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!

When small things are big things

I’m fresh back from spending most of the last week in beautiful Burkina Faso (not Uganda, as my mother believed).  I say ‘fresh’ which is an unusual state to return from any trip in (especially one which involved 5.30am starts every day, temperatures in the high 30s and not a lot of food), but it’s how I feel.  Grateful, inspired, humbled.

Beautiful Burkina

I was making a film about how churches are doing small, beautiful, counter-cultural things in their communities to improve their lives and those of their neighbours.  (You might remember part one of the same project in Sierra Leone last year).  This time I was out with Prospect Arts‘ Ben Sherlock, a whizz with a camera and a failsafe vitamin supplier.

One day we drove off down a dirt track, and then turned off that onto a footpath (still in the 4×4) and continued on for about an hour across sandy, uneven scrubland, dodging bushes, trees and huge gaping pits.  We arrived in a remote village in the far east of Burkina and were greeted by some of the community who took us out the other end of the village on foot to see their school.

In contrast to the other simple, sandy homes scattered through the village, here was a large, clean, modern-looking structure with three big classrooms housing about 100 children from 4-16.  The youngest ones had never seen a white person (I went and said hello and shook all their hands to dispel their fears…).

Fascinated by white people…

We interviewed the pastor of the community who told me the beautiful story of how the school came about.  It began with a letter he received one day, there in the middle of nowhere.

He set off to the next town, the one we’d driven from, to find someone who could read it to him.

Was there no-one in his village who could read? the inhabitants of the next town asked. (Nobody). Did they not have a school? How many children were there?  Did he know that if he could prove there were 60 children with no access to schooling, the government had to provide a school and a teacher?

And that started the journey of the small, illiterate church community advocating to the government on behalf of their village.  The government sent a teacher and the church members built the teacher a house.  And then, a few years on, the government built a school.  And now how the horizons of those young people have changed.  Different futures have become possible.

That same day we spoke to a church elder in another community with a similar story, and he said something that has stayed with me.  “These things probably seem small to you, but to us they are huge.”

Heading off into unknown territory in faraway countries with a nice camera to make a film makes me anxious to find impressive sounding stories that will captivate people.  Some of this week’s stories were about church communities building themselves a church building, which can seem underwhelming, but the journey behind those projects is a deep and significant one.  It’s the story of people who struggle to meet their most basic needs starting to believe that they have the ability to do something for themselves, and for their wider community.  It’s the start of a longer journey towards a better life.

So I don’t count any of the stories as small.  To believe things can be different when you have never known what ‘different’ looks or feels like is an amazing act of faith and courage, especially when you live so close to the edge of survival.

These are big stories. And just think where they might lead.

Our impromptu crew (minus camera man Ben who was behind the camera)

(The work I was filming was part of Tearfund’s Church Mobilisation work, carried out in partnership with local NGO, ODE.  You can find out more about it here.)

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.

A film showing there is more to Buxton than the water

To break up the theatrical reflections, here’s a little film I made a month or so ago about some beautiful, wonderful people I met who run a project in Buxton.  Before I went, I knew nothing about Buxton except the water they bottle. Now I am planning my next trip… The couple who lead it have live in their main care home with their family for more than a decade, totally sharing their lives with the people they’re trying to serve.  So inspiring. Enjoy.

(You can find out more in my other blog about my visit here)

Good News Family Care from Integral Mission on Vimeo.