The Consequences of Failing to Stop

As I type a team of volunteers and I are working to try and create a Messy Church online. Messy Church, for those who have not heard of it, is a place where people of all ages gather to explore and learn through interaction, storytelling and various activities about the Christian faith. It is family friendly and centres around the idea that Church is fun and is for everyone! I have been part of helping to shape Messy Church in Kirkby Lonsdale since December 2019. It is still a new venture but the people who have attended seemed to have enjoyed themselves and the wonderful food. It felt important, during this time of unrest, to try and create Messy Church online, albeit without the yummy food.

Online we are exploring the story of the Good Samaritan. A story that will be familiar to many, but I think is very relevant for today. It always struck me with horror as a child, that someone could walk past someone injured and not think to help. In fact, not one but two people did, one of whom was a Priest. As an adult I have begun to understand that fear plays a part for some who passed by. That fear may well have been one of losing their reputation or they may have worried that in some way touching the Samaritan may have made them unclean. The latter concept may seem odd at first, but I wonder if it is something we understand more in this time of lockdown. A time where the thought of accidentally brushing against someone not in our household may cause tension or anxiety to increase. It may well cause fear.

I have come to see this story as one that shows a message of what the extremes of fear can do to us. It can bring out parts of ourselves we would rather ignore or forget. The Samaritan who does stop to help the injured man looked beyond cultural differences and fears of being contaminated in any way. Instead he focused on the innate human and God led reaction to see another being in pain and want to help.

In the book of Romans in the Bible, Paul talks of the idea that everyone has an innate sense of right from wrong, something that he describes as God’s written law in your heart. This informs our own consciences with thoughts that tell us deep down right from wrong. I love this idea and I think it links to the idiom of a ‘prick of conscience’ where one feels guilty or perhaps shame for something they have thought, said, done or not done. All of us have experienced this prick of conscience, this feeling of knowing there is or was a better way. I wonder how the Priest and the other traveller felt in the days after their journey. Did they think of what they did or did not do? Did they wonder about the man they left lying hurt in the road? Did they feel that prick of conscience?

Often, we focus on the Samaritan in the story whom we can see did the right thing. He helped someone else without thinking of himself. I hope in this time of Covid-19 we can all learn to do this no matter how strong our fear is. It is tricky and tough, and I for one have fallen into the place of fear at times; I have been the other less helpful travellers on that road. Yet, as I think about those that passed by in this story I wonder if the weight of not stopping and not listening to an inner sense of right and wrong, written in their hearts, was greater still than conquering their fear and stopping to help. The traveller who stopped became the loving presence of God in that moment; caring, welcoming and supportive of the other, the broken, the ignored, the different traveller. It is something I know I will continue to strive to be in this topsy turvy world.

Being in the moment

It feels an odd time to be writing about the Family Project. I am, like many, working from home during this strange time called lockdown. It means that my job has altered. No longer do I spend my time popping in and out of schools, nurseries, toddlers, clubs, prayer meetings, churches or youth groups. Instead some of these meetings have moved online whilst others have merely been paused for a moment.

It is a strange thing to go from having so much regular contact with people, to potentially not seeing friends, colleagues or young people you work with for months. It is an adjustment that I am still trying to adapt to. However, in some ways I feel more connected to certain people than before. I am producing family activity packs to go on various community groups every other day. I am also chatting with people across these groups using the Easter Conversation Calendar my friend produced. Plus, I am creating a weekly video for toddlers, as a mini attempt to offer a story for the See & Know families, since we are unable to read and interact in person.

I find the interaction that has happened because of the various posts I have been doing on different platforms have felt deeply important. Conversations have sprung up that would not have happened if my job had been as it was a month ago. Things have been lost by the change to my work, but new opportunities have emerged that feel like a blessing.  Unexpected conversations have led to unexpected discussions, sometimes a moment of connection in an otherwise disconnecting day. A feeling of connection with people I know and people I don’t. The online conversations have also taught me a new way of listening. It involves pausing a lot more to try and work out what to type; how to respond well in that moment. As I type I am aware this might be the first interaction for someone that day. It might be mine too. The words we use on the internet are important. We are taught to be careful of the words we say but I think now, more than ever, we need to think more about the words we type.  Embracing the pause but also sensing when saying nothing might be the best answer or comment too. 

A highlight of my work has been St. Patrick’s Youth Groups Games night on Zoom. It was great to hear how everyone was and do something as regular as playing some of the games we normally play at youth group. I think that has been the key thing to hold onto during this odd season, the moments of normality and how life giving those moments are. I suspect after this has all gone, we will embrace and cherish normality much more than we did previously.

Can you find faith outdoors?

Green Warriors at St. Patrick’s School in Endmoor  has been running for two years. Currently five keen members aged 8-11 attend Green Warriors weekly to chat about God, learn about the environment and do some gardening. They arrive full of pent up energy, after working hard in school. Some find school tough, others enjoy it, but all are united in loving the outdoors.

We begin with listening to one another as they bring in their take home challenges. This is a piece designed for them to continue experiencing some of the Green Warrior club at home. It involves an environmental challenge or something to help them connect with nature. The last two weeks, for example, have been to do an outdoor scavenger hunt and bring in their pieces, the following week was to create a piece of artwork out of bits of the land. This practice is called Land Art. You can google  beautiful examples of this! Both challenges were connected to the Bible passages for those weeks. Reading the Bible has taught me that God cares deeply about the environment.

After the Take Home Challenge, we read through today’s Bible passage and have a short discussion. Next we move outdoors ready to begin gardening. This is often met with great joy as the young people don their wellies and begin to run outdoors. They often head straight to the other end of the big wide-open space. Their happiness is infectious.

As we gather tools and discuss what next  to do in the garden, talk often turns to other matters. We discuss everything and anything. Topics have included the death of a pet, camping holidays, love lost, the latest toy, worries about school, questions about God and the Big Bang, caterpillars and various insects. It feels like a community, a church even. We don’t preach, we merely wonder together and listen to one another. As we chat, we dig, removing weeds, planting seeds and spotting insects. Wonder is a large part of Green Warriors from wondering at the creatures we find in the earth to how God created a complicated plant. Sometimes a rhythm of digging is found so for a few precious minutes a sense of calm and peace descends. It feels calm, spiritual even.

After gardening we return for biscuits and a time where we say thank you prayers. Again these vary immensely but importantly reflect good happenings since we last met. It is a mindful practice and one to encourage in these young people. Finally, the next Take Home Challenge is given out and off they whizz ,still full of energy, onto the next thing.

Many reading this may struggle to see the moments of spirituality or faith in these encounters. I would label Green Warriors as a fresh expression of Church. We consider the Bible, we discuss, we share food and we pray together. Yet, it is the act of connecting with the outdoors that I believe causes faith questions to appear for these young people. There is so much about our world that we know yet so much more that we don’t fully understand. Being outdoors can and does bring those questions to the forefront for these young people. Often as leaders we lack the answer too so we have learnt to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of not fully understanding but wondering together.

I firmly believe spirituality and faith can be found or enhanced by connecting in and with the outdoors. I invite you to step outside this Spring and take a moment to wonder.

Green Warriors made butterfly feeding stations one week.

The gift of individuality

St. Patrick’s Youth Group adult leaders have been encouraging the young people who attend to have a go at leading different parts of the Youth Group. The Youth Group, which meets at Endmoor Village Hall every Tuesday during term-time, has five sections to it. We begin with a welcome, followed by games, a workshop of some kind, followed by reflection time and finally food together. The young people who attend are between Year 5 and Year 8 (9-13 years old). Currently, we have a core group of 7 young people at Youth Group, who attend five different schools. All of them are true individuals, bringing different gifts and qualities to the group. Despite their differences they are joined in their desire to encourage and support one another. I learn a lot from watching the dynamics between this diverse group of young people.

I enjoy popping in every month, to see the changes that have happened, as the group becomes tighter and friendships are cemented. On my visit in February I could see a change in confidence in everybody, as the leaders had encouraged ownership of different sections of the Youth Group. One young person ably led our welcome and encouraged their peers to honestly say how their week had been. The openness of the sharing was quite a thing to see. Some brought worries or concerns that they aired amongst the group. It clearly felt like a safe space for them. They were listened to and when appropriate advice was offered by fellow peers and the leaders,time was given to this act of listening and sharing. It felt essential, some might call sacred.

The night I joined them, I had arrived ready to lead a game but instead paused and asked if anyone else would like to lead this now well-known activity. An individual who is normally more hesitant offered. I asked if they wanted me to play the game too or help in leading. It was with pride I heard the response: ‘You play, I can lead it…’ They were confident and clear with their instructions. The young people were eager to help when their friend perhaps altered something, either playing along or gently reminding them of the next bit of the game.

I think all of us can learn from a group like this. Everyone can be themselves. Individuality is totally encouraged but respect for everyone is required. Patience has grown in this group as they have learnt the importance of listening to each other and truly hearing what each member is trying to say. Too often in the world we have become keener to correct or rebut, rather than listen to try and hear what a person means. It means wires can be crossed easily if we focus too much on how something is said rather than on the meaning. This group of young people, with their different backgrounds, is used to having to listen closely to one another. They are keen to give each other time and are at ease with one another to ask questions either to clarify a point or gently question a thought or perspective. I hope all of us can adopt this more gentle and easy forgiving tone when listening to each other.

Green Heart made by one of St. Patrick’s Youth Group. They suggested that during February you wear a Green Heart on your sleeve, to show your love for the environment.
We love this idea. This individual has a heart to care for birds.  

New Year, New Prayer Pattern

New year is known for resolutions. One I have been trying to keep for quite a while is to explore new ways of praying. Why this?  Well, to quote a wise six-year-old: ‘Because prayer allows us to hear what God is thinking about.’

Prayer doesn’t come naturally to me. I wonder if it comes naturally to any of us. I suspect prayer is similar to connecting with a person. The more time we spend with them, the more we really hear, learn and begin to understand that person.

However, to want to spend time with someone you need to find a way of connecting with them. At the start, it often feels awkward. Given time, relationships can progress into deeper connections. For a life-enhancing relationship, time, commitment alongside grace and humour by both parties is vital.

The most helpful tip I received in relation to prayer was when I underwent a week of guided prayer. I explained to my prayer guide my struggles with prayers, how too often I felt no connection at all when I prayed out loud. How I never seem to get close to the deeper connection. I knew logically God is there for everybody but I wasn’t experiencing that. He looked bemused and then asked “Have you tried praying differently? “

The prayer guide’s question made sense when I compared prayer to learning styles. Learning styles can help us connect with God as it allows us to discover that within each of us is our own route to God.   

We all learn differently and today schools deliberately use different learning styles in class, so everyone can learn using their best style. The four that are most talked about are visual learning (by seeing), auditory (by listening), kinaesthetic (by doing) or reading/writing (through words).

Knowing how we learn best, I believe can help us when it comes to connecting with people or even God. Every week I visit a different class in St. Mary’s School to explore new ways of praying using the different learning styles. This term we are using images to help us think about and perhaps connect with God. I have used images by the artist Hannah Dunnett. These use a combination of imagery and words- hopefully giving those who are visual or reading/writing learners the opportunity to connect, through prayer, with God. However, I also ask questions aloud to guide people in their prayer time, enabling auditory learners the opportunity to connect. This time I couldn’t find a way to incorporate kinaesthetic. This means next time we will focus on a prayer style that is kinaesthetic.

I encourage you all to try a new style of prayer at some point this year. If you fancy trying some of the prayers using Hannah Dunnett imagery I include one below with some questions. You can either read or speak these questions out loud to yourself. Or you can simply use the image as a way of connecting in prayer with God.

Questions to reflect on: How does this art make me feel?

Find a word you like in your art work. Take your time and pick a word. Focus on it. What does this word make you think about?

Does this artwork help you see God differently?

Art and photo by Hannah Dunnett

Christingle- a new perspective

It has been an enjoyable few weeks of Advent, as the Family Project has been into local schools and nurseries with different activities and stories to help us prepare for Christmas. One of the activities I have created with several young people this term is making Christingles. Most people will have seen, if not held, a Christingle in their lifetime. It is normally made up of a candle, red ribbon or white ruffle, orange, sweets and cocktail sticks. Every part is a symbol which helps people remember an important part of God’s work in the world. Two of the key parts are the candle, which helps us think about Jesus as the light of the world; the orange is the symbol of the world and the candle sits in the orange.

Yet, this time I have spent time exploring a different part. Something not normally focused on when it comes to Christingles. I have looked at the silver foil, which many people put beneath their candle, before they sit it into their orange. It seems an insignificant part of the Christingle. Its purpose is to catch wax drips.

However, over the years I have looked at the silver foil and added another meaning to it. The silver foil has become a symbol for humanity. You and I.

It sits beneath the light of Jesus (the candle). Christians say it is Jesus who is the light of the world when we look at the candle on the Christingle. It seems an odd phrase if it isn’t familiar to you. It is used to explain how Christians believe that Jesus’ teaching is the way we are called to live our best lives. It is the way we are meant to live. A way which reduces hurt to each other and the world in which we live. His example is meant to guide us, a bit like a torchlight guides someone lost,walking in the night. That’s why when we look at a candle on the Christingle we say it is a symbol of Jesus who was and is the light of the world.

The piece of foil also sits in the world. It sits in the orange which in the Christingle symbolises the world. We are asked to do the same. People who believe in and/or follow a God are still connected to the wider world. They shouldn’t just stay amongst people who think or believe the same things as them. The world can teach us things too. After all, we believe God created the world and saw that it was good.

Yet, the world (orange) is illuminated by the candle, symbolic of the light of the world a.k.a Jesus. The illumination suggests we should be able to see the world differently, some would say more clearly, perhaps with more empathy and understanding, by looking at it through the light or message of Jesus which incorporates the loving gaze Jesus holds. Jesus’ key message was of love. Love for one another. Love for everybody with no exceptions.

However, a key thing or part of foil is that it is crumpled. Therefore, the light it reflects from the candle isn’t perfect. The light does not bounce off perfectly like from a mirror. You cannot see an image of the candle in the foil on the Christingle. It is a constant reminder to me that even when we look towards the light of the world, read and learn about Jesus, we can never and will never be a true reflection of who Jesus was and is. We can be guided by Jesus, but we are human and a bit crumpled too! Therefore, when you meet someone who follows a faith, it is good to remember that their actions, although hopefully shaped by the loving gaze of their creator, won’t be exactly how God or Jesus or their creator would act. Sometimes it might be near to it. At others time it won’t be like it at all.

Foil also has another element to it. It absorbs and retains heat. I like to think that the more we look towards the light of the world, a.k.a Jesus, the more we might take in his warm positive love, retain some and hopefully send some back out too to those around us who need it most. Again, it won’t be perfect, as the heat on a foil is never as strong as the source of the heat, which in the Christingle is the candle, a.k.a Jesus the light of the world. Therefore, the love you may receive from one another will never be as strong as the source of the love of our creator.

I hope this Christmas you can sense some of the love and some of the guiding light of our creator. Even at a lesser strength this love should feel on some level positive to the recipient. That is the true test as to whether the reflection has any element of God within it.

Christingle

The spirituality of play

October is a month where the family project has been filled with sacred moments that have come from engaging with play. Playing is something we all did as children; it enables creativity and imagination to flourish and opens our minds to engage with the intangible. Sadly, during adulthood our opportunities to play become less frequent. Some of us may play by having a sport hobby such as netball or running. Yet, this type of play can still come with a structure or rules. Structured play such as this is good for us ; it increases our heart rate which is good for our physical health. It can help us connect with people who have this shared hobby or interest, combating loneliness and helping our mental health. Yet free flowing, imaginative and unstructured play is harder to find beyond school age.

Messy Harvest, which happened mid-October, had moments of this unstructured play. Adults and children alike picked up playdoh to create shapes. Some made food shapes which were related to the theme of harvest. Yet others simply sat allowing their imagination to make something different, using their hands as tools to sculpt and shape almost without thinking. As this happened, conversation flowed naturally and a sense of peace and calm descended on the faces of adults who were unknowingly resting through this action of play. As an observer this seemed a sacred moment; a moment where play enabled the peace that I associate with God to be felt perhaps momentarily by the person in play.

 Graveyard Stories also provided opportunities for families to play. The different activities were structured but allowed space for creative play to flow through each individual as they made prayer wands and decorated bat biscuits. However the real playful enabler was the storyteller. Alongside the quiet that comes when a story is about to begin, there were murmurs of interest as well as bemusement. These slipped away as people became captivated by her playful art form. Her stories brought the laughter and humour of God into the night.

There is the oxymoron of a comfortable unpredictable element to listening to a storyteller. Not knowing the shape of the story is both captivating whilst also leaving the listeners on tenterhooks. The moment of not knowing what comes next enables a space for wonder. This moment of play seems to echo the ongoing reality of those who hold a faith; the oxymoron of both the struggle and comfort that one can find in wondering about an intangible being.  Although holding a faith is about having knowledge, I think it is more about being comfortable in the space of wondering. Wondering isn’t a sign we don’t know the details; it is about acknowledging the element of mystery and unpredictable parts of creativity or in a faith context, the Creator.

A key part of play is imagination. Too often, we forget the power and importance of imagination. Einstein recognised the limit of knowledge when he said : ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ When we allow ourselves to play, tapping into our imagination and into the intangible, we enable moments to occur that aren’t quantifiable but are very precious and at times sacred. This Christmas period, amongst the busyness, maybe we should spend some time playing and allow ourselves to be open to meeting with the fun loving, peace bringing, wonder giving Creator.

Storytelling in the graveyard