Park Life

Its been a while since I last put finger to keyboard – stuff going on – sorry!

I have always loved parks! As a young person I spent most of my leisure time at a park with a day-long game of football or cricket with the teams constantly changing as people arrived and people left. No mobile phones or ‘helicopter’ parents back in that day – I just had to be home for prearranged mealtimes or else! I’ve now walked regularly with my wife in parks, taken my own children to the park, held birthday parties in the park, taken youth groups and held after worship service church picnics to name but a few activities.

And here’s the thing today; I’ve been thinking more and more about parks and public spaces for a while now and they have been so important haven’t they during the pandemic. Something a new friend, Sally Mann from Bonny Downs Church and Community Association recently blogged about has set me thinking again. Being much more on the side of Blur than Oasis in the great debate of the mid 1990s the lyrics of Parklife still reverberate for me:

“And then I’m happy for the rest of the day,

Safe in the knowledge there will always be

A bit of my heart devoted to it”

Having recently moved to London I have now begun to treasure the lovely green spaces that there are locally and across London. Right on my door step begins the wonderful Epping Forest starting for me with the beautiful hollow ponds where people come to exercise, seek the shade of the trees or the cool of the water, or to sit and picnic or to play. It is a favourite place for many groups from the various Abrahamic faith communities to meet amongst themselves. For me, however, it is more of a place to take a break and stroll and think, observe, pray, and chat to people that I may meet along the way.

At the other end of my street is another green space, a little park, with a playground, exercise area, seating, and decent tennis courts. Some say London is not a friendly place and, whilst that might be true of the Underground, I have already met quite a few people who have welcome me and talked to me and played tennis with me. These conversations have not taken place because of my profession or church community but just because I have slowed down enough or stopped for long enough and they just happen because people have stories to share and they want to speak to me. Lord you are with me whoever I meet today!

This place of random or pre-arranged encounter plays a significant part in my whole-life discipleship. It may be at times an adventure into the borders of my own experience – a liminal or threshold place but to God it will always be a place full of life, stories and most of valued people known and loved from the God’s heart. And when I spend time there, I feel the rhythm of that heartbeat.

The park might well be, if we let it, something of a ‘thin’ place where the usual barriers between us and God and each other become more permeable. Perhaps, instead of function, income, background, and productiveness we just become people who are currently present with names and who are significant. Aren’t we so desperate in our day for such places where we can develop community engagement and live visible and ‘questionable’ lives (in the sense of 1 Peter 3:15) when we already have this on our doorsteps or not far away at least?

We would like to think that our walk with Jesus should also be attractive. I was in a park with someone recently and a relative of hers entered the park with his dog who bounded over to us. Would the dog leave us – of course not, it just came close and followed us and stuck to us in a comedy moment. I long for people to find and encounter Jesus this way, come over, stay close and follow and stick at it!

Another important aspect of whole-life discipleship is also how we care for our given environment both locally and globally. Today I saw a group of volunteers meeting and working to make the park a better place and maybe we can do the same with the route we take along the street to get there. Lord ‘may Your Kingdom come!’ and may we play our part in changing the atmosphere?

In my last piece I wrote about not just ‘re-assembling’ but ‘resembling’ Jesus. As the followers of Jesus Christ in our own land begin to gather again, sing again, and organise as church again into this new normal there are many of us that simply don’t want to spend all our time with other Christians or in a church building – it is the thing we least want to return to maybe. If as you read this, that is you, then I encourage you to get a life, get a park life! You will know where that place is for you and nobody else can tell you!  Invest some of the time God has given you there and don’t feel guilty and don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty either.

Maybe you have some thoughts on this – if so, please get in touch. As an afterthought, it has been a sad recent development to see the City of London Corporation (who are responsible for the parks and forests and green spaces) begin to charge at their car parks. This has naturally proved unpopular and controversial but not quite as controversial as the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in London Boroughs. I am thinking that one through theologically as well, as we speak, but that’s for another piece, you’ll be glad to hear!

“All the people

So many people

And they all go hand-in-hand

Hand-in-hand through their parklife”

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