Poppies In The Wasteland


Like a poppy growing in the middle of some waste ground, I love to find signs of life in unexpected places. The Joshua tree in the desert or the tender care of one vulnerable person towards another.

I’m writing these words whilst in Ukraine, a place I have visited on many occasions. I always go with the intentions of giving and serving, but always return feeling like I am the one who has been enriched by the community I have gone to serve.
Something happens when we deliberately choose to live on the margins, when life among the marginalised becomes the norm rather than the exception or the token gesture.

On one of my first visits to Ukraine many years ago, I sat with a fellow biker. His face was deeply scarred with a skin condition that was afflicted on him by the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster. We rode to the ruins of what once his orphanage home and he told me his story. All I did was listen, for maybe two hours. At the end of our time together he embraced me and thanked me for listening. This was the first time he had told his story to a foreigner. As far as he was concerned, he and his story, the plight of his community had been completely forgotten by his own government and the rest of the world.

To feel forgotten, to be left bereft of any sense that your voice is heard or even matters if it is heard, is a desperately lonely place to be.
Over the years, I have found great inspiration from the on the road stories of Jesus of Nazareth.

On one such occasion, he and his mates travelled across a lake to a graveyard, adjacent to a pig farm, that probably supplied the Roman garrison its food. The purpose of their journey was to meet a man that was caught in a trap of bizarre behaviour that manifested itself in many ways including self-harm, living naked among the graves and displays of almost supernatural strength that rendered him so unpredictable the community tried to chain him up.

As Jesus was a Jew, this man presented every reason under the sun why he shouldn’t be on Jesus’ radar for a conversation. An encounter with a naked, madman, living among the dead, next to a pig farm, would have ruffled more than a few feathers in the temple courtyard and effectively rendered Jesus untouchable.
There are many levels to this story found in the Gospels, but the thought I want to leave for reflection is this.

At the end of the encounter, the man was clothed and in his right mind. At the beginning of the encounter, we find Jesus, deliberately choosing to go out of his way, break some cultural taboos, put himself in a vulnerable position to demonstrate to this guy, he and his suffering was not forgotten.

If our concern for those who are marginalised, for whatever reason, moves us to act, let us be prepared to cross borders, be vulnerable ourselves and be surprised at the poppies we find growing in the wastelands.

Cheers and God bless.
Sean Stillman

A Lament From Zac’s Place

On Tuesday evenings as a ‘church for ragamuffins’ community we gather together to study, discuss and grapple with the Bible. They’re often very frank and refreshingly honest times of faith and struggle. Quite often we methodically work through a book of the bible. When Sean suggested we looked at the book of Lamentations there were a few raised eyebrows!

However at the end of the series, which demonstrated a language for pain and suffering and finding God in it, each was invited to contribute to writing our own Lament. Liz patiently and skilfully compiled everyone’s contributions into what you read below. Enjoy.


Zac’s Lament

God, I feel worn out, frustrated.
I am too busy being busy to notice what people need yet I judge them because I feel I am the one who has to do all the work.
I am a let-down, embarrassed at the state I sometimes find myself in and crushed when those close to me see me like that.
My heart is heavy because my words have caused hurt to others;
I have brought disharmony to my family.
My parents have seen their hopes fade and they – and I – have seen the effects of addiction on those we love.
I see those who suffer from illness and those who mourn with grief so deep at the loss of their parents.
And with eyes that can no longer cry I give the word for my beautiful dog to be put to sleep.
My stupidity, naivety, fear and anxiety get in the way
and stop me helping others.
I’ve been taking God for granted,
missing out on the freshness of his love.
I wish time could be reversed; what if I had done things differently?

The city has a heavy spirit of despair, where is hope?
It has never recovered from past hurts;
many great shops have closed down
and money has been wasted on foolish projects.
Greed and materialism have taken up residence.
We’ve given up on our dreams and our passions.
Nobody cares about our environment or government,
because we believe we are powerless to change anything.
We experience a lack of community, concern and love
where the homeless are treated like nobodies,
people are rejected instead of embraced
and a huge amount of food is wasted.
An offer of friendship is seen as weakness
and there is no appreciation for those who help others.
Only the gossips, who find pleasure in reminding us of our past failings, thrive.

The world is round like the lives people lead, always coming back to the same conclusion:
where is hope?
We have the society we deserve, a throwaway society where racism, violence and rubbish abound, where it’s every man for himself. Self, self, self.
Governments everywhere act out of selfish interests
instead of for the common good.
Migrants, child soldiers, Syria, cruelty to animals, torture, rape, degradation of women, Palestine, injustice, fear, refugees, hatred, sorrow.
We have lost our passion for justice; we have lost respect for all living creatures.
Where is hope?

All who hope make hope.
Hope is finding a purpose, putting an idea in place when there is nothing left to salvage – and believing that it will come to pass.
Hope is in places like Zac’s where people talk to each other and treat each other with respect.
Hope is in drug agencies and churches beginning to work together for people instead of preaching at them.
Hope is seen in surprising places, in street children who should have none.
Hope is in people who care, people like us, people who will work 100% for God.
I believe God has a wider plan,
one that will use people’s gifts to help put things right,
one that through prayer, community and action will produce fruit.
When we love each other, when we allow ourselves to be the wild sacred beings God created,
we are powerful beyond measure.
With God’s help
we can be the change we want to see in the world.
God’s love and grace are overwhelming,
his forgiveness never-ending.

“A Hell Of A Weekend” – Easter Thoughts – Part 3

Imagine how different it would have been when the girls rocked up at the tomb, where Jesus’ body lay, to discover the tomb wasn’t empty. And also to discover that neither was it closed up, with a couple of bouncers at the entrance. There’s a third option; I sometimes wonder what the reaction would have been if they’d showed up, saw the stone rolled away and as they peered in; saw Jesus sat on a stone bench. Maybe he would be picking his scabs and making mention of having had ‘a hell of a weekend’ and could they ‘nip down the Seven Eleven to get some paracetamol’. Fully alive, but still sat in the tomb, not daring to venture back out into the world.

As bizarre as this thought may be, the reality is that for many Jesus followers, the tomb, is as far as we dare to live out our faith, naval gazing and scab picking. For many and varied reasons it becomes all too easy to live in a Christian ghetto where life becomes stifled, beige, bland and disconnected with reality. The resurrected Christ walked out of the tomb, back into a kaleidoscope of colours, contradictions and questions – back in the company of his mates and their ‘warts and all’ world – not just watching it walk past his narrow window on the outside. Just as well really.

Got a life? Get walking.

Cheers and God bless ya this Easter time!

Luke 24:1-12

Originally written for my personal blog, Sean Stillman

Don’t Forget To Pull The Curtains and Put The Lights Out – Easter Thoughts – Part 2

In the recorded stories of Christ’s crucifixion the ripping from top to bottom of the 60 foot curtain veil in the heart of the temple is more than a bit of a gust blowing through. This massive curtain was only to be ventured behind by the most devout and on very few select occasions – access was seriously restricted, and denied to 99.9% of people, but it was all part of Israel getting it’s house in order with God and the limited access was understood and respected.
 
 When Jesus breathed his last all kinds of wierd stuff happened – including this curtain tearing in two. The way was now blown wide open as a result of Christ’s sacrificial death. Access into the presence of God was no longer for a select few on a particular date and time in a designated holy place. Intimacy with God – the seeking and granting of his gifts of forgiveness, grace, mercy, hope, justice, peace – came out of the confines of the temple and into a wounded world for real.
 
 The story of Easter – of Jesus the Nazarene – is not just for a religious few that have got it all together – it’s the stuff of revolution as the ‘temple courts’ are filled with the most unlikely. Bob Dylan picked up on a similar vein:
 
 “Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an worse An for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe An we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
 Bob Dylan – Chimes of Freedom, 1964

 
 Freedom had a price. Freedom is a gift.
 
 Luke 23:44-46
 
 Originally written for my personal blog, Sean Stillman
 
 
 
 

Easter Thoughts – Part 1

I’ve always been quite impressed with the response that G. K. Chesterton gave to the question posed by The Times newspaper, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ – the reply came simply as; “Dear Sirs, I am.”

To a greater or lesser degree throughout the history of humanity we have been unbelievably successful at defacing so much of what is beautiful, sacred and cohesive. The decay of a physical world and the prevalence of the law of the jungle extinguishes all but the most stubborn flickers of light.

But in the embers the Easter message continues to burn as ‘The prophet in rags gives hope to a fearful world’. Amid best mates’ betrayals for cash incentives, desertion and denials, kangaroo courts, and dodgy dealings the death of Christ was surrounded by people like us. Human frailty meets the eternal. Truth and justice collide with catastrophic and miraculous consequences in equal measure as Christ wrestles, prior to his arrest, with the question; ‘is this a road I have to go down – a cup I have to drink?’

At the heart of the Easter story there remains an ember that burns in the darkness – sparks of hope, flickers of light, shelter from the cold for ‘problems in the world’ like you and me.

Previously written on my personal blog, Sean Stillman

Is politics still about people?

As politicians and the media argue about who should take part in a TV debate, I find myself wondering what matters I’d like to put across if any of them roll up at my front door looking for a vote…
 
 I want to vote for a politician that with tell the truth, be humble enough to admit mistakes and who loves people more than power.
 I want to vote for a party and believes in a system that looks beyond four year terms and sees its responsibility extending to future generations.
 I want to see the young, the old and the vulnerable given priority when it comes to a duty of care.
 
 How can I trust in a government and a plethora of tax payer funded institutions, that have routinely been found to withhold and manipulate the truth, whilst turning a blind eye to outrageous behaviour that heaps coals on the fires of the suffering of vulnerable people.
 
 I want to vote for a politician that holds to virtues of truth, of grace, of mercy, of justice, of integrity, of kindness, of self control, of self sacrifice and dare I say, of love.
 
 Is it too much to ask? Are there any such people left with a hunger for what is right, rather than what they will get out of it?
 
 I’m not interested in your empty promises, your policies that shift around like the sand on the shore. I’m not interested in your spin, your posturing, your temporary allegiances nor the cut of your suit or your persuasive words on a TV debate. I want to know what I see of your soul when I look in your eyes, what motivates you to play with the freedoms of people, to make choices that can cause immense good or immense pain & loss.
 
 When you ask me what I would like to see, let it begin with a sense of deep sorrow from the seat of power itself, for the selfishness, greed, selective blindness and manipulation of the truth at the expense of those most vulnerable in our community. Then let it continue with a renewed commitment to do what is right and just, to love people more than the pursuit of wealth, to look to the needs of others, to govern from a heart of service not privilege and power.
 
 Have you ever thought of leading by example? Just a thought, before you post your propaganda through my door.
 
 Sean Stillman
 
 

Is Anyone Listening?

A couple of winters ago I got a call from someone saying Pete was desperately down and needed some additional warm things. It was well below zero and the snow was falling onto packed ice.

I put the snow chains on the van and headed into the city as quick as I could and true to form I found Pete, huddled up peering out of his coat declaring that he was perfectly ok and had what he needed wondering what all the fuss was about.


(Photo courtesy of Lee Aspland)

Pete was as complex as he was introverted, as intelligent as he was sober and as stubborn as he was opinionated.

His stubborn refusal to engage with ‘the system’ infuriated me, and many others, only taking help if he believed it was truly benevolent, which to our community’s credit was often in abundance. If however, he thought anyone was receiving a salary for ‘helping the homeless’, they didn’t meet the criteria to be in his circle of support, despite their efforts and care.

To get close to Pete was almost impossible. You had to earn that right and it wasn’t anything to do with what you might offer of material gain or daily bread. There were no brief meaningful chats with Pete. You needed an hour at least before you even started.

A lyrical journey of sorting his predicament out, the struggles of a changing city around him, the ecstasy of watching Mo Farah win gold on ‘his’ wide screen tv in the square, reeling off Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas songs, the memories of being fit enough to play table tennis, the hypocrisy of government, society and the church and all the books he wants to store, were all fair game, for any that were invited into the intimacy of a private audience with Pete.

What Pete wrestled with was the same as most of us, the reality that life is often about loss. The loss of innocence, of opportunity come and gone, of loved ones unexpectedly departing and the loss of love thought won.

People respond and react in many different ways, for Pete, he chose to try and lose Brian Burford in search of only he knew what and why. But for all the muddle and the riddles, he carried something in his soul, a crusade and mission to make a point maybe. He was not a statistic, or even a legend, he hated that thought, but he wanted to say ‘something’ on his terms and he wanted ‘someone’ to listen.

On occasion Pete would say, “if I ever give this up, it won’t be in the winter, it will be on a warm summers day”, as if there could have been some far off possibility that it could happen and he was in control of it.

We ‘could’ build a monument of bronze 100 feet high, or we could pause, we could watch, we could learn to listen. If we want to build a monument in memory of Pete, may it be one that taps into the core of our soul that compels us to love without measure or want of any reward, to leave our prejudice behind, to live simply and gather only what we need. May it be a monument of substance in the life of our community that levels the ground and doesn’t place a persons worth on what we see with our eyes, but in the knowledge that we are all wonderfully made and indeed all very fragile.

Enjoy the dance dear friend, the embrace, the banquet and the mansion. See you later, I’ll be the one stood outside in the rain hoping you’ll let me in.

Here’s some Bob Dylan to close with, the lyric somehow seems appropriate.

Sean

‘Pete’s’ funeral took place on 25 February 2015. His ashes were placed on the grave of his mother, his step father and his younger brother. Robin Turner wrote a thoughtful piece in the Western Mail which you can find here.

Chimes Of Freedom – Bob Dylan

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations
Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far-off corner flashed
An’ the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look
Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music