Advent – the opposite of hygge – for the night is dark and full of terrors

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Hygge has ended up being one of the words of the year for 2016, largely due to some clever British marketing of a Danish concept of cosiness. Hygge totally appeals to me. It is a bit obvious though, of course getting cosy in slippers and a blanket and cuddling up shutting out the world appeals! Especially in this annus horribilis. These books about finding hygge will end up in stockings everywhere this Christmas.

So when I came to preach on this Advent Sunday I came with thoughts of getting cosy in my mind and was reminded again of how counter-cultural advent is. Our churches are devoid of decoration for most of advent. We don’t sing the gloria. Our vestments and altar cloths are a sombre purple. The traditional themes of advent are death, judgement, heaven and hell!

The New Testament reading for today was from Romans, Paul writes:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

Everything our culture tries to do at this time of year is an attempt at hygge. An attempt to block out the darkness by wearing Christmas jumpers, putting up Christmas trees and lights in November and showing adverts presenting us in our best light, showing goodwill to all. There are some downsides to hygge. One element is that it is trying to anaesthetise us to the darkness – this doesn’t make the darkness go away. The other is that it blocks out the element of surprise, it shuts us down, it makes us exclude (the hygge concept is popular with the far right in Denmark – foreigners are not welcome in our cosy homes). So this is where advent comes in, to shake us out of this all too human desire to shut out.

Wake up! Says Jesus to the disciples. Wake up, says Paul to the Romans. The responsory for morning prayer in advent is the rather Game of Thrones-like:

Now it is time to awake out of sleep,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed,
for the night is far spent.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
for the day is at hand.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ
and make no provision for the flesh,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

(or, for the night is dark and full of terrors!)

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Our only defence in these dark times is to put on the armour of light. That’s right, to arm ourselves against the darkness, not to anaesthetise ourselves by cosying up and blocking out others. It’s a much more dynamic way to respond to these dark times we’re living through.

Let’s get armoured up. Let’s wake up in the morning and make the devil say ‘Oh crap, she’s up!’

Here’s a way to arm yourself, St Patrick’s breastplate prayer:

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.

 

 

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

 

 

I, Daniel Blake – and the problem of digital exclusion

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I wrote an article over a year ago about my frustrations in trying to help a young mother, whose child was just starting school and who was keen to start work, to get online for Universal Jobmatch. If you are in receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance you must demonstrate that you are actively looking for work. The preferred method is for individuals to use the Universal Jobmatch website which can track your activity.

The system and the website for this are almost impenetrable – even to a regular user of the internet. The Universal Jobmatch website and system appear not to have changed for some years now where the internet has moved on. Many jobseekers will have a smartphone but not a PC and yet the website is not available as an app nor is it mobile friendly.

There is nothing about the current system that makes it simple for people to look for work. The cynic in me feels that this is almost deliberate.

This weekend Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake was released. I went to see it yesterday. It made me extremely angry. At our community project Space4, where I regularly offer IT support, I meet people all the time that are struggling to create a CV or register with universal jobmatch. Most of the time these people have never used the internet, few have an email address and many can’t use Google or Microsoft Word.

This issue is highlighted very well in the film as Daniel is shown how to use a mouse for the first time:

He then later on visits a library where there is free access to the internet but he has to rely on the people around him for help before his session time runs out. He is unable to complete the form he needs to complete to make an appeal against his benefits decision.

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Daniel is asked to put the mouse on the screen – and so he does.

The thing that is making me so angry about this is that this is not something it would be costly to change or do something about. Some government websites are very well designed, such as NHS Choices and the Vehicle Taxing Service, why is the Universal Jobmatch site still stuck in the internet of 10 years ago? Given the early deaths caused by benefits sanctions one would think that making the job search easier to do online might be a health issue as well. After all, we know how frustrating trying to get something done online can be – when it’s a matter of literally whether you’re going to get food this week it is even worse.

I would suggest that the following needs to happen:

  • make the Universal Jobmatch website mobile friendly
  • make the registration process simpler. Forget ‘government gateway’ etc. Make it that you can register with details provided by the Job Centre in a letter. Just in the same way as I can renew my road tax on my vehicle easily online, look how clear this webform is:road-tax
  • Make a free app available for tablets and smartphones
  • Change the language to make it understandable. Here is an extract from the current ‘help’ page on Universal Jobmatch: “The Universal Jobmatch website is run by Monster Worldwide LTD (*monster*) on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).This page explains the Password and User ID Reset Process, for when you have lost both your User ID and Password.Password and User ID Reset Process

    By carrying out this process correctly, you will be able to log back into your Universal Jobmatch account without changing your email address.” – does that make sense? No, especially not to someone who has never used the internet before.

Is there any good reason why this can’t be done, and immediately?

Other press articles

This week, I Daniel Blake has very much been in the news and the subject of much commentary. Here are some related articles that are worth reading:

Of course Toby Young understands what life is like on benefits – he knows what ‘rings true’ – Mark Steel in the Independent

I am Daniel Blake – and there are millions more like me – Jack Monroe in the Guardian

Benefit sanctions forcing people to use food banks, study confirms – The Guardian

We, Daniel Blake: readers on the UK benefits system – stories from Guardian readers on their experience of the benefits system

Sharing Faith Using Social Media – my new publication out now from @grovebooks

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img_20161019_135818Followers of my blog will remember that I carried out some research for my BA dissertation in 2013 into how people share their faith online. This work is now available to read in a Grove Booklet. This short booklet outlines where we are in terms of mission today, how people are using social media to share their faith, the reactions they get when they do and how each of us can be encouraged in our own witness online. It’s an illuminating read for anyone interested in what it means to be a Christian in the online world.

 

May I take this opportunity to thank all of you who contributed to the research by responding to the survey – keep on sharing your faith with your friends online!

Click here to buy your copy:

https://grovebooks.co.uk/collections/evangelism/products/ev115-sharing-faith-using-social-media

Here is some early feedback  on the book:

God says yes to me

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I’m preaching at our Mothers’ Union Deanery service on Monday and I’ve chosen to speak about God’s ‘yes’ to us and our ‘yes’ to God – inspired by Mary’s song of praise – the Magnificat. 

After I wrote my sermon I went on Facebook and that little reminder of what I posted a year ago today came up and it was this wonderful poem:

God Says Yes To Me

by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph 
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

“God Says Yes To Me” by Kaylin Haught, from The Palm of Your Hand. © Tilbury House Publishers, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Learning to ‘be with’ rather than ‘be for’

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A couple of weeks ago we had our Clergy Conference looking at the theme of tackling poverty. We were helped in our reflections by a series of talks from Rev’d Dr Sam Wells – vicar of St Martin in the Fields (you probably know him from Thought for the Day!) He wrote a book called The Nazareth Manifesto and in it he proposes that the heart of the gospel is that ‘God is with us’. He told us at our conference that God is primarily concerned with being with us, not for us. He suggested that ‘with’ is the most important word in theology and ethics. The Israelites had to learn when in exile that God was still with them. God is with Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in the fiery furnace – they are not rescued from the fire, God is with them in the fire (the fire representing Babylon). When we come to the New Testament, Jesus is announced as the one who is Immanuel – meaning, God with us.

After unpacking this a little more Sam then suggested a matrix  to help us to think about how approach our work in the community:

  • Working for
  • Working with
  • Being with
  • Being for

Usually, we tend towards the idea of ‘working for’ others; but in doing this the person we are ‘helping’ remains a stranger to us, a problem to be solved. Sam encouraged us to consider that surely the goal of Christian mission must be ‘being with’. Being with others enables us to receive from one another, enables us to see the ‘other’ as a loved human being rather than a ‘problem to be solved’.

We have a community project in our parish and over my time of being involved I am slowly learning to ‘be with’ rather than ‘work for’ the people I encounter. It is so tempting and easy to find something to do for another person and then give myself a pat on the back for doing a ‘good turn’. Being with requires much more humility, but the more I reflect on it, the more I find that that is the way of Jesus. When he meets Zacchaeus, Jesus doesn’t tell him that he needs to stop extorting money from his customers, Jesus says ‘I’m  coming to your house for tea’ (well, in the Sunday school song that’s what he says!) After being with one another and sharing food and drink Zacchaeus seems to discover for himself what he needs to do. When Jesus sends out the 72 he sends them to go and receive hospitality from others. Why is this not our model of mission? Probably because it is a lot easier to do things for others than to be with others, to be truly present to other people.

The last few weeks at our community project I have been doing jigsaws with one of our regular visitors. Each time I came away feeling guilty that I had sat for an hour doing a jigsaw. It felt like I was doing nothing. But actually I was ‘being with‘. I was experiencing companionship and so was my friend.

Maybe we’re not very good at allowing God to be with us like that as well? Maybe we have a skewed relationship with God if we constantly focus on God’s ‘working for’ or ‘being for’ us. God is of course ‘for us’ but the more I look at the ministry of Jesus, I realise that his focus is on ‘being with’ – the name of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, means ‘the one who comes alongside’. God’s very being as Trinity is about ‘with’, this surely says something about how we should view one another, interact with one another.

I think I need to go and do more of the jigsaw!

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Unity – an art project that reveals that we are all connected to one another

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In this current climate we each need to be reminded that there is more that unites us than divides us. I was really inspired by this art project showing how well connected we all are. I would love to try this out in our community.

Watch the video here:

Or here:

UNITY is circular arrangement of 32 poles in a large field. Each pole is labeled with an identifier. For example, “I’m a parent,” “I speak English as a Second Language,” “I identify as LGBTQ.” With yarn, participants tie to each pole with which they identify. A canopy of interconnectedness forms as more people participate. In the end, we see that we are all connected by something. This project celebrates the uniqueness of individuals and raises awareness of how labels impact our perception of and interactions with the world.

Read more: http://www.unityproject.net


Checking my privilege – thoughts on #brexit

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Now the dust has settled slightly in my mind since yesterday’s news, I have begun to feel more and more a sense of unease with my own privilege.

I was reminded of an interview with Rowan Williams after 9/11 – he was present in New York and had to seek shelter in a building as the dust billowed through the streets of Manhattan. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury then and the interviewer wanted a comment. He responded by saying that what he had experienced was nothing unusual, it was happening all around the world every day – people fleeing terror and bombs.

A little niggly thought I had yesterday in the middle of my grief (and yes it was a grief reaction) was ‘perhaps it is my turn to see what it feels like to be ignored’.

A little over half of voters yesterday voted to leave the EU. Most of my feelings against those who voted to leave ranged from snobbery, to anger, to patronising them as unthinking and stupid. To brand all those voters with the same brush of xenophobia or stupidity is not fair – that is just dropping to the same level as those who exploited the whole debate to espouse their racist views. Over half of voters, that is the person next to me on the bus, that is half my congregation at church, that is people that I know and love in my family.

Something that arrested my anger and vitriol yesterday was the arrival at my house of my cleaner (who is 22). Already I am cringing slightly by saying that I have a cleaner, but we do. She is bright and conscientious and just an all round lovely person. She arrived and I said ‘sorry, I’m quite upset today, not quite myself’ and she said ‘oh, is it because we’ve left?’ and I said ‘yes’. She then told me she’d voted leave. Then she said ‘but I heard that Farage saying this morning that there wouldn’t be the money for the NHS, but it was on the leaflet!’ She had quite sensibly read up on both campaigns and thought that it sounded like a good idea to give £350m a week to the NHS instead of to the EU and cast her vote. She then said ‘I was quite chuffed as it’s the first time I’ve voted for something and we’ve won!’

I posted on Facebook yesterday that one of the saddest things about this whole affair was that it wasn’t ultimately about the EU. It was about the fact that increasingly there is a huge gap between Westminster (and London) and the rest of the country; that we have a Tory government making cut after cut to public services; that people feel that nothing ever changes so to put a cross in the ‘leave’ box was a punt, like buying a scratch card, that may or may not bring about some change.

So many people in this country feel they are not in control of their lives, for the first time this referendum meant that every vote counted, so people did take back a little bit of control and were able to say ‘up yours’ to those rich people who govern the country without a care for those in real need.

The consequences are terrible, many people voted on gut instinct, I know a few people who only decided once in the polling station. We are so used to our votes not counting for much (cf. 4m people voting for UKIP and getting 1 MP) that many of us thought it wouldn’t really matter.

I’m challenged to think: yes, this is what it feels like to be ignored, not listened to.

I am challenged to think: how can we reform our country so that everyone feels they have a say?

I am challenged to think: what contribution am I going to make?

It is tempting to blame those who voted leave as idiots and to leave the blame for the fall-out of Brexit at their (or indeed at David Cameron’s) door. But we are literally all in this together, we are all part of this culture that has developed that has led to this monumental change to our political landscape. I just hope we can rebuild now, using the inspiration of Jo Cox’s example, to heal our fractured nation.13495313_10153916708875756_2588083424066735906_n

The prayer of St Francis comes to mind, I know that I need more to seek to understand than be understood.

May the living God guide us into all truth.

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Click here to make the pledge to keep going, together.

 

Update Sunday 26th June

Although we are now all in this together that does not mean we should be complacent. I feel a bit like I’ve gone back to the anger stage of grief! I am very angry about the lack of a plan from the Leave campaign. It is becoming increasingly obvious that neither Gove nor Johnson thought they would win. We need a new political movement and we must call our government to account.