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

Friday, 6 November 2009

Sculpting our gender awareness

the arkville minotaurlady hare sitting 

Michael Ayrton’s uncompromising work ‘The Arkville Minotaur’ and Sophie Ryder’s fabulous wire sculpture ‘Lady Hare – Sitting’ were for me two of the real highlights of our visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I say this because both pieces challenged me to consider gender awareness and identity as presenting issues in the life of the church and society.

The Minotaur is rendered with all the power and menace of the original half-man, half-bull hybrid depicted in the Greek myth, where its life is spent confined in the depths of a subterranean labyrinth. The sculptor presents us with no place to hide as we are confronted with raw animal power and sexuality, and all the frustrated anger of being trapped and held captive. The guide suggests that Michael Ayrton identified with the trials of the Minotaur, and portrayed him with a degree of sympathy. Rather than slaying the beast as did Theseus with his sword, perhaps the sculptor is inviting us to try to understand the creature, and in so doing explore the disquieting and darker depths of the male psyche. The sculpture certainly opens up the questions for us and provides a means of engaging with the difficult and vexed subject of male identity. This is especially true when one looks at the photo of the Minotaur alongside that of Lady Hare, Sophie Ryder’s exploration of female identity, sexuality and spirituality. The interaction between the two is disturbing and thought-provoking, not least as it calls to mind centuries of male violence  and oppression against women.

Lady Hare is equally as striking as the Arkville Minotaur. Unlike the Minotaur, it seems to convey power without aggression and sexuality without force. In particular, the ‘split down the middle’ portrayal of the female psyche begs so many questions, not least does this represent something imposed or freely chosen? What is its significance? I found the work to be evocative, compelling and somehow deeply ‘authentic’. In its own way it challenged me just as much as did the Minotaur. The woman in the photograph stood quietly contemplating the work for several minutes, and left me wondering what, if any, identification and affirmation had been engendered by her encounter with this sculpture. I also wondered whether it was by accident or design that Lady Hare is surrounded by a fence.

So I offer these two images as starting points for discussion and reflection.

a snapshot of postmodern spirituality

a snapshot of postmodern spirituality At the time of seeing this shot I remember thinking that the airy, light and modern interior of Longside Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park looked like a good space in which to do ‘church’. This part of the building enables visitors to sit and reflect upon what they have experienced, read guides and brochures about current exhibitions, or simply to look out at the landscape framed by the picture window. The  wall of glass adjacent to the bounding partition provides ample ambient light.

Thinking this through further and reflecting upon what you see here, it dawned on me that this looked for all the world like a godly activity, so I quickly reached for my camera to record the moment. There was something about the setting of this still spaciousness, with the chairs arranged to encourage encounter and the landscape framed to invite response, that felt ever so familiar. I would go further and say ever so sacred. This awareness, caught in a moment of time, spoke to me of the hospitality of God’s presence: welcoming, calm, still, spacious, enlightening and safely bounding, yet drawing our attention beyond ourselves.

So I offer you a snapshot of postmodern spirituality. Perhaps it can be an icon of encouragement and challenge to today’s church.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Dredging up the past to replenish the present and shape the future

beach replenishment dredger

I was reflecting recently on how much I owe to the counselling I had quite early on in my current appointment in the life of the church. From time to time I had become aware of emotional ‘buttons’ being pressed within myself,  and of a sense of energy being expended just keeping things together, which suggested that there were issues deep down which needed to be addressed. Believing and trusting Jesus when he says that he wants us to have ‘life in its fullness’, I decided to do something constructive about this and sought professional help to move towards greater healing and wholeness.

beach replenishmentHaving explained this to a very wise and skilled counsellor I embarked on a therapeutic journey which took me from the time prior to my birth through to eighteen years of age. Some of the stuff which was dredged up from the depths of my psyche I had expected to see, but there were things which took me by surprise too, awareness's and experiences surfaced which I simply did not know were there. Through the anguish and tears of recollection, revelation and sense-making a whole load of stuff was brought to the surface and put into a good,  godly, healing place. It’s dead-weight was at last released from my being. With all of this hidden emotional material laid out in the calm daylight of grace I was  at last able to replenishing beach using dredged sandtruly understand and befriend myself. I really knew what St. Paul meant when he said that there is nothing love cannot face. Through the expert accompaniment of my counsellor I had discovered something of the freedom and fullness which Jesus promises.

This healing process replenished my Spirit and helped me to reshape the landscape of my identity and my vocation. What was dredged up was used to build new and exciting contours of possibility and practice. And still today, understanding how I come to be who I am enables me to be gentler on myself and not to despair when the ‘old psychological demons’ pop up. Now I feel that they are for the most part disempowered and rendered harmless. I have learned to look upon them with kindness. Like the highest of tides, I know that such moments of disquiet and feeling ill-at-ease, rare though they now are, will withdraw and calm will return.

Along the coast of Lincolnshire our beaches need to be periodically replenished. As you can see, when needs be the dredger lifts thousands of tons of sand from the seabed and pumps it ashore. The diggers scoop it up and reshape and remake the beach to better withstand the erosion of the tides. Having experienced the psychological and spiritual equivalent of this for myself I simply want to encourage others to really trust in the promises of Jesus and, through whatever means are appropriate and right for them, to seek freedom and fullness of life for themselves and for those they love. There are some who go through a whole lifetime with their ‘stuff’ still hidden and buried deep. That seems so unbearably sad to contemplate. Others present as remarkably free and light of Spirit anyway. Whatever one’s history and context, the images speak of God’s desire to transform our lives through the power of Grace and the love which can face up to anything. We need not be afraid.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Green promises

I will get down from my pedestal of privilege i will downsize the shadow I cast on the planet

Two promises which we in the resource-greedy and carbon-addicted developed world would do well to make, if we have any care for the future of the planet and the rights of the poor.