Catch up: Part 5 (a)… First March of the Penguins

Though I had Ironed it on the first night of the retreat, I ran the steamer over it once more on the eve of the ceremony. My black suit was spotless and crease free – apart from the intentional one on the trouser legs (my ex-military dad had taught me how to iron and my residual nerves had ensured absolute precision: even samurais are not that sharp). The clerical shirt was immaculate and I could see my face in the spit-shined shoes. If God was going to reject me, it wasn’t going to be for my garments. Maybe for the shoes… maybe.

When I bought the shoes, I thought it funny that they were made by a company called ‘hell leather’. Yes, I knew they were what I would wear to my ordination; Yes, I hoped the people who would be directly behind me would see them; and Yes, on the day of the ordination I knelt with sharpened ears, ready for the ghasp from a holy person about the unholy thing they had noticed about the soon to be deacon. The length of my cassoc, however, scuppered my plans: dresses can be quite annoying.

It’s a weird thing, waking up on days like these. Light, not the clock, woke me up. Gently it trickled in through a small gap in the curtain. It was just enough to give the room a glow: or maybe a child was excited about christmas. I didn’t yawn or stretch. My eyes went from sleep to wide awake in the space of seconds. My mind brought the rest of me up to speed. Fresh in memory the conversations I had had with my fellow ordinands over a 12 year old Aardberg the nights before we went into silence. Fresh in memory the brief interview I had had with the Bishop the day before: brief and encouraging. Fresh in memory the gentle thump of my heart as I tried to fall asleep the night before – dreaming of what was to come while simultaneously being thrust back into the dark room I was to try and rest in. It had felt like a kind of baptism, a kind of tomb. Perhaps part of me was dying. I don’t know. Truly something was going to be slightly different tomorrow, that I knew. My heart wasnt game for a wrestle against the tide, against the time, against what felt like destiny. My bones were aligning and that was good; and I knew that. I knew it well. I knew it in the place one visits when they honestly shut their eyes and look in. There was no trembling here. Just the gentle thump of a peaceful excitement. Today was a big day, there were things to do. Within minutes my bed was made and everything I didn’t need was packed and ready to for check out.

A drink of water can refresh the outside of a person. This morning the cascade of droplets pelleting my face and skin felt like little drums chiming in the horizon. With their pitter patter they soothed me and prepared me for what was ahead. What they said, the cocoa butter sealed in. Awash with peace I dressed up.

There is a thing about uniforms that make them ridiculous. When you wear one part of you is hidden and part of you comes to the fore. No uniform ever captures the totality of the individual (like the extra bits of the fajita that wont fit into the over filled wrap). looking in the mirror I had to laugh.

“Clerical shirts are not good for anything else”, I thought to myself. “Can’t use a normal tie with them”. With a brief smile, recognising the somewhat hilarious confluence of my uniform and branded shoes, I slipped my collar in. After debating whether to wear the jacket with one button or two done I left my room, cassock bag folded over my left arm; ‘normal stuff’ bag slung over my right shoulder; no button done.

We looked like a bunch of penguins sipping tea. Whoever thought giving a group of clergy white tea cups and saucers was a genius. In the sea of black, all you could notice were the moving cups and collars. But one couldn’t laugh could one? No! oh no! One was one of the penguins. One could smile though. Partly because it was the appropriate Christian face for the day (everyone apart from the retreat guides wasn’t in a place to be pastoral so panic face or sad face might have been ignored by the potential church leaders in the building: ceremony first, service later).

At this juncture I’d like to point out for legal reasons that the description put forth in the preceding parentheses are the author’s own and may not be representative of the wider troop.

After tea begun the march of the penguins onto the coach: some kind person had brought chocolates to share. Then the drive to the cathedral for a final rehearsal and the Bishop’s charge. Then lunch at the Bishop’s digs. Then Family time (which I valued greatly) before returning for the final robing and ceremony.

It’s funny how nothing changed… and yet…

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Catch up: Part 3…The Little Black Tourist

By the entrance to the crypt a sentry stood.

“I’m here for the ordination retreat”. I almost whispered.

Right this way Sir!”, the reply, with an arm extended toward the well lit hollow.

I lifted my bags so they wouldn’t hit the steps. Inside one of them was a bottle of Aardberg which I had been advised to take with me (as for the contents of that bottle, what happens on retreat stays on retreat!).

The last time I came to St Paul’s Cathedral it was for my confirmation service. I managed to find myself a seat upstairs and secured some for my family: who had come to support me. About five minutes prior to the service, my sister’s nose began to bleed. One of the vergers, who I came to learn later was a cannon (cracking Job title by the way) had let us down some steps into the crypt. That was my first time down there.

I had once, before writing Talitha Koumi, aired some of my frustrations about Christian  obsessions with buildings. Stone altars was the series of blog posts through which I  mused on the place of symbolic structures in the life of faith. At that point, as with now, I was passionate for people to know God as one who did not need the many buildings, and all the ornate things within them, in order to touch the heart. Because of this, the history of St Paul’s Cathedral and of all that was within its walls – specifically the crypt, weren’t a fascination.

Today, as the outstretched arm of the Sentry pointed me down into the crypt, I hadn’t lost that sense of non-wonder (and this has taken a while to understand). It wasn’t the building that I was walking into that had me trembling, it was the life I was leaving behind. Going down the steps felt like leaving the autonomy with which my journey had been peppered: I was one amongst many traversing the busy London streets. It felt as though with each step down my life was stopping being my own.

At the end of the ceremony to come there would be a prefix to my name. One that denoted my connection to the institution that this building represented. It would denote my connection to a whole plethora of people. I trembled because I knew how complex my own sense of identity was (#It’sComplicated). How could I then enter into the space of representing? Would I lose who I was and become something else? If yes, then what if I did not like who I became? There were too few steps and too many tourists going up and down them for any of these questions to have had answers by the time I got to the room we were supposed to congregate in.

Bags down I was glad to see some familiar faces. I was also glad to see some new faces, each with that Nicky Gumble christian smile. It was daunting, but somehow also safe. I could trace in each face I met – of the ordinands – internal turmoils of a similar texture. There was a quiet, subtle, undercurrent of care for each other which made – even the silences – a good thing.

About 40 minutes passed with us, the group of ordinands, doing things not worth the blog-space (apart probably from the pre-quasi-seminar coffee, which was good). When all had been said that needed saying we donned our cassocks to head up for the rehearsal. The cafe in the crypt went silent as soon as the door to the room we were in opened. Cups were put down, some even did the sign of the cross as we – in single file like soldiers – marched out towards the set the same steps that had ushered us individually in. Lifting my cassock so as not to trip on the steps I slowly ascended back out into the sunshine of the courtyard. The faces, now turned towards our cohort of oddly dressed individuals, were filled with wonder and confusion in equal measure. We went up the steps, through the side doors past the tourists into the nave.

Part of what we would have had to do in the service was walk in that same single file up the aisle to the front. There was a slight commotion in the nave as the many tourists who were in the building gathered around close to the font, where we were, in order to see what was going on. Our names were called out so that we will be in the right order when our march begun. Like a good schoolboy I listened attentively for my name, suppressing every instinct towards mischief (I know… it happened). When it came, resounding with echoes, I walked toward where I was supposed to stand: my stomach slightly churning. I lifted my eyes from my shoes and that’s when it happened; that’s when I saw him. I’m certain however, that he had been watching me a while now.

He was short, just tall enough for the rope that demarcated the ‘no access’ area to pass across his shoulders. His hair was combed, dark like his eyes – which were wide open. There was a look of wonder in his eyes that both confused and encouraged me. It was a look mirrored by his mother, who was standing beside him. Hers however, had a tinge of pride: the kind of pride that God likes; that expresses a gratitude mixed with joy and affirmation. No one else had the same look these two had. For most of those surrounding them, the look was more of surprise and intrigue. Somehow, within that moment, I had become his – a memory to savour. He too had become mine. Both our eyes glistened at the realisation that we were no longer just tourists, misfits in a place we didn’t belong. We represented each other from the other side of the rope: I could be him (in fact I was him once but in a life that – till fairly recently – was empty of the counterpart in a cassock), and he could be me. Once innocently colour-blind little black tourists in a sea of white, now priests to each other. Me, evidence of a new possibility; Him, a reminder of where I came from and the privilege I was now to hold: the privilege of who I was becoming.

Stopping short of going to embrace him, I nodded and waved. He slowly raised a hand, still with wonder in his eyes, and gently – almost with a tinge of embarrassment – waved back. With that we were called forward and I had to leave the scene.

Being an ethnic ‘minority’ (and I hate some of what that word might imply) had never really been a thing that I focussed on. Being and ethnic ‘minority’ in the Church of England was also not a thing that I had particularly focussed on. Being a Church of England ordinand from an ethnic minority was also not something I particularly mused upon. For some reason – and do think it is from him – God had somehow blinded me to the fact that I was usually one of perhaps two black guys in most of the churches I had been involved in. Looking back now, with the added experience of my sending church, I can see quite clearly the correlation between the affluence of the particular churches and their ethnic diversity (quite a sad thing to ponder really).

Only once during the discernment process had cultural mis-translation proved an issue for me: even then it was only slight. I barely noticed my ethnicity at my B.A.P (selection conference), and only slightly – on rare occasions – had it become a noticeable thing at theological college or in the placement churches. But this wasn’t because issues regarding race and culture weren’t alive in the undercurrent. No! It was because they were the aspects of my own experience that I had chosen, sub-consciously and consciously at times, not to reflect on. For so long as doors kept opening I kept walking through without pausing to ponder the scars and wounds from the journey.

This moment, then, was important because it helped me realise that I had a tourist’s understanding of my presence at the cathedral. Somewhere between church, the discernment process, theological training and all that had led to this point, I had suppressed the truth of my blackness and thus wasn’t really in the space to recognise the fact that I belonged where I stood. I had forgotten the wonder with which my eyes met my sending incumbent – a young black man serving as a priest. I hadn’t recognised the permission he had given me, permission in my deepest recesses to dream. He had given me the sight of a future I could occupy, like the sight I had here given the little black tourist. I had had the fortune, in the sea of middle-class white males (a generalisation, but also a kind of reality), to have found someone who looked like me, spoke like me, had a story like mine, who was doing what I felt God was calling me to do. My dream had possibility.

To recognise my belonging meant recognising the moments when I was a cultural outcast, smiling in groups when I didn’t understand the references or appreciate the same genre of music or films being used (unintentional exclusion by my God-loving peers). It meant recognising the loneliness of culture-centric pleasures and joys that I couldn’t share: they would neither be appreciated fully/ understood nor enjoyed. It meant having to recognise the struggle to find a barber shop that did afro hair while my colleagues had short walks to theirs. It meant recognising that I didn’t know how to begin to express my hurt when I was made a victim by a racist shopkeeper (my colleagues would have cared for me but they may not have understood the pain – real untranslated empathy heals in a way unparalleled). It meant recognising that I was going to be ordained as a black man.

If I didn’t allow the authenticity of my experience to kneel before the cross, I wouldn’t be healed; neither would the others from my background for whom our shared experience would be an avenue through which hope would flow. As Rev Azariah France-Williams (my sending incumbent) was for me, so I had to be for myself first, then for others. I suppose this was why Jesus had to be fully human, so as not to be a tourist but a priest.

The rest of the rehearsal was a blur: my thoughts overwhelmed me. I was occupied for the days of reflection that followed and have been since. The young boy ensured my commitment to a deeper reflection on the part my ethnicity plays in this great adventure God is leading me on. It’s not easy. Keep me in your prayers.

….

I couldn’t post this without this minor appendix….

In the diverse city that London is, I was the only black person ordained in 2016. There were a few from other ethnicities but in total we were a small percentage and I suspect didn’t represent the make up of our city. I don’t think this is an issue whose root rests solely in the majority male-middle class white clergy. What God blinded me to, other’s see and are afraid. Had I seen it myself, I might not be where I am. We must together share the burden of cross-cultural translation. I think it is at the centre of the term ‘incarnate’. Difference is not to be feared but to be embraced. Sin will mask our fear in apathy or the illusion that is the assurance of our being untouched by issues of race and culture: do not allow it to take root. Repentance, specific to this, looks like a real interrogation of the sub-conscious biases that exist within us. These are not just about race and culture but also include gender and age. Kneeling at the foot of the cross means just that, accepting that our minds need transformation and our whole lives conforming to be like the God who reached out to the uncircumcised.

(More can be said, more will undoubtedly be said.)

PS: Pontiff sed hi.

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The Railing

Genesis

1. Will you only hover over the emptiness? Will you kiss the mess and speak? Or will you hold it together in its darkness.

2. When will the night cease? The word was heard and the divide created but this darkness won’t relent. Shine brighter still in the darkness for this plain won’t break from its failure to comprehend.

3. This is not order. This is not good. This is not fruitful. This is not living with the blessed. This is neither sleep, nor rest, nor sabbath. This is the forbidden curse uncurtailed. This is the untrodden serpent but the bruised heel. This is the body you put here in the unweeded garden. This is the toil beyond the fences, the rebellion of the soil – with breath in it, the scorch, and even worse… the unending waiting.

4. Yes. I lifted the rock and struck his temple. You lifted the smoke and struck me beneath the skin. (I lifted the first fruit – the choicest of the flock and yet was still struck. Were you not my keeper also?)

5. Voice from the deep, where will you lead me? Where will you have me place my feet? Where will you have me pitch my tent? Where shall I call home? Why, when you call in the night, won’t you show me the place to which you’re headed? To which we are headed?

6. For those I have forsaken, and for those I have brought with me, show me more than just stars. My flesh is old, as old as the promise whispered in the darkness. Follow, you said. But lifetimes later… I’m still lifting my tent pegs.

7. Will you destroy the city when 1% is righteous? Will you destroy my name or leave me a remnant? If you will then why the following? Why the calling?

8. Bless what I have dismissed.

9 – 16: neither of us have had the opportunity to laugh.

… here my scriptures end…

#Adide2016

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Behind: The unrecognised sublime

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“Awe and terror have a fine defining border. Nothing captures this more for me than the sea.  Every time my eyes reach for the horizon they are confronted with its impossibility: the truth of my own limitation in the face of ambition.  As I think on it, the waves break forth and the reality of a depth that surpasses the visible distance in scope terrifies. Indeed I’m once more a spec,  not even of as much consequence as the wind blown drop nestling on my eyelash. Before is beyond and I thirst for it hoping it would be my becoming.

The trouble is, this terror ahead – this awe – conceals by its drawing of my attention the truth of the vastness behind. I suppose this is the curse of ambition: never really taking stock of the unmastered past.  The land that my eyes ignore isn’t covered in my footprints yet has contributed more to my foundations than the seas with all their potential can”.

He draws breath. Scratches his head and pauses.

“I cut my hair bald for a decade.” The words emerge from darkness and disappear, like headlights on a country lane.

“I wonder what happened to them.  The faces that like my childhood memories irregularly haunt: showing up to confront what’s before in violent eruptions; claiming authority over the present; branding the eye; calling false all that is and is to come;  and howling as the wind blows them away – back into the abyss we share”.

A breath intentionally drawn once again.

“There are terrors both ways; awe both ways. One must turn his back to the seas now and again. To bask in the unrecognized sublime”.

Reinterpret power

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This is an illustration my comic book Bible. A day after casting my vote I’m reading when I find myself stuck and struck simultaneously by what I’m looking at.  The picture has a well defined, symmetrical, and handsome man beneath the purple robes: the illustrator’s perspective on Jesus I think.    Looking beyond that, I note that what is beneath the robes is the same that made the universe.  The same that destined the fingers that are placing the robe, accessorised by ridicule, on his skin – sore from the whipping he’s just received.  The discipline that focuses the destructive potential into love is awe inspiring.  Power here is expressed fully in it’s application, or seeming inaction.

I saw here Ultimate power; Absolute power; Universe creating power. Alongside it also a real Response-ability, gentleness and self control. This was here a pattern – a template and challenge – for how to hold power. There really wasn’t anyone more powerful thus no other pattern other than this has any authority and authenticity: this was a lesson from the source. Those who thought they had power actually had none and he who seemed powerless and bound actually had it all.

It gave me solace in the face of my post election dispair – I lamented the system not the outcome. Here in this picture I saw the indictment against human structures and the power they claim to have. I saw clearly the truth that in the man Jesus only was there the combination of power and responsibility: a combination neccesary for the complete redemption of humanity. This task was, is, and will always be beyond us. All I can do is respond: surrender, repent, anticipate, and bear witness.

#reflection

Trust and follow

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It was cold and windy. Not at all what we had hoped it would be like when we planned the weekend away.  The roar of the water as, in waves, it crashed upon the sands usurped our utterances; we had given up verbal conversation owing to the effort and the neccesitated cold ears. Drops of rain and sea water flicked passed the hood and doused our tired eyes. But we were not to be deterred, neither was Alaska.

It’s almost a year since I carried her for the last time away from the dog shelter. Her body slumped in my arms,  fighting off the effects of the general anasthetic she was under for her spaying. In the months that followed we learnt from each other. Her of my commitment to her and me of her devotion, and her fear of deep water. Alaska they called her, our tail wagging companion.

The cemented pipe reached forth into the water like an arm. It emerged from the sand as though anchoring it to the stillness beyond the raging waves. I could feel it call out. The sirens were singing and I was bewitched.

“Will you stay with her while I go?” I asked my wife, remembering Alaska’s fear.

She didn’t hear me on account of the waves. I handed her the untethered leash and she gestured to the dog to join her. With that I turned to the expanse and walked the narrow habour.

Halfway up I began to feel light touches on the back of my boots. Looking behind me I saw her. Nervous, tail between her hind legs, looking up at me then down to the waters around us. She had followed me. Partly overjoyed as we neared the end I stroked her wet back and praised her. The fear filtered my assurances. When I faced the beach she wriggled her way behind me, eager once more to follow. Her tail lifted, and so did her face, when our feet found sand again.

….

It is impossible I think, to follow without trusting. This is the trusting that doesn’t mitigate risks but wholeheartedly devotes to a determined following; the trusting that goes closer to the expanse of fear in order to be LED out of it; the trusting that is forever behind, ready to stop when the leader stops. This trusting is the tether that’s stronger than chains; it is fastened only by undying LOVE; proved by COMMITMENT for whom TIME bears witness. It is the trusting at which I consistently fail but desire. Maybe because I fear being a sheep, or a dog, and fancy that childlike way of being beneath me.

#metanoia

“Give me the courage to follow even in the face of fear, even in the face of death.”

#Amen

One Stone!

Bones upon bones, upon bones, upon bones,
Strewn across the land
where swords unsheathed have sprouted –
are sprouting – like flowers

‘Not one stone will be left a top of another
all will be thrown down’

Blindness, upon the hour of thy visitation.

When the earth laments
it spews up limbs
like slowly dropping, stubborn, thick, viscous tears.

‘Not one stone.’

What, one stone?

These are not the dead
They are the dying
They are our dying
Covered in dust but refusing submersion

They are the flesh you ask us to leave
That with fine sinews cleave onto our resurrecting
emerging from our tarrying
unclothed and Spirit-less.

‘All will be thrown down’

Bones upon bones indeed,
Bones upon bones in need
Called away but staying slain
With spades harvesting the swords
Harvesting death from death.

‘Not one stone’

‘One Stone!’

© Denis Adide 2014

 

“Let the dead bury their own dead…”