Stop the Clock

Stop the clock give me a moment just to be
to breathe and catch up with myself
to be still and remember who I am and what is important
what I hold dear and want to protect
It is so easy to lose sight of these things
in our ‘dog eat dog’ sort of world
Stepping out for some fresh air risks being left behind
overtaken or performance managed out of position

Stop the clock get off the treadmill take a moment just to be without the rest of the world overtaking!

I look around to see that EVERYTHING has stopped
everyone frozen at a particular point in time
except me who is present and able to move to see and be
In this moment I have no idea what to do
Should I stay amongst people who work against me
Would it help or hurt to know
what they think who they are emailing what about
Better to break away take time without losing

Stop the clock get off the treadmill take a moment just to be without the rest of the world overtaking!

So out I go wondering how long this freedom will last
Who is in control and to whom do I plead for more
I walk out of my office out of the building into the street
Everything and everyone has stopped
even traffic is frozen at this one point in time 
The flow of coffee is at a standstill
Never before have I been so alone in an experience
unable to reach out to anyone to share the burden

Stop the clock get off the treadmill take a moment just to be without the rest of the world overtaking!

As I draw close to faces fixated on what was
lines of pain the drain of life are plain
Tiredness and overwhelming desperation are etched
where laughter lines once were
Eyes give way to souls worn away by demand
No matter how hard we try
it has never and will never be enough in our world
of instant gratification and hedonistic existence

Stop the clock get off the treadmill take a moment just to be without the rest of the world overtaking!

This becomes one of those defining moments
a time when you realise there is more
so much more to be experienced and to give than this
Nothing is worth selling your soul
There will come a stage when effort and time
will be insignificant it will be finished
Living to work is admirable but what comes next
Is any job really worth the sacrifice of life itself

Start the clock get off the treadmill take this lifetime henceforth to be and let the rest of the world overtake!

Detention

As a former teacher the word detention was unfortunately part of my regular vocabulary whilst working in schools. Something perhaps less well known, thought about or understood though, was that detention was issued often not to punish, but rather with the intention of getting to know a student who was causing some sort of trouble. Troublesome behaviour often turned out to be a cry for attention, for someone to talk to about something which had been playing on their mind, or for affirmation and encouragement. These detentions then were often a new beginning, a starting point to a different way of being…even though at first sight they seemed negative, the result was actually positive.

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During my time in Tokyo I visited a detention centre where the word detention seemed to have all the negative connotations and stereotypes that our minds would first jump to. Whilst in the waiting room I met a man who had settled in Japan many years ago as a foreign national. The waiting room was a funny sort of place, one of those places which helps you to forget where you are or why you are there, with a collection of toys in the corner, a television on the wall and quite a bit of coming and going. There was a strange sense of community around shared experience which encouraged conversation between perfect strangers. As conversation was initiated with this man, he was different to the others I had encountered in the waiting room. He did not want to talk, he did not want to admit any association with anything to do with the detention centre. His words still stick in my mind. He was keen for everyone to know that he was here with a friend who was visiting, nothing to do with him; “I came here years ago, but not like this. These people are something else….” 

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For those who were being detained who I met, the story was rather different. Most who allowed me the privilege of hearing their story had been forced to leave their homes because their lives were in danger, real danger – returning home would result in death, and not because they had committed a crime which was punishable by death. The reasons for these threats to life were based on matters which we, in the UK and the West more widely, take for granted: some may have chosen to follow a different faith to the majority; others to align themselves to an alternative political path than the ruling regime; others still because their birth has brought them into a tribe or group which is hunted. Those I spoke to were desperate to go back to their homes, yet they also wanted that to be a safe place. They did not want to live in Japan, and benefit from all that that society offers, they just wanted to be safe. Safe. It is a small word with huge meaning, with feeling which cannot always be evidenced or explained. Safe. The journey towards which has led to vulnerability and further feelings of fear following any number of years in the detention centre which I visited – most over three or four, some as long as eight years.

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Other stories I had the privilege of hearing were about people who had settled in Japan. They had spouses and children, they had lived there for a number of years, and now were detained, for reasons which they could not understand. For those of us on the outside, it is easy to draw conclusions, to claim that there must have been good reason for their arrest and subsequent detention. It can be easier to convince ourselves of that, especially in the face of the deep uncertainty of no apparent reason. The harsh reality seems to be different from good reason though. Neither is it something that is only happening in Japan, far away from our homes, and where we can have any influence. @DetentionAction are working so hard to tell similar stories of people in the UK who have been detained indefinitely, whom the Home Office have detained after years of them working and paying tax in this country.

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This Christmas I found myself thinking about the stories I have heard, both at home and abroad, and the real people behind them. As I witnessed the nativity story being acted out and retold in any number of ways by school children, at crib services, and carol services, I noticed how little has changed since these times. Mary and Joseph, as well as Jesus when he arrived on the scene, were refugees far away from home, strangers in a foreign land. To add further complication, once Herod had heard of the little baby born King of the Jews he ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed – Mary and Joseph were then fleeing for the life of this little baby. There was such hostility towards them in these stories as people of difference, people who posed a threat, and sadly that hostility still seems present in our world today, in the stories of those who are still fleeing for safety.

My prayer, as we approach Epiphanytide, is for greater understanding of the stranger, for ears that wish to hear, eyes which are willing to see, and hearts which are burdened with a deep sense of compassion for real people behind real stories, which we may prefer to ignore, yet have a duty to hear….

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemöller, 1892-1984

Words of change…?

For a few months now, it is almost like there has been nothing to write…actually that has been far from true. There has been so much to write about, to comment on, to realise, to think through, and I have felt verbally paralysed, being unable to find the right words, find any words to express what has been going on and how I am processing it.

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Following my return from Japan, I began to sense a difference, a change, in how I was encountering and developing within ministry and training in my curacy parish. In reality this had begun some time prior to going to Japan, so was not simply brought on by time away. It can be strange how time away sharpens the senses though. The change was, in part, about me, but it was also something I was beginning to sense in prayer. As I delved deeper into these feelings with others, it became clear that my training needs had changed somewhat, and could no longer be met in my current curacy. Over the course of an incredibly painful few weeks, it became apparent that I was to be pushed further out of my comfort zone, and that God was leading me to another opportunity.

Subsequently, it was announced in my diocese a few weeks ago that I am to transfer my curacy from the Parish of Stocking Farm and Beaumont Leys to the Holy Spirit Parish with the two churches of St Andrew and St Nicholas in Leicester city centre. In many ways this is a hugely exciting opportunity, and one that I never envisaged having. I have also been coming to terms with negative feelings around this completely unexpected part of the process though, and perhaps this is where the struggle for words comes.

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This change is not about my failure, and yet there is something about it that feels like a failure. People often refer to this situation as a curacy ‘breaking down’, and there is a lot of pain and stigma associated with that. I have come to realise how much I value the expectations and sentiments of others, particularly as some around me have expressed disappointment and sadness about my departure. One of the church wardens, as she delivered the announcement, said that her ‘heart was breaking’. I noticed a sense of guilt welling up inside; they have warmly welcomed me and I have been greatly blessed by them. Yet, I have failed them because I am not keeping my word – my parish expected me to be with them for three years; instead, I will leave them after a little over 18 months. How often do we make promises, in good faith, that we cannot keep? What words do we use to reassure people, to let them hear that which will offer comfort, without the foresight to truly know that we will be able to keep our word?

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I am a huge fan of the film, The Invention of Lying which explores the power of words. People are unable to say something which is not true, until one individual finds himself doing just that by “saying something…that wasn’t” and baffling his friends when he tries to explain what happened. What would you not have said today if bound by this criteria, if you were unable to offer comfort or care by suggesting something that you believed, but could not be certain of? I was always encouraged not to lie as a child, and I have an aversion to those who lie to me. What about mistruths, though, that we convince ourselves are a kindness rather than an actual lie – how many of those get through our in-built lie detectors completely unnoticed?

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So here I am, eagerly anticipating a new path, a different opportunity, whilst struggling with the guilt of failing those I leave behind…a guilt which may well not be mine to hold. I am beginning to wonder whether this guilt points to something of note: God can work powerfully through each of us when we allow that, perhaps it is our humanity which focuses on the emotion of such an encounter, and less on the encounter itself and what God may have been revealing within that. If you were to savour one sentence or phrase from a memorable encounter, what would it be? What is it about those words that draw you? Do they speak truth, do they comfort, or did they reveal something of the divine in a life-changing way?

Torii – A Gate to God?

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Torii, a link between the sacred and profane – a gate to gods and all that lies beyond. Does this mean that God is there and not here? Are we left without guidance or care unless we search for it? And when we seek, is it enough to pass through, beyond? Who is there to greet us, and how far should we go? 

So many questions spring from a deep desire for the divine, to encounter the one who created, formed and fashioned. Yet this Shinto shrine is not where HaShem dwells. Instead people come to pay respects to Kami gods. Does this mean that God is absent, the Alpha and Omega is limited by space and belief?

So often we are guilty of confining God, of organising God within our own understanding. Why is this torii filled expression of God not acceptable? That deep yearning to know, to be heard, to find that which lies beyond propels people to pursue, to purify themselves and pray. It is beautiful and honourable.

Even though these expressions do not fit with that western, middle-class, male driven understanding of God and worship, does that make them second rate, or worse, unacceptable? Must all ritual and practice fit into one single understanding of God and salvation? Is Jesus the Christ absent in this space?

Does Jesus, our intercessor, fail to hear or acknowledge the steady stream of pleas written on ema? Does he refuse to take them to God our Creator? Is this a place where the Holy Spirit refuses to go-between one and another? Is the Trinity absent or unwelcome here? I cannot conceive that it would be so.

God is not limited by time and space – Adonai cares for creation, people and place. God is here as I pass through the Torii, and God is present on my return. God lives in each of us, we see an echo of that divine, perfect face in one another. Torii, rather than being a gate towards the  sacred, is a reminder that God is here – now.

Growing disciples in an age of busyness

I had the great privilege of spending a few days alongside a community of ordinands at Central Theological College in Tokyo during my time here. The college itself felt to be a symbol of the history and potential available to the NSKK (the Anglican Church in Japan) more widely, with its huge space to accommodate the, as yet, unknown.

A number of people I have encountered have said that the NSKK is shrinking, both in terms of membership and clergy, and needs to think more widely about growth strategies. Whilst it feels like this is an issue that may be pertinent to a number of provinces and dioceses in the Anglican Communion, and yet the ways in which growth is often understood – typically by what can be quantified – concerns me a great deal.

I found myself reminding my hosts of Jesus’ ministry: how his twelve disciples became eleven after a huge betrayal and the crucifixion – and yet modern Christians are the legacy of such humble beginnings. Despite the logic, against the odds, followers of ‘The Way’ grew in large numbers…but why? What made such growth possible all those centuries ago, and yet seemingly so difficult to achieve now?

There is something about both modern British and Japanese culture which boasts an element of entitlement to all things material. All things are possible in our societies – from electronic baths to robot servers to control of household appliances from smartphones. In my view, people within our societies have never been so busy and yet we are given (for a price!) so much to help with that.

One question which keeps coming back within all of these musings is ‘What does the Good News have to offer that is liberating within our tired, over-pressurised society?’ Put more simply, what different way does the Good News point to? When membership of a church means taking on the running of an aspect of church life, volunteering to help with children’s groups, planning the annual church festival or bazaar, and being added to the coffee, reading and prayer rota; what aspect of this new life is liberating? It has struck me that possibly churches have ceased to be attractive to working people because they simply do not have time to participate in all that they are expected to.

I remember trying to justify to my priest why I could not be involved in a fourth church activity as a full-time secondary school teacher who regularly needed to work between 50-60 hours a week. He did not understand and thought that I ought to speak to my line manager about my workload if I was not able to find time for this one other thing. Incidentally, there was no conversation about whether I was gifted for this one other thing or called to it!

So, how can the Church be more relevant to the people it serves? How can it offer liberation from the pressure that we are barely able to see much of the time, due to busyness? Equally how do we move away from the cycle we seem trapped within of serving the church (building), rather than the church (followers of God) serving the wider community?

My hosts heard me refer back to prayer so many times whilst I was with them, but it is so important. I was tasked with praying for between two and three hours a day for each day I served within the NSKK, and through that diligence I have grown in the depth of my relationship with God and noticed God changing my outlook….this example from Jesus is surely the first place to begin?

Seeking the Holy

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I have loved going to places of pilgrimage in Tokyo and blending into the background as I watch the expectation of the sacred or seeking of the experience of the sacred. Yet at Sensouji, it was not so much the obvious places where I found the sacred, but somewhat off the beaten track. Old treasure, lighting, stillness, solitude or the wind offered wonderful reminders of that ever present divinity – if only we will stop long enough to look, to see, to hear and to feel.

間 – ma (space between)

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the ways in which difference is held together in Japan, and the Japanese understanding of beauty and stillness. I have been struck by the number of people from other lands who have made Japan their home for so many years, as well as reflecting on my own story, and why I returned to Britain after living here for four years. There is a mix of ancient and modern, secular and sacred, stillness and disturbance, each held in such close proximity.

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There can be invitation alongside hostility…

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…it can feel like two parallel universes; equally as a foreigner here, all that I have known can feel like it is from a parallel universe, one that is presently inaccessible.

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Rituals and respectfulness can demonstrate the beauty of the soul.

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Often blue sky and sunshine can elevate the soul.

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Equally, without warning, unfortunate events unfold; those that you would much rather leave behind or not have to receive, like ‘bad fortunes’ that can be left in the safety of the shrine rather than accompanying you home.

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Then there are customs which bring you to your knees, like these prayers for children – especially those who did not have very long with us – given hats and bibs to keep them warm, as well as windmills to offer relief from the sun.

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It seems that there is nowhere quite like this wonderful place of contradictions amidst harmony – where space or stillness is sought after within a busyness that I may never truly understand….

The draw of Meiji Jingū

What better activity for a wet and dreary Saturday afternoon than to visit a Shinto Shrine? Having been in Tokyo for just a week, working through the jet lag for most of that, I was keen to get out and about.

Slightly surprisingly, we weren’t the only people who had this idea, and the weather was little distraction for most.

But why Meiji Jingū, why this day, why in the rain? Is this about belief, tradition, or something else? In the midst of the busyness of Tokyo life, whether or not Shinto traditions are followed, is there some sort of peace and calm to be found in such a place of pilgrimage?

What draws people to leave their Ema or prayer requests under the divine tree?

Is it really possible to claim that belief in God is on the decline, when people pilgrim from all walks of life, from all stances of belief, to remember those whom they love before the divine?

Could we be doing more to help those who are seeking the light?

Is it possible that such a divine light can be found in many places, if only we were more open to see? In the hands and feet, eyes and ears of one another?

For me, Godly encounters are not in churches, jinjas or temples; though the peaceful, holy presence can be so tangible. Rather, when the rain trickles down my face, and I am amongst something of God’s divine creation – then I feel most alive to the presence of the living God.

Silence

‘…for silence has always been part of the Japanese way. “We Japanese think we can better express our feelings by silence.”‘

Taken from In search of Japan’s hidden Christians by John Dougill.

How often do we make things worse by trying to say the right thing…?