Christmas in a strange land

It’s only a few days till Christmas, and I am far away from home in the state of Arkansas, where everything is super-sized.  Happily I am not alone, and I’m enjoying some family time (being in the same continent as the husband has become a novelty this month) and meeting my new niece.  Who is completely beautiful.

But should you be lacking in inspiration this week, here are a couple of things I prepared earlier.

Last year I wrote a blog about how I try to hold onto the story of Christmas in the midst of family chaos, and I shared some liturgy we use.

Last week in Guatemala we filmed a reflection on the story from Mary’s perspective – you might recognise some of the thoughts from my earlier blog.

The Hope Of The World from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Have a great Christmas. I’ll be back in the new year, with some changes!

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Go (coco)nuts!

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Coconut milk for your curry. Shredded coconut for your Bounty or Lemingtons. A fancy-dress bikini. Something to make the sound effect of horses hooves. A cool cocktail glass. And there I run out of uses for coconuts.

Today highlighted the poverty of my imagination as I was introduced to the coconut-themed socio-economics of Mario Morales. And as a permanent reminder to think a bit bigger, I now own a pair of shoes made from discarded coconuts.

Mario is a practical, gentle man. He has worked for many years helping to make communities in Guatemala more resilient to the natural disasters that plague them. He works with churches, helping them to see what they can do improve conditions in their communities.

In the last few decades life has changed massively in Guatemala, and in the communities where Mario works. This is mainly because of the huge sugar cane plantations, and all the associated industry. Indigenous crops have been cleared, pastoral land has been converted, and gallons of dangerous chemical fertilisers are sprayed from helicopters and by locals on foot, causing massive health problems, taking most of the water and polluting what’s left.

Mario’s work over the last few years has led him to encourage communities to plant gardens again and reinstate indigenous crops. The people are farmers and they know how to work the land. What they need is encouragement and a little innovation in the face of the deteriorated conditions and the new scarcity of water.

But a year or two, Mario became fixated by coconuts. Suddenly, all he could see were the piles of discarded coconuts around (his home town), and he began dreaming about what he could do with them.

This is where he has got to: He has created a machine, based on something he saw on the Internet, which takes discarded coconuts and shreds them until nothing is left except dried coconut, like hay in consistency (as modelled below by Travis) and dirt, which is rich in nutrients and can be used as compost. Then he packs this shredded, dried coconut into frames which he coats with a naturally occurring latex. There’s another machine he has invented which presses layers of this coconut matting together, and then he cuts out shoe soles. Locally produced fabrics are sewed together to the soles to produce beautiful Eco-flip-flops.

Every stage of the process is carried out by local people in the communities where he works. We drove around all corners of Escuintla to witness each stage of the manufacturing. Half of it takes place in Mario’s own home; other parts in other families’ back gardens. It’s not an industrialised process by any stretch of the imagination. We had coconut chips sprayed in our faces, we had the life frightened out of us by the sound of all the machinery, we modelled the new shoes, we wound the coconut ropes and Travis (crazy American film-maker who is sharing the adventure) constructed a coconut toupe.

Mario also has groups who wind the shredded coconut into ropes and then weave them into giant nets, which can be used to minimise soil erosion during earthquakes, landslides and the like.

It’s a bit nuts, but totally brilliant. I love the ingenuity and creativity of being able to take something that is discarded in huge quantities daily by so many people, and working out how to turn it into something beautiful, and doing it with integrity, in a way at empowers and involves others.

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Waiting for God-knows-what

It is the season of waiting.

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Or, parties. Calendars are awash with office socials, family reunions, carol concerts, school nativities, mulled wine on chilly nights, shopping-trips, ice-skating and tree-decorating.  Not mine, this year, because instead I am travelling to far-flung continents to hear new stories and meet new family.  And so for once I am a little removed from the hullaballoo and I am pondering the meaning of it again.

I read recently about a Catholic community who mark the season with simple, frugal living and prayerful reflection and my heart sank at the thought of opting out of all the fun.

And it brought me back to the question of waiting, what it means to wait, and how I strain to avoid it.

My friend Kelley just wrote a beautiful blog about her Advent ache as she confronts the trauma of today in Goma and Gaza, and in relationships closer to home.

“This Advent I stand in the ancient tradition of lament and longing,” she writes, “as my insides churn at the not-yetness of it all.”

Why would we choose to enter purposefully into a season of waiting? It is usually a chore rather than a choice. Ten seconds in and we (I) reach for our phones, for distraction.

But at the heart of this season, for those of us who seek it, is an unfinished story, and an invitation to wait not just four weeks, but as long as it takes.

I see it most clearly through Mary.

At so young an age she is chosen – and her soul sings. She is asked to imagine that something otherworldly could be possible.  She is asked to believe and she does.  (And this at a time when childbirth was perilous).

At the moments when our souls sing and we hear and see God alive in everything, extraordinary things feel possible. (Perhaps because they are).

It is afterwards, in the banality and prose of everyday living that it is harder to believe in miracles.

But that is where waiting takes us. For Mary, first it was nine months. Nine months of pregnancy, of feeling something real grow inside of her, the promise becoming tangible.

But it was also nine months of everybody else interpreting events in their own way. Who could possibly know or understand or believe the truth? There were nine long, painful months of watching her parents’ shame, feeling desperately alone (except for that time with her cousin), doubting herself. How much of that could Joseph share, how much was he prepared to?

And then there is the beautiful story of how her son was born, miles away from everybody who misunderstood, attended by the strangest assortment of guests.  And I imagine Mary’s tears when she sees her baby, and when, for the first time, she is able to share the miracle with a host of others – all of whom know that whatever this is, it is from God.

But what of the years that follow? In all the years of poverty and political oppression, in the mundane detail of family life, of finding enough food and earning enough money, what does Mary do with all those prophecies? Do they feel real? Does she know what any of them mean? Does she know who her son really is?

Waiting, in this sense, is never one thing.  It is a heady cocktail of joy and agony, of confusion and doubt, of excitement and fear. And sometimes it is just long and hard.

It is always easier to give up. It is less tiring and it hurts a lot less.

But Mary does not give up, she is there even the moment when her son is killed.  How could she begin to make sense of that day?

It is hardest to wait when it least makes sense, but at the heart of Advent is the invitation to do just that.  Because in all its brilliant beauty, the Christmas story is not an ending or a resolution and it does not answer every question.  It is a dazzling glimmer of hope and the promise of proximity and involvement.  It is a beginning but not an end.

To me, Advent is an invitation to wait as Mary waited.  Always pondering, treasuring these things in my heart, but also participating in the story without understanding fully where it is going and what that will look like.  It is looking for where I can step in, moving towards the brokenness rather than hiding from it.  It is not running away from the ache, the deep, long ache for the good ending I believe in.

A handful of hope

This post is bringing you a little round-up of the things that have inspired me this past week, the things that reassure me that there is good in the world still. I’m about to head off to Burkina Faso to make a short film about how churches are working with their local communities to bring positive change.  I hope I’ll return with some good stories, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be offline all week. So in the meantime…

This is a short film about the power of writing handwritten letters, and, more than that, the hunger we have for people to be present with us when things are tough, however that is transmitted…(actually see comments below for the link).

You might remember I wrote a post a few months ago about Knocknagoney, on the edge of Belfast.  It’s a loyalist community and had one of the highest crime rates in Northern Ireland, but since the church started bringing the different community groups together things have totally changed (and crime figures have dropped).  This article talks about the film we made and the impact it’s having, and there’s also a link to the film.

This week we said goodbye at work to an amazing colleague who’s been at Tearfund more than a decade.  She recently adopted two sisters who were 4 and 5 and after a year of parental leave has decided not to come back to her demanding job. I keep returning to what a brave and beautiful thing she has done, for all the sleeplessness she is enduring and the past trauma she is helping her girls to work through. My friend Kelley wrote a beautiful reflection recently entitled Tread Softly on my Adoption which feels important.

And finally I came across a brilliant project through a friend who’s involved, called Scene & Heard.  They mentor kids at schools in Somers Town in London and help them to write plays which professionally actors then perform.  Have a look:

Retreat (revisiting something I said I’d never do)

When I was a teen I wanted to be an actress.  When I told people at my church they would respond with enthusiasm – “We do so need good dramas in church,” as if my grand ambition was to play Mary the mother of Jesus at Christmas or be in any of the half-baked comedy sketches that popped up sporadically on Sunday mornings or church weekends away.

And so I ventured out into the big wide world with my dream and needless to say found that the big wide world was less enthusiastic about me.  (We’re still working on it).  But I have successfully avoided church drama all this time.

A couple of years ago the husband asked me to write some monologues based on some stories from the Bible, pretty much the very thing I’ve run away from for so many years.  But I took up the challenge (I have a soft spot for him), and we interweaved them with songs sang around hay bales in the big top at Greenbelt festival one summer, with guitars and cellos and other nice stringed things.

It was good.  I didn’t want to cringe and run away.  And it seemed to touch people.

It seems I don’t hate Christian drama, I’m just really fussy, and I really want it to be good (not that I’m saying here that I do it better than anyone, it’s more that I want it to be better than I’ve experienced it to be, that’s what I aspire to). I want it to mean things that I think are important (and actually I have a head-start here because I do think that people’s encounters with Jesus, with God, matter profoundly); and not be heavy-handed or tell you what to think.  Then I think it can be quite beautiful.

Another thing I was told as a teen was that my vocation was either in the church or in the world (no sitting on the fence).  And I picked the world, which is in some ways laughable given that I have now spent eight years working with a charity who are passionate about the local church. But now as I come to unpick some of the things I learnt so young and which solidified too quickly in my worldview, I am returning to this dualism too.  It suddenly seems such an unnecessary dichotomy if we hope to be the same people every day and not play two (or more) versions ourselves. Of course, expectations and values differ in contrasting arenas, but surely integrity means some consistency, it means always being recognisably me.

And so it means not drawing such clear lines about where and when I will tell stories and for whom.

Which is a long way of introducing a project I put together this year for a network I do some work with.  Someone caught our double act (the husband’s songs, my monologues) and wanted to find a way to make a DVD.  The challenge this collaborator had in mind was contexts where Christians were working in tough places, amongst violence, poverty, oppression, injustice…and they often struggled to connect the huge questions raised by this work with their faith (too often presented in a pretty box).  Imaginative storytelling and music that brings Bible texts to life – resources that create an experience and the space for questions and conversation – could unlock a connection.  We hope.

So here is one of those sessions, about busyness.  There’s a monologue, some discussion questions about the Bible passage in question, and a song that gives you some space to reflect. There are six sessions in total and you can access them all online here.  Or if you’re after a DVD, drop me an email.

Busyness from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

An adventure with limits

As you read this I will be on holiday.  Woo!

The plan for last few months has been that we will jet off to somewhere sunny – catch the last rays of southern Mediterranean sun.  There’s something about the sunshine that just makes me happy. And since we’ve been married we’ve only really holidayed in the UK, and a fair amount of torrential rain has followed us around.

So we earmarked a week in the sun, and I set about seeking out cheap deals.  With a growing sense of unease.

Everything looked so impersonal.  It was like a holiday conveyor belt, nothing that felt real or special.

Then there was the fact that my carbon footprint is already outrageously oversized thanks to the long-haul flights I take for work each year.

But the biggest questions in my mind came from this sense that we fighting against natural, environmental limits.

It is autumn now, and I like autumn a lot.  Why can’t we embrace and enjoy the changing seasons, relish the beauty of England at this time of year, without needing to flee to a different climate?

Working as I do for an organisation with strong convictions and policies when it comes to the environment, I asked some colleagues for their opinions.  Unanimously, they said I should go and enjoy my overseas holiday, despite the environmental costs.  I’m not writing this to name and shame them, they spoke out of love and generosity towards me, encouraging us towards a holiday.  But I couldn’t find anyone to challenge me.

And why this perverse desire to be challenged, even stopped?

For me it plays into a loud debate that has been raging in my head, on and off, for the last couple of years.  And it’s about limits.

A friend of ours in Brazil, a radical, crazy urban farmer called Claudio Oliver, spoke to us some time ago about his belief that we need to reinstate “limits, renunciation and a sense of sacredness” into how we live.

Limits aren’t very sexy.  Although I’ve read tons of articles saying how crucial they are to children – healthy boundaries in childhood get the big thumbs up.  But when it comes to life as an adult they’re seen as cramping our style.  Something to overcome.

And our crazy consumerist culture is always driving us to want more, to leap over the limits of our bank balances, and buy everything we want.  There’s never a reason to say no. Put it on the credit card.  Or riot and steal.

And whatever you want to eat tonight, you can.  Regardless of the time of year, or what we can grow in this country, you can go to a restaurant or a supermarket and get pretty much whatever you want.

It’s luxury.

But I feel like something’s been lost.  Treats, for a start.  I can get anything at any time, so where does specialness come from now?

And where does pushing the limits lead? To debt, obesity, burn-out, stress. To a banking crisis.

When we were booking our holiday I was agonising – what will make me happy?  Our whole culture says – something more, something new.

And the reality is that no holiday can really make me happy.  I’ve worked out enough about the world to realize on its own it can never make me happy.  Happiness comes from somewhere else, from an attitude of wonder and gratitude, an ability to take pleasure in small things, from knowing that I am loved and I belong.

Pushing the limits of our bank balance and our geography and our use of natural resources to grab some sunshine didn’t feel right.  And so we’re off to a beautiful spot in North Devon instead, for a blustery, cosy autumnal break.  (Check out the amazing www.pickwellmanor.co.uk – how gorgeous does it look?!).

Which is all well and good for us, but there are bigger questions, aren’t there?  About the planet and how we don’t engineer our own extinction by continuing to live on, blind to the limits of the natural world.  It’s a question that a lot of people are asking.  A big crowd at Tearfund are wrestling with it right now.

Politicians won’t legislate limits if it means they’ll get voted out at the next opportunity.  And we do need some legislation.  The law can’t do everything, just like abolishing the slave trade hasn’t got rid of slaves.  But it makes certain behaviours unacceptable, unjustifiable.

Legislation won’t come until enough people want it.  And there’s the challenge.  How do we unlearn what constitutes ‘the good life’ in our western bubble, and come to believe in something better?  If we can’t school ourselves, we don’t stand a chance in our communities.

How do we recover an appreciation for limits, which strikes right at the heart of our consumer ideology?  How do we begin to recognize a life with limits as a better, richer, more generous, more human life?

It sounds so hard, but I am a big believer in imagination. Humans are incredibly creative when we’re suddenly having to constrain ourselves within limits. But the hard bit at the start is that none of those limits are enforced yet.  If we’re serious about this (and I really am) we’ll have to begin by enforcing some limits on ourselves, and they’ll probably feel artificial.

The other bit is that’s it’s really hard on your own.  So company will be important.  Is anyone with me?