16 August 2019

Who we are and what we are up to

[This article first appeared in Methodist Recorder, July 19, 2019]

Some wise person took me aside some years ago as I was rushing around with enthusiastic business and told me to ‘slow down, or life can become an undigested meal!’

This advise feels particularly pertinent right now as I snatch a moment of quietness in a hotel garden in Harare before going out for an evening meal with Zimbabwean partners and staff of All We Can. How strange to be in a country with no inkling (yet) of what it means to be here.

In the days ahead the visit will unfold and form some of the stories that I will tell and ponder during the coming year. But right now, I am thinking of how stories are formed because of what comes immediately before and after them. To make that thought more specific - for Clive and myself, we have come to Africa straight from the Methodist for World Mission Conference at Swanwick and when I get home there will be two days to turn myself around before setting off on the walk to Conference.

The ‘before’ and ‘after’ events give a story bookends but their significance only takes hold once they join together with what happens in the middle. Currently my ‘before’ bookend is the multitude of conversations that emerged in the MWM weekend. With partners from the Chinese Church and from Chinese fellowships and churches in Britain. We talked about how culture and history forms our own faith expression in the incarnational experiences of today.  The ‘after’ bookend will be a pilgrimage of encounter, with myself and with others, known and unknown, a re-centring of myself in the rhythm of walking and resting, reconnecting myself to the importance of our precious earth.

At Swanwick we heard once again the extraordinary story of Peter and Cornelius as told in Acts, where the devout Jew is told to risk his own identity and purity and eat all sorts of formerly prohibited food in the house of a Gentile. The ‘before’ story being the denial and reinstatement of the events of Easter. And the ‘after’ story a whole new vision of where the good news of Jesus should be told and might be heard, a new daring to branch out and take on new challenges much bigger than previously imagined. All of us are here because of that ‘after’ story, the story that expanded the thinking of one man and widened the arms of faith to the whole world.

And then curiously, the story goes around again as we continually tell and re-tell our narratives in the light of the ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ and in the betwixts and betweens  unearth new significance and return to the wondering and questioning about what it means to be here.

We are always a work in progress, people who are not yet finished, re-visiting and re-framing past events as we are formed and reformed by experiences and insights. Our personal narratives take shape and weave in an out of the other stories around us, In particular we are aware of the turmoil and unrest in our politics and communities as we struggle to understand the powers at work around us. We ask ourselves questions about what we could do or say to promote a different way - how we could act with mercy without being patronising, how we could bring about justice without abusing power.

For our Presidential year, Clive and I have written a book which will be published on our return from Zimbabwe. In the book we explore how we work with this interweaving of personal, public and faith narratives and find ways of hearing silenced stories as well as giving testimony to our beliefs. We have really enjoyed writing the book and we hope it will become a good resource for you too! It is not a ‘this is how you do it’ sort of a book but rather an ‘I wonder if....’ resource for you to pick up and dip into, to provoke your questions and to give encouragement as you engage with the rich variety of stories around, both in the church and in the community. The book is called: So What’s the Story…? and is published by Darton, Longman and Todd and if you order it from Amazon Smile you will also be able to contribute to the work of All We Can.

Of course, the danger of writing a book is that it can be seen as a definitive text rather than a work in progress. That is why we are continuing to talk around the story theme in these and other articles throughout the year. And why we hope that you will be inspired to tell your own stories and the stories of God in many and varied ways. We hope you will let us know how you get on!

So, time for me to leave this tranquil spot and to embrace Zimbabwe. In the days ahead we will visit churches and villages, we will travel through game reserves and shanty towns and we will meet some fascinating people along the way. I have no doubt that our personal narratives will be changed by all we are about to observe and feel and will be telling you all about it when we get back. Meanwhile, blessings on you wherever you are and keep listening out for the stories of God in your neighbourhood!

Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference

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