Saturday, 26 November 2016

hope in unexpected places

First Sunday of Advent

What on earth has Daniel in the lion’s den got to do with advent?!
Also, how can I weave into all of that something of what I have experienced in the past week?!
It's a valid question, but, before I attempt to develop that, let me begin with advent itself.
We have our themes: hope, peace, joy and love
We have another set of themes for this year’s readings: dreams and visions 
And we have new start, new beginnings, new horizons, as we begin a new church year.

This week we have hope and we have visions. For Daniel was an exile and a prophet. He was incarcerated because he refused to worship another God, because he stood up for what he believed in, because he would rather face death than betray God.
He had been blessed with a vision from God which changed his life, changed him. His faith, his determination to resist protected him. 

Advent is all about dreams and visions, about waiting patiently for God to do a wondrous thing. During the past week I have witnessed what should be, could be, desperate situations- but within it all I also witnessed pockets of hope. Pockets of God's grace in action. Pockets of determination to stay alive against all odds, to live in hope against all odds, to resist the temptation to give up.

We heard stories of pain and persecution of trauma and desolation, and yet each story was also wrapped in hope. The source came from amazing People who dedicate their lives to following God's call and offering hope, peace, joy and love where it did not exist. This is what it means to be Advent People. This is what it means to live out faith under the most extreme circumstances.
For me, one of the mostly holy things I observed was teachers working for a pittance, willing to love and witness to the love of God with children and their families. They offered education where none was available. They offered, love, compassion, kindness, patience, an opportunity to learn, regardless of nationality or religious affiliation. These Christian teachers, taught Muslim children, children for whom there was no place in the system. Children whose status is negligible; who had suffered such trauma, such abuse; yet, all these teachers saw was children who needed a chance, needed stability, needed hope, needed to know that not everyone is bad, not everyone will exploit them, not everyone seeks to use them for their own selfish means.
It was pure grace.
Pure grace in action.
It was hope.
It was love and compassion.
And it gave me hope. 

In our scripture today we heard of one snapshot of Daniels life. It was not the first time he had been under threat, for in each generation that he served during his exile he faced persecution and abuse. And each time he relied on God to come to his aid, to prevail.
As we begin our advent season. As we wait in anticipation to hear again the stories of the nativity, let us remember that faith and hope are not confined to the bible. Not confined to Old Testament tales, but that through faith in our God, and his Son Jesus, there are people who still rely on God to come to their aid, to help them prevail against all odds.
These people are the living stones. They live by faith. They hope against hope that a day will come when they do not need to do the work, but until that day comes they are Advent People. Waiting, preparing for the Advent of Hope.
For Syria. For Lebanon. For all God’s people. In all places.
And that, that gives us hope too.

Five Days in Lebanon.

How to distill five days of talking, walking, observing, witnessing, travelling, praying, and discerning into anything that resembles coherence? 
That is the question, most exercising me right now. 

Listening to the people of this place: those born here, those who have chosen to make this place their home, those who landed here with no choice and those who are just passing through. 
Watching displaced children, traumatised, fearful, anxious, but still able to smile, to hope. Seeing them loved and cared for by those whose only aim in life is to bring God's love into these trembling hearts. 
Seeking to understand what is really needed, and not jump in with both feet assuming I might know better. 

Walking through the bustling city, with its cosmopolitan mix of nationalities, religious affiliation, wealth and poverty side by side. The food and drink,  the smells and sounds, the heat. 
All combine to be a heady mix. 

I am not sure what I expected before I came here.
And. I am still not sure what I have received. 
I think it's the children that have had the greatest impact.

On Sunday, in church, part of the family, well fed, well cared for, secure, loved, wanted.
On Monday, in school. Refugees. Status-less. Undernourished, afraid, timid, loved, wanted. 
On Tuesday, on the streets, refugees, begging, hungry, bold, desperate, unwanted, unloved, exploited. 
On Wednesday, in school. Refugees. Well fed, nourished, loved, cared for. 
On Thursday, older, in education, bright young people at the AUB, learning, growing, exploring, secure, loved, confident of their place in the world. 

Friday, 11 November 2016


Boat ribs at low tide, Brodick, Isle of Arran (c) JRen 2016
I came across this poem as I skimmed a new book - a collection of readings for Advent, which includes the last week of November all the way through to January 8th - it is an eclectic mix, of poetry and prose, philosophy and musings, and I am looking forward to spending daily time with it at the end of this month.
I offer this poem now in the light of today - Armistice Day, Sunday - Remembrance Sunday - and the way the world is this week - stunned, afraid, anxious, rebellious, resigned... many, many feelings, all entwined. 

Sylvia Plath - Black Rook 
in Rainy Weather 

On the stiff twig up there 
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall, 
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire, 
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain: 
A certain minor light may still 
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then - 
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent 

By bestowing largesse, honour,
One might say love. At any rate,
I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical, 
Yet politic; ignorant
Of whatever Angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season 
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you dare to call those spasmodic 
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the Angel,
For that rare, random descent. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

Sacred Pause on Retreat

I bought this book, Sacred Pause, as soon as it was published, but it has taken until now for me to really, really engage with it.
It is a happy collision of signing up to an overnight Prayer Retreat for ministries and thinking that overnight wouldn't be long enough to really switch off properly. So I inquired about extending the night to a full week of retreat, being told that it would be possible and asking for further information about what I'd be reading while I was on retreat. 
Sacred Pause has stayed at the side of my desk for two years, begging me to pause, to take some time, to retreat with it. So it became clear to me that this was exactly what was needed. Me. Scared Pause. Time. Space. Prayer. 

I bought this book on the recommendation of RevGal book reviewer Julia, who simply said, "You need this book!" Actually she said much more, but the first line was, You need this book! So I ordered it. Imported it. Read the introduction and a couple of chapters, put it down for when I'd have time and then.... Stuff happens. Happened. Life, death, birth, marriage - all sorts of stuff. 

There is a time for everything the wise man said, and this is my time. 
For four days I have been reading, pausing, writing, taking pictures, drawing, using colour, using my imagination, using nothing, everything. Pausing. 
I am moved.
I am retreating from the world, and going deep, deeper into my own world. It's been a revelation, renewing and refreshing.