Friday, November 30, 2012

A sad story that might be a wake-up call

So, it turns out that the young woman who died when a tree fell on her tent in the recent storms, was a rough sleeper, known to people in Exeter, but struggling to find a place in so-called 'regular' society.

Her tragic death highlights the plight of those who for a variety of reasons - and Michelle Conroy (for she had a name) had no addiction problems, being known by a night cafe run for the homeless as the 'orange squash girl' - cannot find anything approaching settled accommodation.

I'm pleased that our church will be joining with others this winter to provide a night shelter for the rough sleepers in our area. I know this is just a tiny bit of the answer to the massive problem of homelessness in our society; but it's good to be part of the offer of help.

Michelle Conroy died in a city that has no permanent drop in hostel for rough sleepers, the kind of place she could have been encouraged to go when the forecast for the night she died was known. Bromley, similarly, has no permanent drop-in hostel either; the 90 day temporary shelter is all that's on offer in the borough.

Conroy's story is desperately sad. But I wonder how many more there are like her, balancing precariously on the edge of life, passing by unnoticed by those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our head, money in our pocket and a social safety net that gives us that treasured sense of belonging that she apparently lacked.

There are lots of headlines about how much everything costs, about how we cannot afford to take care of everyone, that people ave to stand on their own two feet. There aren't enough headlines about how society hangs together by the bonds of common affection and decency.

If anyone wants to get involved in our night shelter, then come to the Town Church at 3pm on 8 December; there's a whole range of things you could be doing.

Will the law help to regulate the press?

So, I wonder how many of us have put the book we're reading aside and downloaded the two thousand pages of the Leveson report. It's hardly bedtime reading but the few pages I've read are well crafted. But will I read more than a few pages?

I was struck in the storm of comment accompanying its publication yesterday how David Cameron used the same language to describe a statutory backing to press regulation that had been used repeatedly the day before by the chief executive of News International. They both spoke of it as crossing the rubicon.

Was there no one in Cameron's news management team who suggested that using the same terminology would appear unfortunate in a prime minister's statement about a major report that is fiercely critical of the popular press, especially those titles run by News International?

Having said that, however, I did find myself agreeing with Cameron. I find myself instinctively opposed to the law getting involved in the regulation of papers because it could lead to the stories that need to be told being suppressed while the stuff that has driven the popular press into the gutter will remain in the headlines.

What is needed is a culture change in newsrooms about what constitutes news and a moral and professional change among journalists about how they go about gathering the stories that are worth telling. I'm not the law can make either of those happen.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Maybe we can help our neighbours to see what Christmas is about

Well, if the shops and ad breaks are to be believed, it's almost Christmas. So here is my yuletide reflection that will be published in our church magazine (slightly edited) this weekend.

Maybe this Christmas will mean something more
Maybe this year love will appear
Deeper than ever before
And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call
Someone we love
Someone we’ve lost
For reasons we can’t quite recall
Mmm, maybe this Christmas
Maybe there’ll be an open door
Maybe the star that shone before
Will shine once more,

And maybe this Christmas will find us at last
In heavenly peace
Prayed for at least
For the love we’ve been shown in the past
Maybe this Christmas
Maybe this Christmas

Every year there seems to be good crop of Christmas albums. Some are little more than collections of saccharine versions of carols and Christmas classics produced to form the soundtrack to a thousand shopping trips as well as swell the coffers of the act involved. 

But over recent years a number of thoughtful artists have produced albums that capture something of the conflicted feelings associated with this time of year. In an increasingly secular society, Christmas is about parties and presents, families and memories of happy times and maybe celebrating the human capacity for being kind.
The Ron Sexsmith song Maybe this Christmas (above) appears on the album Tinsel and Lights by Tracey Thorn. It’s a beautiful, haunting track that expresses the longing for Christmas to mean something beyond a food-filled, present fest that gives us a week off a work and hangover that lasts through January.

What is striking about Thorn’s album is that it doesn't contain a single rendition of a Christmas carol. Perhaps we should applaud her honesty – after all, what is it with non-church-going artists feeling they need to produce indifferent versions of Christmas classics? But it is a reminder that for most of our neighbours Christmas has nothing to do with God. It is not about the birth of his Son or the angels singing the story of how Jesus has come to save the world.

Instead a theme of wistful longing pervades this record; perhaps the same mood that is the backdrop of so many people’s Christmas. It opens with a track that says ‘you loved it as a kid/now you need it more than you ever did/it’s because of the dark/we see the beauty in the spark/that’s why, that’s why/the carols make you cry…’ And the final line says ‘we must be alright if we could make up Christmas night’. Is this a hope of reconciliation? Or a hint that the original story might just be what our celebration of Christmas is lacking?

But it is the Sexsmith track that stands at the emotional heart of the album with its eye on what Christmas used to be about and what it might be about again, if only…

There is a sense that Christmas is a place to hide from the realities of life, a week of glitter and festivity that mask how we really feel, a moment that points to something that might actually make our lives better if only we could put our finger on precisely what it is.

We know that Christmas is a hard time for so many of our neighbours. It’s expensive at a time when money’s tight; it’s a time for family when we’re mourning the loss of a loved one; it’s a time of giving when we feel empty; it’s a time of joy when we feel gloomy. For a while we will be carried along by the tinsel and fairy lights, the soundtrack and re-runs of White Christmas. But as Tracey Thorn sings on Snowman we do all this ‘knowing how soon it'll fade away’.

At the heart of our celebration is the truth that Christmas changes everything. The message of the angels that a saviour is born in the midst of danger and poverty, in a time of war and high taxes is good news to all who struggle in the dark of winter, wondering whether there is any hope anywhere.

So, as we get ready for Christmas – no doubt caught up in some of the stress and angst of our neighbours – let us pause to remember what we are celebrating. And then let’s share our joy at the coming of the Christmas child with those around us – by inviting them to carol services (ours are on 23 December and feature Messy church, family carols and carols by candlelight; three opportunities to hear afresh the Christmas story) or inviting them into our homes for Christmas food and conversation (or both, of course).


maybe there’ll be an open door,
Maybe the star that shone before
Will shine once more,

and the light of God’s love will flood into all our lives, those who are near and those who seem to be so far away, lost in the dark. And then maybe ‘we’ll gather up our fears/and face down all the coming years/and all that they destroy/and in their face we’ll throw our joy.’ Maybe...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Not a good day for democracy

So 7% of Wiltshire's electorate actually voted for their new police commissioner which is considerably fewer than the number who voted for the councillors who made up the police authority he replaces. And this is democratic progress, why exactly??

Yesterday was not a good day for our democracy all round really. Good results in Cardiff and Manchester but the turnouts were woeful. Maybe we can blame the weather but I think we can also blame a broken system that leaves increasing numbers of people completely disconnected from the process. And the fact that public regard for politicians is so low doesn't help either.

When an MP thinks she will be taken more seriously by people by going on a jungle based reality TV show than doing the job she was elected by her constituents to do, you know that we in trouble. She is paid £60k (or thereabouts) + expenses so that she can serve her constituents not promote her agenda (that few voted for).

We seem to be attracting people to political office of all kinds who seek that office for what it does for them - their CV, their earning power, their ability to hog some limelight - rather than people who want that office to serve the needs of everyone in the constituency they represent.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Getting messy - big time!

Tomorrow we are having our extra messy church, so called because it's additional to our usual monthly messy church but also because it promises to be extra messy.

We shall be focusing on the banquet at Simon's house where Jesus is anointed by a woman who has been infected by the Kingdom.

And we'll be doing it in a whole variety of ways: there'll be crafts (the chance to decorate a jar or vase to fill with something suitably lavish), copious amounts of conversation fuelled by breakfast being served through the morning, some music to listen to and join in with, an opportunity create a Lego house and courtyard where Jesus is having dinner and the chance to catch up with one another.

I'm hoping that people will come and meet folk they've not met in church before, have a thoroughly good time and meet Jesus in a new way. Isn't that what church is all about?

If you're in or around Bromley tomorrow morning, you'd be very welcome to join us any time after 9:30am. Breakfast will be served until 11:30am and you'll be home in plenty time for lunch...