African Road Trip #7

Breathe…

The next few days have been spent in a truly awesome Hotel Lodge and then travelling back to Cape Town before heading back home to the UK. It’s been a privilege to have the space and time on this trip to begin to process the past few days, to stop and reflect on all that has gone on. Although I think that reflection will continue to deepen and develop as time moves on.

I have spent this morning re-reading the blog from start to finish. It’s amazing how much can be forgotten in such a short space of time. Home has been a reoccurring theme throughout this trip. From setting off from Kingswood to leaving London, arriving at the house in Tsumeb and actually finding the quarry. Then turning and setting my eyes back on the horizon and focusing on the return journey as it takes me back to those I love.

There were moments before we left the UK when I thought, “I really don’t want to do this. I don’t want to engage with all that I know need to. But, I have found that often in life the hardest things we have to face are the most rewarding. My philosophy is that when we trust in God the blessings always outweigh the sacrifices. This trip has certainly panned out that way.

Daz grabbed an early flight home as he had the opportunity to see his family and get sorted for work before the rubber hits the road again for him on Monday. I have been so blessed to have him with me and as I reflect back on the whole trip I know that I will forever be indebted to him for his friendship. I once asked a monk what he thought the most important thing in life was and without pause or hesitation he said “Friends.” It took me a little bit aback when he said it but the more I travel through this life the more I realise he is right.

As you know this trip has been about so many things, but at the forefront, it has been about issues around male suicide. I know that there are no immediate remedies but the recent opening up about mental health in general in our society is a big step in the right direction. I do think that friendship matters and I often see lads with lots of mates and maybe not so many friends. I’ll never forget that moment in the quarry when I stood with my face in my hands and my eyes closed not really knowing what to do next. To then open them and see Daz standing next to me in what was one of the hardest moments I have ever experienced. Thank you my friend.

When I got back to Cape Town I headed to find St Georges Cathedral which is the Anglican church here and also twinned with York Minster. I was shown around and taken to the grave of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He is one of my all-time heroes a true pioneer of faith. As I was leaving I saw I picture on the wall of a prayer labyrinth and asked if the photo was taken here. “Yes.” said the guide “It’s just outside, I’ll show you.” I smiled and thought “Of course there is!” I took my shoes off and walked, reflected and prayed. That morning I had taken a trip to the beach and came across a small plastic fridge magnet. I never like seeing plastic on the beach so I picked it up and put it in my pocket and forgot about it.

When I reached the centre of the Labyrinth I remembered it was there and took it out and laid it on the ground and left it there.

I am not sure what happens next as I head home. I guess time will tell. So many of you have messaged as I have travelled on this pilgrimage and it has really meant a lot to know that some of this story has resonated with you. So as this African chapter comes to a close I thought I would finish by writing a prayer for all that has gone and all that there will be to come…

“Father God, thank you for being with me on this journey. I know that you have kept us safe along the road. Although I have feared and been full of anxiety you have stilled my soul and given me peace at the end of each day.

I know that you walked with Phillip, you saw his pain and you were there at the end of it all. Thank you that the prayers that I have prayed have been heard. Lord as I turn now to focus on the second half of my life, I pray that you will guide my footsteps in the way that you are leading me. Help me to remember these days and the way in which you led me. I pray now that I will find the confidence I need to have from you to do your work in this world. To use the time that I have left aright. To love you, myself and all others. May this journey and my life journey lead others to wholeness and healing in you, albeit in ways they and I may not expect.

May I now not need the affirmation and reassurance I have always needed from Phillip to feel wanted and loved. May I know that I am enough, because that is who you have made me to be. May you give me the humility to know when I am wrong and the courage to admit it, apologise and change. May I walk lightly, simply, and unhurriedly through this world towards our meeting face to face. When that day comes may I truly know that I am home.

Amen.”

African Road Trip #6

Ashes to Ashes Dust to Dust…

We both woke after a broken night’s sleep and knew that we had made the right decision to pack up and leave Tsumeb for the final time. It felt right and I had achieved all that I had come to with some added extras. Meeting a few people who knew Philip would have been nice but it wasn’t my main aim. It felt like I had got the closure I was looking for. This is now a chapter in my story, it is a memory in my mind and no longer just a photo.

Now the page turned to the second reason I came, and if I am honest the real reason. For years, when I have thought about this trip I have wanted to go to the place where Phillip took his own life. Something within me has wanted to go there and bury something. I know it may sound a bit weird and I wasn’t sure why this was a thing for me either. That was until a couple of days before I set off it suddenly came to me. I needed to bury something because I was never able to bury Phillip. He was cremated out here in Namibia and his ashes were brought back to the UK. There was a service in a church in Hull and I went to it but I don’t really remember much about it. All I do remember is the church being dark and sitting thinking I have no idea how I should be feeling right now. I mean this guy was my dad, but he wasn’t, as that is who Keith is. Then fast forward to 2017 Bex, the kids and I had moved back to Hull so I thought I would ask the crematorium in Hull where his ashes are buried. Sadly they didn’t have a record. So I have been left in limbo, not really having any sort of reference point for any of this.

With the families that I care for as I take the funerals of their loved ones as their minister, I will often say that as hard as the approaching funeral will be, it will be a good thing as they process their grief. But that time in between the death and the funeral can really feel like limbo. I think on reflection that is how I have always really felt about this whole situation.

So, now I know why I needed to bury something, the question is what? I decided that I would bury the cross I wear around my neck. It was a gift Becky bought me for my 40th and it is the cross of St Cuthbert. He is one of my all-time favourite saints. A no-nonsense talking northerner who loved and cared for people and spoke truth to power whilst all the time trying to stay out of the limelight. I packed my funeral service prayer book and had a rough plan if we ever found the quarry that Phillip had taken himself to.

Before we drove out of Tsumeb for the final time I googled and found a possible place about 6 miles out of town. The drive there was foreboding. All I could think about was, “Was this the last drive that he took that night?”

We pulled into the entrance of the quarry to find a locked gate. I thought with a tinge of sadness “Well, okay, that’s fine. Maybe I can just do it by the side of the road here.” Then a security guard appeared. I thought well this is going to go one of two ways. Fortunately, he was a star, and as I told him my story he opened the gate for us to drive in. He jumped into the car with us and took us to the open quarry. It was so moving, it looked just like I had always imagined it to be.

I was a wreck, and could not figure out what I wanted, needed or could do at that point. I just stood looking out over the broken stones and deep clear water beneath me. I put my head in my hands and took a breath.

When I opened my eyes Daz stood next to me. We stood there in silence.

Once I had taken a moment I went back to the car to get my service book and a bottle filled with soil from the house I had lived in all them years ago in Tsumeb. I had grabbed a handful as I left. My intention was to bring it back to the UK with me as a reminder of that place. But I now felt like I had, had the closure I was looking for and no longer needed it. So it was now going to serve a different purpose.

I scrambled down the small cliff to a large ledge which had some soft sand that was perfect for the job. I knelt and dug a small hole, took off my cross, and laid it on the ground. I opened my prayer book and prayed the prayer of commendation… “Let us commend Phillip to the mercy of God, our maker and redeemer.” and continued the prayers… Earth to earth, ashes to ashes to dust to dust… and then covered the cross with the sand and piled up some stones as a type of marker. The sun was shining and there was a deep sense of peace in the place and in me.

I walked back up to the car and we headed off and left the place and the moment feeling like it was a job completed. There was a deep sense of freedom like a weight had been lifted from me. It was an interesting feeling having taken off the cross that I had worn for so long that later on I went to subconsciously touch it and it wasn’t there. It was a physical symbol representing something far more, that something had changed and was no longer there.

We headed off to a Safari Lodge to decompress for a couple of days and begin to process what we had achieved.

This was the prayer that I ended with as I buried the cross

Phillip, may God give you
his comfort and his peace,
his light and his joy,
in this world and the next;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be with you always.
Amen.

African Road Trip #5

Closed doors and a new hope…

Today was a really mixed day. After the highs of yesterday, it was probably never going to be as dramatic. As we woke we chatted over breakfast about making a plan for the day. I had two phone numbers of people who may have known Phillip. Again it wasn’t easy to phone complete strangers and explain the situation. The first chap said that he did remember Phillip but he was too busy to talk. The second chap said that he would meet us at a local hotel for a chat. So we headed over and waited but he never showed. I wasn’t really disappointed and said to Daz that even a closed door is a positive as it brings an ending.

I wanted to get out into Tsumeb a bit more and get a feel for the place so we walked down the high street to take in the sights and sounds. People were friendly and it is a buzzing small community. As we walked towards the mine I wanted to see if we could have a look around. The mine used to be the biggest employer in the town back in the day. They mined all sorts of gems, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But the mine closed back in the 1990s and now stands mainly derelict.

As we walked down the old road towards the heart of the old buildings we saw a small sign that read “Bikes for humanity.” this gained my interest immediately and we soon came across a huge yellow container unit and a few people fixing bikes. I introduced myself and asked about what they were doing. A girl called Melissa explained that they take in bikes that have been donated, fix them up and give them away. These are mainly for children so that they can get to school. They are a Christian based charity so faith is at the heart of all that they do. I explained that I am a priest and that I love to ride bikes as well. Lucas who is their resident mechanic also raced bikes as well as fixing them so he was very keen to see pictures of what bike I ride.

We had some great fun as we chatted and I asked if I could gift them something and they were very keen to find out what. I went back to the guest house and grabbed the cycling kit that I had brought with me. I was hoping to meet up with the Namibian national champion while I was here but sadly he got Covid so I had to park that plan. But I had brought the replica kit that he wore in the Olympics out with me in the hope to get a photo with him so I gave it all to the cycling charity instead. I explained that I am setting up a new cycling club in the UK to connect with veterans through the charity Hull4Heroes and I gave them one of our t-shirts as well. They were amazing people making a big change with very little and it was a real moment of hope and encouragement for both Daz and me.

As we headed back, Daz voiced what we were both thinking. That the atmospherics in this place seemed to have changed. I am not sure if my presence here asking questions in a small community was having a positive impact. We passed my old house again but this time rather than the open gate and warm welcome it was now all locked up with new chains and padlocks. Our presence here was definitely being noticed. On reflection, I would imagine that Phillip’s suicide would have had a big impact on those that knew him here and there may well still be some trauma connected with it. We may be wrong but I trust Daz implicitly so we made the choice that we would pack up our things and head back on to the road again tomorrow.

On this trip, I have definitely felt God’s constant guidance. It has not always been clear straight away but is always there at the right point. There have been two things that have stood out for me on this conflicting day. One was the time I spent in the Labyrinth a few days ago when I felt the message that leaving this place would be as significant as the arrival. Also the words of Katie, who is Daz’s wife when she said “Stay as long as you need to.” A really clean-cut way of putting all of this into perspective. Knowing when to leave anything in life is a real gift so I don’t feel sad that leaving now brings a new direction. My mind, body and spirit are ready to turn another page in this ongoing story.

Africa Road Trip #4

Home…

As we packed up and got on the road from the capital Windhoek the drive was only 4:30 hours which by our previous days was a quick trip. But the drive was quite subdued, I could see the miles and the time ticking down and a feeling of tension rising in me the closer we got to Tsumeb the town where we used to live. As we pulled into the town it was almost like something began to awaken in me. I can only describe it as like picking up an old photo and it suddenly coming to life in full HD right before your eyes. The sights, sounds, and the way the light moved brought it all to life with energy and animation. We drove down the main street which I have seen in pictures and past the old mine where Philip used to work. We got to our guest house and I wanted to get straight out and start asking people if they remembered Phillip. I was wired, brain ticking over at 100 mph. So I sat as Daz got unpacked and took about half an hour to get hold of my head and calm down a bit. Which allowed me to think a bit clearer before we set out

We thought that we would start by asking at the museum in town to see if anyone knew anything or if they would be able to point me in the right direction if they didn’t. I walked in and met a lady called Annaliese who was probably in her 60s I explained who I was and why I was here and asked if she could help me in any way. “Yes, sure I remember Phillip,” she said in a softly spoken voice. My heart melted within me, I managed to hold it together, just. Reflecting on it now, at that moment it was like everything that everyone had told me about Phillip and this part of my life was suddenly true for the first time. Obviously, I have always known it was. But here, standing in front of this complete stranger she established for me that this is now part of my story in a way that had only previously been someone else’s telling of the story. Annaliese then gave some info and another name to find in the town, a chap called Max who ran the Menin Hotel where Phillip used to go and eat. I thanked her and we jumped back in the car and headed to the hotel. When we got there, I asked to see Max but he wasn’t there, I explained who I was again and why I was there, which retelling the trauma of the story to another stranger was again pretty draining. We booked in for an evening meal and said we would see if we could catch Max later on.

Daz turned to me and said “Beer?” Once again reading the situation with pinpoint accuracy. “Oh yes!” I said and we jumped back in the car to take it back to the guest house and then find a bar. But as we were heading back I said let’s just see if we can find my old house that we lived in when I was here.

We didn’t have much to go on so I wasn’t holding out much hope. I thought that even if we cannot find it we may see one that looks a little like it and that will be cool enough. Mum had given me an old photo of Phillip sitting on some steps outside the house with me as a baby on his shoulders and she thought that we used to live on 17th Road but that was it. The houses here are all laid out in blocks with 14th, 15th, 16th road etc. We found 17th and started to slowly drive down it which took about 10 mins but there was nothing that looked even similar. A lot of the old buildings have been ripped down and new more modern houses have been put in their place. Hope was quickly fading and I was fine with that. At least we had got a feel for the space so we turned to go back to the guest house.

Daz for some reason just said let’s try 16th Road before we leave. We again started driving slowly down the road and we drove past a house that had huge overgrown hedges about 15ft high screening it from view. We got about 20 meters past it and I said “Stop, stop stop, that was it!” I hadn’t seen it properly but something in me knew. I jumped out of the car and ran over to peer through a gap in the hedge and it looked like the old photo mum had given me. The place looked empty so I called next door to see if anyone would know more about it. A wonderful lady called Sinobia came and told me that the owners had moved about two months ago and it was now empty and I was welcome to look around. I face timed mum and we looked around it together. It was indeed our old home, number 1259 on 16th Road. It was amazing, after 41 years almost to the day I stood at the place where I had had my 1st birthday party. I was home.

I got some pictures and recreated the one with me on Phillip’s shoulders. Daz wasn’t up for being Phillip and me getting on his back. Can’t think why! so I sat on the step as Daz took the photo. We then headed for that much needed cold beer.

We went back to the Menin Hotel that night for some food and caught up with Max, he was a nice chap and did remember Phillip but he was young at the time so didn’t have much he could tell me. He gave me two phone numbers of people still in town who may be able to help us so that is the next stage of the journey to connect with them. What a day, I think it’s going to take a while to process all of this. The saga continues…

African Road Trip #3

Always be before me…

It was pitch back when we arrived at our accommodation at the end of day three. We drove down a dusty track to find a big white house in the middle of nowhere. As we woke early the next day the reason why I had found this place was laid out in a stunning sunrise. At the front of the house in a little walled garden was a labyrinth. If you are not sure what a labyrinth is, they are ancient ways of meditating and praying. The concept goes back 1000s of years and they can be found in many different civilisations and cultures. I know about them because the early Celtic missionary monks who came to bring Christianity to England brought them with them and a few can still be found dotted around our fair isle. Some of you may know that I had one created in Kingswood for our community to use, the amazing story about that one is that there used to be a labyrinth in a small part of Hull where I was born called Marfleet. The labyrinth there has long been lost to time as it is now quite industrial but I managed to find the original plans and designs and we copied them and resurrected it again. So this is something that is not only close to my heart but a sign and symbol of my roots.

There is an old saying that goes “God is always before us.” Even when we do not see, hear, feel or understand. But every now and again we get clues as to where God is, and has been waiting for us. This morning was definitely one of those moments.

So I walked the labyrinth. It only has one route in and one route out. It is not like a maze that has dead ends and different ways in and out. The journey here is about reaching the centre and then returning to leave. The centre can represent anything you like, a moment, a situation, a prayer, or God. I picked up a stone and took off my shoes and began to walk. My head was buzzing with everything that was going on with this trip and I wanted to find some sort of clarity about it all, but nothing was forthcoming. I reached the centre and took a moment, I put down my stone and took a deep breath and again felt and thought nothing. So I began the journey back out again and that’s when it hit me. That this journey that I am on has always for me been about getting to Tsumeb, about arriving at the place where Philip died and I have never given the return journey much thought at all. But the return is just as important as the arrival. Suddenly I found this whole trip reframed. It was like pressure was taken away from getting to the destination and the moment of getting there seemed now like one more step along the way.

The car journey to Windhoek was super chilled, we turned the sat nav off and sat in silence for most of the ride. I think we are both relaxing into the space, pace and the land around us as we went.

Once we arrived at our Urban Camp, a gated site with permanent tents set up we grabbed a beer and some food and started to plan our arrival in Tsumeb tomorrow. I had chatted with mum about some of the places it would be good to visit to find out some more information. As we sat in the bar Daz asked what time we wanted to get there and before I could answer him a huge wave of emotion swept over me and I burst into tears. It totally caught me off guard and was a real shock. I took a moment and was okay again fairly soon. Daz was great and said that “It’s okay not to be okay.” he did also say that it probably looks to everyone else that he was breaking up with me. We chatted some more and it was good to take stock that there is no manual for this sort of thing.

For me, life is a gift that I want to live in all its fullness. Jesus said the words “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” I believe that means living all of life, the highs, the lows the hard times and the times of pure joy. This trip certainly feels a lot like this.

African Road trip #2

Clouds, sunsets and places I am supposed to be.

Day two of our journey was a jobs day, getting the car and grabbing some supplies. Again it was a pretty chilled out day and to be honest I was grateful for the headspace. But as the afternoon closed in we started to head back to our room. We both felt like it would really have been a day wasted if we didn’t at least try to do something on the tourist trail. So we googled Table mountain visits and soon realised that we would probably be too late to get the last cable car. As we arrived we had to run with flip flops flying behind us to the ticket box to get the last ticket. It was well worth it, well for the 3 mins we got to view the stunning views of Cape Town before the fog rolled in and covered the whole mountain. We both stood and laughed, the high of getting up just in time, then the incredible view and then the disappointment of it all disappearing before our eyes, we couldn’t do anything else. But then after a few minutes, there was a tiny window that appeared in the white clouds that seemed to usher in a sense of hope, hope that this moment would pass and the sun would shine once more.

It did, and the views were once again glorious. Reflecting on this moment once we were back down from the mountain reminded me of the times that I have been through really low points with my own mental health. Those times can roll in like that fog, and surround and consume everything. I have in the past felt totally helpless and unable to do anything to change it. On my journey, I have found over time that there are things I can do now that don’t leave me in such a dark and foggy place. Being proactive about mental well-being through meditation, eating better, making sure I am exercising, and sleeping well, spending time with others, praying, and being accountable and kind to myself have all added up to allowing me to live and move through this world in a happier and healthier way. There are still times that things get tough but now I know that there can, and often is a small window that gives hope in those moments just like that one on top of the mountain.

So today was day 3 and we began our epic road trip, travelling from Cape Town to Gürnu in Namibia a drive of 530 miles. It was such a great drive, Daz and I chatted, laughed, and played who can accidentally turn the window wipers on the most instead of trying to use the indicators ( I am losing 4-6 at the moment) and then towards the end of the day the border came into sight with the Namibian flag in clear view. This was the moment that I have been thinking about for years stepping back into this country. I wasn’t sure how I would feel, and as we drove across I said that I wanted to get out and feel the ground between my toes. Daz asked me about an hour later how it had been and I told him it was hard to pin one emotion to it, basically, it was just one of those times when there were so many emotions. Being back, being home, being a stranger in a foreign land. As the sun began to set, we watched it change the colour of the sky around us, and as the darkness closed in I was left with a feeling of deep peace that this is the place that I am supposed to be.

Psalm 31:8 “Father God you have set my feet in a spacious place.”

Africa road trip journal…

Namibia #1

Hi, my name is Ben. When I was 12 years old the phone in our house rang and the person on the other side told us that my Dad had taken his own life.

It was a message by phone because at the time he was living in Namibia. My Mum and I had moved back to the UK 11 years earlier to start a new life without him as he had chosen to move in with another woman. Mum remarried an amazing man called Keith who adopted me and I took his name turning from being Benjamin James Howard Smart to Benjamin James Norton. I have always called Keith dad, and therefore my biological father has always been Philip to me. I put this in here so that you will know who I am talking about as you read this.

I have not been back to Namibia since. This is a blog of my journey back to visit the place where he died and to reconnect with a part of my life that has shaped so much of who I am without me having much choice about it. This is my chance to reconnect, explore, discover and reclaim issues of suicide and the impact both on me and those who find themselves left behind.

I am blessed to be undertaking this adventure with one of my best mates, Daz. He has taken his own time, money and energy to travel this path with me. We have been mates for about 7 years and he has an amazing knack to speak the truth with integrity at just the right point. This has already paid dividends as we got to the airport in London. I was feeling, and being super anxious. Checking my ticket, the time, and the gate number over and over again. He casually looked up from his phone, smiled and said “You okay?” “You having a meltdown right now dickhead?” and laughed.

It’s at this point that I should mention that we meet in the Army, so his dry sense of humour forged through many years of squaddie banter was just perfect and what I needed to hear at that point. I laughed too and said, “Yep, proper meltdown.” It was enough to pull me out of the moment and grab my head and realise what was going on. I slowed my breathing down, took some long and steady breaths and then played the So What game in my head. The So What Game goes like this… Bring to mind the most immediate anxious thought and then play it out by asking ‘So What’ and then repeat the process until you realise you have to do something or know that the thought doesn’t need any more attention.

So for me at that moment it went like this. “I am anxious that I have not got the right paperwork or I am in the wrong place.” So What… “Well that would be a disaster and we would miss the flight.” So What… “Well then Daz would be angry with me and I would be embarrassed because I would have to tell everyone that I had made a mistake.” So What… “Well Daz probably wouldn’t be angry with me because he is my mate and yes he would probably call me a dickhead but we would make another plan.” So What… “We would lose some money and probably try and get another flight.” So What… “Well it’s not that big of a deal if it does go wrong, so maybe I could calm down a bit, trust that I have done all of my planning and be present in the moment.”

The process worked, as it does most of the time and I calmed down and we went to get some food and wait for the gate to open. The other question I often ask when I find myself getting stressed or worried about things is “Will this moment/choice/situation matter in 10 years?” The answer is often no which immediately puts it into perspective and again allows me to control my emotional and mental response to it. Owning my response rather than letting it control me and allowing my head to run off down a rabbit hole that it doesn’t need to give energy to. What also helps is to have a good mate who will speak into a situation with truth and kindness and a good dollop of humour when needed. Good mates are so vital to have in life for so many reasons, especially for our mental wellbeing. It makes me wonder if Philip had any mates who would speak truth into his life?

As the plane took off I looked out of the window as London began to disappear beneath me and I had a strange feeling not that I was leaving home but returning home. I remember nothing about living in Africa, only pictures and stories that my mum has told me, yet it has always felt like a piece of me is deeply connected there. I guess we will see what that looks like as I journey. One thing that I often think is that home is a place where you no longer feel like you have to arrive. As a person of faith I know that there is nowhere I can travel and that is God is not there. So being still and being present in the moment allows me to regain a sense of God wherever I find myself. So today I feel that these words from Psalm 139 resonate.

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

And also these words from Celtic Daily Prayer

“Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though of anxious heart,
today I believe.”

Having just arrived in Cape Town on day one.

Conversations #1

Spring / Summer 2022 will be a time for me to take a break from the usually rhythm of life and ministry as I engage on what is called a Sabatical for 3 months. As part of this time I am hoping to reconnect with my friends in the USA and particularly in the Episcopal Church of Southern Ohio.

Joe is an amazing chap who leads a faith community in a similar way in which I do here I the UK. We first met on my trip stateside in 2015 and we have chatted on and off since then. He has a great mind and he has agreed to begin a conversation with me in this type of way for us to be able to do some thinking out loud about the church and the world and our roles within both. So below are my first thoughts as we begin this dialogue. These are my own thoughts and ones that are still being formed. Please do feel free to comment and add your thoughts or to read and ponder in your own way.

grace and Peace

Ben.

Hey Joe buddy!

So here a re few of my musings for us to begin to open up some conversation over the next few months.

In someways it’s kind of hard to know where to begin as there is so much to talk about. But one thing I have learnt about staring at a blank canvas it just to start splashing some paint on it! So here are my broad brush strokes.

I think it maybe helpful to state the obvious. Mainly because I have found that when it comes to the church and faith what may seem obvious isn’t always that way for everyone!

It is my fundamental core belief that “The church belongs to everyone.” This is a big statement mainly because if this is truly embraced the cost of which can at times be too much to hold together. It seems at times that as a faith community it has been and is easy to hold onto beliefs that allow us to embrace those who are like us in order for us to feel safe. This is playing out with in the church at the moment with issues in and around the LGBTQ+ community. This is challenging in many ways and I realise that there is a real and effort to engage on both sides. I also realise that there are costs that we can both see and ones that we do not see. My heart and passion is for those who we do not currently see in our churches, for those people who feel like that there is no place for them within the worshiping life of the community of faith.

I realise that the Episcopal church in America have been emerged in this far longer and in a much bolder way than the Church of England, which in my opinion is a truly beautiful thing.

But rather than steer this conversation into the in’s and out’s of that particular debate I would like to look at the wider and often unseen issues it raises about how the church is seen and understood by those on the outside.

The second point that is resonating with me is, that “The church does not belong to us.” Historically the church has been in a position of power, control and authority. As you mentioned in our conversation on Zoom, that Christendom is dead (if it ever really existed at all!) and so therefore no longer finds itself defined in this way. So then questions such as, so why does the church exist? What is the purpose of it in the world and local communities it finds itself? I think the pandemic has made a lot of the leadership and laity, wake up and ask that very question. I mean how do we do church when everything is either stripped back or taken away?

Over the past 15 years I have been wrestling with these issues. Being a fresh starter Pioneer I have had to ask the questions about how do we measure signs of the Kingdom of God when it comes to the church. Here are a few thoughts that I have come to understand and will probably need to tease out some more as we talk…

  1. The sacraments are markers of growth
  2. Stories of transformation are a better yard stick than numbers
  3. We as priests are curators
  4. Church is about movement
  5. We never get there
  6. As new faith communities emerge and people come to faith, there is a very natural and authentic way of marking and sharing those moments. The sacraments of baptism, communion and confirmation are like markers along pathway up the mountain. When I talk about these to new believers I use the picture of cairn stones. Walkers who have been this way before will pick up a rock or stone and leave it on a pile of stones on the side of the road. This shows others that they have also walked this way before them. Also it gives the person laying the stone a reference point to look back upon as they journey onwards in their faith.
  7. I don’t know why or when numbers become a marker of some sort of success within the church? Numbers can be helpful and an interesting marker of the kingdom, but to solely focus on these dilutes people and stories to facts and figures. Let’s be honest it is only a small number of us who get excited by numbers. But stories of transformation do something to us. The change us on a deep level, we see this in scripture with the story of Zacchaeus for example.
  8. Creating the space for faith – This is the strap line that I came up with after listening to Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk ‘Start with Why’ for our new community. The concept is, to say to someone who wants to explore faith “what would that look like of you?” It maybe a one on one chat, or small group, meeting in a pub etc… this is in contrast to what I have seen in the church of a one size fits all culture that maybe shaped by a style of worship or liturgy but as a whole looks the same from place to place. On reflection this phrase isn’t the ‘Why’ of what we do as Sinek suggests but rather it is the ‘What’ of what we do. The why is that everybody can have faith and grow in that faith no matter your starting point. Our role as leaders is to create the space if it doesn’t already exist and then go on to curate it. Much as a curator would in an art museum for those wanting to engage with the work of another for the experience of those wanting to explore.
  9. Church is about movement – constant movement. The early church were called ‘Followers of the way.’ Movement is intrinsic in the DNA of the church. Yet at times it seems to be about finding the right formulas to make it (whatever ‘it’ is?) happen and then people will come. If church is about movement then how are we facilitating this in what we do?
  10. Final thought – We never get there! What a gift and what beauty there is in this. It takes away from the fact that we need to have all worked out and sorted. The Acts of the Apostles are still being written. We get to think, pray love our way though this world together. Seeking out the Spirit of God in the place where we are. That is as sure as the sun rises each day means that the journey never ends!

So, my friend there are some broad brush strokes. Random in places in know, kind of messy, but it’s a start.

I look forward to your response.

Grace and Peace

B


Hey Ben, my brother!

My brother, pioneer priest, there is no question that we are kindred spirits. I too long for an ancient-present church that forms itself to those who hunger for belonging. That is, the ancient way of the early church and the present imperative to be the church. I reference Martin Luther King’s “moral imperative to love” as a path of justice, inclusion, and radical welcome. Because morality is justice, the imperative in now, and the love is agape/Divine.
In a world that continually fails to see the relevance of Jesus Christ, let alone the purpose of the church, I want to embrace the opportunity to get local and proximate in the name of love. I want to join my community and let the community define the “church” they need. I want to join my neighborhood and ask what I must be and do to become a member with them and stop trying to “colonize” and form the community to the institutional church. There are so many who have been wounded by the church institution, and the list is long. Can I be humble enough just to shut up and listen and find Jesus already present in the life of my neighbors? As you say, “The church doesn’t belong to us,” and I agree. The Reign of God, the Christ, and prophets do not belong to us, for we belong to the movement of Divine restoration. Yet, we humans can dress up Jesus Christ in our own “team colors” and presume to chant our particular team slogans, etc. The truth is, there is one humanity and one God, one faith, one baptism.

Yes, it is time for a re-formational call not unlike that of the prophets of old; let us be prophetic witnesses today. Throughout salvation history, those who have gone before us have said that the bones of the church are strong, but will these bones live. The only way that they live is to prophesy to the bones, for a new flesh can cover them, and God will breathe a new breath into the church with fresh wind and fresh fire. We are acolytes of God in a dark and hungry world fulfilling, again and again, the promise of God. 

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and his team have recently put out a new vision for our Episcopal tribe. I share the text below:
***
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has consistently invited Episcopalians to reimagine ourselves as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, a community of followers who live Jesus’ Way of Love. In these times of challenge and change, he offers this statement and the accompanying resources as a prayer, a vision, a fervent hope for who we seek to be and are already becoming.
COME AND SEE …
We are becoming a new and reformed church, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement— individuals, small gathered communities and congregations whose way of life is the way of Jesus and his way of love, no longer centered on empire and establishment, no longer fixated on preserving institutions, no longer shoring up white supremacy or anything else that hurts or harms any child of God. By God’s grace …
WE ARE BECOMING A CHURCH THAT LOOKS AND ACTS LIKE JESUS.

What does this re-formation look like in practice? We’ll know we’re moving
forward when we …
+Center on Jesus Christ.
His teachings, his example, his Spirit, his way of love, and his way of life are the key to having loving, liberating, and life-giving relationships with God, our neighbors, all of creation, and ourselves.
+Practice the selfless, self-giving way of the cross.
The way of “cruciform love”— Jesus’ act of unselfish, sacrificial, self-offering love, or losing one’s life in order to gain it—is our way to authentic life.
+Unite around the practice of a rule of life in small gathered communities.
These kinds of groups—small circles of people who support each other in following Jesus with intention and accountability— are necessary for cultivating Christ-centered life.
+Reclaim our Christian identity as a Spirit-driven, countercultural, underground movement.
We must break free of the church’s identification with domination systems, empire, establishment, privilege, and social and cultural traditions that have held us captive—and get back in touch with the risk-taking, liberating ways of Jesus.
+Live and bear bold witness to the vision and values of Jesus.
We point to the reality of the kingdom (the peaceable reign) of God, and we seek to embody the beloved community, where each person strives for and celebrates the dignity and flourishing of every beloved child of God as much as we do for ourselves. (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/church-that-looks-and-acts-like-jesus/)
***
The words that I add to your musings are:
Prophetic Reimagining
Creative Community Engagement
Servant Leadership
Adaptive and Accessible Sacraments
Liturgical Relevance

Until we meet again, back at ya, my friend from “across the pond, ” the beat goes on, and the Divine invitation couldn’t be more urgent.
Peace,
J

Keto and Me

So today is 15th July and I have been on the Keto diet for 18 days. I thought I would scribble down a few thoughts about what it has been like, especially as someone who is also training (Running and cycling) and how it has impacted in both positive and negative ways.

First a bit of context as to why I started down this road in the first place. I am a coached athlete and have been for the past 18 months. I race bikes (Time trials and crits) Run (5k, 10k, and half) and compete in mainly 70.3 triathlons.

Over the past 18 months my weight has dropped from 82kg to about 76kg. I know that i could loose maybe another 1-2kg to be really happy with were I would like to be both visually and as an ideal read weight.

During June, I had torn a muscle in my back which had kicked my training out of sync and as a result I had gained some weight. Now this was not significant, I got on the scales and they read 79.2kg. (With hindsight it was probably just one of those weird days when the scales go mad, but never the less it was a shock!) At this point I have to say that most of my issues with food and weight are probably mental and emotional rather than anything else. I immediately felt down and quite low. The rhetoric was “You are going backwards, all that hard work you’ve put in has now gone to crap, you are very soon going to be back where you started or even worse!”

I came out of the bathroom and said to Bex, “I am going to try Keto! I can’t continue in this direction.” She was great, she is constantly gracious when it comes to all of my new ideas and fads.

I have had a good mate who has been really successful on Keto so I tapped him up for some advice and he was great and really supportive. That day felt great as I was taking action and was happy that this would all be a good thing.

The first two days were epic, I was eating amazing tasting food, bacon, fried eggs etc… day 3 came and the thought of more salt kind of made my upper lip curl and a smile was forced through gritted teeth.

But it was all still heading in the right direction, I was reading up about all the positives and that’s what I was focusing on.

Also I was peeing for England, and drinking water like it was going out of fashion. I was popping an electrolyte tab in a few drinks as well as they say that the Keto flu can come and kick your ass about day 3.

I got into bed at the end of day 3 and thought, well if that was the Keto flu then I can live with that no worries. I had felt fine all day, maybe a little off the pace but no more so than a normal busy hectic work day.

Day 4 arrived and I could not have been more wrong. THIS was the Keto flu. I had no energy like NO energy. I was sleepy, foggy in my head and I also knew that I had a tough intervals session to do on the bike planned today. By this point I still had not said anything to my coach as I thought I could just wing it and push through whatever training had already been set a few weeks ago.

I spent the day thinking that if i just put this workout off a little bit longer I’ll have some more energy. It never came! I climbed onto the bike about 4pm for a session called over/ unders. This is were you ride two blocks of about 15 mins split into 1min at 105% of FTP immediately followed by 1 min at 95%. It’s a tough session when feeling great, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I did the 20 min warm up and then set off into the efforts, I managed the first min fine at 105% FTP but when the second effort came I just blew up my legs piled in and that was me done. I climbed off defeated. Wrote my feedback and confessed to my coach what was going on. Shame was a real feeling.

I had read that you loose some of your top end when on Keto as your body cannot convert the fats as fast as it does carbs for energy.

Day 5 and I had a long slow zone 2 heart rate ride to do. I was feeling a little more human this day and after a breakfast of bacon and eggs (again) I set off. The ride was good and after about 20mins I found a really good rhythm. I would usually take a light snack with me for a 2 hour ride. But I didn’t take anything with me at all and actually felt fine. Going on through Keto I found this to be the same, the long steady runs and rides I felt great as my body began to become fat adapted for the slower endurance type of events.

Day 6 and I had dropped to about 77.9 which I am guessing was mainly water weight. Your body dumps a load of water that it would usually use to burn carbs. So the weight loss is almost instant. This in one way is good as you can see results fairly quickly.

Day 7 was a 3 x 1 mile max reps. Again a fairly hard workout which taxed the top end and the results were again what I would have expected. I was not at my best but actually not as far of as I had thought to start with. Maybe things were changing for the better.

The week from the 6th-12th July were days 8-15 of Keto. I found that my energy levels were fairly consistent throughout the day rather than peaking and troughing. But my over all energy levels seemed down and I often felt lethargic. My Weight fell to about 76.4kg on average which is about were I wanted to be back to at the start of this with the hope that I would also be able to drop that bit extra. I never experienced that Keto high and clarity that so many talk about.

Again I did find that through that week my high end intervals were hard work and just about unachievable whereas my long stay rides and runs were fine.

As of today I have packed it in as I just felt the longer term effects were actually not allowing me to progress in my training goals which defeats the whole process. But I have learnt an awful lot from this brief experiment.

  1. It was a total knee jerk reaction to try Keto and mentally I could try and work on a better way of dealing with this.
  2. When it comes to dialling in nutrition for longer more endurance based events like the 70.3 triathlons I could see huge benefits from being fat adapted as a way of training and racing.
  3. It has given me a better awareness of food and how it is broken down into fats and carbs and understanding when and what to eat.
  4. I have lost weight in a fairly short space of time, but that has come with a downside in a lack of high end performance.

This is maybe something I would do again, but at the right time and for the right sort of effects. All in all nothing is bad if it has helped you learn and develop.

It’s been a while…

So I came across a photo of me this morning from 4 years ago. I was quite shocked! It was only 4 years ago but looking into the eyes of that photo it could have been a million years ago. So much has changed.

Left = 2016 / Right = 2019

It was even longer (8 Years in fact) since I last posted on this blog. Which shocked me even more. I used to love writing and wrestling with thoughts, feelings and theology in an open forum. (Let’s be honest, not many people ever read) but it was a great way to process my own place in the world and what and how I felt God calling me.

Again, much has changed.

Such as… The way in which the world works (or doesn’t) at the moment. Things written in the past are now used against people. Sometimes rightly so, sometimes not. It can feel a little unnerving writing in this sort of forum these days. On the other-hand maybe that is exactly why blogs should be written and kept.

Change is the only certainty and reflection is a key tool for growth.

As I look back at that photograph I can see that there was a lot I did not know about myself. Since that moment I have radically changed so much in my life when it comes to understanding and self care. I think it shows. Whilst these changes seem radical from where I was then, they have been steady, small and often unnoticeable. I have changed how I eat and what I eat. Mainly because of the fact I have discovered I have an intolerance to corn and grains, caffeine and gluten, dairy and some spices. I have also for the past 18 months got myself a coach who has helped and guide me though my fitness and training journey. I have had two blocks of intensive counseling therapy recovery periods. A diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and the things I have put in place because of this. All of this is not even mentioning, being dad, husband, Priest, Padre or Pioneer.

True reflection often uncovers surprising results.

I guess in all of this I am saying I am content and more at peace with who I am. It’s taken a lot of slow and steady hard work and there is still a lot more to do. I also know that the adage of not comparing your mile 1 to someone else’s mile 20 is key to all of this.

“All is not what it seems on the Insta!”

I am hoping over the next few weeks and months to write and reflect some more on this blog. Who knows, some of it might make some sense and some of it might inspire, most of it will come back and bite me in the ass for sure !!!