Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Angels, stars, dreams and epiphanies: prospecting for God in 2010

princes quay fountain in hull b&w

Fountain, Princes Quay, Hull

The fountain takes the calm water in the old dock and expels it above the surface and into the air through a series of high pressure nozzles. Powerful jets of water stream upwards and outwards together. In any one instant thousands of droplets are cascading back down. In each present moment that which is deep, hidden and one becomes visible, transformed and energetically present. Bursting above the surface, patterns emerge.

No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).  The paradox of divinity is that God is both all-embracing and elusive. All things are in God and the universe and God-stuff are as one (quantum quarks and God quirks exist within the same set of brackets) and, as Tennyson observed, “closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet”; yet God seems curiously absent. Not for nothing is the birth of Jesus littered with angels, dreams and a star. Our above the surface world gives us intimations of  deep holiness and invites us to engage with the daily droplets of divine mystery which cascade down within our awareness. The fountain of God’s presence flows from the groundwater of divine being, but rather than analysing its chemical composition in a laboratory of the spirit, we are invited to gaze in wonderment and to be enchanted by the sight. This is the flow of loving purposefulness which captivated Jesus. If we so choose it will propel our own stream of consciousness too. Patterns of love, justice and truth will emerge.

This week is a time for retrospectives and reviews of the year. Traditionally it is also a time to be prospective. So let’s chill out and bin our new years resolutions, relax and recycle our certainty fixations into something more useful and all-year-round resolute for 2010: open minds that are enchanted with wonderment and prepared to trust everything to God. Whatever is personally in prospect for us in 2010, as we go prospecting for God these are the tools we shall need if we are to divine the water of life and discover shimmering streams of holiness flowing from the bedrock of our everyday lives.

Go with the flow. Happy New Year!

princes quay fountain in hull b&w slow shutter speed

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Heaven scent at Christmas

god with us perfume for the soul

So many fragrances. So much choice. So much ignorance being a bloke. Do I buy the expensive, more concentrated and longer lasting Eau de Parfum in a small bottle, or the less expensive, less concentrated Eau de Toilette in a larger bottle? Which brand do I choose? Which is popular? Does that matter? How much should I spend? Will she like it?

Of course experience tells me that a longer lasting day length fragrance is a smart move. Something which evaporates into nasal nothingness after an hour or two would seem to be an unwise purchase. So here is the rub: the really concentrated aromatic perfumes which fit the bill are the most expensive. Can I afford to look like a cheapskate?

The fragrance which makes us truly attractive costs nothing. It comes gratis, free with the simple word “yes”. This parfum for the soul never loses its potency. Time does not diminish its strength. Better still it is designer produced with care for each unique individual who asks for it. Top notes of hope give way to middle notes of loving kindness, followed up by the strong base notes of justice and peace: heaven scent indeed. The Christ-child remains the most precious and attractive gift we can ever receive. One word from our lips and this ultimate divine fragrance is ours.Whose hands shall we place it in?

With my love and peace to you at Christmas.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Christmas penny drops

change of identity

In its late-nineteenth century heyday who could ever have imagined that the Hull branch of the Yorkshire Penny Bank would one day be transformed into a cafe? Surely this would have been unthinkable? Yet it happened. And why not? Victorian commercial interests were pretty hard-nosed and unsentimental at the best of times (think child labour, pollution, long hours for low pay, poor working conditions etc) and economic factors prevailed in the governing capitalist mindset.  Emotional attachment to a building did not appear on the balance sheet. For as long as it was a useful and economically viable asset it would be retained, otherwise it could be disposed of and its capital value realised, or the building let.

Christmas should have a similar effect upon Christianity. Once a year we are confronted with the inconvenient truth of God shaking things up, rattling the cage of the status quo, and embarking on something both radically different and out of the control of the existing religious institutions. What happened in Bethlehem was way off the balance sheet of tradition and utterly beyond the budget of restraint and propriety. God was doing what God always does: the outlandish, irrepressible and surprising birth of fresh acts of grace outside the limits of our imagination and preparedness. Inherited church is remarkable in the nativity narratives by its absence. At Christmas God easily sidesteps, shimmies and swerves around the tackles of orthodox and tradition-bound ways of expressing faith in order to reach the goal of lives transformed for good. Religion is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Every year Christmas gifts us this new-minted awareness. And at its very least Christmas is always one-step beyond the church as it is. Strange as it may seem, emotional attachment to buildings or to any of the other paraphernalia of religion does not appear to have an entry on the Christmas ‘good tidings’ balance sheet of grace, whereas the poor, hungry, left-out, exploited and marginalised most certainly do.

Far from consolidating us in our cosily familiar festive celebrations, Christmas chucks us out into the cold of a Bethlehem night to discover afresh how best we might draw near to the warmth of God’s love in Jesus made manifest in the chilly depths of the world’s need. When this penny drops we learn new ways of being divinely hospitable. Anyone for a mocha?

Sunday, 20 December 2009

On the threshold of Christmas: buying time

buying time copy

Jewellers in Hull (Fuji Finepix Z35 pocket camera)

Christmas is the buying time of the year. But here in this window display in Hull time does not come cheap. Indeed the combined cost of the Omega watches on show is far more than most people in the city earn in a year. The majority are priced at well over £1000 with quite a few easily exceeding three times that figure. Interestingly it is Omega ‘champion’ Zhang Ziyi who adorns the display at the expense of George Clooney. Clearly the brand positions itself as exclusive, upmarket, cool and chic; all so very aspirational. This is not about telling the time but about acquiring status. Of course to the hordes of folk who pass by every day what this actually says is “this is what you are not”. Such buying time is a fantasy, an illusion, because what our festive buying time cannot guarantee is good time, wholesome time, meaningful time: time that matters and is well spent.  Ultimately the living of such time is beyond price and purchase. It has to do with the interior chronology of the spirit and the ability to dwell deeply within the present moment.

Buying time usually refers to putting off the inevitable and gaining a precious period of delay; it is a quantitative goal. God’s Kairos time refers to something entirely different, the qualitative nature of time as gift to be lived purposefully. Here the emphasis is existential, defined by our engaging with God’s loving and transformative presence. Such quality Kairos time cannot be bought, it is about motivation not money, yet it is also costly to those who choose to indwell it.  Its brand champion was born well away from celebrity and privilege and had zero status or buying power. Christmas displays to all that the timeless God who is Alpha and Omega inhabits time to gift fullness and fulfilment to every moment. The birth of the Christ-Child displays Kairos for all to see and experience. And such telling time is still worth telling.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

On the threshold of Christmas: fog-bound hope for frozen times

the light of his love melts the fragile ice crystals of my faith copy

Winter landscape near Barnetby le Wold

On the threshold of Christmas: no space, no room, no joke

no room in the hostel for Mary and Joseph

Starlings gathering at dusk on a weather vane in Brigg

From all points of the compass the starlings are gathering and seeking out their own space. With the arrival of each new individual they are getting more closely packed together as the last few remaining surfaces of the weather vane become occupied. Then, with possibilities dwindling by the minute, a straggler swoops down intent on landing. What happens next comes as no surprise when seen in close up at near 100% magnification. The bird tries to displace a sitting tenant, fails in the attempt, and is forced to flee by the stronger bird. No space, no room, no joke. At the other end of the weather vane another starling tries the same trick and this time succeeds, the photo showing the resident bird just about to fly off and make way as the interloper lands.

squabbling starlings

This is all so reminiscent of the climate talks in Copenhagen and of global politics in general. Strong nations refuse to give way and weaker ones are forced to live with their bullying tactics. Newcomers are way down the pecking order and have to try and force their way in.  Everyone can fit, but only if those used to lots of space will accept less. For space read resources such as oil and gas, petro-chemicals, food, raw materials, water or CO2 emissions. The carrying capacity of our planet is limited and its ability to absorb the harmful effects of our so-called “prosperity” has been reached. The only factors that can change in order to avert global ecological and starling landingpolitical catastrophe are our behaviour and expectations. No space, no room, no joke.

One way or another we are going to have to learn to live together in sustainable and equitable ways that make for justice and peace. And this brings us to the poor, powerless peasant child born in thoroughly inadequate conditions in Bethlehem two millennia ago. His birth demonstrated that it is not amongst the super-rich and powerful elites that we shall find the answers we seek, but amongst the poor and dispossessed who are forced out onto the margins of life. It is there that we should expect to discern the authentic voice of God calling us to prophetic action and a new way of living lightly on the earth together.

Our politicians will always fail us. They lack the courage to do what they know is right because they are afraid of the electoral consequences. Redistribution of wealth and resources away from the greedy and profligate minority who skew and screw everything for the majority is not a dewy-eyed aspiration, it is an urgent necessity. The wealthy will fight tooth and nail to protect their interests, but their lifestyle obesity and resource gluttony will be the death of us. No space, no room, no joke.

So Jesus is born in poverty to change the world. He is the peaceful revolutionary who speaks the inclusive kingdom of God language of love which confounds the power-hungry and domineering elites of our time just as much as it did those of his own era. Christmas is God’s ominously uncomfortable challenge to the comfortable world from the comfortless poor. No space, no room, no joke.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

On the threshold of Christmas: taking the strain and bearing the pain

taking the strain at Christmas

Looking up at the Humber bridge from below the shape reminded me of the cross. As I contemplated the enormous stresses and loads which the bridge was bearing the thought of God perpetually taking the strain of the world’s suffering and sadness was suddenly very vivid. Holding creation in being, holding each and every one of us in love, is surely a vulnerable, costly business. Why? Because God is not detached from the horrors and hatreds which bedevil the world, nor indifferent to the agonies and angst of our lives. Christmas reminds us that the very opposite is true: the birth of Jesus shows us how God takes all of these things into divinity and bears and endures them with us in love.

On the threshold of Christmas: a bridge over troubled waters

humber bridge close up of south tower and deck at dusk do not be afraid

The bridging event of the incarnation declares that God is with us. Always with us. The gift of Christmas is personalised to each one of us: wrapped around in an assurance that we need not be afraid, God’s love is purposeful and has ‘saving’ intent. The nature of this will be different in each case, but the essence is of a gift which will build bridges over troubled waters. This task of healing, reconciliation and justice is by its very nature communal, collective and collaborative because we are each called to be gift for one another. The presence God gives to individuals is an essential single component of grace in the global engineering of God’s bridge-building kingdom: it is the way in which it fits in context with other pieces which gives meaning and strength to the whole.

Reading the Christmas story one conclusion is distinctive and unavoidable: God is insistent that bridges be built over the troubled waters of injustice, greed and exclusion which keep us apart from each other. A divided society and a divided world is not the last word; it never is. That distinction is always left to God’s gift word in the Christ-event. And, as the Bible makes clear, this creative word always starts construction amongst the neediest people.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

On the threshold of Christmas: unlimited access for all

humber bridge at dusk

humber bridge public access prohibited

The spaces where the Humber Bridge is earthed are fenced off and touch is denied. As you can see with the prominent red warning signs and iron railings, access is prohibited to the actual spot where earth and north tower meet. Here the construction goes deep below ground level to anchor the bridge in bedrock and, on each side of the bridge, out of sight and ‘access prohibited’ too, the suspension cable is bolted into solid rock. These and other security measures protect the bridge from unwanted human curiosity, interference or attack.

This is a visual metaphor for the worst aspects of a 21st Century Christmas.

Festive celebrations in today’s British culture transport us across the Christmas event with little or no real regard to the faith-bridge which is the reason for the season. Like a winter fog enveloping the span and obscuring anything but the immediate roadway from view, or the warning signs and railings below, our mix of nostalgia, religious indifference and commercialism seems to prevent many of us from seeing and touching the amazing structure which holds the whole celebration aloft. We get glimpses, brief insights of something quite extraordinary, and then they are gone. All too soon we are on the other side of Christmas.

Religion too does not always help matters. Language, practices, customs, traditions and the paraphernalia of being and doing church can paradoxically keep out and deny access to the very people that are intended to indwell the Christmas experience as an all year round reality. The place where divine love gets down to earth in the dirt, mess and muddle of our being human is holy ground. The Godly reality which towers over all that is turns out to be anchored under your feet and mine, held fast within the detail of your story and mine and the bedrock of love incarnate in Jesus, not in a particular building, tradition or emerging expression. Here, right within the everyday moments of our daily living, we can reach out and be in-touch with God. Here we can know for ourselves the experience which keeps the whole religious edifice upright: God plunging way down into our pained and confused reality in order to anchor our foundations in grace and love and to build a bridge to a more just and hopeful future for all.

Christmas is about unlimited access for all to God’s in-touch love as God bridges the gap which would keep us apart.  Time and again Cheryl Lawrie’s  quite superb blog really brings this truth home to me, anchored as it so often is in the down to earth reality of ministry in prison. In a recent post she writes this:

it occurred to me again how weird it is that we are guided in our theology by those with doctorates, rather than by those who rely on the theology for their survival… christmas we are reminded that God is born from the womb of an unmarried middle eastern girl, not from the head of a middle-class, educated western theologian. And I wonder why, at christmas, we don’t search out more unmarried pregnant middle eastern girls to hear what God is doing now…

I was reminded again of that in the prison last week – it’s the conversion i always have there. I could quite happily do without faith, myself. And I’d really rather not have it. But I’m convicted of its necessity by the people who rely on it simply to survive. And they are the ones who remind me what God can and can’t do. They disabuse me of my fantasies and clever thoughts. And the best i can hope i offer is that God is made real in the space between us when we do the things that faith does.

If we take the Christmas story seriously then I think we will discover within it that selfsame theology of survival and will ourselves be drawn close to the ones in whom and amongst whom God is at work today. Access unlimited.

Monday, 14 December 2009

On the threshold of Christmas: bridging the gap

humber bridge at dusk landscape view in the beginning was the word

Humber Bridge at Dusk

What makes a photograph attention grabbing? The way in which the lines, shapes and colours of everyday reality are seen and arranged can impart either extraordinary power or numbing dullness to an image. Seeing differently seems to be essential, by which I mean going for something out of the ordinary. Sure, run of the mill, everyday shots of familiar things can be beautiful, but are they powerful, arresting compositions which somehow become a window onto a deeper plane of meaning? Do they stand out and draw you in the moment you see them, or is it a case of just a passing glance and then disinterest? And what makes the difference between these two responses?

humber bridge at dusk 2For the shot of the Humber Bridge above I got right up close and used an ultra-wideangle zoom set to an equivalent 35mm focal length of 16mm. I deliberately tilted the horizon to 45o down to very visibly break the rules. This brought the north tower into a strong vertical alignment with the right of the frame and put the south tower at a pleasingly aberrant 45o tilt, giving a strong triangular note to the composition, emphasised by the cables and deck of the bridge. The Humber now flows uphill against gravity as the tide goes out and the twilight colours pop all too vividly out of the image. So the photo  is wrong, right? Is this a depiction of ‘reality’ or something more impressionistic and poetic? Is impact more valuable than conforming to the expectations and norms of how things are? Well you can judge for yourself whether this shot ‘works’ or whether it looks hideous. If you asked someone to take a promotional photograph of the Humber Bridge and they came back with this how would you  react? Would you sack the photographer or savour the result?

The picture of Christmas as we have it in the gospels poses just such dilemmas. Bland ‘as-is’ normality is ditched in favour of world-skewing, attention grabbing composition. Viewpoint and angle are distorted and the whole image comes alive by being skilfully put  through the theological equivalent of Adobe Photoshop. Shapes, forms, associations, contrasts and colours pop out and hold our attention. This is not how we are used to seeing the world. The New Testament gives us an ultra-wideangle, radically out of the ordinary portrayal of everyday realities. The people who are normally excluded from the frame are now included as the point of  interest. The horizon of inequality is tilted, the gravity of power politics is flipped upside down, and preference flows downwards in a tidal surge of grace to the powerless and marginalised. The elements in the image are recognisable and familiar, but the perspective and geometry of their inter-relationship has been altered dramatically to show us life as it should and could be, not as it is. Women, peasants, shepherds and pagans are arranged in shapes of meaning and challenge which convey dignity and radical hopefulness to the majority disenfranchised. Romans, rulers, landowners and religious dignitaries find themselves displaced to the edge.

The gap between the unfairness, poverty and brutality of that first century ‘now’ and the longed for freedom and equality of  a seemingly far off ‘then’ is bridged by the Word made flesh. God’s love is driven deep down beneath the surface of life into the very foundations of existence, and it towers above the all too apparent fear and frailty of that first Christmas to bear the full weight of human longing and expectation in the birth, life and death of Jesus. God chooses to bridge the gap between us and God. God takes the initiative and engineers a divine solution. The Word of love becomes flesh and lives among us. Seen like this, the Christmas story grabs our attention. It is a brave, bold, breathtaking composition. If we can but trust to its unique viewpoint and artistry, it will bridge the gap of unbelief and carry us across to that place of our being and becoming where we too shall see the glory of God in the face of the Christ-child.


Thursday, 10 December 2009

On the threshold of Christmas: the light shines in the darkness

the light shines in the darkness

Above all else, this is the truth which keeps me going. It is the one sure and certain, tried and tested, rock-solid experience at the core of my own faith and ministry. For me this is such an encouraging, liberating and enabling truth. God’s loving presence is enlightening; a stubborn, persistent and endlessly hopeful light, despite the supposed superiority of the darkness to have the last nihilistic word.  My favourite commentary expresses this so well: “The God of Israel is a God of shimmering surprises, of outlandish innovation and renewal……God intrudes to point us beyond our pessimism to God’s vision of new life”. This is the hinge upon which the door of Christmas swings open wide. Inside the well-lit kingdom of God the brilliance of this truth illuminates the present moment and sparkles with possibility.

In other words God never gives up. Even if faith disappeared from the world and humans cast off religion, nothing could or would change this ultimate fact. The light of love will always shine. And shine with creative, purposeful intent for each and every person. Such love shimmers all around us on the dark surfaces of daily life and points us to alternative realities which are but a breath of assent away. When Jesus says that he is the ‘Light of the World’ that phrase is pregnant with godly meaning-making within the darknesses and dark horizons of our experience. The early Jesus movement clung on to this truth about the essential light-bringing nature of God, taking the great spiritual affirmation of the book of Genesis “Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen 1:3) as a reality met face to face in Jesus: “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) And the paradox of dark-time truth is that no-one is beyond this light.

In the long, dark night hours of our journey, like pools of light falling from street lamps beside the path, God’s enlightening love lights up the way ahead: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows — light! sunbursts of light!”  (Isaiah 9:2)

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the
ones that really matter. Full of darkness and danger they
were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because
how could the end be happy? How could the world go
back to the way it was because so much bad happened? But in
the end, it’s only a passing thing. This shadow, even darkness,
must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it
will shine out the clearer.

Sam to Frodo in Peter Jackson's screenplay for “Lord of the Rings”

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Advent themes: desert calling

telephone kiosk

Once upon a time this is how everyone but the seriously wealthy made a personal phone call – from a public telephone box or kiosk. As a student at University in the 1970’s I would ring home once a week using something similar. No emails, no internet, no texts, no tweets, no Skype. Nada. Nothing. Outside the workplace in that pre-digital world the choice was either snail mail letters or the phone box.

Modern mobiles such as the BlackBerry and iPhone have revolutionised the way in which we communicate. Nowadays its all so comfortable, convenient and easy. As long as you have a signal you can be in touch however, wherever and whenever you want. And as long as your phone is charged up and switched on anyone else can be in touch with you too.

So today this public telephone is a curio, a throwback to a time when being in touch meant effort. Whatever the weather you had to go to where the nearest phone box was. Often you had to wait your turn to use it. You had to make sure you had enough coins to make the call, or be prepared to ring the operator and reverse the charges. How old-school, uncomfortable and inconvenient that now seems.

Yet this is exactly the parallel I have in mind as I recall that people had to physically get up and go the distance into the desert in order to be in touch with John the Baptist’s message. It didn’t come to them on their terms where they were. It was the very antithesis of nice, easy and convenient. Baptism wasn’t available by pressing the # key. Redemption was not a mouse-click or keystroke away. It required determination, effort and a real commitment  to take your private life into a public space.

And this is the key: encountering  John the Baptist was a very public act. It demonstrated intention. It was a time to nail your colours to the mast and stand up and stand out for what you believed. The faith that took shape was that of a movement of people inspired and energised  by a common message. Those who returned to the cities, towns and villages were not the same stream of disconnected individuals who had journeyed from them to find John. Shared identity and common purpose had been forged.

God was calling in the desert, and you had to make the journey in order to pick up the meaning.  Perhaps the very public context was part of the message. Out there, gathered together in the desert, the public nature and intention of faith would have been obvious. This message was about the transformation of society and the world.  The responses of individuals to God’s message took on a collective meaning in the public space of the desert and on the banks of the Jordan. Here, represented in hundreds of individual acts of faith commitment, was God’s preparation of communal good news for the poor. All that remained was for Jesus to stride out of that same wilderness as the embodiment of the message. And then it really would become in your face and personal.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Advent themes: arrivals and departures

God could show up any minute

Whilst John the Baptist is centre stage doing his dramatic prophetic stuff at the heart of the gospel reading set for the Third Sunday in Advent, the text shown above is right at the back of the lectionary crowd, jumping up and down and trying really hard to be noticed. In the translation from ‘The Message’ these two verses really sparkle and fizz with excitement, and when put alongside the gospel text they give an alternative and complementary take on what John was up to in the desert. Revelling in God is a wonderfully apt challenge for Advent. To me it speaks of celebrating what we know about God’s love at work in the world with the full and strong expectation that God will arrive as God always does, brim full of creative intention for the present moment and always calling us to depart still deeper into the mystery, marvel and demands of following Jesus.

The theme of arrivals and departures conveys the dynamic restlessness of divine purpose. Staying put is not an option. Remaining in the comfort zone is not an option. Being disconnected from issues of justice and peace is not an option. Being an authentic disciple means journeying and moving in openness to God Spirit, and it therefore means engaging with others on the Way as agents of God’s love. I think this is exactly what  hope and expectation in Advent is all about. Such Christmas Presence, when unwrapped, will no doubt be surprising and well worth the wait, because what else has the potential to transform our lives and remake the world?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Advent themes: no rushing towards Christmas

no rushimg towards christmas

Heading home on the TransPennine Express

I couldn’t get to the meeting I was supposed to attend in Birmingham today. The first sign that things were going awry was when the 07.45 from Barnetby was held outside Doncaster station for 20 mins ‘waiting for a platform to become free’; not a good sign. On arrival I looked at the platform departure screen and discovered that my train to Birmingham had been cancelled. OK then, so back onto the TransPennine express to go through to Sheffield where I can pick up a later connection to Birmingham. No. The conductor announced that the service was terminating at Doncaster. Then it became apparent that rail services to Sheffield were in complete disarray. The reason: thieves had stolen a cable during the night somewhere near Conisbrough and put the signals out of action. Unbelievable. Except that it has happened before, and more than once. So off I went to the coffee shop on platform 2 to enjoy a latte whilst passing the time before the train I had come in on would be ready to depart back in the direction of home. A chance then to pick up the book I have decided to read during Advent, Jesus a revolutionary biography.

The opening chapters take the reader deep into classic Advent territory: the life and death of John the Baptist. Crossan asks a perceptive question as we look to understand the context of John’s ministry in the wilderness: “How do oppressed people react to overbearing cultural seductiveness, overpowering military superiority, overwhelming economic exploitation, and overweening social discrimination?”  John the Baptist’s answer was to baptise them. “When people came to him, he kept sending them back from the wilderness, through the Jordan, which washed away their sins, and, purified and ready, into the Promised Land, there to await the imminent coming of the redeeming and avenging God. What he was forming, in other words, was a giant system of sanctified individuals, a huge web of apocalyptic expectations, a network of ticking time-bombs all over the Jewish homeland.

John preached a baptism of repentance; in other words a radical change of direction on the part of the baptised. He was very clear regarding the ethical and moral dimensions of this spiritual transformation. Behaviour had to change and the old prophetic truths of God’s shaping of a people of mercy, kindness, justice, peace and compassion were to be re-applied. John's single-minded intention is to reawaken Jewish identity as made in the image of God and in so doing subvert  the plans and practices of the oppressors. And the key to this political end was spiritual and faith-based. He was determined to prepare the people for what God was about to do. And at Christmas we celebrate the utter shock and surprise of what God was actually preparing through the Christ-Child born in Bethlehem. Not vengeance but resistance of an altogether more radical kind.

So John the Baptist wants to disrupt our travel plans. We will be sent back the way we have come. If Advent has done its work we will be returned to ourselves and others as those full of godly expectation and commitment. As Christmas rushes towards us in a blur we will travel slowly and reflectively, expectantly and hopefully. We will pause and immerse ourselves in holy truths and rise up refreshed and purposeful. Only then will we be truly ready for what God has in store.

no rushing towards christmas 2

Friday, 4 December 2009

Advent themes: into the wild

lochan fada wilderness whiteout

Lochan Fada wilderness, Wester Ross, Scotland

John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change  (Mark 1:4)

God appears to have a penchant for wild places. So often it is in wilderness that God chooses to speak or intimate the nearness of divine presence. So littered is the Bible with wild people, wild places, wild journeys and wilderness experiences of mind and body that one conclusion seems inescapable: the untamed God makes meaning in wildness. Experiences of exile, exodus and exclusion take God’s people into the wild heart of life. Here we are at greatest risk, here the comforts and givens of life disappear, here we are on our own facing the ultimate questions of life and death. Just us, wilderness and God.

So John appears in the wild, his appearance and manner matching his context to perfection. And it is to the wild that seekers of life-change have to travel. John makes them journey to the place that has always been a threshold for God activity and awareness. It is where Jesus went to experience the awesome grandeur of the divine. And during Advent that is the faith-destination which beckons us too: seek out God in your wildness and in that of the world. And dare to believe that God will meet you there purposefully in love.

Advent themes: God cannot be tamed, only followed

god cannot be tamed only followed copy

They laid this stone trap for him, enticing him with candles, as though he would come like some huge moth out of the darkness to beat there. Ah, he had burned himself before in the human flame and escaped, leaving the reason torn. He will not come any more to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still striking my prayers on a stone heart? Is it in hope one of them will ignite yet and throw on its illuminated walls the shadow of someone greater than I can understand?

RS Thomas The Empty Church

The imagery and meaning of this famous poem come alive as you stand and look up into the ruined Huby’s bell tower of the church at Fountains Abbey  in Yorkshire. Like a stone chrysalis the architecture suggests a presence that is long gone from here; now only emptiness remains. Yet for me the tower becomes a  finger pointing back through the pages of the Old Testament to the dark, wild otherness of the God who cannot be tamed, only followed. The God who will not be trapped, confined, caged or domesticated, but who has already escaped the moment the first thoughts of safe captivity form in the mind of one who prefers unthreatening religion to the living God. The empty tower is a warning in stone for the Advent season.

John the Baptist immersed people into the real, wild purposeful presence of the God of the prophets. The God who leads people out of captivity and slavery by the wild route. John offered the God who cannot be tamed, only followed. And what else but God can fill the empty space of the absurd non-fullness that is modern life, that Babel-like human edifice crammed with so many opportunities for illusory fulfilment? The proud  intellectual penitentiary of atheistic secularism thinks it has sentenced God to solitary confinement, imprisoned divinity for life behind strong bars of reason and razor wire of patronising superiority, and thrown away the key. Yet the emptiness remains. The yearning within the human spirit does not go away. The poet strikes his prayers on a stone heart, waiting for one of them to ignite. And out there, beyond the neatly planned settlements of our self-satisfaction and pride, beyond the fences of our reason and rationality, far out in the wildness of regret and need, on the rough dusty ground of trust, God delights to meet us face to face. On God’s terms. This is what Advent prepares us for. This is what John the Baptist proclaimed. And this is why the people were drawn to him, to be encountered by the God who cannot be tamed, only followed:

People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life  (Matthew 3:5)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Advent themes: prophetic in-sight

high street advent shops

Walking down the High Street in Lincoln my attention was drawn to this interesting tableau of meaning. What do you make of what you see here? Having stopped and looked at the image how does it then play out in your imagination? The composition is rich in the purple, violet and blue hues of Advent colour and this palette is suggestive of hidden spiritual meanings in plain view, the sort of device Dan Brown might employ in his writing. To those in the know the colour scheme opens up a doorway into an alternative worldview; one of expectation, judgement, challenge, subversion and revolutionary opposition to the authority of the ruling elite – the hallmarks of prophetic authenticity. Strong stuff indeed, and incited in the mind by the simple association of the thing seen to a radical set of ideas and beliefs. From a particular combination of colours one is inspired to appropriate action.

Anyone stopping and listening to John the Baptist may have experienced a similar associative process going on in their minds too. What they saw and heard would have evoked into consciousness a set of powerful meanings hidden deep within the identity of the Jewish people. The context of John’s prophetic witness in St Luke’s gospel leaves no room for doubt:

It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea; Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee; his brother Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis; Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness.   (Luke 3:1-2)

This passage drips with power and oppressive domination. And it is here that the colours of John’s words and actions are seen in plain view. And as they are the old meanings come alive with radical power. The longed-for freedom, justice and peace are unlocked from the deep heritage and self-identity of John’s own people, as shaped, incited and informed by the Hebrew prophets of old. Through John the Baptist the likes of Micah and Isaiah speak with renewed vigour and re-imagined potency. The dazzling spectrum of God’s rainbow promises in Scripture strikes home forcefully. People rush to hear the newly popular prophet and his unfashionably demanding message, which is beginning to set a new trend. In the minds of individuals too fresh hope is born as they come to their senses and realise their need of God, many perhaps for the first time. Expectation reaches fever pitch. The prophetic is in sight and within reach at last.

advent themes prophetic insights copy

So bearing all of this in mind what prophetic in-sight do we discern as we return to our High-Street Advent image? I am struck by the closed down and empty shop in the left of frame. What looks like illumination from within is soon seen to be only the reflections of street lights on the opposite side of the road. The space behind the door seems cold, abandoned and out of place, a dissonant note which jars amidst the full chords of brightness and bustle elsewhere along the busy street. The locked door denies access and the obscured glass keeps the interior from view.  There is nothing here for us. Thinking of John the Baptist how might this be prophetic? Does it represent those things about us which are empty and life-denying? Can we see here his call to change ourselves for the better? Is this a harsh reminder of the precarious nature of life and society, a portent of the uncertainty and suffering  which is never far away? Or does the emptiness speak of the needs of others as well as our own, and does it remind us of God’s promise of fulfilment for all - and as such is it then a call to action on our part? And with what prophetic meaning does this part of the image challenge the churches?

And what of the window dressing, itself a term often used pejoratively for that which distracts or misleads because it bears little relation to the substantive realities inside? Might we be encouraged to think of all the things in life which waylay and entice us, even harm and hurt us? There was certainly no mistaking this aspect in John’s prophetic witness. Alternatively we could find ourselves drawing comparisons to the good things of God and lives of real meaning and purpose displayed upfront throughout the Bible and amongst people of faith today. Might these attract our attention and cause us to stop and see how this divine designer-wear might fit us too? Might such window dressing lead us beyond and through our doubts and denials into the substantive reality of God’s loving presence?

And of course without an open door into a personal faith-space where God can be encountered and we can be transformed and transforming as people, we will remain shut out from the realities to which John the Baptist witnesses. So many messages in contemporary life seem to shut the door on God. Religion can so easily be made out to be closed down and empty with nothing on offer or worth having. Sometimes our window dressing is decidedly off-putting; fashions appear to be from a different bygone age, little thought is sometimes given to presentation and content, or the care which might be needed in order to  attract passers-by in the first place. Yet the substantive truths about God’s love as we encounter them in Jesus are always exactly what we most need to enter into and own for ourselves if we are to discover what it means to be made in the image of God. God’s love is warm and inviting; to step inside it is to find treasures beyond imagining. But each of us has to choose to cross the threshold and explore it for ourselves. And of course to be explored by it, which is the prophetic, life-changing edge to John’s words and actions in the desert. Grace is free but discipleship is costly. Going through the open door is to indwell the Message and become its prophetic messengers too.

There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message! 

(Luke 3:18)

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Advent themes: everyday annunciation

coffee shop annunciation

The angel went in and said to her, ‘Greetings, most favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was deeply troubled by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you’  (Luke 1:28-30)

Outside in the pedestrianised heart of the city the chilly air and failing light of a winter’s afternoon are turning shoppers thoughts to home, but in the cosy warmth of a top floor coffee shop two young women are engrossed in their conversation. What does this candid photo reveal? Could this be a moment of annunciation; a precious time of unexpected blessing and affirmation, or is the texture of their dialogue altogether different? Is one of these two an ‘everyday angel’, the bearer of uplifting, encouraging or soul-soothing words? It seems to me to be perfectly reasonable that we should expect God to be speaking to us within our everyday conversations and encounters. When the angel tells Mary that God is with her I rather think that this is a reminder of a continuing truth. God’s graciousness is for sharing freely and often. We can be agents of everyday annunciation and channels of God’s blessing too.

To be truly seen, heard and appreciated with kindness and care is to be enveloped in the warmth of divine love. To be encouraged, guided and challenged by others to fulfil our own individual life vocation as the unique person we are is to discover godly intention running through the complexities of our lives together. In the weaving of meaning and hope in dark times we are all capable of being everyday angels. As Mary discovered, God’s love is for sharing; it is purposeful and demanding, yet liberating and profoundly authentic. Everyday annunciation is about accepting and offering, receiving and sharing love as gift. And equally we can all expect to be surprised by the blessings God has in store. Perhaps  annunciation is not the exception after all but rather the everyday norm of how God operates. Because God is always wanting to birth kindness, justice and peace where they are most needed.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Advent themes: lifting up the lowly

empowerment sculpture lincoln bw copy

Empowerment sculpture, Lincoln

And 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….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)

The lights of Advent lead our gaze  towards empowerment. The central message of the Advent Season spans the gap between life as it is and God’s passionate desire to transform life radically. God’s revolutionary love reaches down into human need and lifts up the lowly, empowers the powerless and feeds the hungry.  As Mary’s song enunciates the reality of God’s subversive and unchanging presence and purpose in the world,  John the Baptist gets to the practical heart of how we might begin to empower one another. For both, the ideology is pure Kingdom of God:

“What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire." The crowd asked him, "Then what are we supposed to do?" "If you have two coats, give one away," he said. "Do the same with your food." Tax men also came to be baptized and said, "Teacher, what should we do?" He told them, "No more extortion—collect only what is required by law." Soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"    He told them, "No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations."   (Luke 3:9-14)

God turns life inside out through the unstoppable courage of a peasant woman and the words and actions of a wild-eyed prophet, which light up the expectations of the excluded and marginalised. And it is into these great expectations that God births divine love. The poor glimpse the longed for chance to overturn the corrupt and exploitative economics which oppresses them. And the systems of power and wealth which dominate them tremble and are shaken right down to their foundations. Wealth, riches, power and status become worthless baubles, signifiers of spiritual emptiness. In the midst of all that distracts, the light of God’s love shines in the darkness and points us to the unexpected place and the improbable people who are at the centre of God’s shocking Christmas.

Advent themes: challenging questions

bridge in lincoln where are you going  copy

Wigford Way bridge over the Witham Navigation, Brayford Pool, Lincoln

While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called "the Baptizer," was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: "Change your life. God's kingdom is here."  (Matthew 3:1-2)

It is Dusk in Lincoln and the last of the light reveals a massive, unmissable and blunt question on the side of the bridge. It is unlike anything I have ever seen before, and was installed as a piece of public art in 2004. The online guide to Brayford Waterfront describes it like this: “It asks the question, 'Where are you going?' when you are walking through to Brayford Waterfront and 'Where have you been?' when you are walking back from Brayford Waterfront to the High Street Quarter of the city. It is also meant to engage with the visitor as it asks them more about their life situation - where they are heading and where they have been.”

Where are you going? This is such a strikingly appropriate question for this reflective season of Advent.  It echoes the challenging questions that I imagine John the Baptist asked of those who sought him out in the desert. It is the sort of simple and austere question which should really stop us in our tracks. A question which invites a profoundly honest response and one which offers the possibility of a complete change of direction. The gospels portray John’s message as a challenge to change oneself totally:

“As he preached he said, "The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will change your life. I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out”    (Mark 1:7-8)

And so when Jesus strides on stage, the Kingdom of God confronts us as unmissably as does the question on the bridge:

Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: ‘Time's up! God's kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message’.”   (Mark 1:14-15)

So where am I going? What values govern the direction of my life? Is it time to change course? Where and with whom does God need me to be? These are good Advent questions. Uncomfortable questions. Godly questions.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

a moment in time framed for a lifetime

a moment in time

Brim full of excitement a young child runs down the platform, totally absorbed in that intense and thrilling wonderment which blesses us at this age.  Close by stands a thoughtful and far less distracted adult, a man gazing intently at the activity at the far end of the train. He could well have been her father, he might even have been wondering where her mother has got to (the toilets are positioned behind the camera, and she emerged from this direction a few moments later). A little further on we can see two older people standing backlit in the sunshine, one of whom is about to sit on a bench. Not for them the way of the child – gloriously uninhibited abandonment to the full depths and possibility of the present moment - they seemed altogether less carefree, as though weighed down with the preoccupations of age.

Three generations of humanity caught in one moment, revealing between them the destiny of time travel which awaits us all across the span of a normal lifetime.

Or does it, because one way or another we carry our child-self within us for life. A middle-aged or elderly adult may appear to be  ‘grown-up’ -  and of course in the literal sense they are -  but sometimes a person’s reactions and words tell us clearly that their inner child is actually very close to the surface of their being. Transactional Analysis provides one way of navigating around and through such interesting yet perilous territory, and counselling offers the prospect of setting our inner child’s presenting fears and reactions at rest. But in my experience there is little room for doubt when you come face to face with someone’s unresolved inner child. You think to yourself “where on earth did that reaction come from” and hey presto, QED.

But what of the open wonderment, the curiosity and sense of enchantment with the present moment and the world around us? Must we lose this as we grow up? Or might this gift of childhood set the adult free? At school my art teacher always maintained that he would give anything to be able to draw and paint now with the same terrifically uninhibited freedom of expression he had had when he was a child. Could it be that this is exactly the sort of thing that Jesus was getting at when he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’? Giving ourselves wholeheartedly without inhibition to the present reality of God’s Kingdom of Love is a tall order for us adults. Many grown-ups fear change,  distrust the new and prefer the safety and security of that which is known and familiar. Risky abandonment to Jesus’ call to freshly express the promise of God’s love for the poor, needy and outcast sends many heading off towards the bunkers and fortifications of habit and tradition. You think that I’m joking? Go as an outsider to an unfamiliar group of people and try suggesting that there may be different and - horror of horrors - even better ways of doing what they do. Light the blue touchpaper of ‘impertinence’ and retire to a safe distance, then watch the fireworks go off. Small wonder Jesus was nailed to a cross: he was far too risky and threatening to settled ways. Yet  time and again I see people who prove that it is possible to recover that joie de vivre of childhood. I meet fantastic people of faith who are brim full of excitement just like that young child running down the station platform; committed, passionate, thoughtful adults who are totally absorbed in that intense and thrilling wonderment of being truly caught up in God’s amazing presence in the world. Jesus frames for us a precious moment in time which can last a faith-lifetime and take us deeply into the truths of his kingdom of heaven.

Dead-End blues

robin hood's bay dead end sign copy

This is the accursed blue roadsign of doom which scuppers so many seemingly straightforward travel plans. I invariably only catch sight of it after committing to a turn, when its just too late to do anything about it.  Oh the frustration of driving up a cul de sac knowing that I am going to have to go all the way up just to turn around somewhere and come all the way back down to the junction. Growl. Not least when the route seemed to make sense on the map beforehand and the road looks so enticing and pleasurable. Did I turn too soon? Did I misread the map? Is there another route I can take? Only one thing is certain: there is no way of getting through here, so think again.

In the wake of the catastrophic and deadly floods which have swept through Cumbria the people of Workington are living with the particularly harsh realities of having no straightforward way ahead. The simple routines and givens of their daily lives have been cruelly disrupted by the failure of so many bridges. One can only imagine the heartache and sheer frustration of what this means to so many of the local residents, let alone to those who have temporarily lost their homes and who are now displaced and disorientated.

That red line on the blue road sign is a metaphor for a bitter fact of life. Sooner or later we won’t be able to get through either, our way will be blocked too and we will have to negotiate an unfamiliar or unexpected route. Life is like that. Be it illness, unemployment, bereavement, the failure of a precious relationship, or any number of possible external circumstances which suddenly change and impact our lives in unexpected ways, sooner or later we have to come to terms with the dead-end blues. Life is not like driving down a clear highway for mile after blissful mile through a spectacular landscape on a beautifully sunny day , untroubled by junctions, delays, mishaps or worries. Now of course there are times when the present moment is suffused with just such a blissful awareness, and the journey feels smooth and easy. But I can’t get away from the fact that at other times it feels as though it’s a case of navigating a route through an unfamiliar city, with only a hazy sense of how to get from A to B, with no sat-nav and a map that’s fallen just out of reach in the passenger footwell, hemmed in by traffic and with a distinct lack of helpful signage to indicate the way. It’s precisely at times like these that its so easy to turn the wrong way or to discover too late that the dead-end sign of cul de sac doom has just sealed your fate.

So when that is the bitter fact of how  it is for me, I rely on a better fact of life altogether:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
   in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
   and with my song I give thanks to him.
  (Psalm 28:7)

Notice that this speaks of heart-truth, not head knowledge. This is not about seeking a life free from stress, uncertainty, hurt or bewilderment, a plea for a fantasy life of untroubled blissful travelling. No. This is not about the circumstances which befall us or the events which threaten to overwhelm us or bring us low, rather it is all about how psychologically we  frame and deal with them when they happen, as inevitably such things will. At times like that our trust in God is what enables us to cope, for in and through the helping presence of God’s love our ultimate safety and security – come what may – is assured as heartfelt truth. No circumstance in life can separate us from God who cherishes us, and it is this inner truth of our faith-experience which frames our response to the frustration of the dead-end blues. Please note what I am not saying: I am not implying that God is responsible for the things which befall us and that hidden in amongst the distress and confusion is a higher purpose than we can determine. What I am saying is that life is inherently messy, uncertain and at times deeply painful. God is no more to be held responsible for this truth than the tooth fairy. But in the midst of all of this God is there to be discovered as the love which holds, encourages and carries us, step by step, hour by hour, through the turmoil and confusion which meets us on our journey.

So when I turn the wrong way or can see no way ahead, I can trust in, rely upon and let  my whole being immerse into the one who makes the journey meaningful in the first place. From this place of centring there comes eventually a stilling and quietness which heals and releases. Then, and only then, do I feel confident enough to have another look at the map and find the enthusiasm to journey on. To do otherwise would be to risk turning into the dead end of rash decisions, hasty judgments and lasting regrets.

So travel well, and whatever your journey brings you may you be blessed by the presence of God, your constant travelling companion.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Signalling Advent: stopping and waiting for the way ahead to become clear

gwr semaphore signal arm at danger enhanced bw

GWR semaphore signal at danger

For the last few weeks in the life of the Church many of us have been thundering along through the lectionary heading at full speed towards last Sunday’s celebration of Christ the King. With the locomotive of our faith roaring at full power and pulling all the glorious weight of the Christian Tradition behind us we have romped along the liturgical tracks, carried forward by the momentum of Easter and Pentecost. Until now. Advent Sunday is ahead and the signal  has fallen to danger. Now we have to stop. The brakes screech on the wheels of the carriages, the locomotive shuts off power, and we begin to decelerate, drawing to a stop right next to the red signal. And we wait. And we wait. And we go on waiting, until speed becomes a memory. And in the waiting there is opened up space to reflect on the question of why we are making the journey at all. What destination have we in mind? In what direction of travel will the points be set? Has the signalman forgotten us? Experience tells us that the signal will be set at clear; that on Christmas Day we will be encouraged to apply the torque of all our expectations and faithfulness to the track once more. Slowly we will gain traction again. But the stopping and waiting are essential to our faith journey. In Advent we take nothing for granted and we rely wholly and solely on God’s promise to be birthed anew in our imaginations, ready for the next phase of our journey in discipleship and mission. So now we pause and come to a stop. Nothing moves. Silence descends. With the clamour of the train ceased, we can hear the soft, quiet sounds of longing all around and beyond us and discern the far-off cries of need echoing across the night sky. It is good to stop and wait. Only then can the way ahead become clear.

Raw Christmas: out of time and out of place

derbyshire mangerAs you read this we are in the dark depths of a British Winter, and the high temperatures, blue skies, white fluffy clouds, warm breezes, buzzing insects and verdant landscapes of Summer seem worlds away now. Recollected on a chilly, dismal, short winter’s day such memories of warmth and light jar in the mind and carry more than a hint of the incredible about them. Was it really possible to wander about in shorts and a T-shirt?

Well it was, and on a hot day in high summer we were enjoying a glorious long walk in the Derbyshire countryside. As we strolled through a farmyard on our way down into one of the magnificent Dales this is what we discovered by the side of the well-trodden path. Christmas in August. It seemed incredible and really jarred in my mind because it was so unexpected and out of place. A natural cleft in the rock had been made into a grotto and there at its heart was a manger scene right out of a school nativity play. The promise of Advent was brought up close, face to face and out of time. It literally stopped me in my tracks. Only the battered metal gate propped across the entrance and held in place by a large rock suggested the inappropriateness of Christmas in August. It was not yet the time to enter in. But looking at the scene it was as though the promise reached out from the depths with a sense of deep longing and invitation to draw close and encounter this out of place and out of time reality.

Christmas truth met in August is a raw experience, stripped of the seasonal protection and numbing familiarity with which our culture wraps it up. It forces you to stop on the path and think. Not least as a Christian it makes me wonder what barriers we need to remove in order for others to discover the shock of God’s deep love for themselves and then enter into its personally gift-tagged truth? Can the Summer warmth of Grace burst unexpectedly into our cold Winter days? Advent prepares us for just this possibility. And on Christmas Day the gate is gone and the barriers are removed. Love is birthed in our midst. All you have to do is walk in and know it for yourself.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Hare raising prospect of Christ the Ineffectual

hare raising copy

You get the point. But it does make me wonder how often we do actually misrepresent the life and death of Jesus and the purposeful presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. For every instance of faithful commitment to Christ the King aren't there just bound to be so many more which seem to portray ‘Christ the Ineffectual’ , ‘Christ the Irrelevant’ or "’Christ the small-minded’? Is the picture of God’s love at work in Christ which I have in mind different to yours, and how do these compare to the real deal reality of God? And of course that is the conundrum of faith in a nutshell. Christian history is littered with disputes, disagreements and schisms over this very point, as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s superb new series and book make abundantly clear.

Perhaps in the end it is not so much the detail of our belief which matters, after all Jesus seems to have spent precious little time fretting over doctrine or ecclesiology, as its practice in daily life, which for Jesus meant healing the sick, welcoming outcasts and challenging the powerful. If we are not trying to make our lives ever more Kingdom-of-God centred and Christ-shaped, and seeking  truly to learn what it means for us when Jesus says “follow me”, then I suspect we have lost the plot. To follow Christ is to be to others as Christ is to me. It is a deeply sacrificial journey, a ‘road less travelled’, which takes us beyond ourselves to the needs of others. And of course it is utterly dependant on getting Christ ‘right’ in the first place.  If ‘my Christ’ is essentially Grace-Less, then how can I be Grace-Full when I meet you? A judgmental picture of Jesus could mean that we stay messed up and afraid inside. An undemanding image of Jesus could mean that we stay well within our comfort zone. Neither image is true to the composite text we read in the Gospels. But the inherent danger of faith is that left to ourselves we will get Jesus wrong and so misunderstand what God’s love, present with us now, is all about. It is when we come together that the shards and splinters of truth of our personal faith fit into a greater, more coherent whole. Still incomplete, still partial, always a mystery, but more of a whole, and better able to guide us on the path of the Holy.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Making space to see the essential

Henry Moore 2 piece reclining figure cut profile view

Two Piece Reclining Figure: Cut 1979-81, Henry Moore; Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Henry Moore 2 piece reclining figure cut wide angle



You do things in which you eliminate something which is perhaps essential, but to learn how essential it is you leave it out. The space then becomes very significant….If you are doing a reclining figure you just do the head and the legs. You leave space for the body, imagining the other part even though it isn’t there. The space then becomes very expressive and you have to get it just right.”

Henry Moore



The motif of ‘absence’ in Henry Moore’s striking work teaches us the value of that which is wilfully left out, discarded, eliminated or removed, and forces us to ponder the significance of the empty space which remains. Nowadays a life in which God is deliberately rejected is seen by some to be more complete, not less whole. For atheists it seems that the non-space of God is closed by human autonomy, a sense of freedom from oppressive religion and intellectually belittling faith, and a supposed enhancement of ones dignity and worth as a rational individual. Of course increasingly in British society it is not so much a question of a personal Christian faith which someone has chosen to jettison but of a soul-making God-space which they have never knowingly appreciated in the first place. Nothing is missing and selfhood is complete without recourse to religion, God or faith.

Except that it isn’t. Despite appearances to the contrary faith is remarkably persistent and the human spirit is sculpted to be receptive to the presence of divine love. The soul space is there. A space to be filled with creativity, imagination and the journey of faith. A space made possible by the shape of love which defines it and holds it in being. This is not a non-space to be rid of, but a Grace-Space of gift and blessing. For me as a Christian this divinely human space is shaped and full-filled by the life of Jesus.

How many people go through life imagining what might banish their enduring emptiness and trying to find ways of being fulfilled? Henry Moore’s sculpture defies our desire to understand, classify and recognise the world. It challenges us to accept as real that which does not immediately make sense; to touch and make the seemingly intangible tangible, present and known. His sculpture challenges us to trust to the empty space as that which is essential to the whole composition, welcoming it as invitation rather than seeing such absence as error and mistake.

And faith without space can so easily degenerate into religion without grace. Certainty excludes imagination, and the very act of narrow completion negates the nature of God as that self-emptyingly spacious mystery of love which literally makes space and births creation. Making space to see the essential is at the heart of our calling as disciples. Stepping into the emptiness and void of much of modern life is the vocation of the church. ‘Two Piece Reclining Figure’ is an icon for our times.

Henry Moore 2 piece reclining figure cut close up

Friday, 13 November 2009

rewind 20 years: ministry underfoot recalled


On Wednesday morning I chaired our District Probationers Committee, which is responsible for offering support, encouragement and guidance to those ministers who are in their first two years of ministry prior to ordination. Listening to the stories of these amazing people is always a real privilege: anyone who doubts the existence of God would do well to ponder the evidence of those who have made major and costly life changes in order to follow Jesus and devote themselves to this demanding vocation. 

Twenty years ago I was a probationer minister in my first appointment. We lived in Weymouth on the Dorset coast. With just two ministers on the Circuit Staff I was responsible for six feet on lush meadowchurches and was Methodist Chaplain to The Verne Prison on Portland. Our District Probationers Committee, led by Nigel Collinson, the wise, calm, deeply thoughtful and caring Chair of the Southampton District, was hugely supportive. We were truly encouraged to grow in our ministries as the unique individuals we were, rather than being squashed or squeezed into an inflexible mould labelled ‘Methodist Minister’. This was incredibly releasing and I am still profoundly grateful to Nigel for the way in which his care shaped structures of oversight which nurtured rather than oppressed us. It has informed my own approach ever since.  And the two photographs, scanned ages ago from the original slides which were taken on my trusty black second-hand Olympus OM1 manual SLR, tell the story of what those two years as a ‘Prob’ felt like.

The feet are mine, as are the corduroy trousers (!), and they are deliberately in the frame. Several months separate the two shots, which were taken on the South West Coastal Path at Wyke Regis, about half a mile or so from the manse. I used to walk there often, especially when we got a Border Collie dog. The views were stunning and the coast in all its moods provided a mental canvas upon which I could try to make sense of the demands and delights of becoming a minister. The photographs show the two extremes of my experience. The first shows growth, vitality and flourishing underfoot. The grass is green and fresh, daisies, buttercups and clover are vibrantly in flower. All is well, and ministry is good. I took it to reflect this sense of wellbeing and optimism.

Contrast this with the second shot. The ground is now parched feet on parched earthand hard-baked. Nothing grows. Here the grass is worn away and has become nothing but a distant and improbable memory. The image conveys a bleak outlook and tough times. I took this shot to reflect how it felt for me when idealism met reality. And across the years comes the memory of my late mother-in-law speaking right into these feelings. We were walking along the coast path and having listened to what was on my mind she said: “you were not called to be successful, you were called to be faithful.” These words, said with great love and care, transformed my self-understanding and were the most precious gift. As was the love, encouragement and understanding of the people in the churches I served. I hold them in my heart with great affection, for in those crucial formative years we journeyed together exploring the demands and delights of seeking to be faithful to God in the realities of where we were, not where we might have wished or preferred to be (full churches, new growth, obviously making a real difference in our communities etc). And of course these sometimes parched realities were never the whole truth, because always and everywhere there were those moments and times when reality underfoot was very different. Lives were touched and transformed, grace flowed freely, and in so many ways these lovely Methodist people were quietly being an effective Christian presence in their daily lives.

And of course being faithful means we trust to God all that is underfoot. Whatever the circumstances in which we stand, hope is within us, for the one who calls us walks with us always, breathes love and encouragement deep into our being, and calls us friend.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

enrich someone’s life: share the wonders you see

enrich someones life share the wonders you see copy

Three individuals – quite possibly a family – stand right on the fence line and look out at the seals on the sands at Donna Nook. The young lad is concentrating on the screen of his digital video camera,  recording the scene. Look what happens next. Something catches the attention of the older woman and she raises her hand and points it out to the younger one. Such a simple action, yet also profound by virtue of the quality it signifies: a willingness to share the wonders we see with someone else. Through the act of sharing, new and richer perceptions become possible. The thing seen is not owned, the act of seeing is not possessive, rather this is about imaginative synergy and the power of shared wonderment. For wonder entails appreciation, gratitude even, and it is about valuing the world as gift. And gifts are to be given and received, shared and celebrated. Through the sharing of wonders, life is enriched.

So why should faith-sharing be any different? If we expect to see God's love at work in the world around us, and are on the lookout for signs of God's presence amongst us, there will be wonders to point out to others. Why be reticent about the truths we see and the love we experience?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

newborn seals at donna nook: bonding and exclusion

The first three photographs show a newborn grey seal pup and its mother on the foreshore at Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast. Both show the evidence of its recent birth. At the time I took these shots the pup was still unable to move by itself. Not long afterwards it proved that it was able to cry out, and then it took its first shuffling movement towards its mother. What you see here represents some of the bonding behaviour that they shared.

newborn seal pup lying beside its mother

mother and newborn seal pup at donna nook

mother nuzzling newborn seal pup at donna nook

Although the majority of the seals were about 20 – 50 metres away from the fenced off viewing path along the edge of the dunes, and most of the photographs you see here had to be taken with a telephoto zoom set at maximum magnification (the equivalent of 450mm on my camera), Sue and I we were close enough to the action to be really moved by what we saw. Watching the behaviour of cows and pups in the first hours of their life together on the beach was an unforgettable experience. Up to yesterday morning about one hundred pups had been born, with many more births expected if this season resembles last year. 

seal pup and mother

Further along the shore this female displayed obvious maternal instincts with her pup, including nuzzling and stroking it repeatedly with her fore flipper - just beautiful to watch.

mother with newborn seal pup at donna nook

Up on the dunes a cow suckled her new offspring.

newborn seal pup suckling

Nearby a mother rested beside her slightly older pup, before moving swiftly away and leaving it all by itself, behaviour in complete contrast to that on the beach with the newborns. As this mother moved away she encountered another cow and they had a fierce territorial dispute, accompanied by bellowing, gaping and baring of teeth. Clearly her own pup could not find her and eventually it moved back towards the beach, but not before it had been grabbed, shaken and chased away by the same cow, which had a pup of its own. As this drama was unfolding we saw that the mother was sleeping nearby at the edge of the dune. Sometime after her pup had disappeared from view she woke up, realised that it was not close by, and began calling to it.mother and seal pup at donna nook

seal pup at donna nook

With so many seals densely packed together the process of bonding between cows and pups was accompanied by frequent displays of exclusion and territoriality. Mothers would chase away intruding bulls, cows and pups as they sought to protect their own offspring.

This type of parental behaviour is clearly a deep-rooted trait throughout the animal kingdom. As a parent I recognise the shape of such evolutionary programming within myself: the instinct to protect and look after the welfare of my own family is a given of my genetic makeup as a human. The seals at Donna Nook show us something which is integral to mammalian behaviour. The exclusive power of familial bonding finds its counterpart in group behaviour too. Wildlife documentaries abound with examples of outsiders being given short shrift by group or pack insiders.

You could be forgiven for thinking that humanity is enslaved by this primal genetic inheritance. As we recall the appalling cost and utter tragedy of conflict and war we could be forgiven for thinking too that such behaviour reflects the primitive side of our nature as a species. Disputes over territory and resources such as food, fuel and raw materials litter human history. Our capacity for violence and destruction is unparalleled. Yet at Donna Nook the seals were not resorting to lethal violence. They protected their space and their own from intrusion, and did this with displays of aggression, blocking moves and with physical force; but the levels of violence were low and injuries few and not life-threatening. This no doubt reflects the nature of this breeding population as an in-group. 

But unlike the seals, we do have the conscious ability to choose to cherish all humans as being our in-group, if we so wish. What if we looked beyond the exclusivities of ethnicity to our common humanity instead and chose to disregard our genetic and cultural programming? What if we were minded to look upon children on the other side of the world with the same care and compassion as we look upon our own? What would that do to our politics? Would we be less safe for doing so? Would we be less well off? The newborn seals really challenged my own thinking. In a shrinking, overcrowded world, we have to find a better way of handling our disputes and of learning to live together peacefully, not least for the sake of newborns everywhere. Look into the eyes of this baby seal and tell me that this isn’t so.

seal pup close up