A day at the spa – a new way of doing faith?

A few people I know choose to spend retreat time at spas, so I thought I would give it go and combine something I need with something I love. However, for me, it did not really work, but it did give me my third business idea.

I think, what we really need here in Birmingham is a spa, just like the one at The Malvern which is after all situated on a retail park. It needs to have  indoor and outdoor space, serve a range of foods suitable for people of different faiths and be prepared to run single-sex sessions for the bulk of their opening hours.

Because what I discovered by trying to go on retreat at the Spa was that it was not a place of solitude and rest but a place of conviviality and stimulation. In some ways the day had a bit of a liturgy  although the congregation is never gathered but left to explore stations of relaxation, de-tox and refreshment either alone or with friends. However the design of the place certainly means that gatherings do happen in jacuzzis and steam rooms and saunas and massage racks (far more pleasant than it sounds.).

I even managed to find a spa-evangelist on the sunbed next to mine who nearly persuaded me to become a member! (Not that it is hard to sell me something.) She told me about group socials, training in mediation and special classes I could go to – so for members of the spa I was merely visiting  it was a lot like church.

And there was a deacon! Most of the staff were very polished and seemed to be employed for purely decorative purposes. But amongst all this slightly cold perfection was Linda, whose lovely face was not plastered in make-up and whose uniform was a pair of trousers and a polo shirt. Her badge said ‘spa assistant’ – the least glamourous title assigned throughout the building. But it was Linda who rescued me when I didn’t have the money to leave as a deposit for flip-flops, it was Linda who offered to fetch me a glass of water when the bar said they didn’t serve it and it was Linda who noticed I was leaving and asked me if I had enjoyed my day – and then waited for the answer. I really wanted to recruit Linda.

Its odd that as local pubs close, High Street gyms open. Corner shops are replaced by coffee shops and delis where people can gather and find company. But I think a Birmingham Spa could add something special to the mix. I could imagine amazing conversations unfolding in the soothing bubbles of the whirlpool, honest struggling for truth in the heat of the crystal steam room and perhaps time for contemplation in the new  subtly-lit relaxation room. So, once again, I am looking for investors and once it’s built I’d be more than happy to be a deacon/chaplain there – but sadly I don’t think I’d  be as good  as Linda.


Chatting in the wee small hours at a party recently we fell into conversation with a psychotherapist. When a friend helpfully revealed I was at ‘vicar college’ , her reponse was immediate: ‘Change to psychotherapy while you have the time, if you are a vicar you’ll have to love your neighbour and that is too difficult.’ Had it been earlier in the evening I might have pointed out that as a Christian psychotherapist or Christian anything I would remain obliged to at least try and love my neighbour, however difficult.

Loving your neighbour is one of those principles that is generally accepted to be a good thing in theory. But I have to admit in practice it is quite hard. We have reasonably near neighbours who between their kids, pets, electric tools and loud phone-calls outdoors make our garden pretty much unusable. We are on nodding terms but underneath the thin veneer politeness there is a (probably mutual) seething hostility.

Last night at an event hosted by Islamic Relief to celebrate their 30 years of work and launch Ramadan, Professor Timothy Winter gave a brilliant exegisis of Surah 41 with a particular focus on verse (or ayah) 34: “And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend”  Or as the Bible says is 1 Peter 3 v 9: “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it.

So just as Professor Winter urged Muslims to respond to Islamophobia with mildness, kindness and patience so to I need to work on my response to my actual neighbour (who are clearly not evil, merely inconsiderate). I don’t know why it is as hard as it seems to be to put the theory into practice.

When we first moved in here our Muslim neighbours whom we now know quite well – offered us food and friendship before we offered them anything. They had no knowing what attitudes they might encounter from us but they were prepared to take the risk. I hope they feel that risk paid off!

I wonder what I can risk in order to offer some genuine friendship to the family down the road? How do you offer friendship when you don’t feeel friendly? Do you need to like your neighbour in order to love them?

Thinking over these questions during a night of caffeine-induced imsonnia, it dawned on me that the answers probably lie in Jesus’s commandment to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (If the constant sound of a dustbin lid being banged on concrete counts as persecution.) Theologian Ann Morisy says prayer is a rehearsal for the moment we are called to perform so I hope if I can pray enough, I might have the lines I need when the opportunity to perform arises.

But if not, it is good to know if I don’t sort out the relationships on our street – at least I can become a psychotherapist!

Places of Change

Today we were running a workshop on Places of Welcome – the network we are helping to develop of places across the city that offer conversation, hospitality and basic information for a couple of hours of week.One of the participants mentioned that the place she worked was a ‘Place of Change’ and she wanted to see how that connected with a ‘Place of Welcome.’

I found the connection really interesting. In a way we aim to be places of change too in that those who arrive feeling isolated, lonely and unable to contribute find themselves connected, accepted and able to participate. One of our principles is to keep the lines between guest and host very blurred and to encourage all who visit a place of welcome to make some sort of contribution to its running whether that is helping with the washing-up, baking a cake or opening up conversation with newcomers.

The place of change our workshop member was talking about was much more specific and purposeful. It was a place where young people were found routes into employment, training and independent living. But I wondered if that sort of change can happen without being welcomed, without being known and appreciated before being ‘sorted.’ Or if we are too welcomed, if we belong too much and we are too secure, does the incentive to change disappear. I sometimes think I am least ‘changed’ when I am with my parents and in-laws – I seem to stay stuck as I was 20 years ago!

I think the Christian theologian Miroslav Volf’s idea of a ‘Catholic Personality’ sheds some light on this. In his fascinating  book ‘Exclusion and Embrace‘ he describes the catholic personality as being enriched by others and reflecting multiple others in a particular way. He says that being born of the Spirit creates a fissure between the Christian and their own culture through which they ‘other’ can come in . ‘The Spirit unlocks the doors of my heart saying: “You are not only you, others belong to you too.”‘

So when we can distance ourselves from our identity, perhaps our family ties and our comfort zone we make room for the ‘other’ to enrich and change us. This seems to make sense of some of the difficult passages in scripture when Jesus seems to dismiss his earthly family to make room for the new ‘others’ that have become his disciples.Or the bits that tell us we cannot be a disciple without hating our parents.

Preaching on the Holy Spirit this week I was struck that the gift of tongues given to the disciples in Acts had a very practical purpose. It meant that people from different cultures and ethnicities could understand each other and speak the truth to each other. Our churches could become places of welcome and change if they help us to make space for the stranger or the ‘other’ and welcome them so deeply that our very character and personality is changed.

Maya Angelou seemed to be thinking of something similar when she wrote her poem – Touched by an Angel. Its how I concluded my sermon and I’ll give her the last word here too.

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Wasting time, shoulder to shoulder

Its odd how you mainly hear what you want to hear or what you are already thinking but  the main things I took away from the Mission Apprentice Day held in Birmingham were that wasting time with people is never a waste of time and it is easier to build relationships shoulder to shoulder or side-by-side than face to face.

(Mission Apprentices are people who have been attached to 7 churches across the city exploring how to connect churches with their communities in a number of ways. The two year programme has been carefully evaluated and the  findings were presented on Friday.)

I ended up having the same conversation at the Dave Andrews day in Birmingham held last month which inspired lots of us to think again about our involvement in communities. We talked how in relationships with teenagers great conversations happen when you are driving them somewhere, cooking, playing football – sit them down for a serious talk and you’ll get nowhere. Somehow conversation is much easier when its not the sole purpose of a meeting. Shoulder to shoulder is far more comfortable for us than face to face.

When Dave was last here about three years ago he talked about the differnce between the Yiddish words ‘schmoozing’ and ‘maching’. He said we need both but one is informal and involves barbecues, coffee shops and pubs. The other is more formal and involves starting groups or new initiatives. He added that schmoozing happens most when we are young adults and then disappears when family and work pressures kick in so middle-age is generally a time of maching. Schmoozing often begins again when we retire but in the times between we need to nurture it as it generates deeper personal relationships. You can read more about this in his book, Out and Out: Way-Out Community Work.

I think some of the success stories we heard from the Mission Apprentices on Friday arose because they had time to schmooze. I also wondered in the back of my mind if vicars generally get sucked into maching leaving a deacon free to schmooze – I will test that out over the next few years but I hope its true – bring on the coffee shops and barbecues!

Our next round of Near Neighbours grants open on Monday. In the last round we were able to support around 140 projects in Birmingham that brought people together both to mach and schmooze. We have got some new areas now and some ongoing support available to all our old areas. There’s a lot going on in this city at the moment so I really hope the grants are well used and people of different faiths can find the time, that will never be wasted, to hang out, shoulder to shoulder with their neighbour and continue to build the trusting relationships that knit our city together and deepen our appreciation of one another.

Heavy-headed and heavy hearted

I got back from holiday yesterday to discover a good friend of mine who is busy learning English and looking for work had been sanctioned for a month because she had not actually applied for any jobs. There were two reasons for this: firstly because she had been ill with flu’ for a good fortnight and secondly because she had not seen anything that she felt she was qualified for. When I chatted to her today she told me her head was very heavy.

Sanctions are my absolute pet hate. I do not understand how they are legal or considered humane. They trigger a spiral of events that leaves someone penniless and hopeless and they send anxiety levels shooting through the roof. They must cost far, far more than they save in healthcare and in criminal processes as they leave people with very few options other than begging, borrowing or stealing.

A sanction means that your ‘benefits’ – the money with which you can just about buy food and pay bills is stopped. This triggers automatically a stopping of your housing benefit so you are left unable to pay your rent. And just to cap it, your council tax benefits stop too so suddenly you face a large tax bill. In our Hunger Journals in which we collected stories from people facing food poverty, sanctions were often the thing that tipped people people into crisis. (You can read stories from the Hunger Journals here)

So imagine for a moment that English is not your first language. You receive endless, long complicated letters which basically say you will have nothing to live on. In order to appeal you need to ring premium rate phone numbers and hold for a very long time and work your way through extremely complicated documents. Your options are limited. You are left bewildered, angry,  and punished for something you did not know you had even done. (My friend was following the advice given to her at college). You fear that you will be evicted from your house and you have no way of buying food or any essentials. (People surviving on benefits do not usually have savings) I am ashamed to live in a country that does this to people.

As a Church we can offer some support to people like my friend but not enough. What I really want is to be able to offer her a job and I, for the first time in my life, wish I were a successful businesswoman. I wish we could run social enterprises that offer my friend decent contracts of work and an environment that would build her confidence.

My daughter keeps telling me to launch my pet business idea – called Pants by Post. I (for some strange reason) think there is a market for personalised pants as presents – Happy Birthday pants, Good Luck pants, Get Well Soon pants etc etc. I mean who would not like to receive cheerful underwear through the post. How much more useful is a pair of knickers than some twee hallmark card. I think Pants by Post could be Interflora for our generation – but that’s just me.  If anyone wants to invest in my pants idea I would be thrilled! In fact if anyone knows anyway of finding employment for my talented, reliable, honest, kind and generous friend I would be thrilled.

In the meantime I take courage from this poem by Dorothee Soelle


I believe in Jesus Christ

who was right when he

like each of us

just another individual who couldn’t beat city hall

worked to change the status quo

and was destroyed

looking at him I see

how our intelligence is crippled

our imagination stifled

our efforts wasted

because we do not live as he did

every day I am afraid

that he died in vain

because he is buried in our churches

because we have betrayed his revolution

in our obedience to authority

and our fear of it


From Credo by Dorothee Soelle – you can read the whole poem here