You Know It When You See It

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Fitzrovia Chapel

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Exhibition by Gideon Mendel: The Ward

Here’s some of the information on the exhibition from the Fitzrovia Chapel website:

“In 1993, Gideon Mendel spent a number of weeks photographing the Broderip and Charles Bell wards in London’s Middlesex Hospital as part of the ‘Positive Lives’ project. The Broderip was the first AIDS ward in London and was opened by Diana, Princess of
Wales in 1987, this year marking the 30th anniversary of its opening. This was the era before antiretroviral medications had become available, a very distinct and tragic time. All of the patients on the wards, many of whom were young, gay men, were having to face the terrifying prospect of an early and painful death. In particular Gideon Mendel followed while he was there the stories of four patients – John, Steven, Ian and Andre. […]

Considering the high levels of stigma and fear that existed at the time, the decision of these four patients to allow themselves, alongside their families, lovers and friends to be photographed was an act of considerable bravery. […]

The Ward explores through Gideon Mendel’s evocative black and white photographs how it felt to live with HIV at this time when it was considered a veritable death sentence. It shows how the ward at the Middlesex Hospital became more like a second home, and the staff and patients friends.”

The exhibition also includes video material of people who currently live with HIV – they share photographs they themselves took of their lives, and give their own commentary on the experience. 

At some point I realised that being where I was challenged some of my prejudices.

I had not come with prejudice against people who have HIV, but with prejudice against the church.

But there I was, looking at an extraordinary witness to human suffering and human kindness. And there I sat listening to a gay man talking about reclaiming his life after his HIV diagnosis, including his love life, sharing intimate images of himself and his partner, being a witness himself to hope and to the possibility of a full life, with HIV.

And I realised that I was hearing and seeing all this

in a church.

I have a pretty critical view on the institutional church as a whole.

But church can be this too. Church can be with the people and for the people, deeply engaged in their pain and suffering, loneliness and love. Church can give us opportunities to be moved by the lives (and deaths) of those around us. It can give us a chance to face each other truthfully and with compassion. 

The sad thing is, this is an exception. At least in my experience. This is a level of openness to actual human beings as they are, with all they bring, that I’ve rarely seen anywhere near the church.

I was glad to see it today. This is what I want church to be. I think this is what church must be to have significance. This is what church should be about.

And there are people who can see that. The kind of people who enable exhibitions like this one to happen in a church. 

This is the gospel, this is the good news. 

You know it when you see it.

(The exhibition is open on November 5, 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, 26, 29 and December 3, between 11:00 and 18:00. If you can, go see it. It’s important.)

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To Speak Our Story Also

Smuggling Grace

3728-pen-paper“And therefore, every possibility of a person putting words to something, especially something that’s been difficult, is in itself a sacrament.” – Pádraig Ó Tuama

Years ago, while experiencing some conflicts, I sat down with a pen and a piece of paper. I thought it would be a good exercise to journal in a stream of consciousness. As I sat there, I wrote down whatever came to me in the moment. Then one question jumped off the page and suddenly caught my attention:

“What if they’re write?”

In a moment of self-doubt, I meant to say, “What if they’re right?” But that’s not what I had written on the page.

“What if they’re write?” I asked myself.

This was a big aha moment for me. I realized I had been grappling with a fear that I wasn’t going to be able to use my voice and words to craft…

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Remembering How Far I’ve Come

I get very impatient. With life. I want solutions, decisions, knowledge, now.

It doesn’t work that way, I’ve noticed.

But despite that, I’ve also noticed that I have come so far. It’s hard to believe sometimes.

The way things have changed over the last 10 years is incredible. The depth to which things have changed. To which I have changed. 

And I didn’t know it was happening while it was happening, a lot of the time.

And it’s been painful, often.

But here I am. Happier and healthier, in mind and spirit, despite all the struggles, and sometimes because of all the struggles.

With every year that goes by I know more that there is one place, one relationship, that is always true, always loving and always reliable. And I’ve come to a point where that is, perhaps, enough. 

God said, I will provide – and God delivered on that. 

I am astounded by how all of the changes in me, all the choices for good, all of the at times hard decisions towards health, seem to have come through one fundamental transformation that I had very little to do with: the  fact that I moved from believing in a far-away God of guilt, fear and shame, to knowing a closer-than-I-am-to-myself God of unconditional love, compassion and peace. 

When asked how I would describe God ten years ago, words such as “almighty”, “omnipresent” and “all-powerful” came to mind. I had no concept of being in a personal relationship with God – but it’s that relationship that changed everything. And that was just given to me… Grace. 

That’s the God I know.

The God who is about truth and healing and faithfulness, who doesn’t need me to be anyone else than who I really am. That includes my experience, my feelings, my mind, my sexuality, my relationships. That’s me with my courage and cowardice, my fears and my anger, my capability to love and to give. God is all in. God says, “I choose you”. And that’s the end of it. And the beginning.

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You Shall Love Your Crooked Neighbour/ With Your Crooked Heart

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‘O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'



W.H. Auden, 
from "As I Walked Out One Evening"
(It's wonderful, read it!)
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Prayer

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, 
God’s breath in man returning to his birth, 
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, 
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth 
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, 
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, 
The six-days world transposing in an hour, 
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; 
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, 
Exalted manna, gladness of the best, 
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, 
The milky way, the bird of Paradise, 
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, 
The land of spices; something understood. 
George Herbert
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Angel

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I am the only one here.
 
I stand in my one place
and I can see a good piece
down the road. I am yonder,
further than the chunk of your stone.
Right now, directly,
I am persimmon falling free
and the prisoner opening up
in me.
Don’t come through my door and
want to run my house. I am
the angel who sweep air in and out my own
dancing body. I got good eyes. I can see.
A good piece down the road. Clear to
God murmuring in me. My head is the burning
bush. What I hold in my hand is the promised
land. I set my people free in me.
And we walk without wandering like people named
after mere plants,
because we are tree
and high-stepping roots
cake-walking
in this promised place.
 
Where I go is where I am now.
Don’t mess with me: you hurt yourself.
In the middle of my stride now. I am walking
yes indeed I am walking through my own house.
I am walking yes indeed on my own piece of road.
Toting my own load
and yours and mine.
I tell you
I feel fine and clear this morning even
when it’s night and a full moon with my thumbprint
on it.
Everything is clamorous and quiet.
            I am the only One here.
            And we don’t break. No indeed.
            Come hell and high water.
            We don’t break
            for nothing.
Angela Jackson
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What Does Love Look Like

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