I’ve been looking at flags recently and the stories behind their creation.
At school we’re taught about our Union Jack flag and the joining of four countries in the symbolism (apparently the Welsh dragon, Yorkshire rose and Lancashire rose is just hidden from view!
The Salvation Army flag has significance in the trinity with the Yellow star being the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Red – the blood of Jesus and the blue – the purity of God.
One of my favourite flags is the Indian flag with the wheel in the centre. It’s was originally going to be a spinning wheel and hints at a time when we British were being idiots with someone else’s country and the wheel represented India breaking free and the fight over woven cloth, the story of Ghandhi spinning cloth as a protest is well worth a search and read.
Flags and banners are important pieces of fabric with meaning and pride behind them.
I’ve been looking too at Tibetan prayer flags and think there is something in making a personal prayer flag or a series of flags. Each one with symbolic meaning, remembering a time of importance or pushing us towards a greater glory.
I sketch and doodle a lot, especially during sermons and lectures. It’s how I keep my mind focused. Recently I began showing some of the sketches to people and decided to take them a step further.
What if I turned these sketches, doodles and notes into textile flags, similar in size to a prayer flag?
Last week our church began a new Bible study titles Jesus at the centre. I went along and took my sketch book. This time, instead of simply doodling I would think about what I hear and try to put the message into a flag.
This is the result.
Part of me feels I shouldn’t explain it, people should ‘get it’ or not get it.
So I will simply explain how I made it.
It’s a piece of canvas, the type you use for tote bags.
I used Inktense sticks and water to paint the background, I saw something on YouTube about how the sticks can be used as a fabric paint if you iron it once dry.
In the centre I hand embroidered in gold thread the Hebrew word Yeshua, which is the Hebrew name for Jesus, this took quite a while and the gold thread was a wee bit difficult.
Since everyone says I have neat handwriting I hand painted descriptive words for emotions around the edge.
I painted a small piece of ribbon with the words Lord of All, a reference to something said during the study and sewed this in place.
Then I frayed the edges, stiffened the top and punched two eyelets so the flag can be hung on a wall or joined to another with ribbon.
As for the meaning, I suppose it means whatever you believe it means. Perhaps you recognise an emotion around the edge and recognise a need to hand it over. Or perhaps you recognise that Jesus came as a man and experienced all these emotions so He truly understands us. Perhaps you see something totally different and it’d be interesting if you wanted to share that in the comments.
Either way, I’m looking forward to the next Bible study.
I used to read the story of Cain and Abel and wonder what was Gods problem.
In case you don’t know the story here’s a little summary…
Cain was a farmer while Abel, his brother, was a shepherd. Both brothers came to God with a sacrifice. Cain brought some of his grown produce while Abel brought his best first-born lambs. Now God liked Abels offering of lambs, but, well… not too fussed with the veggies. The rest of the story can be read in Genesis chapter 4.
As a kid I didn’t get it, two guys brought a gift to God and God was a wee bit picky.
Being British we’re raised with the ability to smile and look pleased whatever the gift, but God obviously isn’t British (where were his manners?).
Shouldn’t he be grateful that he’s getting something?
It’s not for me to argue with God about his reactions though, He wants the best, the first fruits and first borns. God wants to be the first thought on our minds and have the first portion of our gifts. In everything we do God wants first place.
I don’t think it was about making sure they gave 10% and perhaps it wasn’t even that the carrots weren’t the biggest. The meaning behind the gift is what riled God. You can imagine Abel looking over his flock, inspecting every animal for flaws and size, then picking the best of the best, as though this gift was for his beloved. Cain, watching Abels fussiness, laughed to himself while throwing a handful of the nearest veg into a basket, “that’ll do” he thinks.
You might know that feeling at Christmas when you give a gift that you’ve chosen especially and being aware that the real excitement is in the giving. Was Abel thinking of Gods face lighting up at the sight of God looking at his gift and seeing that most beautiful of lambs?
Similarly we might also know the feeling of giving a gift in politeness, those folk at the bottom of the Christmas card list who get whichever card is next in the box of 100. Who cares what the card looks like, its giving for the tradition and politeness rather than the Joy. That, I suspect is what riled God that day. He didn’t want a gift out of politeness but out of love.
When thinking about a prayer shawl what is our first thoughts?
Learning a new technique? Wondering how quickly you can get it finished?
Do you have any thoughts on the reasons why you make the shawl?
I know what its like to make something with royalty in mind (yep, I’ve kept quiet about that!). I chose yarn from a Yorkshire mill that could promise British only fleeces. I spent a couple of days hand dying the yarn myself. Every little bit of the item was made as thought the Queen herself would see it, no detail was missed, the stuffing wasn’t your average polyester, it was British wool, even the pipe cleaner arms that would never be seen were chosen by hand from a local pipe cleaner factory. The item was to be my very best work.
If clothing the naked and feeding the hungry is the same as clothing and feeding God then each prayer shawl should be made as though God himself was the recipient. Similarly, if each recipient is to see the shawl as a gift from God, then each shawl should be made with our best effort as though God himself had commissioned the gift.
Therefore, making a prayer shawl no longer becomes a second rate ministry but a valuable resource in the church.
Say what you like about the value of a church band, but someone in need has to come to church to hear the band play, they need to know the words to the tune and understand the poetry in the song. A prayer shawl is one of the few gifts that go beyond the church walls, beyond the boundaries of language and country. Giving a gift that has been made with so much thought and love, then given to be used when encouragement is needed is one of life’s most beautiful pleasures.
After the band have played the last note, the choir have sat down, the sermon done, the Amen said… the prayer shawl continues on and travels with the person in need.
The prayer shawl though, isn’t a magic cure. It isn’t a vessel to carry healing, and touching the shawl won’t turn around test results, if healing comes it comes through Gods choosing. It’d be romantic to imagine a physical prayer soaking into cloth, but the shawl, at it’s basic level remains simply a shawl.
However, it still has something magical about it. In those moments when pain comes, when bereavement is unbearable, when loneliness surrounds, being able to wrap ourselves in a piece of cloth made by someone who thought of nothing but us in the making allows us to temporarily dwell in the presence of comfort, hope and fellowship.
I have two small toy bean bag cats in my home, financially worthless and commercially made, but given to me some years ago by a couple at church. Brian and Cathy were there in my darkest times, if I told you what they did for me, well, this blog post would never end.
Cathy died a few years ago from cancer and Brian has retired and moved away. There is nothing magical about the toy cats, but everytime I see them I’m taken back to a world where they are with me. I’m reminded that there is someone out there who loves me unconditionally, someone who values me as I am. I’m reminded of the many times Brian helped me quit drinking, of the times he let me sleep it off in his office. The years Cathy spent counselling me as a messed up young person, of the Joy in their faces at my baptism, the comfort when I lost my job, the worry when I moved to Leeds and the celebration when I went to University.
As I write this the tears flow and my heart hurts, but its a joyful cry and a blessed pain. Few people know unconditional love like that couple gave me and that is a real shame. As an alcoholic I accept the lifelong fight of sobriety, but I have two weapons, two soft toy cats that I look at and remember those who stand with me and I remind myself that this fight is worth it.
Nothing magical in the toys and yet something very magical.
A prayer shawl at its root is simply a strand of yarn looped together to form a piece of cloth. It is something that someone has taken hours to make and think about, but it is more than something to do with your time, more than a way of using up your yarn stash and more than a way to make something when you simply don’t know what to do.
To be called to the prayer shawl ministry is a powerful calling, it is listening to Gods commissioning, his choice of recipient perhaps without knowing why we are making the item. Being able to put our best work into a piece then hand it over without finanancial reward, personal acknowledgement perhaps even without knowing the outcome. Trusting wholly in the gift of giving for loves sake.
As I continue to look at this unique ministry I hope more and more people will begin to take up the call of this powerful ministry. I hope more and more churches begin to see the true value of a creative ministry in their church.
I’ve known about prayer shawls for some time now, its a simple idea, knit a shawl while praying for a person, then give the shawl to the person and let the prayers and blessings you prayed into the shawl continue to bless.
I heard that a local church held regular prayer shawl groups and I went along to see what it was like in practice.
The group meets once a fortnight at the church and were very welcoming, It’s very much like any other knitting group but where everyone is knitting the same item and there’s a lot less gossip!
They showed me a book that lists every person who has received a shawl (or scarf) and the centre of the small room had a table with recently finished shawls.
There were tales of people who had been given shawls and were pleased with the gift, tales of whole groups who’ve benefited, a Christian football team who had each been knitted a scarf in their team colours and a choir who each were given a scarf.
At the end of the knitting we held a short ceremony, a candle was lit, a prayer was jointly read and the prayer shawl ministry had ended.
As I came away I felt pleased that I’d seen the ministry in action, but something was nigiling me, something didn’t sit right and it wasn’t until later, when I was at my local knitting group describing the meeting that it started to become clear.
Actually, when I started putting it all down on paper I realised there were a few questions about the ministry. I hope to expand of each of these in seperate blog posts, but here’s a few of my thoughts.
Are we giving out best?
The shawls are made using the thickest, cheapest acrylic yarn, using thick needles (perhaps to knit up quicker).
For a long time I’ve believed the church see non-musical arts as a poorer relation and this was apparent in the choice of yarn used. Why spend £5 on a 50g ball of merino wool when you can buy a 100g ball of squeaky acrylic from the pound shop?
No reason at all if you’re not able to afford the £5 ball, but a church that has a grand piano isn’t scrimping on other creative ministries so why go cheap when giving a knitted gift?
It also makes me ask whether this is our best for God? Again, if your best is cheaper yarn then that is as acceptable to God as Vicuña (named the cloth of kings). This question of being the best for God leads me to my next question.
Are we mass-producing the blessing?
As I looked at the seemingly endless list of people who’ve received a gift from the group and heard about the groups who’ve each received a scarf I questioned how a small group could accomplish so much. Then I was shown a small knitted square, a pocket shawl to carry around when you can’t take your shawl with you.
There was something uneasy about the seemingly mass-production of the whole thing. Using thick yarn and chunky needles means you can churn out these things in no time and suddenly it no longer feels like a personal ministry blessing one person at a time. It feels like a trip to Jerusalem and the need to bring back an olive tree cross for everyone. It seems more about the mass production than the slow process of making and thinking of one person.
We knitters know the huge challenge of making something for someone, we are careful about colour, yarn, pattern, its a process that takes time and we need to know a bit about the person to be able to get it right. That’s why hand knitting can never be a mass produced business. It’s slow and personal.
Who is it for?
There is a whole jar of worms about knitting gifts for someone. For the knitter, we’ve put so much of ourselves into the gift, time, money and passion.
The whole idea of giving that precious gift away is full of worries about whether the person wants what we’re making, do they like the colour?
Every time I leave my mums house I pass a cupboard with a small shawl in it, something I knitted for her some time ago but she’s never worn and most likely she never will. I’m not upset about it, it was my choice of colour and she isn’t the scarf/shawl wearing type of person. I often wonder whether I should just take it back and make something else.
When we’re making a prayer shawl, are we knitting for ourselves? Improving our skill, using up our yarn stash? Or are we giving ourselves wholly to the idea that this is a gift for someone else? A gift that they might not receive as we want them to?
What is it for?
Once the shawl has been given, what is our expectation?
Partly I ask this thinking about the choir, the thirty plus people who each received a hand knitted acrylic scarf. How many of those people liked the colour? How many liked the feel of the acrylic enough to wear it and make use of it?
Are we expecting people to use these items in their prayer life? And if so, How?
Are we expecting the scarf/shawl to heal?
I know I’ve brought more questions than answers, but I hope to go into more detail later and perhaps come up with some possible answers.
If you’ve make a prayer shawl or received one I’d love to hear about it.
I’m in Birmingham, a place I’ve only ever passed through (well, okay a very short stay here as a baby). I’m here because tomorrow morning I’m running a workshop on electronics in textiles.
After a sleep in my hotel room to catch up on several disturbed nights, due to my new neighbours dog trying to settle in back home, I come down to the hotel lobby, it’s almost 7pm, I expect most guests will be in their rooms, out at a theatre or restaurant, but no! The lobby has two sofas, both filled with people, to my right is a small bar area with around 20 more people gathering around tables.
I find an empty table that seats four and take a seat, then as I do whenever I’m seated I pull out my knitting and… well.. I knit.
Within minutes I’m joined by Barbara, there seems nothing strange about our meeting, I don’t need to ask her name. Barbara is one of the hardworking volunteers at the knitting and crochet archive. We chat for a few minutes before she excuses herself and goes to other tables to chat.
I turn around and see an older woman sitting just outside of a table group. I ask her to join me even though I’ve never met her. She sits for a moment then says she’s left something in her room and goes off to get it, leaving her bag next to me – a stranger.
By this point the number of people gathering in the lounge has grown to around 30 and growing. Nothing seems odd, no one is looking out of place. People who’ve never met are chatting and sharing almost instantly… and yet, it seems to be the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, I’m at the national Knitting and Crochet guild conference, we’re all knitters and crocheters.
Yesterday I was at an interview, I was talking about crafting as a business and explaining the benefits of crafting in groups. It’s sometimes hard to put into words the instant friendships that can be created through something so simple as a craft group.
On Wednesday I started a new knitting and crochet group in my local area, seven of us turned up with more people sitting on the sidelines watching. We talked, laughed and consoled while at the same time learning a new, valuable skill. As we meet regularly we’ll find out more about each other, our similarities and differences, we might find we disagree on religion or politics, but we’ll still meet, still share and still look at each other as friends.
This camaraderie is something I’ve been trying to put into words, with much difficulty. On Friday I sat in front of a panel of 10 business people and tried to get across why a social enterprise based on offering affordable and free craft groups was important. It’s hard to describe, but as I sit here in this lobby, with strangers I consider friends I’m realising this isn’t something that can be put into words.
I have friends who belong to a church which celebrates community, I stayed there recently in their community home. If it weren’t for the church my friend and I perhaps would never have met. Her accent often reveals a very privileged background but she met me when I was begging on the streets of London (a very long time ago) and we’ve been friends ever since. Her church often talks about the walls that come down through the church. Rich and poor, old and young…
Her church experience though isn’t often shown in other churches. I go to a church that I consider friendly, very friendly in fact, but the camaraderie isn’t there. In two years of attending I feel I’ve made one good friend who’s close enough to know me and I her. Two years and still there’s a sense that the majority of people wouldn’t feel safe leaving their bag with me to return to their hotel room.
It hit home recently when I was down to my last bit of money. I was still a week away from getting any money and I was owed money from the university. I had some food in the cupboard, but not enough to make a meal out of unless that meal was pasta, fish fingers and custard.
My gas and electricity were both down to their last pound and a recent leg ulcer has left me in agony. I was in pain and couldn’t even afford a packet of paracetamol.
Yet, as I sat there, trying to think of a way to get help, going through my list of friends who would console me, there was only one name from church that I could go to. Out of all the 50-60 people at church, there was 1 in two years that had developed a relationship with me enough to be there in my hour of need. That, my friends, is not real church.
It’s a shame, that the crafting community is doing what the churches seem unable to do, but it’s something that is very powerful.
I see it in the quilting project, where young students begin talking openly about mental health and the effect exam pressure is having on their health. I see it on a Wednesday night when my fellow knitter, Helen, fills her car with folk so no one has to walk home alone, even though it means driving right across town and back again. I saw it on Wednesday as I listened to people begin the process of getting to know each other and I see it here in the hotel lobby.
I’ve been hearing it recently in stories of hospitals taking on a resident knitter to encourage parents to knit whilst their child is in hospital, I’ve heard nurses mention how powerful a neo-natal knitting group has been, and even my friend Helen has shown it by taking her spinning wheel to our hospital.
Where once the church used to be, crafting is coming.
I’ve been asked to contribute a piece for an exhibition called ‘beatitudes’. It’s based on the sermon on the mount and one of those well known parts of the bible.
The version below is from the message translation.
Matthew 5 1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
I listen to Dr Bill Creasys Bible talks on audible and he has a very interesting way of explaining them which makes so much sense.
At first I was going to create something on his viewpoint (it really is worth listening to). After a while though I started thinking about my own working style as an artist and what I want to say through my work.
I write a lot about poverty and a lot about the church and a lot about poverty and the church.
A lot of what I say is about the lack of understanding in some aspects of church life, the little things that churches do without really thinking about how their actions are perceived.
Recently there was an article in the Salvationist magazine (29/04/2017 edition) that told the story of a woman who felt she wasn’t allowed to wear a Salvation Army uniform because of a disability that meant wearing the skirt was unsuitable. The story loosely skips over the part where she was told she couldn’t wear the uniform with trousers (really, In 2017?), but thankfully she was able to push ahead and get trousers and feel like a valued member rather than a cheaper version, or as someone said to me a few Sundays ago, “not wearing the uniform properly”.
I have a similar problem, years of leg ulcers have left my legs… well, let’s just say I’d rather not have them on display thank you very much!
Whilst you might have read the article you may have missed the editors comments at the front of the mag, but he spoke about the uniform, how it put him off joining for quite a while. He suggested that whilst the uniform has some uses, it mustn’t be barrier for people joining.
Note: I know, I’m talking about the uniform again, I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse, but bear with me.
While the article and the editors comments spoke about barriers to the uniform from a disability perspective I have another barrier… cost.
A couple of Sundays ago (infact the same Sunday of the ‘proper’ uniform comment) I was talking to a friend about the cost of the uniform and a plan I was developing for the beatitudes exhibition.
I made my usual gripe of how a church started with the poor is in a position where only the rich can afford to join. I asked how they can justify charging £250 for a Sunday outfit just so you could take part. (My friend reads my blog I think, so let me just say I’m not repeating the conversation as a gripe to or about my friend!).
My friend agreed and added that she wouldn’t pay so much for an outfit and had bought the uniform originally to play in the band, as a hard working mother and career woman the band was her weekly escape. We agreed, the cost was awful and went on our way.
Several days later I was still thinking about the conversation.
Y’see, I don’t necessarily disagree with the uniform, sure it has its uses. But as it is, it’s impractical, expensive, badly designed and often badly made.
Imagine going to John Lewis, paying £70 for a skirt, getting to the till and being told they hadn’t finished it and you would need to take the skirt to a tailor to get the hem sewn up! At £70 I expect it finished and hand delivered in a box with a red bow.
Something bothered me about the conversation and it took a few days to recognise what it was.
My friends comment that she wouldn’t pay that much for an outfit… what bothered me?
It wasn’t that I wouldn’t pay that much, but I couldn’t.
In all innocence there is a level of misunderstanding in the church that is difficult to get across. I’ve been to a few songster practices, but realised there was just no point in going since I don’t have the luxury of being able to grumble at the cost, buy the uniform and join the choir anyway. I’d join the band, since I can actually play, but I’m barred from joining in church activities because of poverty. It’s important to get this message across so let me put it clearly…
I am barred from taking an active part in my church not because I won’t wear a uniform, but because I can’t afford to.
I am banned from being a useful member of my church because I am poor.
For those who still don’t grasp the reality of it, here it is in picture form…
Somehow, blessed are the poor in spirit seems the perfect starting place for my exhibition piece. Perhaps whilst the spiritually poor are blessed (Dr Creasy suggests that the blessing is in knowing you are spiritually poor and in the perfect starting place to find God), unblessed are the spiritually rich but financially poor.
How do I get this message across in one piece of work?
I thought of getting hold of an old uniform and embroidering over it things I could buy instead of the uniform, like five weeks rent, central heating for the winter. I’m not sure though it’d be enough to get the message across, people need to feel it personally. I thought of making the Salvation Army crest in goldwork embroidery and putting a price of £2,500 on it to try and get across how much the cost feels like to someone working.
How do I get a middle class Christian to grasp what this feels like. Wanting to be a useful church member, but being asked to hand over almost two months wage for membership. Would you join the church on those conditions?
What it feels like to not be able to attend church events because you think your need for electricity is more vital. Trying to explain that the lunch club is failing because the poor community can’t afford the three course meals. Having a young girl pass the collection plate around and the sense of shame when you can’t put in. Telling my minister that my neighbour is a drug dealer and being told my neighbour is my mission field, yet not quite grasping what it’s really like for an ex-user to have a dealer on their doorstep. Offering to help at a coffee morning and being asked to bake cakes when I can just about manage a weekly shop for myself.
Just how do I get this message out there?
I spent two years at Bible college, I’ve worked and volunteered for Christian charities for over almost two decades, and yet… I am not allowed to participate in my church, not because I am spiritually poor, but because I am financially poor. WWJS? (What Would Jesus Say?)
This Sunday is Candidates Sunday, a day when we consider Gods calling on our lives… I might stay home. Well, I have an important day on Monday and could use the time to prepare. The thought of listening to a sermon asking us to consider God asking us to act, yet the inner hurt of not being able to stinks a bit too much for me.
I found this video on Youtube recently and wanted to share it with you all…
The video talks about Gordon, a former cabinet maker who found his career ending because of our changing tastes. Our need for a fast, cheap, disposable lifestyle left Gordon without employment and forced onto the streets.
The Salvation Army recently changed the name of their hostels to lifehouses, and I grumbled at the cost of coming up with such a name (I’m a Yorkshire lass who calls a spade a spade). I still don’t think much to the name, but I’m glad we have some places left where homeless people can find their feet.
Although my dissertation and much of my research is on spirituality and textiles, as a lover of the ‘old’ ways and crafts I found this video truly wonderful.
A perfect example of how craft skills can be used for good and for the church. Gordon now volunteers (it’s a shame his unique skills couldn’t end in paid work) at a Salvation Army charity shop in Glasgow.
Then again, is his amazing painting skills, and the willingness for the charity shop to hold a mini gallery.
The real beauty though, is in people putting Gordon’s skills and opportunities together. That’s where the real magic happens.
There seems to be a lack of connection between people and skills, especially in the church. I expect many people are nodding their heads at this, and perhaps some nodding in annoyance feeling unused. (Grrrr, no one ever asks me to take the collection!)
The bitterness of attending a church and feeling as though you have no part to play is soul destroying and maybe even a large part in people feeling church isn’t for them anymore.
The old saying, ‘use me or lose me’ comes to mind.
I want to ask who’s fault is it? but I suspect the ‘blame’ is more a lack of confidence for most of us. We might sit there seeing a void and knowing we could fill it, yet we don’t have the confidence to put ourselves forward.
Some time ago church had a trend of getting folks to complete forms to find out where our gifts lay. Like a cosmopolitan quiz finding your ideal partner, the church quiz decided whether we were a hostess, preacher, listener or one of the dozen other skills the Bible lists. The church then could use the results to funnel it’s congregation into the relevant vacant position. The end hope was that everyone had a place in church and a role that suited their abilities.
It all sounded great, until you look at your individual church and realise what works in one, won’t work in another, besides, they didn’t need a social media guru back then. I always thought a better idea would be for everyone in the church to hand in their CV’s, probably the only document where we are confident enough to be honest (and perhaps boastful).
I think about people like my nephew who studied sound recording at university, yet was never asked to work the sound desk at church. What better option than someone with a degree in the subject?
I wonder whether giving him a job he was good at and enjoyed might have encouraged him to keep turning up on Sundays.
And yet, did the church know? Did they realise they had a professional in their midst?
The Bible says we shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel (Matthew 5:15) but that’s exactly what we do. Our confidence has been knocked by the world (and sometimes the church) and it’s not easy to raise ourselves up and point out our abilities.
We are in need of those miracle people who have the vision to stand in the gap between our ability and the churches need.
That person in Glasgow who figured out Gordon’s skills were just what was needed in the charity shop, that shop worker who spotted his talent as an artist and realised he needed an exhibition.
These are the miracles that bring a man back on his feet, the opportunities that can only be seen by visionaries.
So what next for Gordon?
Perhaps he could design and build a mercy seat that helped disabled people to approach without the option of sitting on it and facing the congregation?
Maybe he could be used to design the facilities at some of the new lifehouses, with his personal experience and craftsmanship.
This morning I travelled to the Salvation Army church in Warrington to see a fantastic display of 3D knitted work.
The whole piece, which spans around the main church hall took almost a year to create, thousands of hours of work and many contributing knitters and artists.
It contains almost 400 knitted characters, over 130 animals and numerous rocks, seashells, wine goblets, buildings, boats and scenery. Very few knitting groups could take on the challenge of knitting the bible with such flair and skill.
It’s a display which has been lovingly supported by the whole church in Warrington and the result is stunning.
Biblical scenes from the garden of Eden right through to the ressurection have been re-created as only knitters can, each scene thought out and the contributors read and re-read each bible story, thinking about how this should be created. I can imagine the questions about the nativity, which traditionally have one or two sheep and a couple shepherds, but in reality the shepherds were watching a herd, so a whole field of knitted sheep were needed.
Just how many loaves needed to be made to justify feeding the multitudes? And how would a net bursting with fish be created.
The display is currently on display at it’s home at the Salvation Army church in Warrington, but plans are in place for it to travel to the Edinburgh Fringe festival next year and more exhibition plans are being made, so I hope you can see it in person.
I went to see the exhibition on a Sunday, which being a church also meant I stayed for the service. The people were very welcoming and excited to see the results of the exhibition, and here’s where it gets exciting.
The BBC came to do a short piece on the exhibition and the exhibition has reached thousands through the BBC. As I sat in the hall I heard someone else mention they were at the church for the first time. Others have driven from Wales, Southport, I came from Leeds, all to see the exhibition.
The church has made connections with people from Australia and other countries, and the visitors book is looking full.
It used to be that stories from the bible were shown through church windows and tapestries, mainly for people who were illiterate, so all could have the bible accessible, then school became available to all and the need for visual story telling died down, but perhaps the need is being revived. Our country, like many countries, are becomming new homes for people from other countries, people who don’t have English as a first language, people who don’t know the bible stories we take for granted. In this world of 3D graphics, perhaps this exhibition will be the starting place for some people to find the hope they’ve been searching for.
In a world where fewer children are learning the bible stories I saw children visiting and having their photos taken next to their favourite stories, during the service church members spoke of people they had met that week who were in need and the church, who seem to have so many exciting things going on through the week were able to help or point them in the right direction.
I don’t know many church events that can bring the world back into the church, but this exhibition sure seems to be one of them.
Recently I was in Manchester for a few work meetings and had a long lunch break. It was a Sunday, so I looked up the local corps and found they had a meeting at 12noon. Perfect time for me to go.
It was a friendly corps, one of those smaller, but growing places that I love.
A few other visitors arrived and I realised it was a special day, the enrolment of three new salvationists. A family, mum, dad and son.
In the usual UK corps, we can be a bit boring (maybe somber is a better word), especially when it comes to new soldiers and adherents. Usually, at some point in the meeting we call the folks being enrolled to the platform, a flag is brought out. The words are spoken, forms are signed, we stand in silence and raise a hand to promise to support the new people, then a few photos and it’s all over.
Maybe that’s why the uniform isn’t valued by some of us anymore. It’s nothing to celebrate.
Manchester Central was a different kettle of fish!
At some point in the meeting, without warning, a man at the back of the hall shouted out, “Please rise for the Salvation Army’s newest soldiers”, then with flag unfurled he marched in with the three new people following on.
“That’s a nice welcome”, I thought.
Three chairs were placed at the front for the new soldiers to sit in, then one by one they were brought to the platform and individually made soldiers. Not a mass gathering as I’ve seen, but the officer (who mentioned this was the first time she had done this) went through the whole process separately for each person. Making it a personal commitment. Each new soldier was asked to kneel and sign the articles of war (which we, as a whole congregation had previously read out), and each time we waited patiently while the soldier spent time at the mercy seat before moving to the next soldier.
This wasn’t a rush job, the band wasn’t eager to play and no one cared that the meeting was running on. Each person went through the ceremony as though they were the only person being made a soldier that day.
Then something I found really interesting, soldiers were asked to come forward and put the epaulets on the soldiers shoulders, as though, in that very moment, they became one of us, a part of the family.
Each person gave a testimony and I realised this was a whole family, coming to the church as one, but each making the commitment as an individual.
Finally, welcoming in the new soldiers, an old fashioned glory march.
Anyway, I share it with you, a small, but growing corps, that’s not yet become the somber, everyone looks the same, type of corps some of us have become.
Once you’ve made the squares you can keep them or send them back to us to be sewn into the quilt.
Our first quilt is going to be for the Joanna Project (www.joannaproject.co.uk) which supports women working in our red light district.
If anyone is around Leeds on Saturday and wants to meet and try the kits we’ll be meeting in Chapel Allerton Saturday, everyone is welcome and we’ll be able to talk about best times and locations to meet and sew.
I seem to be heading into a series of posts called “of the cloth”. The idea of textiles in spirituality is interesting to me both as a textile student and a member of the Salvation Army.
I feel I have a love/hate relationship with my church, but one that is certain, I don’t like the uniform. Never have.
I started by looking into the uniform, why we wear it, why we pay so much for it, what the Christian message behind it might be, but then I thought about other churches, then other beliefs. What is the relationship between a belief system and textiles?
I don’t mean wearing a hijab or a what a Mormon wears for underwear. Too much is said on that, but the precious textiles like altar cloths, ceremony robes, cloths to wrap text in, prayer mats. What makes a textile sacred?
I always knew that church windows contained pictures from a time when many people were illiterate, but didn’t know altar cloths and church textiles did the same, and in this multi-cultural world we live in, how valuable that is now to have textiles that tell local stories in a pictorial language we all understand.
Then I interviewed a member of my denomination who doesn’t wear a uniform and found an feeling of inequality I think the church would be embarrassed about. I have plans to interview people with different views, I want to see the whole picture. What turned a church uniform from a makeshift, logo on a shirt, handmade item into an look-a-like profit making scheme. What turned a play on the phrase war with the devil into a military style denomination we have today.
Of course I have always had my own opinion and my experience, that I planned to keep till the end. I wanted to get the rest of the stories written, But I started wondering whether I shouldn’t tell my story first. This is who I am, this is why I believe what I do. Many times through the telling of others stories I input from my experience, and perhaps understanding my own experience will help others understand that my strong feelings are not really just about a piece of cloth.
So here is my story, my relationship with my Salvation Army uniform.
My parents are retired now, but spent most of their lives as Salvation Army officers, managing men’s hostels in Yorkshire and Lancashire. I wore a church uniform from the age of seven and it was uncomfortable, I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to wear it, I don’t remember going to church without wearing it, and I don’t know why I wore it. Wearing it though did one thing… It allowed me to sing in the children’s choir and eventually play in the childrens band. I didn’t want to join the band, but my mother told me since all other children played in the band I wouldn’t make friends unless I did too, so I learned to play the cornet.
Later I started high school and uniform wearing became a full time job, Monday to Friday, school uniform, Sunday, Army uniform. Saturday’s at least I could wear what I wanted, but is one day a week enough to allow a child to develop their own sense of style? Their own tribal instinct of who they are? Our clothing often distinguishes our music and friend tastes and perhaps my lack of ability to find my own style is why I became a goth.
As a young teenager I was told I could wear knee-high socks or tights on Sunday’s, but I wore ankle socks. Tights, to me, seem an unnecessary form of torture for women, similar to high heel shoes, which I never took to. If men spent a week wearing tights and heels they’d soon realise the pain from shoes and the frustration in trying to pull up tights in a tiny toilet cubicle. Maybe even scrap the wearing of skirts for women.
We had short church services in the hostel where we also lived (back then hostel managers lived in the hostel with their family, perhaps to give a family feeling to the residents). I sat there with my little uniform on amongst the homeless men and felt out of place, but worse, when my parents were shaking hands at the end of the service I was often approached by one man, a sexual predator, who told me how sexy I looked in my uniform.
Yep, sexual abuse happened because I grew up in a Salvation Army men’s hostel. That was bad enough, but to have a church outfit that made me a sexual object at the age of 8 was vile, and it wasn’t just in the hostel.
At 13 I had a friends dad who would grab my bum in church, I once turned and told him to “Fuck off” but he told me I shouldn’t speak like that because my parents were officers. If I wasn’t a shy abused kid I might have told him he shouldn’t be touching my arse, but I was unintentionally raised to believe the uniform is a sexual object, so I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
I was 20 when I started doing pubs, going from pub to pub selling the Army paper. Going into places that I’d grown up being told was a sin to enter, to get money from people doing something that was considered a sin. I had numerous hands feeling my legs, wondering whether I was wearing suspenders under my skirt. I felt as though I was being prostituted out in order to raise a few drunken donations all because we loved Jesus. Wolfwhistled at? If only it just stayed at a few whistles.
A few years later I was in a different situation, living in London, finding it hard to make friends, one friend offered me an alcoholic drink, I was young, naive, curious, I took a few sips, didn’t like it.
But oh, the shame. Alcohol was a sin. The Bible didn’t say so, but my Army upbringing did. I went to my local Salvation Army that Sunday, the one on Oxford street. During the service I broke down in tears. I talked to the assistant officer, a young minister just out of college. I say talked, but there wasn’t much conversation, no asking for a reason, no discussion. I was told I couldn’t wear my uniform anymore and that was it. Removed of my uniform like Mr Banks, a disgrace, not worthy of wearing the gang colours.
The following Sunday I was approached by a church woman who asked if she could meet me to talk. She said she was an alcohol and drug counsellor, sent by the young minister to talk to me. One sip and I’m seen in need of counselling.
I never put on the uniform again, for several years.
When life really became tough I was working for the Slavation Army in Notting Hill. I went out one evening and was raped, I was told I wasn’t spiritual enough for the church and asked to leave. I became homeless. I went to Bible college, but the shame of being raped, of having the church tell me it had been my fault, that I wasn’t spiritual enough, that I should leave. Becoming homeless because my home came with my job. I started drinking.
If only I could have gone to my church for help, but I knew what happened when I took one sip, what would happen when I told them I was sleeping on the streets, working as a prostitute, an alcoholic and drug user? There would be no help for someone like me.
Roll on twenty years, I’m back in Leeds. Doing fine, free from addictions for over 10 years and building my life again.
I go to a local Salvation Army in the centre of Leeds, I went here as a kid. I called it home but trouble never seems far from me. I’m called in to speak to the minister, someone (I’m never allowed to know who) reported me as a prostitute. Nope, not me, I haven’t worked like that for years. I work with prostitutes, but I don’t work as one of them. It happens again. No, still not me. Either tell the person to stop gossiping or tell me who it is.
The third time it comes with a throwaway, inside family joke. A printed Facebook page of a post from me, “I have now ‘acquired’ a uniform”. That’s the proof. How can someone on benefits afford a uniform? Surely this is proof that I’m up to no good. How else would I have a uniform.
I have my uniform in the cupboard under the stairs. It hangs with other textiles from my life, my reflexology uniforms, my bikers jacket, clothing I might never wear again.
Every so often I get the uniform out and go to try it on, but the tears come. The pain of being forced to wear an outfit that still feels like I’m being made to sexualise myself for God. I’d never wear a skirt, yet in order to sing in the church choir, or take a role in the church leadership, or even play in the band is out of reach unless I return to that feeling of helplessness. That shameful place where men can look, call me sexy and feel my bum with no comeback from me, check for a suspended belt.
I still go to church (yep, a Salvation Army church) the people are lovely, but will I ever be fully accepted unless I lower myself to my dark past? The uniform isn’t something to aspire to for me.
I have other questions about it too.
Why a church started for the poor now charges so much for the uniform of membership that the poor cannot join?
Why when the Bible speaks of instant forgiveness does the church then punish you further in a Mary Poppins style humiliation? As though saying, “Well, we know you’re sorry, and Jesus forgives you, but we just want to humiliate you for six months”.
In searching for the answers to spirituality and textiles I am also searching perhaps for my own peace, my own freedom from the failure the church did to me. So that now, as a church member who wants to be so much more, can one day put on some kind of outfit that makes me seen as an equal.