Wednesday, 31 December 2008

One Resolution: let in the light

Looking forward into 2009 I am resolved to let in the light. Peering down the corridor of the unknown  I become aware of our common forebodings and apprehensions gathering like shadows. A cloak of darkness awaits the unwary. Its easy to trip and fall when there is so little light. Imagine the corridor in the picture above without windows and you can sense what I mean. As you can see, however, the scene is lit by bright pools of light, like waymarks on the journey. All through Advent and Christmas we have recollected our calling as people of the light. In 2009 perhaps we can resolve to let in the light of God's love where it is most needed. To rebuild our communities so that dark places and contexts are flooded with light from windows of justice, love and compassion, because light is good news for the poor. Jesus is the light of the world and we are called to build the kingdom; which means getting our hands dirty and knocking out the bricks and putting in the windows of Grace ourselves.

Every blessing for the New Year. May the light of God's love shine upon your pathway.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The needless tragedy in Gaza

Writing in today's Guardian Seumas Milne  says pointedly that 'During the last seven years, 14 Israelis have been killed by mostly homemade rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, while more than 5,000 Palestinians were killed by Israel with some of the most advanced US-supplied armaments in the world. And while no rockets are fired from the West Bank, 45 Palestinians have died there at Israel's hands this year alone. The issue is of course not just the vast disparity in weapons and power, but that one side is the occupier, the other the occupied.' Dead Palestinian children and such disproportionate continuing aggression do not make Israel safer.  Time and again in such situations of deadlock, history cautions otherwise.

Many bloggers have already responded to the current crisis in Gaza and I have nothing to add save for three images. I took them in Derry several years ago on my first trip to Ireland, pre the Good Friday Agreement.  They show the peace sculpture in Carlisle Square. They speak for themselves of the truth which underpins the ongoing process of peace. Ultimately this is the only truth that transforms conflict.

 derry peace statue Derry peace statue reaching  derry peace statue apart

Grace as the sun sets on the year

sunset of the year The last few posts on Grace have led up to this one image.  As the year draws to a close it seems to me that our need of Grace is as strong as our need for oxygen. When the sun finally sets on the year each of us will have much to reflect upon. Looking back I hope we can see the patterns and textures of Grace right in amongst the difficult and distressing stuff we have lived through.  Sometimes such Grace may seem as fragile and transitory as the sun lighting up the edges of a black cloud. At other times it comes with the breathtaking beauty of the dawn on a warm, blue sky summer's morning. Grace, that gift of unconditional love which accepts and holds us through our best and worst moments, has been at work in us and through us like oxygen in our cells. We are different because of it.

So as the sun goes down on New Year's Eve and 2008 draws to its close I find much peace knowing that Grace will be as certain as the sunrise on New Year's Day. This precious oxygen of divine love is but a breath of awareness away.

We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.  God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them     (1 John 4:16  New Living Bible)

This is how we know we're living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He's given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit.... We know it so well, we've embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God. ( The Message)

Monday, 29 December 2008

Grace is at work when

unseen, the Spirit of God shapes our lives like the prevailing wind shapes the tree

You might like to read Sally's corresponding poems

Grace is at work when

grace furnichurchordinary people do extraordinary things for others

Grace is like ......

grace presentthe feeling you get when you open that fantastic surprise present from someone who loves you

Grace is like .....

grace gardener a well-prepared gardener setting to work carefully, imaginatively and with great skill

Grace is like ..

the promise-bearing touch of sunlight and warmth on a winter-bound tree.

Grace is like ....

grace tree decoration putting lights and decorations on a bare Christmas tree

And do take a look at Sally's corresponding poem

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Grace is like...

gentle waves of gracebeing caressed gently by light-loved waves

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:9)

And have a look at Sally's seasonal take on Grace too

Points of View: catcher, catch, caught

grebe with fishGrebe catching a fish, Far Ings National Nature Reserve

For the Grebe, a great result! For the fish with seconds to live, a terminal catastrophe. And for the viewer - what is your point of view? As for the photographer, I am well pleased to have caught what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the 'decisive moment' .

Is reading the Bible any different?

"There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment."


Saturday, 27 December 2008

Signposting the light

cross pointing to the lightBarnetby, North Lincolnshire

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:27-32)

Simeon signposts the light. To those around him he points to a spectacularly different option and a startlingly fresh life-choice. Simeon signposts a 90 degree change of perspective to their current direction of travel along the same old rutted pathways of habit and disappointment. What he sees he tells. What he has longed for he now knows. Simeon cradles the promise in his arms and feels a deep peacefulness.

There is a lovely track on the Bliss album 'a hundred thousand angels' which comes from the tradition of Raja Yoga and opens up a  gentle alternative way in to this text:

Where do I go with all these feelings and all these faces and open doors. When everyone else seem so serene and I just feel so insecure and where do I go when all the pieces of my heart lay on the floor, you say...

Come into the light why don't you, come into the light why don't you, come on now come into the light.

Where do I go with all these memories and all these bags filled up with shame and how should I feel when you call me an angel and dress me in a crown of gold. What should I do when tears of sorrow just won't stay inside these eyes, you say

Come into the light why don't you, come into the light why don't you, come on now come into the light.

What should I do when a gentle hand it reaches out to take my own and how will I feel when tears of joy they just won't stay inside these eyes. And what will I do when I start to love you and really trust and know you're there, you say

You'll be in the light where I am, you'll be in the light  where I am, come on now come into the light

You can listen to the track here

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Mystery and truth at Christmas

moon mystery

On Christmas Eve 40 years ago the astronauts on Apollo 8 orbited the moon and took the famous 'earthrise' series of photographs. For the first time these showed earth from deep space. These images  changed forever the way we see ourselves and our planet and provided a visual focus for the developing environmental movement. A08_MP_PhotosFS During their live broadcast, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders read the account of creation from the first chapter of the book of Genesis.  In some quarters this proved to be controversial.  The question, ''What place has religious mumbo-jumbo in this state of the art scientific and technological achievement?' is a fair paraphrase of the arguments at the time. The fact that faith offers a complementary  perspective to that of science regarding the mystery of existence and does not contend with it is a cry from the heart that was no doubt voiced then and is still falling on deaf ears now. Which is such a pity as these two photographs of the moon and the earth, taken from opposite perspectives, illustrate how each complements and enhances the value of the other. The one does not render the other obsolete; it opens up a whole new way of seeing that which is familiar.

With this in mind, reading Polly Toynbee's  article 'My Christmas message? There's probably no God'  in yesterday's Guardian was a bitter-sweet experience. I admire and respect Polly as one of the very best social commentators writing in Britain today. I find myself readily sharing many of her political views and I truly value the way in which she consistently advocates the cause of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, whilst holding the wealthy and powerful to account. She is an absolute gem. And, as an atheist and President of the British Humanist Association, she is consistently scathing about the role and place of religion in public life. The tagline to her column says it all: 'It is neither emotionally nor spiritually deficient to reject religions that seek to infantilise us with impossible beliefs.' As you will gather, she does not reserve her contempt, but simply and with great integrity says it how she sees it: 'But we all know one thing: religion no more makes people good than lack of it makes the rest of us bad.'  Well said Polly. How true.

I have no interest in 'infantilising' anyone with impossible beliefs. I welcome honest and open dialogue about the heart of faith and would invite others to test it for themselves. As the old adage puts it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and talk of God is pointless without an openness to encounter God. Bishop Alan's sparkling take on this is well worth reading.  God is met not as a proposition which by its very nature will infantilise the person who accepts it, but as unconditional love. God-talk seeks to unpack our common human experience of relating to this divine love which encounters us.   'Impossible beliefs' should be seen as baggage which can helpfully be lost in transit. As I read the Christmas stories they shine with the invitation to come and see for ourselves and to personally welcome the unconditional love which God wants to gift to us. And this encounter is purposeful, because it offers the hope and promise of lives transformed and injustice overcome. Good news for the poor means just that. It does what it says on the tin. The 'impossible beliefs' which Polly finds so objectionable are the results of thousands of years of reflection on the texture and meaning of this profoundly down to earth encounter which keeps on happening between God and us. Put another way, I have always seen the 'stuff' of religion as the wrapping paper and packaging around the experiential love-gift of faith encounter. In Jesus I see this in action and meet God's challenging love face to face.

What hurts is to be accused of something I know not to be true and to be stereotyped  and written off as some sort of deluded, meddlesome, pitiable yet dangerous superstitionist because I happen to profess a faith. It hurts to see the likes of Richard Dawkins disparaging a Christianity which I do not recognise and seeking to persuade others of the stupidity of faith on that basis.  My faith is not nonsense; it makes sense of my life and the world which we share together; if it didn't I would reject it outright.  I see nothing wrong in staking my life on the continuing relevance of Jesus' teaching and radical kingdom way of life precisely because it has been and is gospel 'good news' for me. I happily confess to experiences which my tradition consistently interprets as being of God's presence and love. As I see it resurrection is not about an impossible belief but is something which I see happening quietly in the lives of those around me. Furthermore, the Bible is not an embarrassment of which I should be ashamed, because I am a scientist. I have discovered that it is a book which honestly reads what it is to be human and which enables me to make sense of my own experience and of my encounters with the sacred mystery at the heart of everything. 

Time and again, through doubt and pain, in wonder and sheer joy, the hypothesis of God has proved resilient in the laboratory of my soul. I have trusted, and my trust has been rewarded.  I have followed the star and discovered love birthed in my broken and damaged self; have encountered that other which has the power to transform life.

Polly is right to say that religion does not make people good, if by that she means  'perfect'. How can a set of principles, beliefs and practices achieve that ultimate end-point of perfection given all that we know about human nature?  Reading about St. Paul makes plain just how difficult the faith journey to goodness is, with shipwrecks, imprisonments, arguments and thorns in the flesh along the way all serving vividly to make the point.  The bible is realistic about what what we are like.  Just listen to the two versions of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' currently topping the charts in the UK  (and yes, Jeff Buckley's is the best ever) and you will be left in no doubt about this one - David for example was anything other than perfect, yet God was at work purposefully in and through the light and dark of his life. And so what is true is that God can and does weave goodness within the human spirit when we are open to the gift and cost of such transforming grace. As I read the bible perfection is not on offer, given we are who we are. What is spoken of and witnessed to instead is the life-changing power of unconditional love in the lives of people like you and me.

This is why I have taken the risk of faith and devoted my life to 'make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. ' And how bizarre that sounds when atheists challenge us because we appear to peddle impossible beliefs. Why should we be bold about something which is daft, stupid, non-existent or worthless? What I know to be true for me is what the Bible proclaims about Christmas: God is with us. And yes, this gospel is mystery. It isn't hard science. But it is a mystery I trust, because its nature is love which meets me as I am and invites me to be good news for others.

And it is like seeing the 'earthrise' for the first time.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Winter solstice of the soul

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:8-11)

The winter solstice and faith have long been dancing partners. Living in the depths of a dark, cold December, when sunlight is as rare a commodity as a mortgage from a British Bank, it is easy to see why. For many, the darkest time of the year provides no light-hearted relief from the solstice of the soul.

The light and long days of summer seem cruelly out of reach when one is enclosed in that deep darkness from which there seems to be no quick escape. For individuals, to be bereaved, depressed, abused, ill, outcast, in debt and fearful of redundancy or repossession, stressed or just not coping can be to find oneself in a winter solstice place where the world outside and the inner life of the soul are  drawn together darkly and  impenetrably. Little light seems to get in. Our view of the world around us becomes narrow, restricted; for long hours a confining darkness defines our outlook. Every now and then glimmers of light bounce off the oppressive walls of our soul's imprisonment.In these dark times we long for enlightenment.

Then as nations and peoples there is the winter solstice of race-hatred, persecution, armed conflict, economic oppression, climate change and a myriad other injustices which beset our common life on planet earth. Such attitudes and behaviours are formed in the dark, oppressive confines of narrow and exclusionist thinking. In these dark times we long for enlightenment.

So as faithful dancing partners we embrace the winter solstice with all the hopefulness and courage we can muster. Do not be afraid. Light is coming. Outlooks can broaden and change. The shepherds experienced this for themselves. In the deep, dark night of their winter solstice experience, the glory of God's love enabled them to see differently. In the midst of their terror and uncertainty they were promised that they were not  alone. Even and especially those on the margins of life and coping are encouraged to see just how much they are cherished by God. In the light of this love, which blazes across the night sky, a whole vista of grace opens up; a 360 degree panorama of belonging, togetherness, inclusion and promise.

And all of this is met face to face in the Christ-child. And sometimes we simply need to wait alongside those trapped in dark experiences and, angel-like, hold the promise.

In these dark times we long for enlightenment.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

there was no place for them in the inn: an image for an emerging church at Christmas

Tretower Court

she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  (Luke 2:7)

We ordinarily think that the place is full. Bethlehem is so teeming with people looking for somewhere to stay that not even a  Yorkshireman's shoebox (hello Python fans)   is available through That is why there is no place for them in the inn.

But what if the place was decrepit, uncared for, verging on the derelict? What if there was literally 'no room' available because there were no floorboards?

What if the owners had long since forgotten how to 'do' hospitality so couldn't see the need for guests or rooms at all?

And what if there was to be a recovered memory, a long lost manual for inn proprietors which was discovered tucked down between the  back of one of the empty wooden benches and the crumbling wall? What if that spoke of warmth, welcome, shelter, food, nourishment, rest and refreshment for anyone passing by or passing through? Heaven forbid, what if it spoke of takeaways, a stall in the market and home delivery too?

What if the essence of the whole enterprise was not-for-profit?

What if the secret to making the thing work was a simple, wholesome, nutritious diet of locally produced food and a willingness to gather and share with whomsoever; wherever and whenever the opportunity arose?

What if it was the table and the meal which mattered, and not the building at all?

Is there a place this Christmas for such parabolic thinking? Have we room for radical thoughts? Or are they to be consigned to the manger?

And if there is, what are the Kingdom of God, 'what would Jesus do' essentials that must  be on the table? And where would you put the table? And who would you invite, or to whom would you go?


Images taken at Tretower Court.

light to those who sit in darkness

light in darkness 1  Fountains Abbey

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  (Luke 1:78-79)

An image for use in worship and personal reflection

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Let it be with me according to your word


                                                                                                                                           Ripon Cathedral

All-loving God,
let the splendour of your glory
rise in our hearts like the dawn,
that the darkness of the night may be scattered
and the coming of your only Son may reveal us
as children of the light.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

An image for use in worship and personal reflection

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


  For all church-damaged women. In hope and sorrow.

Based on a sculpture in Ripon Cathedral.

Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

(Luke 1:46-53)

An image for use in worship and personal reflection

Monday, 15 December 2008

Seasonal soul-food: Loreena McKennitt's A Midwinter Night's Dream

41uzTecFSjL__SL500_AA240_Sheer Advent bliss.

Loreena's latest CD,  'A Midwinter Night's Dream',  is a truly sublime collection of exceptional music for this season of the year.

To quote from her Quinlan Road website:

The holiday collection features an array of the artist's wide musical influences, ranging from Celtic to classical to Middle Eastern. Her eclecticism shines through in the mysticism of “The Holly and the Ivy,” the exotic Eastern arrangements of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” the Latin-sung “Emmanuel” and the North French/African rendering of “Noël Nouvelet!,” sung in Old French


I used many of these tracks for an advent quiet day last Saturday and I recommend A Midwinter Night's Dream  wholeheartedly. To whet your appetite watch the video of her recording one of the gems on the album.

Loreena McKennitt singing  The Seven Rejoices of Mary

Advent Hope

 fountains abbey undercroft cross monochrome text

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you 
(Isaiah 60:1)

Look very carefully at the picture of the undercroft in the previous post and right up against the distant wall you can just make out the fragile outline of a cross.  In Advent our radical dreaming, our passionate struggles, our subversive intention and our transformational commitment as Christians  are re-ignited by God's enduring promises. What I know and what I feel about this holy process of waiting and longing is summed up in this reworked image of one of my photos of that cross.  Look at its vibrant, vivid, bright colour. See how it is alive and pulsating with living power and potency. The dark, monochrome encompassing structures of injustice, oppression, exploitation and violence cannot dim this eternally bright light.

This is our Advent hope. And it calls us to action.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined


    Undercroft, Fountains Abbey

An Advent Muse in the style of an Old Testament prophet

He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and light dwells with him.
  (Daniel 2:22)

Look. See. The light shines in dark places and reveals things hidden. Look. See. No longer out of light and sight, structures of injustice and oppression are suddenly visible. Under-lying everything you do, they mock your supposed freedom.  Look. Below the floor, beneath your feet, there in the undercroft of your economy, your politics, your international relations, see the buttresses, pillars and vaulted ceilings of greed, exploitation and indifference. Look.  See how they keep the whole flawed edifice up. But look, see; the once proud building is creaking, trembling under the strain of your unsustainable and unjust way of life.

Time to take the stones and build something new.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The people who walked in darkness

     Saxon crypt in Ripon Cathedral

"The cathedral's great glory is its Saxon crypt which dates from 672 AD and is one of the oldest in Europe.  The crypt, less than 10 feet high and 7 feet wide, is part of one of England's first stone churches.  This was founded by St Wilfrid in the middle of the 7th century to be the guardian of the Christian faith in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria."

This description from an internet guide to Ripon Cathedral gives something of the sense of  spiritual history which enfolds visitors to this tiny Saxon crypt. Yet it cannot convey the feeling of simply being  within this sacred space and opening oneself to the promise of God which hangs profoundly in the air. Buried deep beneath the cathedral  this small holy space holds a faith memory which pervades one's soul like cold, deeply-penetrating damp. Whilst the hyper-active, instant gratification, destructively unfolding twenty first century goes its digital way above, here in this place, below ground, still and quiet, a living truth older than our Advent texts awaits those who seek themselves, and light for dark times.

The light shines in the darkness.  Shines with the same promise in the twenty first century as it did in the seventh.  And the clue lies in the wall of the crypt, there in the top right hand corner of the photograph. Here the theological spectrum of the light is made plain. It's enlightening purpose is exposed. The end-point of Advent emerges from the darkness.

Here is the risen Christ emerging from the enclosing darkness of all that besets humanity. Saxon faith meets digital spirituality in an image which illuminates the promise at the heart of Advent.

Standing here it is as though the ancient stones hold within them the timeless answer to John Betjeman's question "And is it true?"  And this is an answer that can only ever come to light within the darkness of our suffering and yearning.  It is birthed not in dispassionate logic but in tears and trust.

Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine

John Betjeman  Christmas

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Advent reminder

stop look listen railway     Barnetby, North Lincolnshire

Monday, 8 December 2008

Night prayer in Advent

tree at sunsetAs darkness enfolds us we remind ourselves of the glorious colours of the day's ending. In so doing we anticipate the golden light of a new dawn.

Lighten our darkness,
Lord, we pray,
and in your great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,
for the love of your only Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ

Although it is set for use all year round, this ancient night prayer speaks into the liturgical drama of Advent. The full faith-splendour of sunset colour is what we recollected at the end of the liturgical year as we celebrated Christ the King. Now, in Advent, night has fallen once more and we wait and watch for the first glimmers of the dawn at Christmas.  The gospel set for this Sunday reminds us of this need to remember, to speak of and to trust in the light of God's love in Jesus. Especially in the dark times.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:6-9)

It's just like walking around with your zip undone....

then one year on you suddenly realise what you have been doing and ....... aaaaaagh! By chance today I happened to be looking at my blog on a monitor set to 1680 width and wondered why the images were all over the place. It looked like a right mess. But on my monitor all is well, so how come ........? Guess which complete idiot has been using a blogger stretch template without realising it, so that the width you see varies depending on the monitor you have?  On widescreens the images I have placed so carefully in MS Livewriter rearrange themselves with all the subtlety and poise of ferrets in an bag. For a whole year unwittingly I have been peddling visual gobbledigook to anyone whose monitor is not the same as mine.  Joy and bliss.

A thousand apologies if this applies to you. I have now switched to a non-stretch template and fixed the width at 1024, so the vast majority of viewers should have no problems. Time for a new pair of jeans......

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan: a chilly take on the Advent hope

frost in shade

Yesterday was one of those stunning winter days when low angled sunlight and bitingly low temperatures bring intense clarity to our seeing. The deep frost that had formed during the long, bitterly cold night was in a day-long tussle with the feeble warmth of the winter sun. In shadow, the frost was winning.

On the ground, wherever the light was blocked by taller vegetation, the leaves of low-lying plants were covered in a spectacularly beautiful array of ice crystals. The details of each surface were brought into sharp relief by the sub-zero airbrushing of frost. What was normally unseen, the moisture in the air, was now visible, and itself brought the intricacies of the plants leaves and stems into plain view.

frost covered nettleAs a metaphor for our reflection on the realities of Advent it seems to me that this line of imaginative thinking has much to offer. Advent speaks into the experience of long dark times, frozen expectations, and the hope-denying psychological hypothermia which lies in the unseen bitter truths of our being. Advent, like the low winter sunlight, lays these things bare. For a short while, the brief daylight hours of bleak spiritual midwinter can bring fresh ways of seeing the who and how of what we are. The frost speaks of the invisible, usually hidden realities which come sharply into focus on the surfaces of our daily lives during Advent.

Frozen, we long for light and warmth.

frost covered plantAnd at the heart of our faith tradition is the promise that such longing can, indeed should, turn to expectation. Midwinter people, chilled to the very bone, look to the horizon and the dawning of the one who is the light of the world.

The lyrics of Madonna's song 'Frozen' point to our chilly, bitterly cold experiences and perceptions, and to the mournful midwinter waste of a frozen, frost-bound heart.

You only see what your eyes want to see
How can life be what you want it to be
You're frozen
When your heart's not open

You're so consumed with how much you get
You waste your time with hate and regret 
You're broken
When your heart's not open

Mmmmmm, if I could melt your heart
Mmmmmm, we'd never be apart
Mmmmmm, give yourself to me
Mmmmmm, you hold the key

frost melting on plantRead in Advent these words resonate with our faith expectations too: they offer the promise of warmth and the melting away of that terrible spiritual frost. They speak of relationship, trust and promise. And this gets us very close to the hope offered in Advent and to the intention of godly love which is both real and promised to all frost-bound, frozen people everywhere.

And this Sunday's reading from the Isaiah tradition (61:1-3) is at the very centre of such Christian expectation:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

Here is the promise of light and warmth and of the dawning of the sun upon a frozen world. The picture opposite  illustrates well the now and not-yet nature of this for us. The sun has melted the frost from the uppermost leaves of the nettle. Lower down in the shade and shadow, it remains frost-bound and freezing.

I think this is what Advent looks like, feels like, in the deep midwinter time, when we long for the light. Once again, the Isaiah tradition nails it superbly:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
on them light has shined.

I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them
. (42:16)

Monday, 1 December 2008

Insight for Advent: Onexposure


Are you

Looking for a fresh way to get inside the meanings of Advent

Willing to think outside your comfort zone

Wanting to see challenge and promise all around you

Prepared to spend ten minutes each day in contemplation

Then why not try this during Advent

Visit Onexposure and look at the thumbnail pages of their latest or most popular photographs and choose one image which catches, provokes or disturbs your interest. You will know which one. View it large size on screen, simply sit with it and be open to whatever layers of meaning emerge. Let this process then draw you into prayerful awareness.

As you can see, Onexposure offers several categories of photos to choose from. The quality is excellent as each image is hand picked before being uploaded to the site.

undefinedThis image, Elixir by Bjorn Leirvik, leapt out of the screen when I did this. Looking at the four dull, dirty bottles led me to reflect upon my ways of thinking and behaving which are not life-giving. Those old cobweb encrusted patterns which are long past their sell by date.

The wonderful amber coloured bottle, backlit through a hole in the wall, caused me to think appreciatively of all that is life-enhancing in my experience at present; to see where the light gets in.

From this awareness to an Advent prayer is but an intention away.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Be Mindful of Advent

mindfulness is being still, becoming aware, living fully in the present moment

Smallthwaite Knott, Kentmere, Lake District 

Advent is supposed to be a time of preparation for Christmas. We are encouraged to take time-out to reflect on our journey, to become present to our hopes and fears and to truly see the harsh realities of the world in which we live. All this is wrapped up in the festive language of awareness, stillness, longing and promise; and our name is on the gift tag. The precious God-gift of love awaits hands eager to unwrap the mystery. And the times are dark and threatening.

Reading the Advent scriptures it is clear that it is always like this. The story is not comfortable and the texts are not cosy because life is tough and uncertain. The carnage in Mumbai and the still unfolding consequences of the credit crunch remind us of what is true for suffering humanity down the ages. Amidst all the terrible cacophony of injustice and hurt, what is offered in Advent is the promise that, if we can just become still and listen, we will hear the godly voice of authentic humanity crying out in cadences of hope, calling us to each other and to action together, in our wilderness.

So a prerequisite for Advent is that we become mindful. Getting ready for Christmas seems to involve just the opposite. Let the image of the horse serve as a reminder and a challenge. If we are to celebrate meaningfully the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, the key is that we are willing to become mindful of that truth within us. 'Preparing the Way' begins right there. It starts with our next breath. The present moment of God's presence is now.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Winds of change: thoughts on windmill spirituality (Celtic Imagination 21)

kirton windmill solarised 2

A windmill will work in the bleakest of times. As long as the isobars are close enough together and there is grain to be milled or water to be pumped, even the barren vista of a harsh winter landscape is no deterrent. All that is required is the will to set the sails and engage the machinery with the free power of the wind.

Ruined and decrepit windmills are a feature of the countryside here in Lincolnshire. They litter the landscape like  unloved memorials to the rural economy of pre-industrialised  Britain. They evoke a time, place and pace of village life familiar to John Clare but long-lost to us. They are icons of memory and, therefore, of fresh possibility for those prepared to find the resonance of present hope in the long-dead past. The on and off-shore wind farms dotted along the coast of Lincolnshire today make the point well.

So why should the Bible, another seemingly redundant and discarded memorial to a lost age - in this case to a pre-secularised Britain - be any different? Why shouldn't we expect to find resonances of hope for our currently bleak times there too?

To enter into the world of the biblical texts set for Advent is to rediscover the power of memory and promise to turn imagination into action as surely as the wind pumps water or turns grain into flour in the mill. The key is our willingness to set the sails and engage our inner faith machinery in the first place.

If we choose to believe the atheistic meteorology, there is no wind. There is no God; no Ruach or Spirit blowing restlessly through human experience. Our churches are redundant memorials to a world of ignorance in which wind was but a fantastical delusion. The sails never turned. Lives were not changed.

Except that they did and they were.

kirton windmill copy2Drive south from the M180 motorway into Epworth, the birthplace of world Methodism, and on your right you see two windmills, both long disused. One is a ruin, the other incorporated into a modern dwelling.  Neither are fit for the purpose for which they were built.  Yet Methodism in Epworth is resurgent. The sails of faith are set confidently into the Spirit-winds of change and there is hope and action in abundance. The old promises of Advent are coming alive. Right across Lincolnshire the faith-machinery of Methodist people is turning spirit-power into action.

The winds of change are blowing

 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together (Isaiah 40:3-5)

PS Don't miss Sally's poem inspired by this post

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The eye of the beholder: Gods, demons and fire

celtic god at heart of the fire demon in the fire

I took these two shots sitting by our open fire this afternoon. I was cosy, snug, warm and well sheltered from the arctic chill and snow-bound landscape outside. All I wanted to do was simply to capture the ever-changing chemical dance of the fire. Here's what I saw on the computer afterwards. On the left, the typically elongated face of a celtic pagan god stares implacably out of the intense heat. On the right, a demon smiles menacingly amidst the flames.


Well, no actually. These are just lumps of coal. My brain plus the camera angle have together superimposed a layer of meaning on the inanimate yet red-hot coal. Having once seen these familiar patterns I can't now 'unsee 'them. In the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries I would probably have been hauled off by the religious thought police for seeing these things and showing then to you. The flames would have been my reward. Searching for and seeing patterns and meanings in the world around us is a deeply human thing to do. Somewhere at the heart of both science and religion is this basic instinct. What a pity then, that either should see the other as a threat. What a tragedy that the zealots of both camps miss the common ground of beauty to be found in the fire of our human imagination.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Celtic Imagination No 21: Windmill Spirituality

kirton windmill solarised 2Photo of the Mount Pleasant working windmill at Kirton-in-Lyndsey, North Lincolnshire.

As we get ready to enter Advent, what might this image say about preparing the way for a purposeful encounter with God?

Blog Anniversary

It is one year since I took the plunge, pressed the red button, and started this blog. So it is time for me to say a huge 'thank you' to all of you who have taken the time to read, reflect and comment upon my postings. I am especially grateful to those who have encouraged me to keep on blogging when I have been silent for a while.

It is a privilege to connect with you in this way.

love and peace,


Press the big red button

red button

Go on. You know you want to. Just press that big red button. Look at it. It's so inviting. And so easy. Go on. You know you want to.

And so the button is pressed in an impulsive blink-long moment of time, a hand outstretched, thumb-pushing movement that is complete before the thought that triggered it has even finished.

Now what? You can't unpress it. You can't roll back time. Whatever you have now done can't be undone. You pushed the big red button. It took a second and lasts a lifetime, or if you think about it for a moment, even longer, perhaps forever. One small decision, one minimal action, potentially massive consequences.

Pushing the big red button is just too easy, too simple, too alluring.

Too disconnected from the consequences.

So what does the big red button do? To what is it connected? What are the consequences? What is the pay-off? What is the comeback?

Here, then, is a little thought experiment.

Using the big red button as your starting point, think about the following questions and work them through.


    1. How do you take decisions?
    2. How mindful are you of the consequences?
    3. What would you like the big red button to do, and to whom?
    4. What does it feel like to be on the receiving end when someone else presses the big red button?
    5. So what is going to be different from now on?

Monday, 17 November 2008

Wild thoughts: musings on Celtic Imagination 18-20

translucent living and dead leaves Holy Wholly Holy. In this shot the contrast between the vibrant colour and translucent texture of the new leaves and the solitary dead, dry, twisted and shrunken leaf  makes a statement about our experience of the way things are. Look at the church you know, politics, business or your own life and relationships and sooner or later this is what you will see: evidence of once vivid and life-giving ways of thinking, acting and organising ourselves which are now dead relicts. Clearly the life of the plant now flourishes elsewhere in fresh, vivid growth. The dead leaf is disconnected biochemically and has long since become photosynthetically redundant. As such it is no longer capable of being a vital life-giving biological interface between the plant and its environment. All that remains is for the physical connection to be severed.

Used in this way the image encourages an honest mental audit of how things are for us. Simply to recognise and appreciate those aspects of our life that are life-giving and re-vitalising is a good spiritual practice. Through it we get in touch with that which is Holy and sacred in our everyday experience. We become mindful of beauty, simplicity and connectedness. And, as we contemplate the dead leaf, we become aware of that which is dead and life-diminishing within and around us. We begin to see clearly how some of our attitudes and perceptions are  warped or unhealthy; how some aspects of our relating to others diminishes them and us. Done well and gently this awareness enables us to accept ourselves wholly and to be non-judgemental. We become complete as we accept the truth of the living and dead aspects of ourselves. Holy, Wholly, Holy. All that we are is held and loved by God, not just the vibrant, life-giving bits we like. The dead, twisted, dried-up aspects of who we are do not block out our experience of grace; they make it all the more precious and wonderful. The picture would be incomplete and far less powerful without that single dead, shrivelled leaf, for it speaks of real lives and of painful memories, of guilt and shame and regret. But it is an empty, lifeless thing which cannot stop the photosynthetic flow of energy in the fresh leaves nor inhibit the flourishing of the plant. Its energy and connection is in the past, not in the present. Maybe the time has come for it to drop away for good. If we are to  celebrate meaningfully the festival of Christ the King then we can justifiably be encouraged to trust that resurrection is a promise of wholeness for us too, and that God intends that each of us should feel the reality of God's promise: “See, I am making all things new.” Even you and me. Even the Church. Especially the world.

river dove contrastTranquil and Turbulent. A photo which captures what is for me an essential truth of my experience. Tranquil times, which offer a measure of stillness and calm allow for seeing and reflecting in depth. In this spiritual Adagio there is colour, insight and the mirroring of enfolding truths. Reality is a gentle multi-dimensional flow of being and becoming. And then this calm surface is disrupted utterly as the flow plunges over the irregular edge into that chaotic, turbulent state where suddenly everything is at Vivacissimo, fast-paced and unpredictable. Water, air and light combine in a sparkling crescendo.

As a young adult I recall being perplexed by all of this, as I had in my head the notion that life should be like the former state, all calm-flowing and OK, and that if it wasn't, something was wrong. The concise epistemological truth that 'Shit Happens' had yet to dawn on me, as had the realisation that turbulence is actually much nearer the norm than is tranquility. Furthermore I have come to see that turbulence and tranquility are the warp and weft through which the patterns of meaning in my life are woven. As such both have value, as does the sure knowledge that one follows the other as certainly as night follows day. "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God" (Romans 8.28)

cog wheels in themachine Cog Wheels in the Machine. In our culture to be a mere 'cog in the machine' implies a certain degree of insignificance, even powerlessness, in the face of forces and structures beyond our control and direction. The phrase points to a possibly unpleasant and deeply uncomfortable truth about the degree to which any of us can determine our future and to our dependency on the decisions and interactions of others. And yet the image also suggests interdependence and mutuality, and therefore trust and respect. If one cog seizes up or fails the whole machine may grind to a halt. What really fascinates me about this picture are the teeth on the cogs. As they engage with each other that is the point at which energy is transferred - or not as the case may be. Any flaws here will seriously impair efficiency and increase wear and tear, hence the need for lubricating oil. So what does this say about the way in which we have a care for the organisations and networks of which we are a part? Surely we need to be mindful of the dynamics of power / powerlessness in our relationships and structures and be careful to give good attention to trust, respect and mutuality. We can reflect on the mechanisms by which energy, imagination and commitment are enabled to flow freely and well. We can be alert to those places where friction is in danger of seizing up the machine. And we can value each and every cog. "Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6.31)

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Celtic Imagination No 20: Holy Wholly Holy

translucent living and dead leaves

A favourite photo of mine taken a long time ago on slide film. The striking juxtaposition of the vivid, translucent leaves with the dead, shrivelled one is a good starting point for imaginative reflection

Friday, 14 November 2008

Celtic Imagination No 19: tranquil and turbulent

river dove contrast

The River Dove in Dovedale, Derbyshire.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Celtic Imagination No 18: Cog wheels in the machine

cog wheels in themachine

What does the image suggest to you?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Celtic Imagination No 17: Stocks and Shares - a very public humiliation

You will find these stocks on the village green at Wormhill, in the Peak District of Derbyshire. To be confined in this way was to be publicly disgraced and humiliated, with one's misdemeanour becoming an open invitation for others to share in the actual act of punishment through mockery, scorn, or worse. It's what today we would call a 'cruel and unusual punishment'.

In his book 'Violence', Slavoj Zizek contends that in addition to subjective, physical acts of violence our societies have within them two hidden mechanisms of objective violence, which make such subjective violence possible. One operates through our language; what we say, read, write and think about each other, which Zizek calls symbolic violence. The other mechanism manifests through the functional inter-relationships of our economic and political systems, giving rise for example to unemployment, poverty and homelessness, something he terms systemic violence. To the actual physical act of putting a violent miscreant in the Stocks, we need to add the background context of symbolic and systemic violence which may have made it necessary to put them there in the first place.

Sections of the Media habitually perpetrate such violence, brutalising their chosen victims in stocks built of confining paragraphs and hurtful images, and all on public display. And through our reading, watching and commenting we are invited to share in the act of public humiliation. From Reality TV to the pages of the Tabloid Press, the mechanism is the same. Used this way language becomes a culturally confining punishment which demeans, degrades and diminishes individuals, groups, whole sections of society or other countries. Such violence works by changing the way we see and respond to each other. As Zizek argues, it is this sort of linguistic violence which makes actual, physical violence much more possible. We have only to think of how parts of the Media use phrases such as "The War on Terror" or "Asylum Seekers" to see the persuasiveness of his argument. Or to bring this much closer to home, just ponder your everyday conversations and proof them for symbolic violence; might not a moment's honest reflection reveal that the church coffee morning, for example, demonstrates how we all use language to inflict 'violence' on each other, not through punch-ups but through put-downs? Seen in this way the linguistic stocks are in constant use among us, which begs the question of what we are going to do about such hidden symbolic violence. If we were to see such malicious tittle-tattle as equivalent to putting someone in the stocks we might be much more circumspect about opening our mouths in the first place, and be more generous and gracious when we do. All our exclusive '-isms', such as Racism and Sexism, are birthed linguistically and given life through our speech and actions as we share in the societal goal of putting 'others' in the stocks of prejudice.

Such insidious mechanisms of symbolic violence lead inexorably to the systemic violence of global financial systems. If we think of recent experience in the USA, the divide between Wall St. and Main St. over the unfolding sub-prime fuelled financial crisis is a perfect case in point. The normal working of the system is predicated on such systemic violence as debt, poverty and disadvantage, with all their attendant social ills. The normal working of the global financial and trade systems routinely confines millions to lives of poverty unimaginable in the secure enclaves of the mansioned super-rich, who exert such disproportionate influence over our Politics, Media, Sport and just about every other dimension of our common life.  To envisage each dollar or pound of their annual bonus as being one more person locked up in the stocks of disadvantage might make the bankers pause for thought, but then again.....

If you think about it, the teaching of Jesus is rooted in countering these two hidden mechanisms of violence in our midst. In the way he lived his life Jesus demonstrated how the choices we make in the way we think, speak, act and organise our common life are all part of the redemption of society from symbolic and systemic violence. And because of it, because he threatened to subvert these powerful hidden mechanisms of violence, he was violently put to death, by those whose powerful vested interests were in the status quo. A status quo which Jesus shows us looks as normal and as natural as the image below.

Stocks and Shares are all around us.