Tag Archives: Humility

Breaking the silence at Yarl’s Wood

On 24th March, M and I got on a 7am train to travel to Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford. We went to join a solidarity demonstration, aiming to give support and encouragement to the (mostly) women inside the centre who were themselves protesting their treatment. 120 of the detainees had been on hunger strike for a month, and we felt so moved by that show of courage and desperation that we felt we had to show up to support them and do what we could to make their voices heard.

Yarl’s Wood is an immigration detention centre. People who do not yet have leave to remain in the UK can be raided and taken to these centres, and locked up there indefinitely. Sometimes they are released, sometimes they are deported, and often without notice. Those detained may be undocumented immigrants, or they may be detained during the process of claiming asylum. They may have had asylum claims rejected and are either in the process of appealing their rejection, or have been left destitute with no means of leaving the country (and in any case, nowhere to go to if they feel that ‘home’ is no longer safe for them). It is government policy that asylum seekers may neither work nor claim benefits, so that if their claim is rejected they are often left destitute, in theory to ‘persuade’ them to leave.

Claiming asylum is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If a person is in danger and has to flee their country, they may claim asylum on arrival in the first country they arrive in after escaping. If the receiving country finds their claims to be reasonable, they must accept the person and give them protection as a refugee. But countries such as the UK make it a very difficult process. As part of the policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ towards immigration, targets are set for the number of deportations, which means officials are under pressure to reject as many claims as possible to keep numbers of accepted refugees small. As a result, asylum seekers are often lied to or given confusing and conflicted information on arrival about the proper process to making a claim, meaning they can easily be refused refugee status later when it is shown they didn’t follow procedure. If they do claim, they can be kept waiting long periods, refused arbitrarily and forced to go through long appeals processes, made to give concrete proof of their claims, or provide documentation they cannot obtain without putting themselves further at risk. Conversely, they may be ‘fast tracked’, giving them just days to make their case. And all the while, they may be detained and risk deportation.

We first became aware of what was happening a few years back, when a couple we knew were detained, mistreated and deported.

The husband was involved in a political party in his home country, but his political involvement attracted the attentions of a rival, more extreme political group that were known for ‘disappearing’ political opponents. Realising they were in danger, but not understanding their rights to asylum, the couple decided to escape to the UK where they could study towards their profession under student visas. When their studies and visas ended, they then tried to claim asylum, but were rejected as they hadn’t claimed on arrival. They appealed the decision; whilst in the UK, the situation back home had deteriorated. His brother had been hunted down and murdered by the extremists, and furthermore, the couple had become Christians here, which put them at additional risk of persecution back home (and was also how we had come to know them). They went through lengthy appeals; they had the documentation necessary to prove their identities, their political involvement, the activities of the rival group, their relation to the murdered man, his death and the facts surrounding it, and there was plenty of evidence for their new faith being genuine. At the end of the process, their claims were eventually thrown out on the grounds that, as corruption existed in their country, they could in theory have bribed multiple agencies to falsify all the documents. There was no evidence that they could provide that would be accepted in any circumstance, simply because of their country of origin. (That is particularly awful; I challenge you to find me a country in which corruption is completely absent.)

Now pregnant, the couple were detained, I believe in a sudden raid, and taken to Yarl’s Wood. Whilst there, we got word that the husband was being physically abused. The church attempted to gain access to him, to have his wounds investigated, and gain access to a legal investigation into how he had been hurt, but this was denied. The border agency then made a rushed, botched attempt to deport them. The private security firm guards contracted by the agency tried to force them to board a flight to their country of origin; when they struggled to resist this and screamed for help, they were both beaten, subjected to anti-Christian abuse, and handcuffed so tightly that their hands turned blue due to loss of blood circulation. Other passengers on the aircraft who expressed concern were told not to worry, and that the guards would keep them safe from the ‘illegals’ who were making such an unruly racket. The pilot then intervened, and upon seeing how the couple were being treated by the guards, ordered them all to leave the aircraft.

Eventually the agency managed to deport them by separating them, holding them in solitary confinement in different detention centres for a period, and then misinforming both of them that the other had been deported so that they finally consented to be taken. We heard from them shortly after their return that they had immediately fled the country again and were now in hiding over the border. Thankfully their baby survived.

What outrages me most about this process is that people fleeing danger in their own countries are treated with fewer rights than criminals, despite having done nothing wrong. I accept that our country’s resources and capacity to help are not infinite, and also that some bogus claimants will try to play the system, and that it is legitimate (though in my opinion not necessarily moral) to want to exclude such people and ensure that they use legal means of entering the country if they wish to do so. But I don’t accept that we should deny compassion and human rights to anyone, especially those who come to us claiming to be in grave danger and seeking a safe refuge.

Even the most dangerous serial killer is considered innocent until proven guilty (this is because it is easier to disprove a person’s claim to innocence by producing evidence of their culpability than it is to produce evidence that nothing happened, as well as to avoid the possibility of a miscarriage of justice). They must be given a fair trial. They have access to legal representation, medical care, and protection of their lives. Once they are found guilty, they are given a defined sentence. Once they are locked up, they lose their freedom for the duration of that sentence, but are still given adequate food, clothing and medical care, and allowed contact with their families unless deemed dangerous to them.

But an innocent person seeking sanctuary, who has committed no crime but may have escaped a war zone, or torture, or persecution due to their religious or political beliefs or sexuality, is considered guilty until proven innocent. They can be detained without warning, and without trial, denied access to legal representation and medical care. Their detention can be of any undefined duration. And whilst detained, they may not be given adequate nutrition or medical care and may be held in solitary confinement, without access to their families or other detainees. And all this is extremely damaging to a person’s physical and mental health.

Human rights abuses are occurring. In addition to taking away a person’s freedom, access to adequate care, dignity and rights to a fair trial and determined period of detention, there are allegations from former detainees of physical, sexual and emotional abuse taking place within the secretive confines of the detention centres, away from public scrutiny, so numerous that such treatment may be the norm.

When we heard the women of Yarl’s Wood were on hunger strike as a result, we felt we couldn’t stand by and do nothing to back them up.

When we arrived at Yarl’s Wood, we saw a large, long accommodation block, surrounded by a tall, green security fence and CCTV cameras. Outside the fence, stretching most of the length of it, was a crowd of fellow demonstrators, many of whom were themselves former detainees of Yarl’s Wood or other centres, with PA systems set up. Inside the fence, though the windows of the centre were only able to be opened a hand width, we saw the vague shapes of many women detainees in the windows, heard their voices calling for freedom, human dignity and closure of detention centres, and saw their waving hands. Many of them had put up placards in the windows with slogans such as ‘No human is illegal’, and some were waving bras(!) or beating the windows with plastic bottles. Placards on the outside of the fence held encouraging messages about other detention centres that had been closed down. The demonstrators had put up a phone number that detainees could call to be put through to speak to us over the PA, and between chanting (‘Yarl’s Wood – shut it down!’) and beating on the fence to make a noise that the detainees could hear to know we were there with them, we were addressed by speakers from both sides of the fence. It was incredibly powerful; the stories we heard and the courage evident in the detainees’ protest were moving and humbling.

We heard both current and former detainees tell their stories. Some had escaped torture. Several were in danger of persecution or of the death penalty for their sexuality (they told of the difficulty and humiliation of having to try to prove their sexuality). One was in danger because of her opposition to the government. Some could not speak of what they had escaped. They told how they were qualified in fields such as nursing and engineering. We heard from some how they longed for home, but could never return whilst the danger persisted, from others how frustrating it was to be unable to do the jobs they were qualified for here and realise their potential.

We heard story after story detailing demeaning treatment from officials, of dismissed evidence, of being detained without warning in dawn raids. We heard of lies they’d been told whilst in detention to repeatedly raise and dash hope, amounting to psychological abuse (the worst example was from one of the current detainees, telling us how another couple had suddenly been summoned early one morning, told they were being released and to pack because they would be leaving in a mere matter of hours, and being overjoyed – only to find it was a deportation attempt). Several reported that detainees were offered a paracetamol for any medical complaint, regardless what it was or how severe, so that detainees themselves sometimes had to call an ambulance to gain proper medical attention, and of suicide attempts being met with removal of possessions and humiliating denial of privacy as the suicidal person was put under constant watch. And we heard that they were offered ‘work’ such as cooking, decorating, cleaning and repairs at the centre – for £1 a day! Tantamount to slavery, and assisting in their own detention. Several former detainees had told how they had been detained and released multiple times.

We also heard stories of courageous resistance; of hunger strikers, of detainees standing up to the authorities, of those put to work in the centres deliberately being non-cooperative (for example, one man told how, made to work in the kitchen, he had emptied a pan onto the floor in front of the guard who was ordering him to work). Former detainees urged those inside to stay strong, to keep resisting, to make life difficult for their captors (one spoke of how he had been accepting and compliant during his first detention, believing what he was told about his release being sped up if he behaved well, but found that those who made the most trouble were released sooner, and had subsequently learned to fight back), and to believe that change is possible and that we were here supporting them. They told them the authorities were running scared, and encouraged them to keep up the pressure.

These people showed tremendous strength of character, enduring and resisting under conditions I don’t doubt for a moment would break me. I was profoundly humbled.

It was clear that the process was both inhumane and damaging for individuals, but also ineffective and costly to the state.

These detainees strike me as brave, educated people, wanting to contribute to society and with so much to offer; already brave in escaping such awful dangers, they are now speaking out for justice in a shamefully hostile environment here. I was humbled and inspired by their bravery and strength. I felt honoured to have the chance to meet some of them, to hear their stories, and I couldn’t help feel that these heroic individuals could only be of benefit to our society for their courage, compassion, wisdom and determination to see the world change for the better. The more I heard, the more I was inspired to keep speaking out with them.

Short-term, I want to see asylum seekers treated like (suspected) criminals – and it appals me that that would be an improvement on the current situation. I want to see the hunger strikers’ demands* met. I want to see asylum seekers informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained. Medium-term, I hope one day we can see the end of detention all together, and a much fairer and more compassionate approach to asylum.

Long-term… I dream of a world that is safer and more equal, where people can move freely as they choose, where borders are reduced to a line of an address and an administrative convenience, and no longer deny anyone’s freedom. So long as some countries are relatively poor, dangerous or unstable there will naturally always be both a flow of refugees and a separate pressure of net migration away from them, but I believe the better response to this (though more difficult) is to work towards the prosperity, stability and safety of those places, rather than to close the borders of our country and our hearts against those trying to find a better life here.

Break the silence, cross every border that divides us, unite us…’

– Delirious?, Break The Silence

Below is a copy of a letter I’ve written to my MP; if you want, please feel free to use this as a template to write to your own MP, though I’d advise you to put it into your own words since I’ve written it from my own perspective as someone who attended the demonstration and heard these stories first-hand. You can send an email to your MP quickly and easily here, all you need to know is your own postcode as the site finds your MP’s name and contact details for you from that.

I recommend the Detained Voices blog for more stories from inside the detention centres, and Liberty for more on asylum and human rights.


Dear MP,

On 24th March, after hearing that 120 detainees had been on a month-long hunger strike in protest at their treatment, we went to attend a solidarity demonstration at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. I want to tell you what we saw and heard there, and ask you to speak up on their behalf and mine as one of your concerned constituents.

(I here added much of what I’ve written above)

I believe human rights abuses are taking place in these detention centres and in the asylum system as a whole. It appals me that people who have committed no crime but are fleeing danger and horrors are given worse treatment and fewer rights than even the most dangerous criminals. I want to at the very least see asylum seekers treated like suspected criminals: I want to see them informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained.

Please would you do all you can to put pressure on the government to:

Short-term:

  • Meet the demands of the hunger strikers (which are detailed below*, as written by them)

    Longer-term:

  • Close detention centres like Yarl’s Wood and move towards a fairer, more humane process
  • End the ‘hostile environment’ policy to immigration

Our country is not ‘full’, and I believe there is plenty of capacity, will and ability to help many more people seeking sanctuary than we are currently. Furthermore it is inhumane to set quotas on the numbers of people fleeing for their lives who we will help.

I want to see the government stand up to xenophobic rhetoric head on and assert the UK as a place of safety for those in genuine need of it, as far as we possibly can as a prosperous nation, whilst working towards a safer world, tackling the dangers that force people to flee their countries in the first place.

Thank you for your time.


*The demands of the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers:

1. Shorter bail request periods
Legally it should 3-5 days, however it can take anywhere up to 21 days, or even a month before you get a bail hearing date

2. Amnesty for those who have lived in the UK 10 years and above

3. End indefinite detention
Detention periods shouldn’t be longer than 28 days

4. End Charter flights
Charter flights are inhumane because there are no prior notifications, or only an oral notification with no warning. They give no time to make arrangements with family.

5. No more re-detention
Redention should not be allowed – if you have been detained once, you should not be re-detained if you are complying with the laws they have applied. This is a contradiction, you are being punished for complying with the law; it ruins the whole purpose of expecting compliance

6. End systematic torture
Systematic torture takes place in detention – at any point an officer could turn up and take your room mate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next. Those who are suicidal now have their privacy taken away because they are being watched – you don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or coming to take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later

7. Stop separating families
Separating families is inhumane – people in here are married or have British partners and have children outside, and they are denied their right to private life and right to privacy; their Article 8 rights

8. No detention of people who came to the UK as children
Young adults who came to the country as minors should not be detained, deported or punished for their parents’ immigration histories

9. The beds need to be changed
Some of us have been here for a year on the same bed; they’re the most uncomfortable beds

10. LGBT+ persons’ sexuality be believed
It should be understood that explaining your sexuality is difficult

11. Fit emergency alarms in every room in the detention centre
Only some rooms have them, and there have been a lot of cases of people being very ill in places where they can’t call for help

12. Give us access to proper healthcare

13. Give us proper food to look after our diets

14. Release people with outstanding applications

15. We want to speak to Alistair Burt MP for the constituency

Advertisements

Home…

And suddenly, just like that, they’re gone, as a wave sweeps clean away a sandcastle, leaving the beach a blank canvas for the next day’s adventure…

I was barely home from tour* myself when the wave first arrived, still processing all the memories in my mind, still figuring out the lessons I’d been learning on this journey. Switchfoot’s #home wave. They were not just home from the European tour; they were really home.

Jon himself first broke the news in an interview, that the teasing wave was a sign of a sea change; my band are taking a ‘hiatus’, at least from touring, and as for the future, simply ‘we’ll see’.

Ahhhh…. I knew about it already, after speaking with them and their crew during the tour and them telling us they were taking a year off from touring. So one one level, this is no surprise. On the other – it really hit hearing it from Jon. Moreover, rightly or wrongly, this seems to have developed from ‘a year out from touring’ to ‘an indefinite hiatus’. Here is the official announcement.

I am immensely proud of my Switchfam; everyone has taken it so well, the response overwhelmingly full of love, understanding and positivity, even though I know there’s also fear and sadness. We evidently care about them first as humans and not just as a band, and understand they need to do this.

For myself – honestly I feel everything. The day it came out, I had to take a long walk to disentangle my head and heart, name my feelings and get my thoughts in order. It’s all overwhelmingly positive; relief, joy, excitement, encouragement, happiness for them, certainty over my own plans, hope, trust, honour, deep gratitude… but also a lurking fear, and yes, grief. Light and heavy.

Emotionally, I am left carrying so much, and spending a few weeks off social media (and therefore away from friends who get what I’m experiencing) during Advent whilst this wave was breaking all around me has been very tough.

To call Switchfoot my favourite band would probably have been sufficient 15 years ago. But today they are so, so much more to me than that. It’s impossible to adequately explain, or to say just what they mean to me, but they’ve been part of my life for 18 years, given me so much support and guidance over that time, have become (in purely human terms) my greatest heroes and inspiration, and we’ve become extended family, again in a more real sense than is easily explained. I can’t claim at all to be personally friends with them, not even close, but there is still real relationship there.

This latest tour contained the very best shows I’ve ever experienced. The guys were mixing up the setlists a lot more, really on top of it, and it felt like they could do anything. I’ve now had moments of connection with each of them, moments when they let their guards down and let me in a little. I came away from it with a profound sense of grace, that it’s all enough. Jon has given me more than enough already and owes me absolutely nothing. At all. And God… so, so much more so. Everything, every breath, is a mercy gift, and to have been given so much more on top leaves me deeply humbled. I ended the tour by walking the labyrinth at Norwich Cathedral, meditating on the incredible journeys of grace that have marked the past 18 years, both with my band and with my God, in silent awe, and worship of the Grace-Giver.

It’s all deepened my understanding of this strange phenomenon that is fan-love. I’ve already learnt that it is more of a two-way process than I thought, that artists need to experience the personal support of their fans. But what is it that I want and need from Jon? Only that he continues to make music that reaches me, and that I can continue to find ways to communicate back to him my thanks and support, even from afar (and hopefully to learn to do this better!).

Like all love, it reaches for eternity; I don’t ever want this distant ‘conversation’ to end. The lovemiles I can live with. Even a temporary silence. But I want us to remain a part of each other’s lives, and if I’m honest, in moments like this when I see clearly its fragility, I fear to lose that. This break brings to the surface both the fear of losing Switchfoot altogether, but also a huge sense of relief, that they are clearly not going to plough on until they burn themselves out prematurely, but are thinking about sustaining themselves longterm.

I still ache after 8(?) years without Delirious?, who were never much more to me than a favourite band. The grief has softened with time, but I still feel it. I enjoy the music similarly in both cases, but Switchfoot… through the lyrics and the journey I’ve been on with them it’s become a lot, lot more; deeper, more personal, more influential on my journey, more connected with them and the fan family. And my God works in me through them. They matter immensely, musically, collectively and as individuals. And I don’t know how this will pan out. Neither do they. Everything is wide open just now. And the combination of gratitude and grief, and a myriad other things that I’m carrying is overwhelming.

This is my constant reality. I live always with the separation and the knowledge that I may never see them again. That is not new to me. Everything is grace upon grace, nothing taken for granted. I know very well, and have even said already, that I know it could have been the last time for me. But this new twist brings it all home. I feel it full on now, all the distance, the feeling of the bonds I’ve been building up all year tearing, the possibility it could all change. The unknown. The what-happens-when-the-end-comes. This isn’t it, but it makes me see with a raw freshness how finite everything is.

But I also know this is real love, love that can let go freely, knowing to do so is in the best interests of the other, and will not cling on. It is wonderful seeing them all so excited, feeling the love and enjoying the freedom of normal life. And I trust.

The strongest and most powerful emotion I’m experiencing just now is the thankfulness. These past 18 years, and this year more than anything, have been grace upon grace upon grace, to the point I’m moved to thankful tears whenever a fresh realisation hits. The songs, the shows, the sheer amount of time and music we’ve been blessed with, the aftershows and side projects and writings and laughs and life examples… I cannot ask for more! I’m even still riding the highs from this year’s shows. I am so, so happy and thankful!

And I know enough to truly believe they sincerely intend to be back again, and are even now only talking about ceasing one aspect, touring – which I myself have previously even encouraged them to think about! They work incredibly hard; it’s absolutely deserved.

I think they are playing for keeps – and so am I. There will be more sandcastles yet.


*The rest of my blog following Switchfoot’s second Looking for Europe tour starts here

An ocean of plastic

I’m a 34 year old environmental scientist, and I’ve just been schooled by a nursery on an environmental issue.

All eyes seem to be on the subject of plastic pollution at present, thanks to the combined efforts of environmental groups from Surfers Against Sewage to Greenpeace, the takeup by large businesses who are getting rid of or phasing out single use plastics like straws, and of course the BBC wildlife show Blue Planet.

Personally, I’ve felt closer to the issue since living near the coast, and seeing how much rubbish washes up on the strandline every day. I try and remember to take a rubbish bag with me when I go to the beach to do a spot of beach cleaning before I leave.

But it was the news last week of a nursery school ‘banning’ glitter to reduce microplastic pollution that really got me thinking.

I love glitter! I have a stash of it myself, which I use for crafts and homemade cards, and more in the form of makeup, which I use for samba performances, gigs, parties and festivals. It sounds ridiculous to me now, but it had simply not occurred to me that most of it is made of tiny pieces of plastic, which end up in the environment.

I was well aware of the plastic pollution issue, that the plastics we don’t see can be even more harmful than the ones we see on the beach, of the microbeads added to certain cosmetics and cleaners, and the damage they cause, and would never knowingly buy or use them. I also know that when we throw or wash something away that there is no ‘away’; everything ends up somewhere, be it landfill or sewage treatment or eventually the oceans. But it turns out I had a sparkly blind spot!

It got me thinking. Where else am I releasing plastics into the environment without realising? The stuff that my home recycling bin gets shamefully full of is the obvious stuff. But if glitter is a plastic then that can’t be the end of it.

My toenails are currently painted blue. A small piece of varnish chipped off a couple of days ago whilst I was in the shower and I saw it wash down the drain. Varnish. Plastic. Hmm. I can try and stop bits going down the drain I suppose by being more careful with it, not getting it outside the edges of the nails in the first place so it doesn’t wash off my skin, and removing it and binning the paper I removed it with once it threatens to chip… but maybe I should stop using it, or at least see if there’s a truly biodegradable alternative. I now genuinely wonder if there’s plastic in any of my other cosmetics?

My mind wandered back to a conversation with my dad a while back. He’s already switched on to this, and is busy replacing most of his wardrobe with natural fibres. Now I’m thinking of it, that makes sense. How much dust and fluff do our clothes and furnishings give off all the time? If they are made of synthetic fibres, that is more microplastics that we’re releasing into the environment every time we do laundry, empty the vacuum cleaner, or even in tiny quantities just whilst out and about.

And today I’m working on some DIY. I just scrubbed a painted wall I am renovating with a scourer, and the water coming off it contained tiny flecks of white paint and green scourer. I flushed it away… but there is no away, right? Cleaning sponges, cloths and scourers are made of plastics and synthetic fibres too (as is the paint – at least what I’m replacing it with is a less plastic based mineral paint, even if that’s not perfect!), and as they wear, they are losing tiny plastic particles into the water. The same goes for my plastic chopping board and utensils in the kitchen.

My life is full of plastic!!

I know I can’t fix the problem by myself and that my own impact is small compared to the scale of the problem. I also know it may not be that smart to throw away useable items just because of this. But I am thinking about it now. Maybe when it comes to replacing things I’ll think a bit more carefully about what I replace them with. There are alternatives out there, even including eco glitter, as a colleague of mine joyfully shared with me! Maybe I can become more conscious of what I am releasing into our water and soils in future, and take better care over the small things.


Edit: Someone else is talking about this too in this article, which identifies tyre wear and tear on roads, alongside other sources we might not have considered. I’m wondering if we need not only to tackle plastics at source in manufacturing, but also develop new water treatment techniques that somehow remove microplastics before they enter the environment or drinking supply…

Prayer practise

The other day I rediscovered a prayer practice I used to use and found took me on some real adventures with God. I learnt it (or something like it) on a retreat about 10 years back, and have had some amazing encounters through it. If you want to try it, it goes something like this:

  • Ground yourself; be mindful. Do this in whatever way you find helpful. For me, I like to try to consciously become aware of my senses, rather than paying attention to my thoughts. You might find focusing on your breathing, or a candle, or relaxing your body, or repeating a simple word or prayer helps. Then;
  • Let God look at you. Just become aware of God’s gaze on you, and God’s presence.
  • Imagine God asking you ‘What do you want me to do for you?’, as Jesus often asks the people who come to Him in the Gospels.
  • Respond however feels right, and just let your imagination go wherever it wants to with it.

I’ve often been surprised what my response turns out to be, there in the moment with Jesus asking me what I want of Him. It’s often not what I thought.

When I did this the other day, my response was ‘I want to see You work through me. I want to be an empty space through which You can reach into the world.’

At that point, the image of ‘handmaids’ popped into my head; and I sensed the response immediately: ‘You are so, so much more than that to me. This is a partnership. I could break through and intervene through you if I wanted to, but that’s not how it works. You’re not a slave to be exploited. You want a push-button quick solution. I want the better way, not the easy way. It means putting in the hard work of relationship. You need to press into me, know me, follow me.’

Wow! I hope I’m brave enough.

I wrote about this in my diary, and mistakenly wrote it down as a ‘prayer practise’; but actually I do need to practise this prayer, to have more God encounters to challenge me, to help me know God more closely, and so that there can be more God and less self manifesting in my life.

Singing dangerous prayers against the darkness

God’s taken me and my church on an amazing worship journey these past few weeks. We’ve been studying the first letter of John, and singing all the dangerous prayers. It’s all felt extremely timely.

I’ve found it very difficult to write recently; the political situation we’re in is unlike anything I’ve seen before and evolving rapidly. I wonder what I can say into the face of it that won’t be an irrelevance a week later, or what I have to add to the clamour of voices already speaking loudly, especially when I don’t think any of us have navigated anything like this before and none of us entirely know the way. If I’m honest, I’m fumbling along in the dark trying to find what love looks like just as much as anyone else!

 

But then, into our chaos, God speaks.

 

The teaching in church over the last few weeks has looked at 1 John, which was written to a church suffering from the effects of false claims, which were causing division in the church. Truth itself was under attack, and the Christian community was finding itself fractured. So John writes to assure the church that there is a real truth we can be sure of, in Jesus, and then sets out how we can know it better.

If we want to know where to walk, we need light to be able to see the path. Walking in the light as he calls it is not about whether or not we are ‘saved’, but about how well we know God. We must press into God to see clearly. Honesty and accountability are the path to better relationships with one another and with God, and when we are able to live in total honest openness like this, the truth can be seen and known and division healed. Before we leapt to making judgements of others, we must look honestly at ourselves and see the roots of the same problems in us. And all can be forgiven!

Jesus is our standard against which we must measure truth and love. The more we know Him, the more we can discern these things. And His love, real love, is a love that sacrifices itself, its own interests, and its very life for others and for the benefit of the wider community.

We live in dark times, as truth is under attack and we are being divided against one another. But we can face down and overcome the darkness by striving for closeness with God, personal purity coupled with a transparency and humility that keeps us on the right track and helps build connection with others, and sacrificial love.

 

And then the worship! I don’t know how intentional this has been (I like to think it has been), but most of the songs we have been singing these past few weeks have been the surrender songs*. Big, dangerous prayers, reminding us that we follow a God who became a perfect example of surrendered sacrifice and who is worth everything, and committing ourselves to laying down our lives for God’s work in the world. I say dangerous, because if we really take what we sing seriously and are prepared to let God take us up on our words, we could find ourselves called into painfully sacrificial love for the benefit of God’s people and plans. Laying down our lives is going to hurt! But here we are singing these words, over and over, and I believe truly desiring God’s will be done in and through us, whatever the cost.

And it’s not just been music; on one week we looked back at the bold prayers we’d been encouraged to pray a few months earlier, and to be encouraged by the answers we’d seen to keep up the bold prayers. One week as part of our worship we spent a while praying over our involvement in the world and in politics, that we as a church can bring light into the world.

And a holy silence has descended between these powerful songs as we have sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit working in us. We can be a very reserved church at times, but it’s seemed the Spirit has been at work, breaking down our reservedness, and I’ve never heard this congregation sing so passionately or keep such profound silences.

 

It’s made me wonder about the implications for me personally; here I am, laying aside my claims to a career (which still eludes me) and an easy, comfortable life, and pledging myself to Christ in the battle for truth and love…. I just don’t know how my life and the world situations I find myself in will pan out. I’m aware it could get very difficult and unpleasant, but also that God is worth it all; though I wonder, am I brave enough, should it come to real sacrifice..?

But bigger than my own life, it has felt as if we are being commissioned as a community to face up to the darkness we face in this troubled world, and lay ourselves down in God’s service to work to bring light, and love, and truth, and restoration. Will we take up the call?

 

At the end of one of our worship sessions, an image came to me as we sang; I saw the church standing together, facing a great crowd of terrible dark monsters, but singing out against the darkness these songs of surrender. And the darkness cowered in fear as we sang!

 

* I mean, just look at these songs and lyrics! –
Jesus, be the centre (be my hope, be my song, be my path, be my guide, be the reason that I live…)
Jesus, all for Jesus (all I am and have and ever hope to be, all of my amvitions, hopes and plans, I surrender these into Your hands, for it’s only in Your will that I am free…)
Receive our adoration (we choose to leave it all behind and turn our eyes towards the prize, the upward call of God in Christ, You have our hearts, Lord, take our lives, receive our adoration Jesus, Lamb (sacrifice) of God, how wonderful You are…)
Amazing grace
Blessed be Your name (You give and take away, my heart will choose to say blessed be Your name…)
I surrender all I am to the Saviour who surrendered all for me
Take my life and let it be…
Mighty to save (take me as You find me, all my fears and failures, fill my life again, I give my life to follow everything I believe in, now I surrender…)
This is my desire (I give You my heart, I give You my soul, I live for You alone, every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake, Lord have Your way in me…)
All to Jesus I surrender…
Jesus, lover of my soul (it’s not about me, as if You should do things my way, You alone are God and I surrender to Your ways…)

Dirt and eagles 2

I don’t normally like unpacking my poetry; I prefer a poem to speak for itself and mean what it will to the reader. I’m also aware of the irony of adding words to a piece about silence! But I want to explore this a little more.

These words welled up one day when I was feeling overwhelmed, as a result of processing some of the things I’d read and listened to recently into prayer. A mixture of broken relationships, insecurities about money and failure, and deeper questions over my purpose and calling in life pressed on me to an extent that threatened to block both my way forward and my perspective on the bigger things of life, and recognising that, I realised I needed to find a way to pray it through. But some of this is stuff I’ve been wrestling with for years, praying through, laying before God in tears, ranting over… God has heard it all before, nothing is new. Even so, I needed God in it, and I needed some perspective.

And a few things I’d read recently sprang to mind; some words from a book I’ve been reading*, which mentioned Lam 3:28-29 almost in passing in the context of silent prayer, the book of Lamentations itself, which I was drawn to to explore the context of this some more, Isa 40:31, discussed at my church homegroup in the context of trusting God’s timing, and finally a group prayer meditation I’ve used previously, based on Psalm 121, which has helped me shift perspective before. I began with this, leading myself through it as I went out for a cycle ride to clear my head, and found myself arriving at these words.

My train of thought went something like this. We’re always surrounded by immediate problems in this life, and they do matter. Right now they’re certainly much bigger than I am! But the world is even bigger, and full of problems we still need to take on sometimes, things beyond our own immediate lives, but that affect what it’s like to live in this world – the big things in the lives of our friends and family, war, climate change, poverty, all kinds of suffering. It takes a deliberate effort for me when feeling overwhelmed to see through to these bigger things. But then when I do, they too begin to press down on me and block my way to what I need to do now, and to a wider perspective. The only ways I know to move out of the paralysis it causes are to either try to block it all out, or to deliberately find a way to see it all through God’s eyes. Sometimes I can draw on words that have brought me back to hope in the past. Sometimes I’m too overwhelmed and it’s not enough.

This time I felt in need of God’s presence and perspective but all out of words to help me express it in prayer. The passage in the book I’d read that pointed me towards Lamentations struck a chord somewhere. Silent prayer, simply placing self humbly before God, face down in the dirt… maybe hope will be found there? As I read Lamentations I was struck by the terrible situation it describes. The people were under siege, and turning in desperation to murder and cannibalism to survive. The prophet writer is so moved he exclaims that there is no hope, that his trust in God is gone. The people had tried looking for solutions everywhere the humanly could. They’d called to God to hear their cries. They’d wept. But the possibility of hope comes in this one verse; silent, face to the round. God is the only thing we can trust.

I’m under no illusions; I’m not facing anything remotely like this level of desperation and despair, and it was almost perspective enough just to read it. But it made me think: I’d been looking all over for answers, trying all kinds of doors to see if any of them might led to a solution. I’d complained and ranted to God. I’d wept. Maybe I just needed to stop. Be still. Be aware that I am nothing, and make myself less before God.

I haven’t reached the end of the process I described in the poem, but after a little time sat in silent humility before God, handing God my lack of answers and excuses and saying nothing, I began to see where it was leading me. I began to sense, like the writer of Lamentations, that God was all I could trust. Not my own ideas or efforts, not some vague hope of change. God is enough, even if no solution comes, and God is somehow close…

Everything in me is currently fighting back at this realisation, trying to assert myself, that surely there’s something I can do. I’m definitely not there yet! God’s not yet been handed full control. I need more time ‘with my face in the dirt’ before I really accept it and can let God just be God here. For now, it just feels good to have perhaps found a new prayer practice to use at times like this, and I already have some sense of peace and a way forward.

But I got a sense that if I do reach that point, even for a moment, that that is part of what’s implied in Isa 40:31; that giving up ourselves and our turmoil, shifting our perspective from the mountains to their Maker, and being still before God, may be when we find ourselves lifted up, carried up into the highest perspective from which we truly know all things are held by this God who is Love. We can’t get up those mountains on our own, and we can’t fly. We give up, trust, and let God carry us where we can’t go, open up hope, and show us the way. The way up my sometimes be down, and I hope and pray I learn to find it.

 

*’Cave Refectory Road’, by Ian Adams

Other food for thought – Only Hope, Eagle Rider

 


 

I wrote the poem whilst sat on the sea wall, looking out at flocks of wading birds feeding on the estuary. As I wrote the final words, they all took flight, briefly filling the air before disappearing further out. A passer by commented to me ‘worth waiting for?’