Mother’s Day 2020

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I hadn’t been looking forward to leading two worship services on Mother’s Day this year, because it would have been my first after her death last year. In fact, I hadn’t really given my preparation much thought, possibly secretly hoping that it would go away. Not only did the thought of it awaken some powerful emotions that continue to lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, but there’s the ongoing emptiness of loss combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, which may be magnified in me because I’m an only child of only children.

So there’s a sense of relief I’ll not have to minister to others in public on this sensitive occasion because of the coronavirus pandemic. But clearly, I’d rather have had my vulnerability and emotions laid bare than being in this current health crisis. Equally, I’ve discovered over the years that my ‘wearing my heart on my sleeve’ nature has been used by God in Christian ministry to bring comfort and strength to others, a very humbling experience. Central to my faith is the vulnerability of Jesus, demonstrated powerfully in his willingness to suffer and die. This reminds me that emotional openness and vulnerability must never be confused with weakness, for in our weakness we can be strong.

For this year, that’s all I’m going to say. I’ll leave others to share their thoughts, emotions and spiritual insights on Mother’s Day, and I’ll be pleased to read and share them.

Note: The photo of my mother and daughter Pollyanna was taken in 2018.

Prepare your Church for Coronavirus

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As a Salvation Army Officer (minister of religion) responsible for a church and community centre in Wallsend, I’m having to manage my response to the current coronavirus pandemic. I came across this document today, and I share it for anyone who might find it useful. Although it relates to churches, it’s easily adaptable to other places of worship and situations etc.

Another helpful resource: Should Your Church Stop Meeting to Slow COVID-19?

Coronavirus Pandemic

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World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the following opening remarks at a media briefing about COVID-19 on Wednesday 11 March 2020:

In the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled. There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives. Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals.

In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher. WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.

Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do. We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus, and we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time.

WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases. We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.

This statement confirms my fear that there’s too much complacency about. We all have a duty of care for ourselves and each other to mitigate this threat.

Franciscan Prayer for Women’s Day

women-26-01Lord, make me an instrument of peace:
Bless all women who daily strive to bring peace to their communities, their homes and their hearts. Give them strength to continue to turn swords into ploughshares.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love:
We pray for all women who face prejudice, inequality and gender disparities. Help us see and to face the discrimination against women in all the many forms it may take.

Where there is injury, pardon:
Comfort all women who suffer from the pain of war, violence, and abuse. Help them to become instruments of their own reconciliation and peace.

Where there is division, unity:
Forgive all women and men who let differences breed hate and discrimination. Let your example of valuing all of creation help us to see that we are equal partners in the stewardship of your world.

Where there is darkness, light; where there is untruth, truth:
Comfort all women who struggle in the darkness of abuse, poverty, and loneliness. May we stand with them in light to acknowledge their suffering and strive to remove the burdens of shame or embarrassment.

Where there is doubt, true faith:
We pray for all women who live in fear of their husbands, fathers, and forces that control their lives. Help them to be empowered to be their true selves through your everlasting love and faith.

Where there is despair, hope:
We pray for all women who live in the despair of poverty, violence, trafficking, slavery, and abuse. May the light of your love bring them hope.

Where there is sadness, new joy:
Help us to see the strength and goodness in all women and men. Transform our hearts to celebrate the love and grace of all people. And may we be blessed with the courage to follow our own path of love for you and all sisters and brothers. Amen

Note: I came across this here. I modified it slightly (as above) and used it in worship on Sunday 8 March 2020 at Wallsend Salvation Army.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Modern slavery is often hidden in plain sight, right in front of us. It’s happening on our streets and in our towns, and awareness is a key to combating it.

Hidden in Plain Sight is a short video which shows how anyone could come across men and women held in slavery in places they visit, like nail bars, car washes and cafes in any corner of the UK, meeting the demand for cheap goods and services. It illustrates, in a compelling and cinematic way, the visible signs of modern slavery in everyday life,

The Salvation Army provides specialist support through a Government contract to rescued victims of modern slavery to help them begin to rebuild their lives. Modern slavery is sadly growing with more than 10,000 people being referred to The Salvation Army for support since 2011.

Victims frequently say they believed their traffickers when told that no-one would help them if they escaped. The Hidden in Plain Sight film ends with an opening door and a message that the Salvation Army will believe them and is ready to help. The film was gifted to the Salvation Army by director Alex Haines and the Fat Lemon Production Company.

Hidden in Plain Sight has been shortlisted in the 2020 Charity Film Awards and public votes are now needed to take the film to the finals. Please click on the link to vote, so that more people will see it. You could make a huge difference.

You can take action against modern slavery by spreading the word, sharing the video, learning how to spot the signs, and donating to help provide essential support to the thousands of people still caught in slavery today.

See also here: Unseen Promise

Is self-denial old-fashioned?

1 In the Beginning from The Salvation Army UK & Ireland on Vimeo.

In some ways, I suppose it could be said that self-denial is an old-fashioned concept, but there are many instances of people who give of themselves to love and support others, sometimes even people they don’t know personally.

The Salvation Army in the UK and Ireland is currently in a period of ‘Self-Denial’ (which partially coincides with Lent in the Christian year) when we consider giving sacrificially to support the work of the Salvation Army in other countries.

This year we are especially focusing on Burkina Faso in West Africa, and over five weeks are watching short videos (as part of our weekly worship meetings) showing the work of the Salvation Army in this country, before giving in an ‘Altar Service’ on the fifth week when we bring our financial gift forward in worship and place it on an open Bible.

I’ve embedded the first video into this post, but the others can be found by clicking on the links below.

2 The Road to Faith
3 Stirring Things Up
4 Sowing Seeds
5 Growing Saints

One of the concerns in Burkina Faso at the moment is terrorist attacks, many of which are directed at the Christian Church. Indeed, two such fatal attacks have taken place since we started considering the work in this country. Please remember Burkina Faso in your prayers and give generously. If you’re not connected with the Salvation Army, you can find more information here.

Update: The day after this post was published another deadly attack was reported: Gunmen have killed 24 people and wounded 18 others in an attack on a Protestant church in a village in northern Burkina Faso.

Coming out as gay

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I write as a straight man, even though someone once found my website using the phrase ‘is john ager gay’, but also as someone who seeks to empathise and understand those who struggle with their sexuality and societal attitudes.

It came as a complete surprise when I heard this morning that Phillip Schofield had come out as gay, even if there were those who said they always knew.

Much has already been spoken and written about this, and I can’t possibly (nor do I intend to) cover all the issues raised by this announcement. However, I would like to raise questions of why it’s so difficult for people to come out, and why can’t people be allowed to be who they are in the first place?

I found a number of well-articulated comments on Twitter helpful in this important discussion and I leave them with you:

Owen Jones: It’s up to all LGBTQ people how or when or whether they come out. But when someone with a public platform comes out, it helps people who are struggling with their sexuality. Love and support to [Phillip Scofield]

Patrick Strudwick: Next year will be 30 yrs since I came out. (14, at my comprehensive school, it stopped me killing myself). To STILL see people trapped in the closet for decades before having desperate, highly-charged comings out reveals how little things have changed. We have so much more to do.

Sam Wise: [Phillip Schofield] grew up in a time when gay people didn’t have any rights and nobody can blame him for feeling he could not come out. Still today homophobia is alive in our society and people in the public eye feel they can’t be who they are…the fact that [he] has only felt able [to] come out now says more about our society than it does him. He’s made a courageous step today and the fact his wife and kids are right behind him with love and support is excellent.

Coming to terms with and being your authentic self is never easy, especially in the public eye. Phillip and his family deserve our love and support.

Time to Talk Day

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We live in an uncertain world, with many pressures in our day to day lives. The reality is that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year, so there has never been a better time to open up about the mental health challenges we face. The more conversations we have about mental health, the more myths we can bust and barriers we can break down, helping to end the isolation, shame and worthlessness that too many of us feel when experiencing a mental health problem.

Having had my own mental health issues in the past (although anxiety, stress and depression can still affect me) this is my heartfelt plea for everyone to open up and talk at more than just a superficial level.

The annual Time to Talk Day provides an opportunity for everyone to add to the wider conversation on social media, television and elsewhere. Here is an opportunity to reach out to others in meaningful ways and help address mental health stigma in society.

Holocaust Memorial Day

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Sadly, hatred of ‘others’ is very often in the open these days, with much more just under the thin veneer of civilized society. It’s not enough to simply ‘never forget’ the events of the Holocaust, all forms of discrimination and hatred must be actively resisted. The Holocaust happened (and can happen again) when good people turn a blind eye to everyday hatred.

First they came for the Communists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.
Martin Niemöller

The Holocaust didn’t begin in the gas chambers, it began with words of hate, because words matter. So, as we pause and remember, we need to reflect on how easy it is to dehumanise people and exclude them because they are different from us; maybe because of their colour or culture, their faith or politics, their gender or sexual orientation etc.

As well as remembering the evils of the past, we should commit to affirming all people, valuing everyone as part of the rich tapestry of humankind, and loving them as they are and for who they are.

Understanding White Privilege

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I guess we all have an understanding of racism, namely the belief that one’s own race is superior to others. A document (recently published by The Salvation Army) says: Racism can be subtle and embedded, even though people avoid using direct racist terminology. Racism can also be overt, systematic and cruel, as epitomised by the slave trade, the Holocaust, apartheid, the caste system and the treatment of indigenous people. It also puts us all on our guard by saying: Racial prejudice is present in us all to some degree and must be rigorously countered.

Occasionally, you hear white people say they haven’t experienced racism, but that’s a little like saying hunger doesn’t exist because you had a large breakfast this morning.

This brings us neatly to the concept of white privilege, something that’s less well understood. It’s been defined as follows: White privilege (or white skin privilege) is the societal privilege that benefits people whom society identifies as white in some countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.

White privilege does NOT mean you’re racist.
White privilege does NOT mean your life has been easy.
White privilege does NOT mean you don’t face struggles too.

White privilege simply means your life isn’t made harder by your skin colour.

It’s as simple as that. Every one of us has a responsibility to empathise with everyone we come into contact, and with different groups within society, to learn to live in other people’s shoes on the journey of life.

Note: As a white person, who obviously hasn’t experienced this type of discrimination, I hope my thoughts are helpful. I offer them in humility, and with a willingness to learn.