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.


Images of Remembrance


Memorial at the site of RAF Wickenby in Lincolnshire, featuring a striking and poignant sculpture of Icarus falling to earth



 Above and Left: Russia Convoy Memorial at Loch Ewe














Below: 617 Squadron (Dambusters) Memorial at Woodhall Spa, Lincs. Above: detail from one of the panels.


The photo is of my aunt's first husband, Flt/Sgt Vic Weaver from Wolverhampton, who was killed on the night of the 23/24th August 1943. He was the wireless operator in Stirling WP-S (EH937) of 90 vic weaverSquadron from Wratting Common which was shot down into the Ijsselmeer, 15 km east of Marken, on a raid to Berlin. His body was never recovered. Our family will never forget him.  The crew who died with him were Sgt. G.C. Jeffreys (airgnr) and Sgt. C.J. Purcell (navigator), both washed ashore near Elburg, and buried in Amersfoort. Sgt. A.E. Lloyd was buried in Vollenhove. Flt.Sgt. K.E.Longmore RAAF (Pilot), Sgt. R.L. Jones and Sgt. R.L. Stormer RCAF, were all posted as missing, with Vic. They are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. DSCN0654

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

I blog therefore I am? Thoughts on two months of cyber-silence

Two months have passed since my fingers last pressed the keys on this blog. Two months of absolute silence. Two months of total abstinence from LiveWriter and, equally as telling, from a daily fix of Google Reader. Two months in which I have withdrawn from the blogosphere and become a cyber-hermit, like a celtic monk alone on a wild, rocky islet, in sight of the distant shore yet profoundly disconnected from it by the ebb and flow of wild tides too rough to brave. Strangely enough over the last two months this blog has seen quite a bit of traffic too. Like a seagull gliding lazily on the on-shore breeze the thought crosses my mind that maybe I should shut up more often.

So why the silence? Why my hermit like existence cut off from the mainland? Simple: because of intense stress and pressure in my work life, the well dried up. For reasons I won't elaborate I was angry, tired, fed-up, pissed-off and not in a good place spiritually. All of this rubble blocked the wellspring. So I decided not to beat myself up about it, but to simply accept that this is how it is, and to retreat and wait for the wellspring to bubble up again. Two months on it has. The hands of those who care have helped me to remove the rubble. I want to return, am ready to return to this blog. But things are different now. Becoming a cyber-hermit has restored a sense of perspective and has allowed other things to click into focus. Why not try it for yourself? If you do not blog the world will carry on without you, and you will carry on too. I blog therefore I am? Maybe that is the hidden attraction / addiction of blogging, a reason perhaps why it is so prevalent? I think that I glimpse afresh why the Celtic saints in particular sought solitude so frequently. It is where we meet God, with nowhere to hide. Withdrawing from demands, we make space to be mindful of the Holy Presence at the heart of everything. When my creative well dried up, when becoming a cyber-hermit became a forced necessity and I left the blogosphere for that rocky islet, God met me afresh. I am because God is. And in that enchanting knowledge I have swum eagerly back to shore and this blog.

So today I put my feet on the mainland again, fire up Google Reader and look around. A cursory glance is all that is required to take in the familiar landmarks in my blog-roll landscape and to feel reassured. You are all still there.  Yet everything has changed. Two months ago the phrase 'Global Financial Meltdown' was yet to be pasted into the banner headline reality of our daily activity. Two months ago Capitalism seemed unassailable. Two months ago Barack Obama was a presidential candidate.

Today the world is a very different place. As I breathe deeply and feel the cold, wet embrace of sand between my toes the storm-force potential for an epic Paradigm Shift has made landfall and assails my senses like the pungency of ozone, the sharp tang of salt-spray, the buffeting of wind and the roar of the breakers crashing in on the beach. I just stand and marvel at the scale of it, and am awe-struck at the sheer colossal force of history in the making.

And we must make it. All of us. Now is the moment to seize the day and rise up for what we believe to be our energizing truth about God's radical love for this hurting world. Now is the moment for us to be good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed. Now is the moment for us to break out of the church and bring the Kingdom of God into plain view, up close and personal. The so-called financial 'Masters of the Universe' must not be allowed to resume their wickedly indulgent, exclusive and self-serving greed fest. The moral bankruptcy of their free-market capitalism is no longer in contention: it is henceforth a demonstrable given, written in agony on the faces of the poor and (dis)(re)possessed worldwide and paid for with our taxes. The rise of the Emergent movement and the world-facing missional rediscovery of the kingdom teaching of Jesus, right across the globe,  means that God has been preparing us in advance to meet the challenge of these days. People worldwide have been discovering afresh what the truth of a Christian vocation looks like. Real engaged discipleship, down to earth in our communities, is a New testament fact of the Jesus Movement that is being re-written in front of our very eyes. The ink of the Holy Spirit is free-flowing and wet on the pages of contemporary life; if we will but get out of our churches and look for it we will soon see this holy text being written in the lives of the struggling, sad and hurting in our midst.