Tuesday, July 17, 2018

324 Bus Route To/From Maple Cross

Some of you locally may have heard that Arriva have announced that they are reviewing the 324 bus route which runs to and from the Maple Cross/West Hyde communities. This bus route is a life line for many in both communities and it's withdrawal would be a real blow socially and economically.

Today I have written to local councillor Phil Williams, and I enclose my email to him below. If this issue concerns you, please add your voice by contacting him too.


~~~


Dear Phil,

I am sorry that I am bit late to the party on this.

I was very concerned to hear recently that Arriva are considering a review of the 324 bus route to/from Maple Cross. The community is not well served with bus services with a disjointed R1 service. The W1only runs on Sundays.

Just under half of the population on the Maple Cross Estate is outside of the normal working age bracket (under 18 and over 65) and a quarter live in rented or social housing. From TRDC own development framework, you note that,

‘...The area has limited services, with the exception of a primary school and local shop, and is therefore reliant on surrounding areas. Access to healthcare provision has been identified as a particular issue for the area…'

Maple Cross JMI school is a transformative presence for good in the community, and the local shop provide some means of social interaction and shopping and the Maple Cross Community Centre works hard to bring people together, but the community relies on other services such as local doctors and dentists elsewhere. Reducing community transport such as a regular bus service would be very detrimental for residents of the estate and surrounding area.

According to social research, 16% of the population on the estate have no access to a car or van. 20% of the 16+ year olds have no qualifications and 7% of the working age population are on some sort of out of work benefit. Whilst these figures may not be particularly startling when compared to other areas within Three Rivers or nationally, they demonstrate that reducing access to public transport to and from the estate will limit social mobility and potentially employability as whilst there are some major employers on the estate, these largely require a specialist skill set.

Social isolation is a significant issue recognised by the Government with the appointment of Tracey Crouch MP as 'Minister for Loneliness' who was charged to continue the brief began by the late Jo Cox MP. The Government acknowledged that this is an issue that cannot be resolved by Government alone whether nationally or locally and will require a multi disciplinary approach. That being the case, the removal of a vital communications link will surely only exacerbate the issue.

I urge you, on behalf of my parishioners, to communicate with Arriva the inappropriateness of their proposal as the knock on effects go way beyond the financial viability of the route, but tap into what it means to be a community in the first place.

Yours sincerely

Simon

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Local Sport for Local People - UPDATE

My last post was about the redevelopment of the sports hall at William Penn Leisure Centre. FOllowing the Rickmansworth Area Forum meeting last night, I have written to all 39 District Councillors again. I enclose the text below.

~~~

Dear all,

I wrote to some of you recently, deeply concerned about the future provision of hall space to play team sport at the William Penn Leisure centre in Mill End, and I enclose the text of that letter below:

...I am writing to you to express my grave disappointment that you made a decision without consultation to change the facilities at William Penn Leisure Centre. I believe that this change will be for the worse, and to the detriment of whole community.
As part of the tendering process for the facility, I understand that the size of the current sports hall will be halved, and one half converted for use as a soft play area. The hall is a well used community facility, especially during the daytime, with many local groups including soft tennis, badminton, walking netball, return to netball, girls netball and five aside football all using it weekly. This dreadful decision will impact groups that meet at the weekend too like Tae Kwan Do where 3 generations of a family regularly take part in the sport, enabling quality time as a whole family whilst modelling that sport is something for all generations.
I do understand the economics too - whoever wins any tender, in this case Everyone Active, has to make profit on the facility, and the council need to make sure that it doesn’t run at a loss, but I’d like to suggest that if this plan goes ahead there will be significant financial ramifications, as many of these groups will no longer be able to meet at all.
When you made this decision as part of the tendering process, I believe that you did not take into account the shear number of local people who use the hall facility. I accept that some of the groups are relatively new, but nonetheless, a decision was made by you on data that was just not accurate. The netball groups probably amount to 60-80 people each week, for example.
Team sport at this level, which was specially encouraged as part of the London 2012 Olympic games legacy and is usually part funded by Sport England, is a really important part of caring for people’s physical wellbeing. I do not need to tell you the significant amount of money the NHS currently spends on ailments caused as a direct result of obesity and inactivity. Team sport such as those mentioned above are a great way to counter that rise in the present and the future. Halving the size of the sports hall prevents many of those existing team sports from being played at all on site - you cannot play netball or five aside football on half a court or pitch. You just can’t. I am aware that part of the proposed refurbishments will include an all weather 3G surface outside, but netball cannot be played on that surface, neither can badminton. By halving the size of the hall effectively stops those groups from meeting.
Team sport also builds community. As a faith leader locally this is something I am passionate about. One of the benefits of local team sport is that it brings people together who otherwise would not meet, and it allows friendships to be built. To lose the sports hall in any useable form will stop those sports happening for local people at a time that works for them. Other venues are available outside of the area (e.g. in Watford and Hemel Hempstead or indeed in some cases in the evenings or weekends), but the fact that these groups meet at a local venue at a time that suits those who attend is meeting one of your own priorities as a council for 2017/18.
The loss of this sports hall could also have other ramifications. In the event we needed to hold a big community meeting in a neutral venue, the sports hall is an ideal space. In the event of a major incident that hall will be an essential asset . I was Vicar of Leverstock Green following the Buncefield explosion. I know first hand how the Fire Service worked with Herts County Council and Dacorum Borough Council to use the hall at Jarman park for triage and temporary accommodation. Whilst we wouldn’t want to keep a hall solely for those reasons, the loss of that space could have a significant impact in a major incident.
I understand that the hall space will be redeveloped to become a soft play area. These sorts of facilities have become a God send for parents and their kids. Many of the bigger ones locally (in Watford for example) are part of bigger chains. They tend to be housed in much larger buildings with significantly more space and therefore more facilities. I am not convinced that the proposed space in William Penn with Gambardo’s for example, and talking anecdotally with local families the appeal of a bigger space is greater. Whilst soft play facilities allow parents to have a coffee whilst their children have fun but what they don’t do is model a healthy lifestyle. Children seeing and knowing that their parents play team sport though demonstrates that sport is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for all.
The introduction of a soft play area into that space in William Penn is not a golden bullet either. I am not sure that the addition of this facility on site would create sufficient revenue to offset the loss of monies from the closure of all the local groups mentioned above.
By following through on this redesign you are in effect saying to our communities that profit is much more desirable that maximising the opportunities for local people in Mill End and Maple Cross to play team sport and to take some responsibility for their own emotional and physical wellbeing. Yes, I am aware that Three Rivers are not obliged to provide our community with the sports facilities that we enjoy at William Penn, but I would argue that it would be in our shared interests to keep them and that it is probably your moral duty to maintain them for the benefit of all'

Subsequently I have had email replies from a few of you, and conversations on the telephone and in person with a couple of you and I thank you for that.

I would like all 39 of you as our representatives to be aware again, that the decisions made back in September last year as the tendering process began, and signed off in April, were made based on inaccurate information about regular hall usage on a weekly basis. At the Local Area Forum last night, it became clear that no-one involved in the decision took into account the current regular usage of many groups including wheelchair basketball, netball, taekwando and other groups. What also became clear last night was that the tendering process initially began with 6 companies offering to take on the provision, which after others withdrew for various reasons, left the council with Hobson’s choice - Everyone Active.

Good practise says that when tendering for work one should always look to have quotes from three companies/contractors before proceeding with work. It seems that the you, through your Leisure Committee, decided to run with the one offer from Everyone Active who incidentally look like they are beginning to hold a bit of a monopoly on managing facilities like this as they currently run 2 facilities in Watford, Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamstead, Slough, St Albans and South Oxhey to name only a few. I am quite frankly staggered that a tender was agreed on under these circumstances.

It became clear again at last night’s meeting, that this bid was signed off without consultation with current users or the wider community. As a contract has been signed Cllr Lloyd told the assembled that there would be financial implications for reneging on the contract signed to the tune of around £63,000 annually. I am curious to know where that figure comes from or what it equates to? Do you really believe that Everyone Active would make more than that annually in their new soft play, cafe and clip and climb facilities? I would suggest not, as bigger facilities are available at the XC in Hemel and Gambardo’s (which incidentally is running at a loss!)

This must not become a party political issue. It is an issue to do with the wellbeing and health of all of our constituents. I am well aware that some of you in receipt of this email serve wards that will benefit in other aspects of this project to do with work in South Oxhey for example, but I am sure you will agree that there are many who will use these facilities from across the district, and not just those who live within walking/cycling/driving distance.

These facilities at William Penn are a community asset. I understand that the previous provider was not managing this asset well, but I am shocked that the chair of the Leisure Committee advised that, ( it’s in the minutes) once the press and public were removed, to make a decision focussing more on finance rather than future leisure provision which could be worked out a a later date.

I have also written to David Bibby, MD of Everyone Active, to ensure that he is up to speed on the feeling of some within the community

I look to hearing back from you and seeing you at up coming Leisure Committee and full Council meetings within the next fortnight.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Local Sport For Local People

Some of local women who's weekly netball will be affected.
Photo from the Watford Observer
http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/16255477._Huge_buzz__at_netball_festival/ 
Our local district council (Three Rivers) has successfully put out to tender the management of the local leisure centre, which was won by a new company. As part of that tender, a proposal has been agreed already by Three Rivers to halve the current sports hall and turn one half into a soft play area.

This will affectively stop many local people, some of whom come to our church communities, from taking part in team sport at a time and place that is easily accessible to them. As Christians we worship a God who takes our bodies very seriously, and medical research has shown that keeping physically active is good for us physically but emotionally too.

The loss of this facility would be significant.

Tonight I have written to local councillors and I enclose the text of the letter below. Could I ask if you, if you live in the WD3 post code, to spread the word and encourage people who are concerned, which may yet include you, to write too?

William Penn Leisure Centre

~~~

Dear all,
I am writing to you to express my grave disappointment that you made a decision without consultation to change the facilities at William Penn Leisure Centre. I believe that this change will be for the worse, and to the detriment of whole community.
As part of the tendering process for the facility, I understand that the size of the current sports hall will be halved, and one half converted for use as a soft play area. The hall is a well used community facility, especially during the daytime, with many local groups including soft tennis, badminton, walking netball, return to netball, girls netball and five aside football all using it weekly. This dreadful decision will impact groups that meet at the weekend too like Tae Kwan Do where 3 generations of a family regularly take part in the sport, enabling quality time as a whole family whilst modelling that sport is something for all generations.
I do understand the economics too - whoever wins any tender, in this case Everyone Active, has to make profit on the facility, and the council need to make sure that it doesn’t run at a loss, but I’d like to suggest that if this plan goes ahead there will be significant financial ramifications, as many of these groups will no longer be able to meet at all.
When you made this decision as part of the tendering process, I believe that you did not take into account the shear number of local people who use the hall facility. I accept that some of the groups are relatively new, but nonetheless, a decision was made by you on data that was just not accurate. The netball groups probably amount to 60-80 people each week, for example.
Team sport at this level, which was specially encouraged as part of the London 2012 Olympic games legacy and is usually part funded by Sport England, is a really important part of caring for people’s physical wellbeing. I do not need to tell you the significant amount of money the NHS currently spends on ailments caused as a direct result of obesity and inactivity. Team sport such as those mentioned above are a great way to counter that rise in the present and the future. Halving the size of the sports hall prevents many of those existing team sports from being played at all on site - you cannot play netball or five aside football on half a court or pitch. You just can’t. I am aware that part of the proposed refurbishments will include an all weather 3G surface outside, but netball cannot be played on that surface, neither can badminton. By halving the size of the hall effectively stops those groups from meeting.
Team sport also builds community. As a faith leader locally this is something I am passionate about. One of the benefits of local team sport is that it brings people together who otherwise would not meet, and it allows friendships to be built. To lose the sports hall in any useable form will stop those sports happening for local people at a time that works for them. Other venues are available outside of the area (e.g. in Watford and Hemel Hempstead or indeed in some cases in the evenings or weekends), but the fact that these groups meet at a local venue at a time that suits those who attend is meeting one of your own priorities as a council for 2017/18.
The loss of this sports hall could also have other ramifications. In the event we needed to hold a big community meeting in a neutral venue, the sports hall is an ideal space. In the event of a major incident that hall will be an essential asset . I was Vicar of Leverstock Green following the Buncefield explosion. I know first hand how the Fire Service worked with Herts County Council and Dacorum Borough Council to use the hall at Jarman park for triage and temporary accommodation. Whilst we wouldn’t want to keep a hall solely for those reasons, the loss of that space could have a significant impact in a major incident.
I understand that the hall space will be redeveloped to become a soft play area. These sorts of facilities have become a God send for parents and their kids. Many of the bigger ones locally (in Watford for example) are part of bigger chains. They tend to be housed in much larger buildings with significantly more space and therefore more facilities. I am not convinced that the proposed space in William Penn with Gambardo’s for example, and talking anecdotally with local families the appeal of a bigger space is greater. Whilst soft play facilities allow parents to have a coffee whilst their children have fun but what they don’t do is model a healthy lifestyle. Children seeing and knowing that their parents play team sport though demonstrates that sport is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for all.
The introduction of a soft play area into that space in William Penn is not a golden bullet either. I am not sure that the addition of this facility on site would create sufficient revenue to offset the loss of monies from the closure of all the local groups mentioned above.
By following through on this redesign you are in effect saying to our communities that profit is much more desirable that maximising the opportunities for local people in Mill End and Maple Cross to play team sport and to take some responsibility for their own emotional and physical wellbeing. Yes, I am aware that Three Rivers are not obliged to provide our community with the sports facilities that we enjoy at William Penn, but I would argue that it would be in our shared interests to keep them and that it is probably your moral duty to maintain them for the benefit of all.
Yours sincerely,

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Gospel for Body Hackers: From Dust To Glory (based on John 2:13-25)


We are in a world where science fiction drives science fact. I read recently of people gathering in Austin, Texas for the annual Body Hacking Con. A conference where people have experimented with body modification gather to share and talk. Body hacking is actively changing one's body to better reflect one’s belief of what your "ideal self" would be. People like Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow - yes, that's his legal name - has the chip from his Sydney travel card implanted into his hand or Angel Giuffria.  She is an actress with a striking, personalised bionic arm.  "Older prosthetics were all made to try and blend in. I never really cared about hiding it, but that was the only option …I kind of like the idea my arm can match my personality by adding lights and colours and matching it to my outfit…” 

Bodies. We all have one. Some of us may not like ours much but we all inhabit one. We desperately want to change them but maybe not in as extreme ways.  We compare ours to others. We analyse them, take them apart, and we like some parts more than others.  Yet bodies play such a key role in the story of God which we tell.


Jesus seems to spend time with anybody. In the previous section of John’s Gospel he has been mixing other bodies of people at a wedding party in Cana. And after a brief stop in Caesarea Philippi, he’s on his way to Jerusalem. This story of turning the money changers tables features in the other Gospel accounts too but it’s not told this close to the beginning of the Gospel. And I wonder whether it is because it allows John to raise at this early stage the importance of bodies in the story of salvation? There’s no account of Jesus birth in Bethlehem in John’s Gospel - but this account of clearing the Temple asks some fundamental questions about where God is located.

“… [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple… 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Pauline Dakin’s parents separated when she was 5 years old, in part because of her father’s drinking. When Pauline asked why they had left leaving her father behind, her mother Ruth fobbed her of and told her she would tell her when she was older.  By the time she was 11, she had attended 6 different schools. Around this time, Stan Sears had come into their family - a minister who ran a support group for families of alcoholics to which Ruth had gone to seek support. There then were years of relative normality.  After graduating and insisting to know more about the moves and her earlier life, Pauline arranged to meet her mother at a local cafe. Over a table her mother slipped her a note in an envelope that read ‘take your jewellery off and put it in the envelope.’ She complied and her mother took her to a motel room where Stan was waiting. There she was that for the past 16 years their lives had been in danger from the mafia and that their family had been targeted because her father had been involved in organised crime. Suddenly her life was full of half truths and stories and layers of meaning. She couldn't wear her jewellery because it needed to be tested for bugs.

Pauline Dakin
Over the following years, Stan’s stories became more elaborate to the point finally where Pauline, no longer believed them, and set up a sting. She called her mother one day to tell her that her house had been broken into, which wasn’t true. A while later, Stan arrived with stories of men being picked up in the street having broken into her house looking for things. When Pauline told that the story wasn’t true, she recalled how sad Stan looked. Pauline eventually went to see a psychiatrist to try to understand more where she was told about a syndrome called ‘follie a deux’ in which symptoms of a delusional belief are transmitted from a dominant personality (Stan), to a less dominant personality (Ruth). Years later Pauline did forgive her mother for the years of lies, but Ruth, her mother, never did stop believing all that Stan told her.

Stan and Ruth in the early 1990s

This story of the cleansing of the Temple has many layers of meaning to it. The Temple was doing what it normally did one Jesus arrived.  The vital trades are in place for the necessary exchange of monies, animals, and grains for the required sacrifices. Nothing is out of order at this point. Jesus orders that his Father’s house not be made a marketplace. For the temple system to survive, however, the ordered transactions of a marketplace were essential. Jesus is accusing no-one of malpractice but instead is trying dismantle the whole system intimating that the Temple is not needed at all.

The Jews ask for a sign from Jesus, an authoritative reassurance that what He did and said was true. But both looking back to the sign He performed at Cana and forward to the 6 miracles recorded over the next chapters of the Gospel, what they did not see was that the signs ultimately point back to Jesus Himself and his reference to the Temple here or to the woman at the well or to the blind man all in John’s account - reinforce the sense that you can look for God in signs and stories - but an authentic experience of Him only comes through spending time with the one who abides with us, who is with us for the long haul, who knows what it is to be human because he came as one of us - Jesus himself. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…

God made the decision to be incarnated, but if we take the incarnation seriously, and that God loves the world, I think it must mean that God loves every body, everybody, every person, every expression of what it means to be human, whether we fall into an accepted social stenotype or norms or not. Otherwise, incarnation - God becoming fully human and experiencing that in every respect - is partial and penultimate. You can’t be partly human, selectively human. If you are human, well then, it means the whole thing. I’m not saying that a Middle Eastern male Jesus experienced what it is to be a black man under apartheid in South Africa or gay white woman in Edinburgh, but what I am saying is that He has experienced our motives, emotions and drives in every fundamental respect. He has lived us from the inside out and loves us that way too. In the end, Jesus is saying that his body is the location of God, which means in turn ours is too as it is through our bodies we read and hear Scripture and receive Jesus’ body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and in so doing our bodies, our lives are transformed from the dust of which we are made into the glory that we are promoised.

Lent for us is hungry body in the wilderness, a body anointed, a body beaten, a body on the cross, a body laid in a tomb. The only way we can get at that is to embrace our own bodies. Lent, Easter and beyond, cannot be fully captured or experienced in our liturgy or our preaching. Instead, Lent invites a deep reflection on the role of bodies in faith and in life.  God is counted on Jesus’ body then and therefore ours now to be the places where He is to be found because He loves the world. God is counting on it because God being embodied in Jesus ended on the cross.  People are still looking for signs of God present in our world, but God is embodied in our world still and people can have an authentic experience of Him and His love for us and all the world… through you.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Walking In His Shoes


The most striking image I have seen in the days since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is that of a bereft mother, her arm around another, both unconsolable at the death of their children. And the reason that the photo will live with me is because on the forehead of one mother as she embraces the other is the symbol of our mortality and the sign of our salvation - an ash cross.

We receive these ashes at the start of Lent as a sign of repentance, of our yearning for God’s forgiveness, of our intent to live our faith more truly in the face of our mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” says the minister ‘blessing us’ with a blackened thumb. The ashes that mark our foreheads only last for a day, but the mark this makes on our hearts is meant to endure for the entire 40 days of Lent.

And yet this is not the first time we will have been marked in this way - we will have received a similar sign and symbol at our Baptism and again at our Confirmation.  The cross marked on us reminds us that we journey the way of Christ, all too aware that we cannot avoid it and should not shy away from it.

And yet we do shy away from it. We try to down play it’s horror, trying to explain it away as a symbol of the love of God and in so doing, denying the judgement it exercises on Jesus, his ministry and the world. But as we grapple with the cross, we all too often fail to acknowledge that here, at it’s foot, salvation was wrought for us and our relationship with God was forged afresh.

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four we have in the canon of scripture and  it’s author wastes no time in telling us things they think we don’t need to know or that may be considered commentary rather than essentials, so for example, there is no birth narrative in Mark - no manger, no shepherds, no angels or wise men. Scholars reckon it’s because Mark just didn’t think it was relevant to the story that the author wanted to share with his readers and hearers. Scholars also reckon it is the oldest of the Gospels we have with Matthew and Luke sharing  many of the same stories about Jesus. We arrive, almost breathless, at what we hear this morning after a whirlwind of healings, teaching and miracles.

Jesus has been in Caesarea Philippi, the city founded by Philip II, son of Herod, as his seat of power. It was the site of natural springs in a pretty desolate landscape and so was an area historically dedicated to the Greek God Pan, the God of desolate places and fertility. It was a wealthy trading hub - a clash of cultures, traditions and languages. In that religiously and political diverse environment Jesus teaches about who he is and what he has been sent by God to do.

‘… He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…’


John Hesp still lives in Bridlington with his wife. I say still, because he recently won £2million at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. But he hasn’t left his job as a caravan salesman or moved house. There are no designer clothes or Rolex watches. He has gifted money to family members and invested some in a business. He still drives the same car and has gone back to playing poker once a month with friends. But I wonder what you would do in his shoes?


Jesus has invited people to be in his shoes since the beginning of the gospel. He invited fishermen to literally come behind him, to walk in the dust of his shoes, to listen, learn and do as He has done. To follow. But here the rubber hits the road - in this multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith place, a seat of power, a place of wealth, Jesus nails his colours to the mast - or perhaps more correctly - looks ahead to what was to come at the cross. This isn’t Jesus predicting his fate - it’s him knowing what He is to do. If Jesus yielded to Peter’s tempting to take another path, Jesus’ status as Son of Man would have been in doubt. He might have gained things, perhaps even the whole world, but he would have lost who he is as the Son of Man, bound to suffer rejection and death. But more than that, the essential identity that Jesus is tempted to forego – taking up his cross – is the identity and temptation that faces anyone who would come behind him, who would follow, who would walk in His shoes. 

This morning, Jesus invites us take up our cross. Not His, but our own. We must take responsibility for following Him ourselves. We must carry the sign of what it means to be His disciple everywhere He goes, and there is nowhere in our own daily living that Jesus does not go. We carry that cross into school, into our workplaces, it comes with us as we drink coffee with friends, or sit at the bus stop. We shoulder that cross at the bedside of a sick spouse. We carry it to the graveside of a deceased neighbour - because in all of these places Christ goes before us and we follow. That is what it means for us to be a disciple, to be a Christian - to speak and act as He would in these and countless other places.


But the temptation we face is to leave our cross here. But if we do, we are no longer following Jesus and have given up on the life that He counsels us not to lose.  The Greek word here is the one from which we get our word psyche - our whole selves, our very identity as people. And that life is now so intertwined with the one whom we follow as we bear His mark from Ash Wednesday; from our confirmation; from our baptism. In other words as soon as speak to others as ourselves and not as we have heard Jesus speak - we have put down our cross. As soon as we respond to others in any other way than Jesus would, we have put down our cross. Our cross is hard and heavy - following Jesus is and will be sometimes be really difficult - but in carrying it - we accept the life He offers us and all the world as He heads to Jerusalem, knowing what He must do there.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent As A Habit Forming Season

Here's a version of what I said at 8am and 11am this morning for Lent 1...

~~~



I discovered this week that some psychologists reckon it takes around 6 weeks for us to break out of the cycle of a habit, 6 weeks to become used to a new ways of living or thinking or acting. When we are struggling with a new discipline or skill, that period of time can feel like forever - will we ever master it.  It is an interesting accident perhaps that Lent now lasts around that length of time - 40 days - as we seek to grow in faith and become disciples of Jesus once again.

This morning’s Gospel takes place in the wilderness. Many of us hear the word desert here, but Mark is clear - this is the wilderness. It is a sparsely populated place between conurbations but it is not lifeless, but it can be dangerous as it is where wild animals live that may attack a flock; it is where bandits dwell that may attack at the roadside. It is also a place to where people flee from their problems to seek safety but it is also somewhere that one may be driven against one’s will to confront them in both cases the stories of Moses and Hagar are good examples. The wilderness was also a place of encounter - for many including John the Baptist and the Essene community who wrote and cared for the library of books we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls - it was a place to go to get away from the noise and bustle of the urban environment, and in a different physical landscape to allow the inner landscapes of our hearts to encounter God. It was a strange dangerous and spiritual place. A places where if you were to survive you needed to rely on the provision and protection of God.

'...And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him… 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness...'

If you type the word retreat into Google you end up with pages of listings of days of yoga, spa, fitness, reading, writing and the opportunity to book luxury apartments. The popularity of retreat has gone exponentially through the roof as it were. The ‘because your worth it’ culture in which we live has discovered the need for some sort of self care. In the most extreme cases, the number of 30 and 40 something who are now taking silent retreats as a way to detox from this digitally noisy instant news world. This counter culturalism remains so fascinating that it pops up on tv too, most recently on BBC4’s ‘Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery’ which had no commentary but filmed some of the daily lives of monks and allowed their life to be the soundtrack was not voyeuristic but entrancing and enticing.

For me at least, the most transforming of these sorts of programmes was simply called The Monastery and was based at Worth Abbey. 5 individuals lived the life of a monk there for 40 days and it had a transformative effect: It is fair to say that everybody on the show had been affected by their participation in some way. Four out of the five had either changed their job, or were going to change their job soon, and all it seems had utterly transformed the focus of their lives and their faith.

It is interesting to note that it is God the Holy Spirit that literally throws Jesus out into the wilderness. And part of Jesus being there for 40 days is to make him the new Moses linking the 40 years that Moses lead the Israelites, but I also noticed that Jesus is the new Noah too. Noah sent out the dove which returns with an olive twig in its beak indicating that the land was dry and a new start can be made, so the dove descends on Jesus According to St Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Father is “pointing him [Jesus] out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is in shipwreck.”

The glory of the new Noah is greater than the old. The first Noah’s righteousness preserved his own life from the flood. By contrast, the righteousness of this new Noah leads to his death, that a “shipwrecked” world might be “piloted” to resurrection life. And it is this rediscovery that we are encouraged into during these days of Lent.


The wilderness may times for us where we feel spiritually dry and lifeless. Where we feel barren, broken or alone. Times where need exist one day at a time - only just getting through. We all have experiences like that even if we are not brave enough to admit to them to ourselves let alone to others. God the Holy Spirit forced Jesus into that same environment as he entered the wilderness. Mark only gives us scant details - he was tempted, he was in with the wild beasts (a reference in the Old Testament to oppressive leaders in surrounding nations so here perhaps referring to the wild environment and the real challenges of existing safely there) and the angels waited on him (in other words God cared for him through it all.)


As we begin our journey into the Lenten wilderness some thoughts: Jesus must have experienced brokennesss and loneliness in that environment and in it God cared for Him. When we experience the wilderness internally where we feel lonely and uncertain of a direction - God loves us and cares for us - even when it feels like all around is barrenness bleakness. If you are not in this place I encourage you to reach out to someone here, or someone you know who is, and gently love them. You will be an angel waiting on that person. And if you are in that place, and all you see is rocks, sand and wild animals - know that one of those animals will be a hand to love and care for you and not attack you.


Lent can also be a place where God’s spirit drives us. It is not a time and place of austerity for penitence’s sake, but it is the gift of time to rediscover what it means to be a disciple - which is what it means for us to be Christian.  In our urban, visually noisy world which is still looking for an alternative way of living, there is a hunger for stillness and space, I encourage you to model it - find some time each day to detach yourself from the world. To find some space and enter a wilderness of silence for a few minutes each day: to intentionally stop, still down, be silent, maybe quietly reciting a simple prayer like the Jesus Prayer or a favourite verse of scripture - and invite Jesus, the New Noah, to lead you through the tricky landscapes of your heart and life - the bits that only he and you see - so as to learn once more how live the life of Resurrection hope again in 6 weeks time.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Mary: A Model For Teenage Discipleship


Robin King was 13 years old when he discovered that he was adopted and his response to the news? He and a friend fled home and cycled from London to Southend where they slept in a tent for a few days before they were picked up by the police. The news didn’t prevent him marrying, having children and eventually finding good work as an architect.

It was only later in life whilst applying for a passport that further startling news about his identity was shared with him - that he had been abandoned as a kid outside the Peter Robinson department store - which is why he was named Robin and his middle name is Peter. In his quest for meaning and roots he eventually found out that his parents were Douglas and Agnes Jones - he was Canadian and serving in the airforce in Glasgow during WW2. They met and married and after the war moved back to Canada. But Robin will never know why he was given up for adoption as they’ve both subsequently died.

Families can be a complex web of relationships and they’re often far from straight forward. Many of my friends had a stream of ‘Aunts’ and ‘Uncles’ who I later discovered weren’t actually aunts and uncles but close family friends and I eventually became and ‘uncle’ too. But families can be places of pain with relatives being cut out and ostracised for years maybe permanently for all sorts of reasons. And yet despite the challenges and sometimes in spite of them, they are the places where we are formed as adults.


Mary’s shocking news from the angel Gabriel was foretold. Back in the 8th century BC, the nation of Judah was faced with invasion by it’s northern neighbour Israel.  The prophet Isaiah is sent to King Ahaz of Judah with a message that God will destroy Judah’s enemies.  Isaiah tells the King to ask God for a sign that this will be fulfilled. The King says he will not test God, and Isaiah responds that God will give him a sign whatever: ‘a young woman will conceive and bear a son who will be named Immanuel and before he knows right from wrong, desolation will come upon the land.’ An odd sign by any standard.  But the word ‘young woman’ ‘almah’ does not mean virgin but maybe a girl who has not yet had a child. The significance of this prophesy of a young woman with child, when looked at through the lens of the history of Christian faith, brings Mary and the infant Jesus she bears into sharp focus, but to King Ahaz, the prophesy’s focus is that before the child (whoever it is) is very old, his kingdom will fall.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. This is how we often perceive Mary. Submissive. Trusting. Passive. Back in October, in the wake of celebrity sex scandals, a campaign began on the internet through facebook and twitter using the #Metoo hashtag, giving a voice to women who have experienced sexual harassment in some way. Some of the stories were really shocking and it exposed how ingrained this sort of behaviour by some men still is. Did Mary say #Metoo? There is a moment in this morning’s Gospel reading where a girl just being ushered into womanhood is encountered by a powerful masculine figure who tells her what will happen to her body in the most intimate ways.

Just sit with this uncomfortable notion a moment before rushing to tell me that contemporary notions of consent don’t apply here or that God knew that she would say yes. Mary knew what all this meant. She ‘got’ the biology of it all. And yet in her questioning ‘how can this be’ I meet a young woman who is totally ok with challenging patriarchal and even divine assumed power and come away unscathed.

For us who honour Mary in the story of our faith, in her we find a role model of faithful discipleship especially for our young people, because in her puzzlement at Gabriel’s greeting and her disbelief of his message, I see a pattern for youth in the church today. Mary questioned the message of Gabriel and the action of God in her life, and it was ok. It is ok if you, especially as a young person, come to these oft told stories of the faith of your parents or grandparents generation, and ask: is it true? Mary sought to understand for herself. As the adults of the community of faith - the angelos - the bringers of the message of love from God for all - our responsibility to our young people is to allow these questions, not to close them down. To hear them. Not to be afraid of them.


For us who honour Mary in the story of our faith, this morning I don’t hear of a submissive girl, but of a young woman willing to question, and open to being empowered, perhaps literally inspired, by God. Gabriel uses the word ‘overshadowed.’ In English this has all sorts of negative connotations to do with insignificance, a lack of joy or success, and this feeds an image of a submissive and passive Mary in the presence of a powerful God. We must not let our young people be dominated or conformed by us as adults or by their peers. In scripture the the image of the cloud is not a dark but a bright one that lead the Israelites by day as they sojourned in the wilderness and that enveloped Jesus on the mountain top. We must allow our young people to explore the wilderness and lush pasture of life and faith trusting in both places God comes and leads His people. Mountain climbing is hard work - we must celebrate with them when they triumph over adversity or have extraordinary experiences of God that we cannot understand or comprehend.


As Gabriel shares news of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, there is a hint that they stand in a line with Sarah and Hannah long before them, of God by the Spirit bringing about the biologically impossible. For Luke, the Holy Spirit brought all things into being in the first Creation, and it will be the same Spirit that fills disciples at Pentecost which ushers in the New Creation wrought by Jesus’ resurrection. Gabriel says that Mary will be enveloped by the presence of the God of Israel who faithfully led and kept her ancestors, and she will be anointed by the Holy Spirit. The only other person to experience the Spirit in this way up to this point was King David. Through God, Mary is brought into David’s line, so that the New Creation and the Kingdom of God are revealed to and through her. That is why I believe she said yes to Gabriel.


How can we be like Gabriel, angelos - messengers of good news with the  young people in our churches? How can we each share and show the love of God to them? How can we like Elizabeth and Sarah and Hannah before them, walk with our youth as they journey through the wilderness or climb life’s mountains?  Mary’s yes, rose out of an assurance that God had kept and led those before her - how can we share our own faith stories with our youth today? Above all else we must pray that that same Holy Spirit that came upon Mary, would fill and transform our young people today - calling them into the Kingdom and filling them with the hope of the New Creation.