Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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End of Sabbath

'The Siesta (After Millet' by Vincent Van Gogh

For many of us who work in education - be that school, college or university - we are blessed with long summer breaks. The same it seems also goes for many church ministers, our teachers in the temples.

I try to view my summer breaks as not simply an opportunity for sunny holidays but also as a time of sabbatical. The idea of a sabbatical quite obviously derives from the word 'sabbath', with roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

We read in Genesis how God rested on the seventh day:

"By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work..."

Then we read in Exodus clear instructions for Jews in their treatment of the land, themselves and others every seventh year:

"For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed."

Furthermore, we read in Leviticus that every seventh cycle of this pattern should become a 'jubilee year' in which bonds of slavery are broken and longstanding debts are forgiven. From this we can suppose the practice of sabbath is as much about 'letting go' psychologically of past grievances and regrets as it is about physical relinquishment of activity (or legalities).

And from there, although the instruction is less direct, we find in the New Testament countless examples of the practice of sabbath - both formally in the keeping of the seventh day, as the Jewish disciples of Jesus were accustomed to, and more spontaneously such as when Jesus retreats from the crowds after a busy period of ministry (i.e. Luke 5:16).  We also read in the Gospels that on the seventh day both Jesus and Paul routinely took to the synagogue to read scripture and reason with others. (i.e. Mark 1:21, Acts 18:4) From this, we can suppose the practice of sabbath is a designated time for religious / spiritual learning - a space to garner inspiration for the journey ahead.

One of the big disputes Jesus had with the Jewish authorities was whether it was right to work towards healing during a time of sabbath - with Jesus challenging the cold and legalistic view held by the Pharisees that all work was proscribed. The story goes as follows:

"One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!” Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

But the leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.” 

But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in subjugation by Satan for eighteen years. Isn't it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” 

This shamed his enemies, but all the people rejoiced at the wonderful things he did." (Luke 13:10 - 17)

This story is found within all four gospels giving it great significance. It is clear, to Jesus and his disciples at least, that the sabbath is a time for active healing of the self and of others - this healing may well be represented in Biblical stories as physical, but as with so much of the Christian narrative, there is this deeper personal and communal dimension to be found beneath the screenplay. For example, the daughter of Abraham, although described as being bent-double and unable to stand up straight, appears to be trapped in some kind of spiritual crisis to the reader who approaches the story from a non-literal perspective - hence the phrase, 'held in subjugation by Satan'.

Finally, it is worth noting the 'pentecost event' is said to have occurred during a time of sabbath, namely the Jewish Feast of Weeks (also known as 'Shavuot') which marked the first harvest in the land of ancient Israel / Palestine. Clearly, this tying in of the story of Pentecost with Shavuot is rich in symbolism, with multiple layers of meaning - however, one simple thing we can draw from it is the idea of new fruit appearing during times of sabbath, in terms of new understanding, purpose and vision.

Although the summer holidays are said to originate in an old custom of allowing children time to help with the harvest, I think a summer sabbatical remains an important time for all of the reasons described above - whether we are Jews, Christians or otherwise. The job of trying to guide and mentor other human beings is often an exhausting one in terms of what we might call our 'social-emotional batteries' - particularly so if those other human beings are not readily enthusiastic about being taught! So it follows, practically speaking, that a time of rest - a kind of retreat and solitude from the intense, institutionalised environments of education - is naturally needed for all parties.

But we must also understand the job of an educator is not simply a job - it is a profession in the truest sense, a call to dedicate your talents primarily for the betterment of others rather than personal profit. And to truly do this, you have to constantly challenge yourself, you have to engage in a struggle to gain (and regain) greater clarity over your direction and critically evaluate your methodology in getting there.

The summer holidays allow for this reflective process to take place - whether we like it or not. And for many of us, the truth is it is not necessarily an easygoing experience. It is certainly not always a case of laying on a beach enjoying a bit of 'blue sky thinking' - it involves allowing hard questions to surface. Hard questions about what we are doing, why and to what end - hard questions that are usually crowded out amongst the hustle and bustle of the working day.

As the sabbatical season now comes towards a close for many of us and we return with fresh hopes for the academic year ahead, I hope this summer has been constructive and proves over the next academic year to be enduringly fruitful for all educators and those in their keeping.

[I should add, as a side note, that I believe designated times for sabbath are needed by all people - and it concerns me that British society is increasingly becoming a '24 hour, 7 days-a-week society' in the relentless pursuit of profit, particularly the implications this has for those on lower wages and casual contracts.]


A Church Less Ordinary

Here's a write-up of a day I spent at Oldham Unitarian Chapel late July - not the usual Sunday morning, but a Monday, where the place takes on a very different guise. Yet all in keeping with the broader Christian vision. 

At a time when the contribution of the Muslim faith to British society has been questioned, this offers a different perspective to the likes of the Daily Mail.


'Oldham Unitarian Chapel - A Church Less Ordinary'

Say the word ‘chapel’ to yourself – what images spring to mind? I guess many of us would find our mind’s eye wandering to a countryside scene with a quaint little church sat amongst rolling fields…

Yet as you walk across the car park and into Oldham Unitarian Chapel, the scene couldn't be more different. One of the many former engine rooms of the British Empire, Oldham is a classically northern English town - a moderately hilly terrain covered in swathes of Victorian red-brick with a smattering of mainly seventies concrete. Oldham Unitarian Chapel, in its 202nd year of existence, fits into the latter category. A flat-roofed, box shaped building, Oldham Unitarian Chapel is a much humbler affair than its previous incarnation, sitting on the edge of a town centre which still finds itself bogged down in recession.

On a Sunday, the congregation usually numbers between 10 to 20 with the Reverend Bob Pounder serving as minister. A few travel in from outside of Oldham – they’ve found something special, the extra travel is worth it. The services are traditionally structured but make good use of a large video screen, interspersing prayers, hymns and readings with clips from a wide variety of sources. The message is rooted in a freer yet nonetheless challenging Christianity. There is reference to the wider world of faith and discovery, yes, but in support rather than expense of Christ. The services are understatedly radical, both in content and style – Christianity is on offer here, but not as most people think they know it.

In the week the chapel takes on life as a café, a venue for counselling and other community services and more recently – in partnership with the Islamic charity UKEFF – as a food bank.

Now say the word ‘food bank’ to yourself – what images spring to mind? Maybe a sombre queue of hungry ‘dropouts’, maybe silent tables stacked with food? Arrive on a ‘food bank day’ at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and what you find is, again, something very different. The place is filled with faces – African faces, Asian faces, Arab faces. There are white British faces too but they make up the minority, a few are in need like their refugee neighbours but most are there to serve. There is also a warm, tantalising smell in the air of freshly cooked curry - simmering in large pans, given tender loving care by the congregation’s Muslim friends. Andy, one of the chapel stalwarts, does the rounds - cheerfully welcoming and clearing up, as if on a loop. This is not just a food bank; this is the One World Café.

In the main room there are neatly organised tables of food lined up to one side, with volunteers manning tables at the other side to provide advice to those in need.

Bob – out of his Sunday dog-collar, sleeves rolled up - hurries between all of this, meeting and greeting newcomers, catching up with those who have now become old friends, policing an over-exuberant visitor in a Manchester United shirt (who has just launched into a rendition of ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical Annie). Bob gives a quick, satisfied nod to his brother-in-arms Nasrim Ashraf, chair of UKEFF, as he busily guides even more people through the doors.

In the Bible we read about the early church in Acts, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” The early church clearly did not begin and end with structured services at the temple on a Saturday or Sunday, the church continued throughout the week as ‘oikos’ - the ancient Greek word for ‘home’, ‘household’ and ‘family’.

At Oldham Unitarian Chapel, ‘temple-oikos-temple-oikos’ is the rhythm of Reverend Bob Pounder’s ministry. Having just spoken to a couple with four hungry boys (Christian asylum seekers from Pakistan, having fled religious persecution) who were inquiring about coming to worship on a Sunday, Bob comments that worship is what all of ‘this’, his hand sweeping across the busy room, depends upon - “None of this would happen without the impetus that worship gives us.”

He goes further to remark, “I can’t believe God has given all of this - what have I done to deserve all of this?” He means it in a positive way, although he could be forgiven if now and then it took on a different tone, given the commitment this never-ending project surely must require.

We are often told the church is declining but maybe, amongst the very real and present decline, God is still speaking? Maybe God is still nudging - and at times shoving - his people in the direction of the Kingdom? Certainly at Oldham, there is clearly a compelling, charismatic spirituality at work. It is a mega-church but not in the usual terms - not in terms of bums on seats, not in terms of a bunch of people energetically waving their hands in the air - but in terms of practical, dogged witness.

The word ‘chapel’ is said to originate in the legend of Saint Martin of Tours who gave his cloak to a beggar and, in turn, had a vision of Christ wearing the other half – chapel is said to originally mean ‘little cape’ and, from there, ‘little sanctuary’. What a fitting and beautiful title for this unassuming dot amongst the Oldham landscape.


Touring the nations...

I've just arrived back from the far south west of this sceptred isle, having spent a week in Devon and Cornwall. It's been an enjoyable week and an insightful one in terms of seeing part of the country previously unknown to me. Both places are distinct in their identities and quite different from northern England.

The Cornish, as many will already know, have their own sense of nationhood. However, I don't think this is as distinct as (cultural) Welsh nationalism, nor as antagonistic as (political) Scottish nationalism. It was pleasant to see the Cornish flag - known as St Piran's Flag - flying alongside the English flag, Celtic Nations flag and the Union Jack.

Our first stop was to see family and friends in Salcombe, on the Devon coast. It turns out they now have their own flag as well - though not without (somewhat parochial) controversy.

Moving beyond squabbles over scones, it strikes me this kind of regionalism is the beauty of English identity - the diversity of local communities, the sense of place, the fairly gentle and jovial nature of rivalry between areas...

Anyway, here are a few shots - first of Salcombe, then of Cornwall.