would be dead.’ And as I watched her, she reached into her pocket, pulled out her purse and emptied the entire contents into the postbox which sits at the front of our exhibition space.

She didn’t want a free gift or incentive. This was just the girl who saw a need and wanted to help in whatever way she could. The lump in my throat wouldn’t go away. Childlike simplicity always brings me back down to earth with a bump.

When I told that story on New Wine FM – yes, they even have their own radio station – the presenter could hardly speak, he was so moved. I saw the tears come into his eyes and he swallowed hard before he could continue with his words. A grown man weeping for the heartfelt response to great need by a child.

It’s no wonder that Jesus told his disciples that unless they became as little children, they’d never see the kingdom of heaven. How right that is. I wonder sometimes whether we’re so busy trying to get our free gifts of spiritual maps and theological sat navs that we neglect to see the whacking great sign saying, ‘Kingdom of heaven. This way.’

Meanwhile, our children look up, see the sign and walk right in…

(Pic: Us postbox at New Wine, 2014)

 

Us postbox

Check shirts and consensus…

And he turned to them and began to preach, ‘The kingdom of God is like a group of people dressed in a variety of checked shirts, floral and stripy attire, all queued up to make their speeches to the amendments and to argue about the merits of vestments.’

No, it’s not in the Bible, nor should it be. But this morning as I was walking along the bridge which crosses the well-kept lake here at the University of York, greeting a variety of bishops, priests, churchwardens and mission advisors who are all part of General Synod (the church parliament), one thought came into my mind. Two thoughts actually. The first was about how this year’s popular must-have item for men at Synod appears to be a checked shirt. And the second? Well, the second led to a conversation inside my head. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that…

Anyway. I’d just come from breakfast where I’d been chatting with people from Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Kent and Somerset. I’d listened to the challenges and highlights of their various churches and areas and shared some of the stories of Us, the charity I work for.

By the end of that hour long chat I felt like I’d made some new friends. And it was as I walked across the bridge towards the main building when the thought occurred to me: “This is what God wants his kingdom to be like.”

At that same moment an image of the Archbishop of Canterbury – who I’d met earlier and exchanged a few words with – came into my mind. And he was laughing at me.

‘So,’ said this imaginary Archbishop Justin, still chuckling, ‘You think people discussing notices of motion, agendas, committee meetings, arguing about vestments and quotas and buildings is what God wants in his kingdom?’

I began to laugh too – thankfully inside my head – as there were others around me.

‘No,’ I argued, ‘But that feeling of unity, people meeting around the same table who share very different views on things but who can share a meal together without falling out. That’s what I meant. That feeling of being in the same family.’

By now my imaginary Archbishop had faded away and I was remembering a conversation that I’d had at breakfast.

‘We don’t have to agree,’ one vicar had said to me, ‘We can and do have differing viewpoints on all sorts of things.’

‘No,’ I answered slowly, ‘ But I suppose what matters is how you are seen to handle those differences.’

‘Exactly,’ he responded, beaming at me like a student who’s come up with the right answer.

And that’s the biggest challenge. Sometimes I worry that some of the sensitive and difficult issues aren’t being discussed by people because they are afraid to voice their concerns for fear of being labelled.

The diversity that we enjoy as individuals – wouldn’t it be boring if we all thought the same and did the same? – is also a challenge. We do think differently, we do act differently, our politics are not the same, even our view of faith isn’t necessarily so. I sat next to two people at breakfast who I know have very differing views on some aspects of the Christian faith and life in general than I do, but it doesn’t make us any less friends.

And that’s because at heart we have one thing in common. The one thing that matters and the one thing I hope will continue to see us have a healthy debate without destructive argument. We have that shared bond of friendship and faith.

And, after all, faith recognizes that we are all one. If you’ll excuse the misquote of the apostle Paul, ‘There is neither slave nor free, nor Archdeacon nor charity worker, nor Archbishop nor churchwarden, nor vicar nor organist, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.’

The other week I made a congregation in a church laugh, when I admitted from their church pulpit that I wasn’t an Anglican. I don’t believe that God values the Anglicans more than the Baptists, or the Methodists. I don’t believe he values the archbishops, archdeacons, pastors or priests more than the youngest child in the crèche. The kingdom of God is made up of the faulty, the flawed and the fallen who have one thing in common – they are loved and forgiven.

And they are equal in his eyes. It’s that knowledge that gives me the strength to treat others as equals, even if they do wonder about that strange woman who smiles at them for no apparent reason or makes remarks about the weather.

As I was only saying to the Archbishop this morning…

Synod View Day 1

How small is your world?

At the restaurant of the lodge where I’ve been staying in Mansa, Zambia, there are a lot of very friendly members of staff. The one we’ve got to know particularly well during our stay here is Sharon.

On our last night here, she asked me which country I was from – I explained I was from England. ‘My mother lives in England,’ she said, ‘She works in a hospital in Oxford.’

‘That’s not far from me,’ I answered. ‘Oxford’s about an hour and a bit from me. I live in Wiltshire.’
‘My mother used to live in Wiltshire,’ came the surprising reply, ‘She worked in a hospital in Trowbridge and had a house there.’

I stared at her in astonishment, “But that’s where I live,” I responded and we both laughed. Two women who live thousands of miles apart who have a town in Wiltshire in common. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

I’m here  in Zambia to see work around tackling gender-based violence (GBV), particularly that of the church here which is supported by Us – the charity I work for but have also been meeting representatives from other organisations tackling this very real problem.

I visited  the victim support office in Mansa listening to the challenges that the team there face as they help women and men who are going through all kinds of gender-based violence.

Their challenges are many – witnesses who can’t afford to travel and who need looking after, victims who withdraw their evidence because they’re afraid to lose the breadwinner from the family home, a long-drawn out court process. The list was endless and yet their commitment to the job was immense.

I thought of the police back in Wiltshire who’ve faced their own – often similar – challenges dealing with domestic abuse in all its forms and  felt the world shrink in size.

Earlier in our stay we had met Evans Sikabbubba, who works with the district commissioner. He emphasised a community-wide commitment to dealing with GBV which is frighteningly widespread.
He had I had an interesting discussion around the whole issue and I asked him about why it was important for Government, church, health and police to all work together.

His answer was both simple and striking: ’It is not supposed to be the responsibility of one institution,” he said, ‘We can’t just leave it to one group or we are finished,’

As he said those words, I was writing them in my notebook but with an echo of something else in my mind. It suddenly came to me that those words were very similar to some the former deputy chief constable of Wiltshire, Stephen Long had said to me more than seven years ago, about how it would only be partnership between police, health, social services and community groups that would make the difference in reducing domestic abuse.
And the world shrank in size again.

It shrank still further when I later remembered the words of the county’s former chief constable Dame Elizabeth Neville as she backed a campaign to tackle domestic abuse in Wiltshire a decade ago.
Someone has to take the lead, she said, and we have to show that we won’t allow this in our communities. Step back into Zambia in 2014 and there are headmen of villages, church leaders, Government ministers saying the same thing.

It strikes me these days that the more I travel, the smaller I can see the world really is. We share fears, joys, sorrows, difficulties, blessings and hopes. The world is small and there really is nothing new under the sun.

I’ve written in a previous blog (Why crossing continents should be no distance at all, Dec 2013) about how more unites us than divides us and how we have far more in common with the rest of the world than we think wherever we live in it. I do find it difficult when I hear people wanting to distance themselves from those who might look a little different or speak another language or observe a belief system that’s not the same as our own. But more, I also find it sad that people can be so ready to shut themselves off from others who are really  not so very different.

One of the best moments of this trip for me, was in a church last Sunday morning, when one of the hymns was ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus.’ While the congregation sang in Bemba, I sang in English and caught the eye of a choir member. She held her hands together in a very Zambian gesture which I returned. United in song, united in our hearts.

Later I said to the local Bishop, the Rt Revd Robert Mumbi who had led the service, that I had loved singing with his congregation. “I hope you didn’t mind that I sang in English while you sang in Bemba,” I grinned. He laughed but then was serious.

“The language is different,” he said, “But the words are the same.”

Joyce Mwelwa, who leads a group tackling GBV and the blog's author Heather Skull

Joyce Mwelwa, who leads a group tackling GBV and the blog’s author Heather Skull

 

Resilient. But not bomb-proof.

Recently I saw one of those e-cards that seem to flood social media and my email inbox in increasing waves:

“Dear whatever kills me, I’m strong enough now, thanks.”

It made me laugh out loud, particularly the look on the cartoon woman’s face. It was a combination of a deeply ironic smile coupled with the wryness caused by going through difficult times. I wasn’t laughing at the pain and misfortune implied there, but more laughing wryly at a cliché that’s often quoted by well-meaning people who aren’t going through any difficulties at all, to those who are.

Yes. There is no doubt that difficulties and problems do build up character. I am sure that wisdom is a product of the experiences, both good and bad that we all live through. However, while the human spirit is resilient, it isn’t bomb-proof. As we tentatively build the blocks of our lives, they are so easily knocked down again, sometimes by the passing storms of circumstances, sometimes by the painfully destructive actions of others and sometimes by our own wilful stupidity. But all three leave painful destruction in their wake.

Pain is an inevitable part of living in a rotten, broken, messed up, hurting world. My friend Liz Dumain once talked on BBC Wiltshire’s Sunday Breakfast programme about how when Jesus promised life to the full, she was sure he meant life in all its infinite complexities and problems and not just the happy bits. Life to the full is just that, the happiness, the pain, the sorrows, the anger. All life is here.

May 9th is a strange day for me because of some of the memories it now holds. On 9th May 2012 I wrote a diary entry that asked whether someone could create an exchange service for dates and days as I would like another day instead of that particular one.  It’s hard to live through days and times like that, wondering if they will ever come to an end.

The fact is though, that they do. And while we may not get over all the painful experiences we encounter, we do develop ways of living with them. During another particularly difficult period I can hold onto the fact that May 2012 did come to an end and that I did move on from that time of pain and difficulty. The scars remain, some faded, some also invisible, while others are still raw and still partially bear hurting scabs.

Two years ago today I wrote an arrangement combining Steve Knightley’s song Exile with Cardinal Henry Newman’s hymn Lead Kindly Light. It summed up all my pain but all my hope and trust and longing that the man from Galilee who promised life to the full, also promised not to abandon his friends.

I am certain that everyone reading this will either have had or be experiencing or about to experience their own version of the 9th May. I am equally sure that the – possibly – last thing you want to hear is someone saying, “Honestly, you will get through this…”

Actually, you probably won’t. Not alone anyway. There will be a handful of trusted friends who will listen, bring cake, listen again, pick up the phone to ask you if you’re okay, bring more cake, drag you out to the pub/café/local tearoom, give you a loving but firm kick when you need it the most and listen with all their heart and love. There is nothing as close in friendship than someone being alongside you who has experienced something similar to you and can truly understand and empathise. And the friends who walk with you, sometimes dragging you like a protesting toddler, sometimes pushing you on, are the ones who will emerge the other side of the dark valley into the sunlight, will turn to you and give you that encouraging smile, to say, ‘Well done.’ Then they’ll take you to the pub for a well-deserved glass of something.

Hold onto them. Not in a needy, selfish way as you might a crutch which you get rid of as soon as you no longer need it. Instead see them and yourself as being in a team of tug o’war, with each playing a part and sometimes having to put a bit extra in to make up for a teammate who grows weary from the struggle.

And for those of you with faith, for the ones who feel like God’s gone on holiday or who appears to not listen or care, just one piece of advice. Keep talking to him, keep looking up, keep shouting, keep crying out, because whatever it feels like humanly speaking, this is the real truth: “So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on, o’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone.’

Here’s to 9th May. And all it represents and reminds me of.

Life. In all its fullness. Thank God.

Song: Lead me out of Exile

An open letter to the Daily Mail…

tractorgirl66:

No extra comment needed…

Originally posted on squidgetsmum:

The Daily Mail chose today to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, champion of the oppressed, by publishing this article today.  Here’s my response.

 

Dear Daily Mail,

I’ve got a little boy.  His name is Isaac, and he’s nearly three.  Like any little boy, he loves cars, balls, and running around.  He’s barely ever still.

A few days ago though, he was.  I took him to the supermarket to spend his pocket money, and we passed the donation basket for our local food bank.  It was about half full – nothing spectacular, in fact, mostly prunes and pasta – and he asked what it was.  As simply as possible, I tried to explain that it was for people to give food for other people who couldn’t afford it.

This affected his two year old brain fairly deeply.  After a lot of thought, he decided to spend a little bit of…

View original 715 more words

From Hero to Zero

A few years ago I went to a football match. It was an away match and an important game – my team needed to win it to have any chance of making the playoff games to get promoted to the next league up. We were playing against a team that was well into the relegation zone so on paper at least the task looked an easy one. As supporters and fans of this team, our expectation was that it would be three points in the bag and promotion would remain more than a possibility.

As we gathered in the Away Supporters stand, there was a real buzz as we prepared to watch a game that we expected to win. Our hopes and expectations of the outcome were high. Our excitement levels were rising. Today might be the day that would bring us one step closer to promotion to the highest level in English football.

Cheers rang out around our stand as the team we had placed so much hope in came running out onto the pitch. They had the air of champions and we couldn’t help but cheer each individual player as his name was announced – and we reserved a special cheer for the manager who we expected to lead our team into promotion.

The game began with that same high level of excitement and each touch of the ball, each shot on goal, each clever manoeuvre was cheered and applauded. Our team were heroes, our manager a king amongst managers and we were basking in the reflected glory of their performance.

But that performance began to fade away. The team’s efforts on goal became less effective and to our dismay, a goal was scored against our team. The cheers were starting to fade away and in their place came the sound of faint but distinct grumbling. As the team continued to do badly, the groans of disappointment became cries of anger as the team showed less commitment to fulfilling our hopes and dreams and expectations.

It wasn’t long before the groans became boos and the positive atmosphere became sullen and angry in the away stand. The hopes were dying away, the expectations lost and in the disappointment another chant began – a chant of anger against the manager that previously had been treated like a much-loved king. The shouts became louder from some sections of the away supporters stand and they were very clear. They wanted to get rid of the manager who they blamed for their disappointment. They wanted him out because they felt he had let them down. He had gone very quickly from being a hero to a zero. His team had gone from being potential champions in our eyes to being failures. They weren’t cheered off the pitch – despite managing to salvage a draw – and there was far more booing than cheering. Hope and expectation had been dashed to disappointment and the manager appointed scapegoat by the team’s supporters.

Our hopes and expectations are sometimes doomed to disappointment. And in those moments they can turn to anger and thoughts of getting our own back against those who may have caused them. Sometimes our hopes and dreams are unrealistic ones. Looking back now from the distance of a few years, I can see that it is unlikely – given the talent and resources of the other teams around mine – that we would have got through the playoffs. Sometimes our hopes, dreams and expectations are the wrong ones, looking for the wrong outcomes with all the hurt and pain that can cause us.

The crowd who cheered the man riding a donkey into Jerusalem had their own hopes and expectations. They would have heard of this man Jesus, who turned water into wine, who had healed the sick, raised the dead and promised a new kingdom and a new way of life. For a people who were probably heartily sick of being ruled by the Romans, this promise could well have brought about hopes and expectations. If this was indeed the Messiah, he’d get rid of the Romans, restore the kingdom of Israel and bring about a new golden era.  They probably began to build up their hopes and expectations to the moment when the temple would be restored and a new version of King David would rule over them.

And then, this man, this incredible man, gets himself arrested. The disappointment, the blow to the hopes and expectations, the anger, could well be the reason that so many were eager to call for his death on Good Friday.

The disciples and friends who had given up so much and had invested so much in this man and his teaching suddenly found themselves without a leader. Their hope and expectation turned to fear – denying their Lord, running away from trouble and hiding in rooms, in case the same fate befell them.

Their hopes and expectations of the kingdom of God came crashing down their ears as each nail went home with a sickening thud. Their dreams of the Messiah taking charge of the country were lost as the dead body of their best friend was taken down from the cross. Their trust in the man they believed had come to save them was broken as the stone walled up his tomb.

Hopes and expectations, dashed and completely destroyed. That’s Good Friday.

But Sunday IS coming. And that was the day when the world was turned on its head as hopes and expectations got completely rewritten early in the morning in a garden, when a man looked straight into the eyes of a woman whose heart was breaking and said, “Mary.”

A new dawn - sunrise in Oxfordshire © Heather Skull, 2013

A new dawn – sunrise in Oxfordshire © Heather Skull, 2013

#BrightenYourDay: Spreading Good News

One of my favourite books is one called Paper Trail by John Timpson who used to be one of the presenters on Radio Four’s Today programme, in the days when they used to be firm, but polite. The book tells the story of Charles who’s a journalist working for a local newspaper in Norfolk in the 1950s. He can’t afford a car so buys a bike at auction and is tricked into bidding a lot more for it than the bike’s worth. This bike originally belonged to the local butcher and on it, as was the custom in those days, it had the words Geoff Perkins: Purveyor of Good Meats.

Anyway after the auction, Charles goes to collect his bike and finds someone has altered the signage. It now reads Charles Benson: Purveyor of Good News. Of course journalists tend to deal more in bad news – and actually (if we’re honest) we tend to enjoy hearing bad news more than anything else. Somehow we get a vicarious thrill out of hearing bad stuff about other people. And it’s the reason people slow down to look at car crashes on the motorways.

It’s not insignificant then that the Christian faith I believe in specifically calls on us to be purveyors of good news. The good news offered by the arrival two thousand years ago of a man who offered us a new way of living, a second chance, an opportunity to have a broken relationship with God put right, once and for all.

Tomorrow we’ll be remembering Palm Sunday, the moment when it seemed the entire population of Jerusalem cheered Jesus into their city as he rode in on a donkey. They called him blessed because of the good news he was bringing, because of the joy and light and hope he had spread wherever he had been within their land.

In one of his first recorded sermons early on in Luke, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. ‘ That’s the poor in spirit, the poor in hope, the poor in poverty, the poor in despair. And Christians are asked to carry on that work he has asked us to do.

We are purveyors of good news. We deal in good news. We offer good news to a world that’s broken and messed up and tired and hurt and worn out. We have good news to purvey. And the sermon that Jesus gives is a reminder that Christians follow the original Purveyor of Good News.

Good news. You don’t keep it to yourself do you? Some very dear friends of mine have recently received an incredible gift – a daughter, a precious new life. And – understandably – they want to tell everyone about her. Every picture posted of this tiny baby is a reminder to all of us who are privileged to be friends with them about their good news which we are all delighted to share in. Every picture they have posted has certainly brightened my day and I look forward to the day when I shall share in that good news completely by meeting her.

Every so often people join in campaigns on social media to flood it with positive messages and images instead of the – sometimes – miserable and depressing news it appears to carry most of the time. There’s nothing wrong with being unhappy and wanting to share that with those we love most as we find ourselves in the trenches once too often, but it’s also good to share happiness around too.

For Lent this year I took a decision not to give anything up and instead every day have found something to post on Facebook and Twitter with the theme Brighten Your Day. I have to be honest – there are days when I’ve really struggled with that. It’s hard to count your blessings on the days when it doesn’t feel like you have any left to count.

But actively looking for good news and fun images and videos to share with my friends has been a very fulfilling project. I hope I can continue it after Lent has finished. Looking for the bright side helps to lift your spirits and also reflects on those around you.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe it is right to grieve with those who grieve, that it’s wrong to be bright and breezy in the face of someone’s clear and genuine misery caused by the difficult circumstances they are in. But as someone who is slowly coming out of her own abyss, looking for things to brighten my day has helped a great deal. Who can fail to be cheered by a church that looks like a chicken? Or a sunrise across the Wylye Valley in Wiltshire? Or bright red tulips in a back garden?

Good news. We need to share more of it because there’s enough to be getting on with in the Department of Life’s Dark Moments. Laughter and joy are medicinal and life affirming. And you don’t need faith to know that.

And life and love and happiness are well worth fighting for… No, wait a minute. That’s the theme tune from the old BBC tv programme ‘The Flashing Blade.’ Now THERE’S an idea for my next #BrightenYourDay.

#BrightenYourDay: The church that looks like a chicken

#BrightenYourDay: The church that looks like a chicken