I wonder who is?
Originating in a cartoon puppet show on children’s TV, our grandsons will point at people and in a gruff dinosaur-like voice declare “Not the Mama!”. Please don’t ask me what it is all about, but it has caused me to reflect more broadly on “Who is the responsible adult here?” and how this plays out in our relationship with God.
Recently I made the journey to see my Mother in Dorset in order to arrange some regular Carer visits. These are a necessity from the viewpoint of my brother and myself, but have not been viewed as such by my Mother who, not unnaturally, wishes to maintain her independence. The long car journey afforded much time to reflect on the changing dynamic through the ageing process between the responsible adult and the dependent one. Grandson Arthur cannot really shout “Not the Mama!” to his Mum, but things are very different for my Mother and I, as the arranging of Carers and the sorting of Power of Attorney for financial matters means she is no longer the responsible adult who brought me into the world, fed, clothed and cared for me through to the time I left home for college. But she is still my Mum!
What then of God our heavenly Father? He is and remains the responsible adult in our relationship with him, doesn’t he? Creation continues, he knows far more than we might ever, he feeds and clothes and cares, he loves and forgives, picking us up and giving us another chance. God desires the best for us and gives us the gifts for a rich and fulfilling life. We depend on him and are more than ready to make him the responsible one when things go wrong! Yet, God allows us to stand on our own feet, to make our own choices and decisions. He gives us the gifts we need to take the role of ‘responsible adult’ ourselves and we discover that he is, in many ways, dependent on us to fulfil his purposes and life. But he is still God!
In our family relationships we all experience the dependent-responsible-dependent transition, however difficult it might be, and there we can find some understanding for our relationship with God. There are times when we will wish to be “Not the Mama!” and allow God to bear the weight of responsibility, but we must also acknowledge that out of his love and through his Holy Spirit God gives us all we need to responsibly fulfil his purposes in us.
I recall my youthful bemusement when persuaded to view abstract works of art on school trips to the Tate Gallery. “Anyone could do that” is perhaps the most common response, but they don’t! “What is it meant to be?” is the next response, assuming that all art should represent something recognisable.
That all ended when I was taught to simply ‘see it as it is’. It is not trying to be something other than a painting – colour, shape, form. Yes, I interpret what I see because it arouses feelings (excitement, boredom, indifference) and associations from my personal experience, but it is the work of the artist and not of my imagination or memory.
I wonder if God is perhaps a little like an abstract painting. He is who he is. He is not meant to be anything else and while we attempt to define him in terms of our human experience we will always fall short.
In the same way, we get closest if we attend to our feelings and not our knowledge. Above all, God is love and while we might see and experience this in action it is in those relationships where we feel and experience love that we find God.
What then of Jesus, the man who shared our experience in order that God be made real within it? Certainly, he was not abstract but we do find it hard to ‘get a handle’ on him. He was a first century Jew and for that reason many find it hard to discover his relevance for the 21st century in western culture. Artistically many have placed Jesus in their own time. Many of the greatest painters have represented gospel stories set in the time in which they lived, but this misses the point in many ways. Jesus is not the white anglo-saxon with blonde hair of the old Sunday school painting, but neither is he the dark-skinned dark-haired man of more recent films. He is love. He is forgiveness. He is life lived in relationship with God and neighbour. He is who he is.
The photograph – John Mason ‘thou art a sea without a shore’
Life is full of them. All those things that are caused, but not planned, or intended. Recently we seem to have witnessed some big ones: There are many who wonder if the Brexit vote would have gone the way it did if some of the implications that have become clearer since had been known beforehand. There are those who continue to wonder how it is that Donald Trump came to be elected US President. Closer to home, the new traffic lights at the Warwick Road/Poplar Road junction while helping the new bus lane work well tends to cause gridlock on the main Lode Lane roundabout! I trust that was not intentional.
How do we view such things in a world where we consider that God has an overall plan which will ultimately come to fruition?
Is it that these are all down to human error or stupidity? This is clearly not the case in the eyes of everyone, for some see wisdom and progress in the two election outcomes.
Is it that they are all part of a lengthy process within which we struggle and continue to seek God’s direction, even in opposition to others?
Of course we each want to sense that God’s plan is much the same as ours, while also knowing full well that we are on a life-time journey to discover the truth of God and his creation. However, none of us has any real conception of the changes that are necessary not only in others, but in ourselves as well. Except that when we encounter Jesus and hear his call to such as loving our enemies, seeking a faith that will move mountains, losing our life rather than clinging to it, we begin to glimpse the scale of the struggle.
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk in 16th Century Germany. A life devoted to seeking a closer relationship with Christ led him to challenge aspects of church life and invite the church to debate the practice of ‘indulgencies’ and how people find God’s forgiveness. Pinning the case for discussion on the cathedral door in Wittenburg 500 years ago sparked what we now call the Reformation, the development of the Protestant churches, numerous bloody conflicts across Europe and the world and attitudes between Christians that we continue to seek to understand and resolve today – and it is not just to do with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Reformation also led to the translation of the Bible into everyday language, which itself shaped a common language in Germany that led to the unification of its many principalities. None of this was part of Luther’s intent, but we recognise the fruits as well as the struggles over the centuries.
My understanding is that, as long as we continue to seek Christ in our world and the leading of the Spirit in our decision-making then, despite the mess we tend to make, God will bring his fruit to growth. What Luther reminds us is that ultimately it is only Christ who can put us right. He needs to live as Lord within our political systems, our churches and our personal lives.
The image is of some of my pots from a few years back. They are all ‘unintended consequences’, as however much you shape them with your skill, submitting them to the fire of the kiln will always mean that you can never anticipate the final result. Sometimes it means that the work needs to be broken up. At other times the unintended can be beautiful – and real surprise!
A personal reflection written as folk in the church had been exploring ‘story’ – theirs and God’s and how they interact.
Across the road, and the view from my bedroom window, is a tall brick wall. It carries the scars of many accidents as people have driven round the tight bend too fast and not quite made it, but it guards and surrounds a park that is full of wonders and exploration for a young boy. It is my park, a place of imagination and excitement. On reflection, it taught me much of life and God.
Just on the corner of our road, where my Mum or Dad guide’s me across with my bike, a rather grand solid timber double gateway opens through the brick wall. I rarely see it shut and it is inviting to anyone to discover what is within.
They open to a wide avenue pathway leads to the big house, the lakes and open parkland beyond. At regular times in the year the gardeners will be hard at work stripping out the flower beds that line the pathway and planting fresh ‘not quite there’ plants to provide a rich colourful display according to the season. They are of little interest as I rush past on an urgent mission as a police motorcyclist chasing down someone who is always out of sight.
Pathways take me around the three lakes. In Spring I am always on the look-out for the ducks with their ducklings crossing the road, but you do not get too close to the swans who, with wings spread like sails. The fact that one holds in memory is that they are strong enough to break your arm, so beware!
Here is a hint that there is a darker side to this haven. The big house, home to a museum, reveals other evidence. I enter the gloomy hallway to be confronted with the familiar sight of a glass-cased pike, about 2.5 feet long. It bares its razor-teeth and is, thankfully, safe where it is. However, the story is that there is another large pike in the lake where the bandstand is, so one is always rather wary when playing near the edge, but it is part of the folklore that is enthusiastically passed to anyone who will listen that there is a man-eating fish lurking in the dark!
On summer weekend afternoons I make my way to the boating lake, a large round sea where, if I were to launch my small yacht I would pace nervously around the edge wondering if the wind is enough to drive it to a distant shore. Nothing I could do. There is also the fascination of leisure cruisers, lifeboats, battleships and large sailed yachts, carefully prepared on stands by keen owners and launched to make their radio-controlled voyages. Of course one knows that if the wind or a motor fails there is always someone who will don waders to rescue a boat as well as revealing that this vast ocean is only 2ft deep.
Also in the summer there is the glass-fronted beehive at the museum where I enter the world of these busy insects too-ing and fro-ing along a tunnel to fly off to gather their nectar, returning to fill the honeycomb. Which is which? Who is who? How do they know where to go? Why do they do this? I watch them for hours, but never find answers to my questions.
Here I find myself in a different world, as I do in the scented garden with its braille plates that tell someone which plant is which, but not me.
This is my playground, where I cover miles on my bike, journey the world, become whoever I want to, discover a lot and that there is so much more. I learn unknowingly of God and then at the end of a day realise the Park Keepers whistle is blowing and I have to get out before the gates are locked. That’s when I find my worried Dad coming to find me and take me home.
What does Brexit mean? This is the question of the moment, given that those politicians who led the campaign for it have mostly resigned and are certainly not forthcoming about what they had in mind. It has left others trying to make sense of it all, for the good of the country, and now we know we will have a ‘remain’ voting Prime Minister!
One argument raised for Brexit has been a broadening of Britain’s commercial interests around the world, which might be a positive view if the markets in mind were not those, like China, with serious human rights issues. The loudest popular voices in support of Brexit have been around the issue of immigration, but all in terms of shutting borders and some to ‘send them home’. The popular media have given little or no coverage to the questions around why there are so many refugees and that it might make sense to do something to tackle the causes rather than shut out the problems. The false slogan about diverting £350million per week from the EU to the NHS is obscene, when this sort of finance spent appropriately in other parts of the world might contribute to combatting some of the causes of the situation.
If leaving the EU gives the UK any financial gain, then I hope that it is spent to counter some of the horrendous poverty that persuades so many to leave their home to follow a dream of prosperity elsewhere, to build trade with those parts of the world that need it the most to build a prosperous home for their people. I suspect, though, that the immediate aim will have the further prosperity of the UK as a priority and the deals will be made with the economic powers of the world.
I hesitate to voice my opinions because I am very aware that it is a very complex problem and the political, economic and security issues are largely beyond my full understanding. However, there are some very simple and straightforward principles at play in this and they can be found within the teaching of Jesus. They are to do with loving the neighbour and the least. They are to do with life-giving sacrifice and the widow’s mite. They are about an interdependence that enables all to be satisfied even when resources are finite (five loaves and two fish). The politicians will not dare to risk their positions for such principles. It falls then to the Christian community, along with other faith communities, to put these principles at the centre of our national life.
My Christian faith has much to do with the fact that I grew up in a Christian family. Sunday by Sunday I benefitted (mostly) from one or two sermons delivered by my Father, which all now reside in his study neatly filed by date and theme. Sadly, because of dementia, my Father would no longer make sense of his filing system and would struggle to read more than a few lines of any of his sermons, the fruit of so much thought and time. And I wonder if the faith that he has so clearly shared with thousands over the years has any substance for him today.
How might it be possible to know God when one struggles to recognise someone you have known well who is physically in front of you?
It strikes me that this question is at the heart of any Christian approach to dementia.
In our life of faith we depend a great deal on our intellectual capacities. We are ‘people of the book’, reading and interpreting the Bible. In the life of the Church we share our understanding and learn from each other. Aspects of our belief, such as the Holy Trinity, challenge our ability to make sense of complex concepts as we seek the God who will remain beyond our full understanding (otherwise he would not be God!)
Yet our faith is more about a relationship of trust in God and, as in any relationship, is something we experience and sense rather than learn on an intellectual level. We have all had experience of some beautiful part of God’s creation. This experience, with a sense that it is a gift, is our knowledge and awareness of God, the loving creator, in whom we can trust.
The important question then is ‘do we need more than this?’ To experience beauty, to feel love, to receive care – are these our relationship with and knowledge of God?
I am very aware that my own faith in Jesus Christ has come from experiencing him through my family and others. I trust that while my Father’s faith can no longer be supported by his intellect, he might remain in relationship with Christ through the love and care he is given in his confusion.
During my sabbatical I am hoping to have a number of conversations with people who, with experience of dementia in themselves or in loved ones, may be able to give some substance to these thoughts of mine. I trust that, we might see that dementia is not the disaster that we tend to think it is because, in the love of Jesus, God is as much a part of life as he ever has been.
Some of what I consider to be my most interesting photo images are of people in conversation with one another. I think that some of the interest is in facial expressions caught in a moment. They are unintentional and very natural as people either seek to tell their story or get a point across, or as they listen.
What are the listeners doing? Are they taking in what they are hearing, or are their minds busy thinking of their response?
What is being said? Is it the sharing of some facts, a point of view put forward, the relating of an event or story, or just idle tittle-tattle?
The facial expressions are so expressive, yet they give little away about what is being thought.
The Apostle James wrote:
“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James 1:19
He was emphasising the importance of listening for relationships and community – and necessarily so, because we are so bad at really and carefully listening to others.
The following is an extract from a book by the German theologian who was executed for his opposition to the Nazis.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer “Life Together” (regarding Christian community)
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.
So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.
This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
The importance of listening lies in the simple fact that we all have a story to tell that is worth hearing. It may be of seemingly inconsequential everyday matters or a ground-breaking revelation, but all is of the life that God gives each and in witnessing to this life we witness to God.
To counter some of the points made by Bonhoeffer and to enable a better
witness to the life that God has given The Meeting Place @ Christ Church in Solihull includes both a coffee lounge where informal conversation will be the order of the day, and a Story Room, resourced to facilitate more purposeful story-telling and listening.
Of course it is not just about talking and hearing. It is also about those times of silence, when we might really listen to the God who dwells within.
Not so good for the turkey! – may be an appropriate response, but as it is getting near to ‘twelfth night’ some reflection on the Christmas celebrations that have just passed is prompted with, hopefully, an eye to their significance for the year that lies ahead.
For me, the theme of each worship occasion over this Christmas has focussed in some way on the present, our experience of the Christ who is born and our part in enabling a reality and relevance in the world of the 21st century.
Advent began with a ‘shoe box’ version of a calendar in the entrance to the church halls. Each box carried a part of the Christmas story illustrated by one of our church folk. The boxes were opened each day by one of the groups who use our premises. Some creative gifts were evident in the creation of this.
Added to this were some paper angels made in the Moments dementia cafe and some contributed origami angels in silver, which looked good alongside the Christmas tree in the church.
The Extravagance of God’s gift in Jesus …
Eight celebrations were held in local care homes or sheltered housing. These focussed around a Christmas hamper with conversation about the different foods eaten at Christmas, their often rich and spicy nature, and along with decorations and presents the general extravagance of our celebrations and festivities. Apart from the inflatable turkey dinner (!) this was a way to accepting the fact that everything is ‘over the top’. In relation to God’s gift in Jesus, is this not what it is all about?
The Christmas Story – with sound effects!
The sound effects provided by the congregation as the Christmas story was read encouraged us to think about how we react and respond to the coming of Christ in our midst.
A Nativity Play – including a heavenly host!
Christmas Day saw the whole congregation playing parts in our nativity play – with a lot of angels and quite a few shepherds and sheep. We moved around the church as the story progressed. The point? – simply to help us to reflect on the part we have to play to enable Christ to be born, to be a real presence, in our world.
The First Sunday of Christmas
Found us looking at two paintings by Pieter Bruegel. ‘The Census’depicting a village scene in Spanish governed Flanders i
n the 16th century – a place under foreign rule where locals are required to register – and in the midst a carpenter with his pregnant wife on a donkey. It is an everyday
situation and there are no haloes, just plain characters helping us to reflect on the unrecognised presence of Christ in a political situation that is very familiar in our own time. The second painting, ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, portrayed in the time of oppression of the Flemish by Spain, of Protestants by Catholics. So Christ comes to situations of political tension and religious difference. What does this mean for us as we seek to make Christ real in our world of the 21st century?
Advent 2015 – there have been many deaths through terrorist attacks in Paris, but also in other places around the world. It is easy to despair of where it will all lead. These events are juxtaposed with the British government talking about entering the bombing campaign in Syria, with cinemas blocking a video about prayer and much more. In the midst there is light – found in the personal response of a bereaved husband:
Three stages of life - for reflection ....
This triptych has been hung in a quiet room at an Abbeyfield ‘extra care’ home in Solihull. It’s purpose is to encourage reflection, perhaps particularly on how each ‘stage’ is fruitful and life-giving and might apply to any time in our lives.
I hope that it may be helpful to others, leading to thankfulness for every aspect of our lives.