Wednesday, 6 March 2019

A reflection on wilderness for Lent

The call of the wild
sounds romantic to the inner child,
devoid of cares
who dares
to set off on unknown byways and
adventurous highways.
There is a different call
when you pick up all
you can carry
and dare not tarry
as the rattle of machine gun
or the drone of the drones
robs childhood of fun
and families of homes.
The dogged rhythmic beat
of endless walking feet
day in and day out
carrying hope and doubt;
longing for a welcome,
for a rest,
for a cast off bed,
no need for your best.
As false gods and prophets
break vows and make profits
and give in to temptations
of power and control;
a wandering preacher
a healer and teacher
weeps gently
for the children who will never grow old.
He watches the able
fail to turn the table
of injustice and loss
and so revisits the cross.
For love’s sake
call out from the wilderness
the orphan, widow and refugee.
For Christ’s sake
Call out the careless war-brokers
and conflict stokers,
that in peace and safety
all might be free


Michaela Youngson 
For All We Can - Lent 2019


Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Learning from the past


Remembrance Sunday Article
(featured in the Methodist Recorder)


We will remember them

On the eleventh of the eleventh, in fields, by war memorials, in churches and in homes familiar words will be spoken, “We will remember them.” Stirring hymns will be sung and silence will be observed as, for the 99thtime, the nation remembers the end of the first world war. This centenary anniversary of the Armistice has a particular poignancy – there are now no survivors of that great devastation left to remember, to tell the story, to pass on to a new generation the scale of disaster that swept across Europe.  

Special commemorations
There are some very special commemorations this year, including the ‘There but not There’ project, where acrylic or metal outlines of ‘Tommies’ are set in place in churches showing where men from that community may have sat if they had survived the War. It is moving to see the outline of soldiers on pews or chairs – present in their absence. When we see them we are sharply reminded of the human beings at the centre of war and the way whole communities are devastated by loss on such a scale. Methodist Churches are marking the centenary in creative ways, such as Penkridge Methodist Church, where people have crafted over 8,000 poppies which will be suspended in a great cascade as part of that community’s act of remembrance. 

We do not only mark the end of the ‘Great War’ on Remembrance Sunday, we remember all the battles and wars since and all who have lost their lives, serving the nation. For some Remembrance Day is a time of personal pain as they remember loved ones who have lost their lives or suffered life-changing injuries. For many it is a day to pause and reflect on the cost of peace and on the foolhardy willingness of human beings to stop talking and to start fighting. For some, a proper pride in courage and loyalty is warped into a jingoistic nationalism that threatens to shift our focus from a dignified solidarity with all who suffer in war, towards a flag-waving call to defend our borders from ‘The other’, whoever the other might be. 

Fault Lines
The way that we mark Remembrance can offer insight into some of the fault lines in our nation today; fault lines of age, faith and gender. In recent years the official liturgy used at war memorials has changed a little to reflect more modern language. It could still be argued however that the language used, the hymns sung and the formality of the events hark back to a time when the majority of citizens were assumed to be Christian and understood what they were doing when they prayed. The prayers offered remain largely Christian, yet many who are being remembered and many who attend are of other faiths and none. The military style of most memorials and those who lead them tends to a majority of male attendees at memorial events and echoes back to a time when, in traditional communities, only men attended funerals. The words used on such occasions are, for many people, comforting and familiar and to radically change what is done would cause great distress, yet the question is being asked as to whether the 100thanniversary of the end of WWI might be the point to let go and begin to do things differently. 

Comfort and Challenge
Jeremiah pointed the people of Israel towards God at a time of great upheaval and turmoil. The leaders of Israel and their families were in exile in Babylon and the future looked bleak indeed. They were living in a situation where they were ‘the other’ and fault lines of faith and nation were drawn sharply around them. Into this chaos and fear the Prophet presented the word of God, offering comfort but also a challenge. The comfort was that in the end they would be restored to their own land and be free from their captors. The challenge was that they were not to sit around waiting for it to happen, whilst nostalgically looking back to all they had lost. God called on them to settle down, marry, have children and, most strikingly, to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city to which they had been taken. (Jeremiah 29.7) 

Not ‘going back’
There is a good deal of rhetoric around at the moment about ‘going back’. In churches many long to go back to a time when the Sunday School was full and there was always a volunteer to do every job needed (nostalgia has a tendency to warp reality!). In the discourse around our nation’s place in the world there is a longing by some to ‘go back’ to being independent, in control, in charge. The present is perceived to be a Babylon into which we have been exiled and the past is a safe place and we long to return. God is not going to take us, church or nation, to a place of the past – not least as it is not the land of milk and honey that we might imagine. No nation can flourish without a complex set of relationships, we live as interdependent communities and working out how to value and honour each other is the only path to peace. God longs for us to pray for peace and for people to prosper in the place we find ourselves now. Living faithfully in God’s love is a call to love those amongst whom we live, however much we feel they are ‘the other’ or that we are. 

As we look back to the times in our history when peace has been overwhelmed by the clamour for war, for power, for the maintaining of a particular world order; may we be willing to learn the lessons of the past and pray for the peace and prosperity of all God’s children.

 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you out from captivity.” (Jeremiah 29. 11-13)




Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Visit to the Labour Party Conference

http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/prayer-is-a-revolutionary-act/

“Bring biscuits!”
This was one of the new Ten Commandments drawn up by Christians on the Left and launched at last week’s Labour Party conference.  These commandments, though light-hearted, were conceived as a way of helping Christians speak into often fractious constituency meetings, by encouraging people to disagree well, being quick to listen and slow to speak, showing hospitality by buying the first round, seeing the good in everyone and choosing love.
Delegates meet with Christians on the Left.
Church leaders from the Baptist Union, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church met with Louise Davies, Director of the group, to talk about the role of Christians in the party.  The Ten Commandments initiative has taken off within the Labour Party, being endorsed by Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and popular amongst party members, whether or not they are Christians.
This delegation of Church Leaders is part of an annual visit to the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative Party Conferences.  The group aims to affirm the calling of Christians in local or national politics and share concerns about our society and world.
As part of the delegation, leaders always participate in the prayer breakfasts at the Conferences.  At the Christians on the Left breakfast, Revd Michaela Youngson gave an inspiring reflection on prayer.  Prayer is a revolutionary act, she said, because it is a declaration that we believe change is possible, recognising that God’s heart is with the poor and oppressed.
Michaela reflected on her day at the Labour Conference, saying “It was encouraging to see the level of passion and engagement with issues, as well as the openness to the place of faith in public life with those we met.  The things that were at the top of their agenda are at the top of ours – even if we disagree with the ways of doing it.”
Church delegates with Janet Daby, MP.
The group discovered much to discuss – points of agreement as well as disagreement – in their conversations with Christian politicians during the course of the day.  Stephen Timms, MP for Newham, discussed the possible impact of Brexit on the poorest, along with gambling and Universal Credit.  Janet Daby MP, the newest MP, who was elected in Lewisham East in June of this year, spoke about establishing a foodbank and the importance of defending those caught up by the “hostile environment”.
Moderator of the URC General Assembly, Derek Estill, reflected on the value of the delegation, saying “meeting together like this demonstrated unity across our various denominations”.  Bala Gnanapragasam, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference concluded “What became clear in conversations and in prayers is that churches can play a full part in bringing about change for the better.  The challenge for us is to understand how to participate most effectively.”
You can read Michaela Youngson’s full reflection from the Labour Party Conference here: https://sacredwells.blogspot.com/2018/09/prayer-as-revolutionary-act.html 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Notes on holiness

Holiness is for all – not a specialty for a few. 

Discussion starter on holiness
Calder Mobile. Holiness involves movement and fine balance.

In the beginning…
‘God declared, “It is good.” Holy, wholesome, perfect, fit for purpose, sorted – approved of. All of creation is holy because it was made by God and approved by God. Even wasps are imprinted with God’s kite mark of approval!! 
         
OFFSTED rating ‘Good’ quickly became ‘not good enough’. I’d rather be excellent than ‘good’ but that’s to do with my ego, rather than a relationship of trust in which I accept that with God I will always be good enough and that is enough.

In our creation myth - Holiness in the ‘Garden’ was a connectedness and openness with God and with creation – the arrival of shame moved Eve and Adam from a childlike, naïve state, to a state of hiddenness – of not wanting God to know where they were and what they were truly like. Nakedness is a metaphor, rather than being a state of undress, it is a state of being entirely seen and understood. The covering with leaves is a metaphor for covering up, not being honest, not wanting to be perceived.

Later…

The burning bush– holy ground. Take off your shoes – sacred space. Moses encounters God’s holiness as a powerful and frightening thing – yet it was not destructive. The bush was not destroyed by God’s presence, rather it enabled God’s presence to be perceived – a sacramental offering. A living sign of God’s power and glory, yet one which did not disturb or destroy that which it had created. We are reminded of God’s promise to Noah to never again destroy the earth.

In Jordan(when Bala and I visited with All We Can) – removing shoes to go into any home – yes the practicality of cleanliness but also, the home is a sacred space – a space where people do not need to cover themselves (well their feet at least), were vulnerability is okay. Also – keeping your shoes on might be a sign that you are intending to make a run for it, that you are turning down the hospitality of the other.

Hospitality as a sign of holiness – the women’s food co-op in Irbid in Jordan. We visited during Ramadan and so the women we visited were fasting, however this did not stop them offering hospitality to those of us visiting. Refugees who had had to leave everything behind were willing to share with us. This was sacred ground – in the sharing God was fully present. 

Buzz  Share stories of places that you think of as sacred – holy ground. What was it about the place that made it feel like that?


And…

Mount Sinai – Moses enters the presence of God and lives– moreover, he shines with God’s holiness when he comes down the mountain – and he delivers the ten commandments. Holiness becomes codified. It moves from being about a relationship of openness, vulnerability and deep knowledge of ‘the other’, to a way of living designed to not anger the ‘other’, the source of holiness. A line is drawn between the creator and the created and all actions become defined as either holy or unholy. What food can be eaten, what fabrics to wear, what crops can be planted, when work can be done, how women should be treated during their menstrual cycle and following childbirth – and so on and so on and so on. Actions become defined as wrong or right based on a code of separation from God. Inevitably actions outside the code result in the need for punishment or some correcting – so holiness becomes about rituals, sacrifice, penance and punishment and God is no longer central to the story, rather the focus becomes the cultic practices that define a particular people who see themselves as having a special relationship with God and want to do all they can to maintain that relationship. It also leads to the exclusion of those perceived to be a threat to that relationship – because they are ‘unclean’ – so the shepherds that were sent by angels to visit the Christ child would be deemed unholy, their work taking them away from the cultic practices that would allow them back into the life of the ‘holy’. Again, excluding people because they do not fit into a particular code, a set of rules defined by one group, is not confined to the Bible – again and again in human history we have seen the tragedy that enfolds when any group is defined as ‘other’.

This codification of holiness is not limited to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. We can see it in the monastic traditions, in strict Christian societies such as the Armish, the Brethren, even dare I say, the Methodists! At its extreme such codification leads to horrors such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust – the rules become everything and anyone who lives by any other code than that of the powerbase becomes anathema. All this is a long way from the garden – a long way from a holiness that recognises each person as being created in God’s image and being considered by God as ‘good’.

Buzz  ….what other examples of holiness can you see in the Old Testament? Which appeal to you and which do you find problematic?

         Priestly holiness
As Israel became established and settled in her identity, she structured her community by allocating certain people as priests. The men of the Levite tribe would take on the mantel of priesthood and only they could enter the holiest of holies. Holiness now became the business of a small group, with special knowledge, handed down from generation to generation. Holiness becomes now a thing of secrecy.

I remember a friend telling me how when he was a child he would sneak into the balcony at his church during communion to watch what was going on. Hopefully today, as we welcome children at the Lord’s table, that would not happen – we do not have secret ceremonies where only the inner circle or the chosen, or those clever enough, old enough, holy enough are allowed to join in.

Of course, we do order our activities and certain people are authorised by the church to undertake certain ministries and activities but none of this is in secret, nor does it depend on being born into the right family. The minister is no more or less holy than anyone else.

Holiness in the New Testament
The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ takes us to a very different understanding of holiness than that of a codification of what is ‘allowed’ and what is not ‘allowed’.

Paul has to get quite shirty with the early churches because time and time again they try to put back in place codes which divide their communities into the deserving and undeserving (just like we do with those who are poor today). The issues over circumcision and what can or cannot be eaten are perfect examples of missing the point that Christ demonstrates that holiness is about an inner relationship with God that bears righteous fruit, rather than about our actions being able to make us righteous.

The need for penances, for sacrifice is done away with – not in my view because Jesus substituted himself for me and carried my sins on the cross (though I know there are those who would put it in those terms and it is one of a number of understandings of atonement that hold an honourable place in our tradition) but because Jesus restored holiness to being about an open, honest relationship with God, in which nothing needs to be covered up, nothing should be hidden away and shame is not a part of God’s intention for creation. Our moral basis for any action or inaction stems from our relationship with God, with each other and with the whole of creation. No longer is it a list of rules that dictates what is holy and that which is not. To be holy is to be like God and we can see the pattern that we might model ourselves on in Jesus. To be holy is to love those that the world finds unloveable, to raise up the downtrodden, to comfort the broken hearted, to work for the release of captives…

Holiness is not a state of ‘otherness’ or being so heavenly that we are of no earthly use – rather it is, like Christ, to be so connected with the world and with God that we cannot see the separation between the two – we are caught up in God and therefore cannot fail to respond to the needs of a broken world. In holiness there is wholeness, connectedness and wisdom – above all in holiness, there is love. In loving ‘the other’ whoever that might be we are more fully able to be the ‘good’ creation which God approves of.

Such a connection with God leads to a oneness with our neighbours, which develops empathy and in this there is hope for transformation. 

Buzz…        Can you share examples of empathy and hope in the Bible or your own experience, that you might use if preaching or leading a Bible study?


Monday, 24 September 2018

Prayer as a revolutionary act

George Orwell wrote that “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Those words ring truer today than when Orwell imagined a dystopian future as he wrote 1984 in the last months of the second world war. 

I think we could explore together what that might mean today but I want to consider a different idea. I wonder if we might say that ‘in a time of universal cynicism, prayer becomes a revolutionary act?’

Christians have at times been criticized for praying for a better world whilst doing little to bring about transformation. And sometimes we have despaired of knowing what to do other than pray in the face of complex systems that oppress the poor – systems of which know we are a part and which we find it impossible to extricate ourselves.

Pray seems like a last resort, all that is left to us, what else can we do? Like the disciples on the lake in a storm, we wait until the water is threatening to sink us before we turn to Christ in our fear and frustration.

Yet I want to argue that prayer is not such a small thing, it is not to be approached lightly and it should be the first port of call, not the last thing we try when all else has failed.

We might take inspiration from Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. She knew that prayer was not a trivial matter,

"Enable me, O God, to collect and compose my thoughts before an immediate approach to Thee in prayer. May I be careful to have my mind in order when I take upon myself the honour to speak to the sovereign Lord of the universe."

Prayer is, of course, not just intercession and even intercession should not be a list of demands from some sort of Father Christmas who will grant our wishes if we behave well enough. To pray is to be intentionally present to God, as God is always present to us. It is to be open to the prompting of God’s Spirit in our hearts and minds, to be at one with the divine love at the heart of all creation – if that’s not revolutionary, I don’t know what is! 

Being in this meeting house {Quaker} we also remember that prayer need not involve words – rather a stilling of oneself, a mutual communication between creator and created; between beloved and lover; between the human and the divine.

Prayer is a revolutionary act because it is a declaration that we believe change is possible. I remember all those years when we prayed for the end of apartheid, for peace in Northern Ireland and for Nelson Mandela’s release. Who can say how many opinions were changed because of public prayer, year after year, reminding worshippers of the bigger context in which we practice our faith? How much did prayer contribute to the success of those campaigns? It’s not easy to measure but our prayers were part of the picture, a statement of belief about the kind of world we want to live in and our faith that God can work through us to make it possible.

Prayer is a revolutionary act because it declares that we are not merely individuals with our own views and needs but that we join in with a world-wide body, connected to each other and connected through God. I remember being in Russia some years ago. On the Sunday I went to a Methodist Church and felt very at home – not just because the notices were longer than the sermon! As I walked in someone was playing the tune of ‘One more step along the world I go’ on an out of tune piano and the flowers were in a vase made from an old plastic soft drink bottle. In the midst of the mundane and largely uninspiring, I found myself praying with people who spoke no English, as I spoke no Russian; and in that space we were connected. God heard all our prayers regardless of the words used. The following day I visited an Orthodox church, entering the building just as the choir sang, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus – holy, holy, holy and suddenly I was in the temple with Isaiah and the glory of God’s train filled the place and tears poured down my non-conformist cheeks as I was transported into the divine presence. The liturgy in that place had remained unchanged for hundreds of years and somehow managed to speak to my modern heart and connected me not just with Christians of this century but also with the people of God all the way back to the day the prophet received his call in God’s temple.

Prayer is a revolutionary act because it is an act of empathy. When the assumption of many world leaders and most of the media is that the spirit of the age is ‘everyone for themselves and let the devil take the hindmost’ – empathy is the opposite. It recognises the other, values the other’s needs and recognises that God’s heart is not with those who exploit the poor and vulnerable but that it is with those spoken of by Jesus in Luke 4. God longs to draw to our attention the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed. To pray is the starting point of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour – prayer leads to jubilee. Prayer can be an act of solidarity, holding before God those who need support and in doing so reminding ourselves of our own need for prayer.

When we pray we really do need to listen more than we speak. As it says in the Epistle of James, be quick to listen and slow to speak – that is as meaningful in the context of prayer as it is in our human communications. When we listen to God, when we come close to God’s heart, we cannot fail to hear God’s longing for the wellbeing of the orphan, the widow, the refugee. If our hearts beat with the passion of God, then prayer can only lead to action.  When drawn into the heart of God we cannot fail to join in with God’s agenda of radical grace and transforming hope.

True prayer leads not to a sense of having done our bit but to a profound longing to transform the world, restoring it to the good creation which is God’s gift to the created.

Finally, I want to say that prayer is a revolutionary act because it is poetry. As a poet and a liturgist, I might be seen as a bit biased about this! Prayer is poetry in the face of a world where words are used as weapons or only have value if they help you pass exams in an education system of narrow curricula aimed at feeding more human material into a broken system. Poetry can be a decanting of human experience, capturing that which is too big or complex for us to understand or fully express, in a few words.

Prayer is a cry in the dark,
            a child’s longing for home,
            and a hollowed soul’s seeking of fulfilment.

Prayer is a two-fingered salute 
            to the hope-less cynicism of endless false promises
            and a bunting-waving celebration of love in action.

Prayer is a sacred space,
            found in the midst of the unholiest of battlegrounds
            and in the desolation of loss.

Prayer is a memory
            of long lost conversations with wise elders
            and an exuberance of youthful anticipation.

Prayer is a shared longing, 
a whispered dream
and an open conversation.

Prayer is a revolutionary act
            It is hope in despair
            And a grace-filled weaving of love’s intent.

May God bless us with the desire to pray, that we might better act, for the sake of all. Amen.


Michaela Youngson
September 2018 (Prayer Breakfast – Labour Party Conference)

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Launch of Christian |Action on Tax Justice

Church Action for Tax Justice – Launch 17thApril 2018




Michaela Youngson
President Designate of the Methodist Conference
Chair of the London District of the Methodist Church


Tax is one of those subjects that many people in the church find it difficult to engage with – sometimes it’s because we can’t get our heads round the numbers involved or understand the legal framework we are working in, other times it is just that we find talking about money at all unpalatable – yet Jesus did not hold back when it came to talking about money or calling for justice, and the early church demonstrated an active commitment to a fair distribution of wealth.

I would like to affirm that the Methodist Church believes strongly paying tax fairly within both the letter and the intent of the law and to a best ethical approach in terms of our own investments and is working towards ensuring that the organisations we invest in and do business with demonstrate rigour and good practice.

By supporting the establishment of Church Action for Tax Justice, the Methodist Church demonstrates our commitment to working in partnership with others in campaigning for changes in the law, when the law and its application fail to deliver justice.

The most obvious reason for taxation is to pay for the services we need to enable our society to function and even flourish. As a Church leader in London and a resident in the Borough of Brent I can see first-hand how, when resources are not distributed fairly, then wider injustice is an inevitable outcome.  

We know that decisions regarding public funding have a direct consequence on events on the ground. This has come sharply into focus in the last few weeks as we have heard with horror, the number of young people murdered on the streets of London. For those of us leading funerals, supporting the bereaved and cleaning up the blood from our pavements, decisions made about how to use tax revenues for public services are not a matter of theory, rather they are a matter of life and death.

Straightforward questions about the number of police and community support officers on our streets are being asked. Questions about the eradication of publically funded youth work, the pressure on mental health services in particular and the NHS in general are being asked. The answers offered are not straightforward and the ideal of subsidiarity becomes a means of passing the blame to local decision makers, whilst ceasing to pass them the bucks they need to meet the needs of their communities in a fair and well-resourced way.

According to Trust For London's Poverty profile, 37% of children in London and 42% in inner city boroughs, live below the poverty line.[1]For this to be true in the capital city in one of the world’s six richest nations is a disgrace. 

When we link the words ‘tax’ and ‘justice’ we move from a neutral ethical position to an engagement with inequalities, not just in London of course, but across the UK and globally. Good, ethical tax policies support people in times of need and allows them to contribute to building communities in which all can flourish. 

My hope for Christian Action on Tax Justice is that it will help churches to understand the gospel-inspired call to justice, through fair taxation, that can lift people from the traps of inequality and exclusion. I hope we can shift the narrative around tax away from it being a dirty word, or a necessary evil, but rather a blessing and a means of all citizens having a stake in a generous society that cares for all.  




Friday, 30 March 2018

Good Friday - Pause for thought

Pause for Thought

Good Friday 2018

One of my favourite memories is, as an 18 year old, spending time on a camping holiday in southern France. I remember visiting the beautiful medieval citadel at the heart of the city of Carcassone. Ancient walls wrap around the citadel on top of a hill, and in between the walls are tiny streets full of stall holders and shops, selling crafts and fabulous French food to tourists who flock to the city in their thousands.

Carcassone has been in the news over the last week because of the heroic actions of one of its citizens, Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame, the gendarme who willingly took the place of a hostage in a dangerous siege in Trèbes. The gunman had already killed three people before setting up with hostages in a supermarket. Lt Col Beltrame, walked unarmed into the situation. Most of us can hardly imagine the courage it must have taken to do such a thing and we wonder what would motivate someone to lay down their life for another person. Things ended tragically for Arnaud Beltrame and the people of France have rightly been paying tribute to his heroism in the last few days.

Good Friday is the day when Christians mark the death of Jesus Christ and we remember his self-giving act of love, that ended in his crucifixion. I believe he was killed because he spoke up for those who were downtrodden, for poor and sick people, children and women. Those in power did not like such courageous honesty; they enjoyed their privilege and Jesus was a threat to their comfort and to the status quo. 

As with the French Gendarme, we wonder what would lead someone to be so brave – the only answer I can find is love. There is no greater love than to give one’s life for a friend – the love which motivated Jesus to be willing to die did not end when Jesus was laid in the tomb. I believe that beyond the resurrection, beyond the story that is now 2,000 years old, the same love continues. That love is in every act of kindness, every act of self-giving care and every time someone speaks uncomfortable truth to those in power. Surely it was love that was at the heart of Arnaud Beltrame’s actions – and it is love that makes it possible to keep going even in the face of great loss. The Christian festival of Easter celebrates that love defeats hate and, in the end, is more powerful than death.