It might be more blessed to give than receive – but both are better than acquiring and consuming.

It’s a tedious cliché to say we live in a consumer society but in the next room to me, Nigel Farage is telling the nation that the only thing that matters is control – control in this case of over the number of immigrants allowed through our borders. We want to keep some people away so we have more things for ourselves – we become like children who don’t want to share their lego.

We want to be in control of how much we earn, who visits us when, how we spend our time and who lives near us – perhaps to be sure that our things aren’t threatened and our cycle of acquiring and consuming is never interrupted or questioned.

Controlling, acquiring and consuming are quite possibly the trinity of our materialistic and individualistic society. Giving, receiving and risking are the equivalent interactions that happen in community and acknowledge our inter-dependence. I know which is more fulfilling – just think how much nicer it is to eat a meal together that someone has cooked for you than one that you have cooked for yourself and will eat alone.

I have been reading a fantastic book by Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath As Resistance – saying No to the culture of now. In the preface he says:

“In our contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods…..But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising and its great liturgical claim of professional sports that devour all our “rest time.” The alternative on offer is the awareness that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God. To be so situated is a staggering option because we are accustomed to being on the initiating end of all things.”

Initiating things, controlling their execution and having our way is part of the reward bought by material wealth, good physical health and social advantage. But perhaps we fear being on the receiving end so much that we fill our life with activity and have little time or space to be “situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”

When I am not knee deep in acquiring and consuming (the Boden sale was irresistible) I am immersed in a dissertation about deacons and one of the ideas that has leapt out at me is that the priest may be the person ordained to offer the bread and wine and the deacon is ordained to help people receive the bread and wine – the gifts of God.

This symbolic role at the altar is then mirrored in the day-to-day role of the deacon as the facilitator of the people of God in the world, encouraging lived discipleship in numerous and diverse settings.

It seems daft that we need to learn to receive but I know the compliments and gifts can make me embarrassed and criticism can be equally hard to take.

Prayer too can be dominated by our wanting to initiate, be productive and possibly consume. My prayers can quite often be far more ‘my will be done’, than ‘your kingdom come.’ I am trying to develop a practice of silent prayer too and turn off the constant giving of my concerns, my fears, my desires and even my gratitude to take time simply to receive – to be “situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”

The debate around immigration is deeply depressing. I find it incredible that people on my street are displaying UKIP posters and I wonder how that feels to friends with roots in different continents. The life of my church has been deeply enriched when it has been able to receive the gifts of God brought to it by people described as ‘immigrants.’ What would tonight’s debate look like if receiving, giving and taking a few risks replaced the self-serving and fear-inducing trinity of acquisition, consumption and control?

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.