I often tell people that I believe those who appear to be least able amongst us are blessings to help us learn the ways of the kingdom of heaven… This morning, this scene played out before me.
This is a guest post from Nem Tomlinson of L’Arche.
When I’m at L’Arche I like my body and, because of that, I’m learning to love it when I’m not.
I came to L’Arche when I was twenty two. I was straight out of university and I celebrated my twenty third birthday just weeks later. My housemates baked me a cake, fumbled thank yous and gifted me slippers (they didn’t know me well enough then to know that I tolerate shoes at the best of time. I still have those slippers; unworn. They remind me that I am loved). For the last ten years I have been woven into the L’Arche Community in Edinburgh and, for the last six years, here in Manchester. I have grown up in L’Arche; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
I have lived my greatest joys and my deepest shames amidst my communities, and they have been the contexts and often the sources of my healing; the messy, ugly putting oneself back together that inevitably happens with life.
At university I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on naked Quaker women and my Masters dissertation on the function of seventeenth century breasts. Before L’Arche, and during my studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what having a body meant and perhaps less time thinking about what my body meant to me. This changed when I joined L’Arche. Life in L’Arche is an embodied experience. There are baths to run, teeth to brush, feet to massage, arms to link. There are shared, noisy meal times where we join hands to sing, and impromptu dance parties as we wash up. There is signing to tell a story: the one that happened long before she moved in, but that we all know and tell, and tell again, fingers moving to share it with someone new. I do less of this now and I still miss it, sneaking it in whenever I can.
Embodiment is a term that is slowly becoming more recognised. It has taken time because we are, largely, a society that values the head and intellect over the body, it seems. For me, embodiment describes the process of locating myself within myself (all of me, my body), and in the present moments. Body Positivity is a movement that espouses the idea that all bodies are good.
Yet having a body can be a complex thing. Loving other people’s bodies has been a much simpler process for me than loving my own.
I can tell you about our core members in Manchester. How Milly has eyelashes that could launch a thousand ships, or what it does to my heart when Crispin giggles and twitches with delight. I can tell you about helping Joe to have a shave in the morning, listening to Herb Albert, and how the process would take twice as long because we would dance as he shaved. I can tell you of the process of falling in love with people time and time again. But my relationship with loving this body I inhabit has not always been simple. I would struggle to tell you what I find precious about it, and could tell you how I have hated it and hurt it and shamed it.
Embodiment has given me a language to explore the idea that there is no separation between me and my body. We are all me. But it is in L’Arche that I’ve learnt what embodiment feels like and perhaps feeling might be the key to embodiment.
R.S Thomas has a line in his poem,The Kingdom, which reads ‘…and love looks at them back.’ I think so often that this has been my experience within L’Arche. Lou doesn’t care how much I weigh; she cares about whether we will talk about the time I forgot to pick her up from her nana’s, and arrived sweaty and beetroot red from a run.
In the autumn I dyed my hair green impulsively and Zeynep tugged at it and screeched with delight. Crispin and I twirl at our Community Boogie Nights, and I feel free and alive. Milly pumps her arm up and down with unabashed joy and grabs your clothing as you pass her, so that you stop and bend down to share a joke with her.
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‘In their loving me, they have taught me that I am good; all of me. The embodied me is good.’
It is not our differences that have taught me peace with my own body. It is not some misplaced, harmful, platitude along the lines of ‘if they are happy with their bodies, I should be happy with mine.’ No. Rather, it is that in their loving me, they have taught me that I am good; all of me. The embodied me is good.
People tease me about when I last brushed my hair. It is speckled with grey. The laughter lines that started ten years ago in a three-storey house in Leith where this story began are now embedded in my skin. I throw on clothes in the morning and rarely think about what I look like. I have started to think less and less often about what I look like. Instead I am learning to understand my life by asking myself: ‘what do I feel like?’
So when Lou and I, after many false starts, climb up the stairs on the water flume for the eighth time and slide belly laughing all the way down, I feel like I am eight years old again and riding my bike. When Zeynep runs towards me with arms wide open, I know that I am good. When Crispin jumps up when I knock on his front door, and raises his arms and dances from side to side, I know I belong.
This hard-earned friendship that says ‘you are important to me and me to you.’ Mary Oliver wrote ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ This simple revolution. To ask what does this beat up, broken and put back together body of mine love? A work of a lifetime; learning to listen and love and inhabit myself.
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‘I am learning to centre myself within myself. To twirl and twirl and dance, hot and sweaty and imperfect, and know that this is good.’
I am learning this in L’Arche. Most of the people who I share my life with don’t speak, but they don’t need to. They tell me who they are and what they want in a myriad of different and deep ways, and they tell me that I am their friend and that they love me in embodied ways. ‘Love looks at me back’ each day and because of that I am learning to centre myself within myself. To twirl and twirl and dance, hot and sweaty and imperfect, and know that this is good.
When I’m at L’Arche I like my body and, because of that, I am learning to love it when I’m not.
Nem Tomlinson is part of the L’Arche Manchester Community, which she co-founded in 2013.
A guest post for St Nicholas Day from Embrace the Middle East.
‘Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.’ Psalm 85:10
Psalm 85’s concluding verses (vv.10-13) picture a bright future where God restores all that is not experiencing ‘shalom’.
They proclaim ‘tsaddiq’ will be as present as peace when this day comes. This Hebrew word holds together ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’.
For many Christians in the West ‘righteousness’ has become associated mostly with personal purity. So we need the reminder that ‘justice’ is also emphasised in the scriptures whenever we see ‘righteousness’.
God is as concerned with our social systems as He is with individuals’ lives. So any vision of His kingdom that doesn’t seek a fair future for all has lost sight of true peace, and its Prince.
Why then is ‘peace’ more of a central theme at Christmas than ‘justice’ is? Because the latter shouldn’t jar with any of our celebrations of the coming King.
It will not help us if we tranquilise the kingdom by editing out its uncompromising hunger for justice. It will only further confuse and disappoint us. It will limit how much we experience true peace – and how we go about trying to build it.
Today is St Nicholas’ Day, and our modern depictions of Father Christmas are a good example of our tendency to do this.
Legend says the man behind the myth – the Bishop of Myra (a province now in Turkey) – actually gave his generous gifts to rescue the daughters of a poor man from being sold into prostitution. A far cry from typical depictions of Santa today!
In our vision of the kingdom, justice and peace must embrace as perfectly balanced equals. This perspective must shape all our prayer and action. That’s why we’re inspired when we meet Christians in the Middle East who model it so profoundly.
Hussein and Nadine Ismail are gentle, people of peace. But they are tenacious in how they apply their love and compassion for children and young people who need their help. The Learning Centre for the Deaf in Lebanon kindly but persistently challenges society and government about how much education deaf children can access.
To do anything less would be to neglect justice. It would limit the real ‘shalom’ those with hearing difficulties could hope to experience.
Let’s pray we will better express this same balance:
Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace, who champions the flourishing of all, thank you that the bells which will sound this joyful season ring out the arrival of a kingdom of peace and justice. Amplify their message loud in the hearts of all Your people, here and in the Middle East, till we even better hear, and obey, their resonating call, Amen.
Sharing the Peace
Something to consider and discuss with others
- Which do you think you typically prioritise, peace or justice, and which are you more likely to neglect? How could you balance both?
- Do you think we should, or could, bring the theme of ‘justice’ back into our Christmas celebrations more? If so, how would you start?
Something you could do today
- How could you spread the word about the real St Nicholas today? You could forward on today’s email reflection to friends. Or perhaps share a post on social media talking about the original man behind the myth of St Nicholas, and asking others why ‘justice’ has become a bit lost at Christmas.
Copyright 2018 Embrace the Middle East. All rights reserved. Embrace the Middle East is a registered charity no. 1076329.
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As a hospital chaplain, I spent many hours alongside people whose brains were deteriorating such that memory and cognition were no longer central to the way in which they encountered the world. As I watched people with advanced dementia sing and worship, I could not help but be caught up in the deep mystery of what it might mean to worship Jesus when you have forgotten who he is. Holding the hand of someone with advanced dementia and coming to realise that they are not someone who “used to be”, but someone who is important in the present and indeed has a vocation was, to say the least, humbling, challenging and quite beautiful.
Becoming Friends of Time
Bishop Anne Dyer wrote this article for Aberdeen’s Press and Journal, published on All Saints Day (November 1, 2018). It’s worth reading and thinking about. Many churches will be keeping All Saints Day tomorrow, so there’s still plenty of time to remember and offer your thanks.
A few days ago I saw a very kind thing happen on the bus.
We were approaching a stop, and an elderly and infirm lady made her way cautiously down the aisle.
She took some time to disembark. Then, wanting to cross a very busy road, she stood on the edge of the pavement unsure and dithering. The bus was about to set off again, but instead, the driver turned off the engine and got out of the bus. He went to the lady standing on the kerb, gently took her by the arm, and stopping the traffic by waving his arm, helped her across the road.
He crossed back again, got on the bus, and on we went. There was high passenger approval for this act of kindness, and one person getting off turned to say to the driver “you are a good man”. None of us knew the bus driver’s name. He was, in a way, a secret saint. That is what a saint is, a person who does something good for no reward.
Today we seldom refer to another person as a saint. In the past people did this more often; it was said of people who showed sustained goodness in their lives or were an example to others. A saint might be a person consistently kind and reliable, someone who put others before themselves.
A saint for us could be person who has had a great influence on our life. For example, it could be a teacher who saw something in us when we were small, someone who noticed the beginnings of a talent or enthusiasm and encouraged us or inspired us.
I remember a school teacher of mine, Miss Black, who realised that I was good at science, saw potential in me and encouraged me to work hard to get to university No one in my family had ever been to university, so this was the first time an adult spoke with me about this possibility.
Miss Black was also a church-goer, who prayed for her pupils. So looking back I realise that she must have been praying for me, although at the time I did not notice because I had my head down, busy with my work and determined to fulfil an ambition that she had encouraged me to pursue.
That’s the thing about saints, they are mostly not noticed. It was only years later, after she had died, that I came to see what an important person she had been in my life. I wish I had thanked her more at the time. How often do we realise this wish that we had said thank you?
Today is November 1 and in churches this is a particularly special day – ‘All Saints Day’. There are many churches and streets that carry the names of significant saints, famous throughout the world, but on ‘All Saints Day’ we remember those known to us whose names are mostly forgotten.
It is a time when we hold in our memory and in our prayers people who have affected our lives in some way for the better. We are encouraged to look back and actively remember who it was that shaped our lives for good. Most of those we call to mind have died now, so it is not possible to thank them, but the memory of them is not forgotten, nor the good things they had done.
We remember all kinds of people, from those who worked to raise money for charities, to those who started campaigns for change. We remember people who were the first to achieve something in their field of work, often at great personal cost. We remember people who might not have thought much of what they were doing, and maybe did not do it for thanks or attention, but made a real and lasting difference to the lives of other people.
This remembering helps us to re-set our values, to think about the way that we live our lives today. The lives of ‘saints’ encourage us to try to do better. We too might be those who make a good and lasting impact on others.
In civic life and work places, in schools and universities, in clubs and in churches, recognising those who do good among us through service can build community. We can do this with gifts and thanks, we can do it sometimes through special awards and prizes. However we do it, we are agreeing together that someone who might not think of themselves as good is making a big difference to a lot of people.
And how much better to do this now, rather than only think of thanking them later, when it may be too late.
The Rt Rev Anne Dyer is Episcopalian Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney and Scotland’s first female bishop