In His hands

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A family friend has been diagnosed with one of those degenerative diseases that mark the end of a life as known. It feels as if the disease does not take its hold until that point at which you are told.

Like the day you hear that someone has died; it may have been days, even months since their death, but until you know that they have gone, their presence is assumed. A few years ago I learned that a friend of mine had died, but because of the vagueries of communication, because we had been friends directly rather than part of a group, I did not learn of his death until several weeks later. I have since then thought I saw him: in the train station, on the street, his distinctive hair and clothing making a beeline for my subconscious.

This family friend is a dear man. He, and one of the most wonderful women I have ever had the fortune to know, married a few years ago, both in the age of their lean and slippered pantaloon. He is a clever man,  always quick with a gracious smile and insightful comment. He once said:

“There are times when you don’t feel like praying or don’t want to read your bible and feel ambivalent. And that’s ok, because it’s at those times that you don’t hold onto God, rather He holds onto you.”

I take heart from this. And I also take heart that even with the vagueries of communication being what they are, his wisdom can be passed on.

While at university my friend told me that he felt he was living in the wrong place, that he needed to be back in South America, where he felt happy and he felt he was doing God’s work. That was where he died.

I cannot begin to try understanding my place in His scheme of things. When people of great wisdom and insight are condemned to spend their last years in confusion and dementia, when people of great heart and courage die young, it is hard to find a meaning that will reside comfortably in a small and fragile brain.

Perhaps the songs of childhood, in which our great God has the whole world in His hands (and someone else brings the food to our table) are the best place to find comfort. And so I fall back into those hands, in faith.

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Going it alone

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I’m torn today between feeling that I should start some “alternative expression” commuter church, flinging placards across my evangelical chest and inviting spiritual strangers to join me in prayer of a morning (carriage 3 of 7), or remaining a bystander.

The problem with starting something is now the expectation surrounding all things “alternative”. At his talk at Greenbelt this year, Pete Rollins said that starting ikon had been an organic process with no thought as to its purpose let alone its eventual impact.

In the current climate, if you have an idea that goes beyond the boundaries of normal church it is inevitable that alongside this kernel of inspiration is the hope for impressed recognition. If not from the masses, then at least from the religious publishers, funding from the CofE Fresh Expressions pot and perhaps a post from a blogger or two.

Being innovative is de rigeur.

But does it meet a need?

I’m wondering, if I were to put myself out there, in a situation that does not invite proactive engagement, for the purpose of meeting the spiritual need of strangers I’m not even sure exists, would it be because I thought it was a good idea. Or because other people might think it a good idea.

I would be the Danny Wallace of the emerging church movement. Worse than that, I would be attempting to invade the emerging church ‘thing’ with the tactics of Danny Wallace. Alienating those who had been doing this shit for years. And doing it badly. (Mostly because my heart would be in the wrong place from the off).

How many things being funded by Fresh Expressions, or being described as ’emerging’ are desperate individuals wanting to have their ideas and their theology thrust into a limelight that self-promotes rather than enriches the lives of those taking part?

Innovation seems to distance itself so much from traditional Church, perhaps because these same individuals are reacting the only way establishment can let them, without straying too fully from the orthodox path?

I am on the outskirts of Church and I always have been. It would make no sense to sidle in through the back door…

Commuter heresy takes a back seat to convention

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So having promised to myself that I would talk into the oppressive silence and onto a complete stranger, I found myself cattle-prodded into an increasingly crowded train and onto a bout of stage fright.

How hard can this be? Was my morning’s mantra. For a woman who prides herself on her ability to wade into someone’s sphere of being with nary a panicked stall, I was finding it hard even turning the ignition key.

Of all my strategic ideas, of all my plans of attack, the one that felt most natural, the one that instinct gripped the steering wheel with was moaning about the commute. Here I was sharing more physical contact with the woman next to me than I have any person in the last few weeks, and what better way of introducing myself than saying the polite equivalent of Fuck me, is this uncomfortable.

Over the course of the next 3 stops I learned this lady is a project manager for an arts charity that works with adults with learning difficulties, who studied Environmental Sciences and would usually take the bus, but for a meeting across town that morning. I did not, however, learn her name. That would be a concession too far perhaps. Or it just did not occur to me to ask.

In my previous post I suggested that speaking through the veil of non-interaction was a heretic act on the commute, and I still believe that it is, if you initiate with conversation that is out of context. By using the context of the commute itself and the safe assumption that my potential conversant was as uncomfortable as I was, I followed convention.

Perhaps I should test the limits of this convention, strain the boundaries of acceptable introduction to breaking point. Which begs a question:

is Theology understood by living within a status quo, or do you need to step off the beaten track to see the path being walked more clearly?

The kindness of strangers

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This morning we were a little early to the platform and my flatmate spotted a Puccino’s across the tracks. We threw each other a cheeky grin and tripped gaily to the coffee booth. However, when we got there I opened my wallet and realised I had no more than 50p on me, at the same time as my flatmate realised she had only just enough for her cup of tea. We’d already both put an order in so I cancelled my coffee as she said “We’ll share the tea…” taking time out for a few jokes about sucking at the tea bag and stealing extra milk.

A few seconds later the couple that had just left with their own drinks popped a hand back through the door holding a fiver, saying “Give the guys the change; everyone needs a coffee in the morning.”

I was stunned. My flatmate was stunned. The hand disappeared and we both sang out a thank you, amazed by such a random act of generosity.

Well, I bought the coffee and ran after the lovely couple to say thank you again, proffering my card with the words: “If you ever need anything recycled…” They both laughed and continued down the platform. The guys working at Puccino’s were delighted with the large tip, and all six of us involved in the experience had smiles on our faces.

My flatmate and I discussed the whole event at length making reference to Karma, Marcel Mauss, human capacity for kindness and ultimately what a lovely thing to have happened on an unseasonably cold Friday morning.

Writing here now though, I am made aware of the possibilities for community on a commute, or at stations along your commute. A coffee for a stranger and a tip for the baristas led to more goodwill than the same amount of money would have done in the cup of a beggar at Old Street station. I know this because I have often given my change to the various guys who sit at Exit 2, and apart from one occasion where a charming man called Antony introduced me to his dog, there is rarely a shared moment; if anything it emphasises the differences between us.

On the station this morning there was a shared understanding. The generous stranger’s words, “everyone needs a coffee in the morning” I guess made some kind of reference to our similar situation (both clearly earning, both making the trudge to work). It wasn’t charity, so much as a gesture of goodwill…

I don’t know. Maybe I should have said “oh no, give this money to charity” and not had my coffee. Or even say thank you, not had a coffee and then tried to choose between the 100,000 worthy charities in this country for a recipient of the cash. Except that this woman had chosen to use her money in this way. Would it have been rude of me to pass judgement on this and reject her kindness?

It is so easy as a “good Christian” to feel guilty about this, but I don’t believe that I need to. In relationships and in communities and in the wider society there needs to be a balance of give and take, there needs to be a dynamic. This morning my kind stranger recognised a fellow commuter in need of a coffee. I feel there’s a lot to learn from that.