Friday, 29 May 2009

hidden pentecost: a gentle hallowing

Pentecost is hardly subtle or quiet. The gift and work of the Holy Spirit is demonstrated with all the energy and boisterousness that one would expect from a room full of blokes suddenly tanked up on pure distilled divinity. From this in-spirited explosion of grace the good news of God's love in Jesus bursts across the ancient world like a shockwave of hope.

But somewhere close by, out of sight in the shadows, there is a memory of a quieter, gentler, yet no less profound work of the Holy Spirit.  Mary was blessed and her pregnancy was hallowed within the creative purposes of God. Such hallowing, or making sacred, seems to me to be much more typical of the love-making presence of the Spirit deep down in the everyday, ordinary stuff of  our lives than the pyrotechnics of Pentecost. Hallowing is often a quieter and less outwardly dramatic affair than the day when the disciples were energized by God,  such as one's heart being 'strangely warmed' as was the case for John Wesley, yet it is felt and experienced no less intensely by those whom the Spirit indwells.

It is this gentle, intimate hallowing that comes to my mind when I read St John's story of Jesus breathing the gift of the Spirit into his friends on Easter day.

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:21-22)

And of course all these different understandings and portrayals are valuable and necessary to our faith. As the birthday of the church it is right and proper that we collectively celebrate Pentecost with much joy and energy, as that is what this outpouring of God's love is all about. And in the midst of this it is also good to recall those gentler, inconspicuous and highly personal times of hallowing too. Such experiences are the continuing gift of hidden Pentecost.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Hope

hope station derbyshire hope does not disappoint us Hope Station, Derbyshire

If what we hope for doesn't turn up, what then? Should our dreams become waking nightmares, our expectations be crushed, our rights violated or our very soul torn apart by grief, what meaning has hope for us? Is hope a destination which is never reached,  a station at which trains never arrive? What sense is there in this little word which plays such a prominent part in the writings of St Paul?

I think that with its orientation to the future, hope is the liberating trust which Christians have in the presence of God who is constantly seeking to make all things new. The ongoing work of creation, the eternal artistry of love, is the very nature of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. I guess that for me, hope is aligning myself to God's love as it will surely and certainly be in the future. It seems to me that it can only be from this position of trust and spiritual security that Paul can state the conviction in the passage above so clearly. Such hope has the power to help us face the future, because come what may there is nothing love cannot face (1 Cor.13:7 REB).  All that is life-denying, degrading , hurtful and destructive is set within this post-Easter understanding. Pain, tragedy, loss and death are facts of life: they need not augur for the utter futility of hope. It is from the givenness of such aspects of human being as these that we have to fashion a coherent way of speaking hopefully.

There is a passage in the writings of Julian of Norwich to which I keep on returning. I think she displays a profound understanding of the texture of such hope when she says:

You will not be overcome.
God did not say you will not be troubled,
You will not be belaboured,
You will not be disquieted;
But God said, You will not be overcome

To be overcome, ultimately, would be to find oneself apart from God. Therefore hope does not disappoint, because God never abandons us. I think it is this truth which Paul unfolds in the quote above from Romans 5. To hope in and for the presence of God is to trust in a given of creation itself. And so we each become part of the others hope as God invites us to share freely in the work of new creation. God is love, so to share love is to participate in the never-ending process of hope-making.

In the epilogue to their book Hope Against Hope, Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart turn to the work of the French catholic poet Charles Peguy for inspiration, and his picturing of hope as a small girl. They say that "while the small child may be a natural symbol of hope, hope is far from natural. Writing in the face of a dark future, Peguy thought hope an astonishing miracle, by comparison with which the two other theological virtues, faith and love (charity), seemed obvious and virtually to be expected. Faith sees only what is, in time and eternity, God and creation. Charity loves only what is, in time and eternity, God and the neighbour. " For Peguy hope is altogether more special, because "hope sees what has not yet been and what will be, she loves what has not yet been and what will be. In the future of time and eternity." Drawing on this Bauckham and Hart believe that "hope does not grow up. In an age of fading and lost hopes, this is, so to speak, the hope for hope. Hope must always be born anew: "the little girl hope is she who forever begins." (Peguy)

So the birthing of newness and the eternal becomingness of love are woven deeply by God into the fabric of despair and death which clothes our everyday experience. As such hope does not grow up; it is always freshly gifted by God, and does not disappoint.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Panopticon Vision: viral imaginative synergy in open networks

pendle panopticon exterior view

The 'Atom' Panopticon at Pendle is an amazing piece of interactive art.  From the inside the ferro-concrete structure  frames both the landscape and the sky, providing discrete circular views, each of which reflects onto the central stainless steel sphere. As one moves around within the 'Atom' the pattern of reflections changes, as does the focus of attention through each of the apertures. Of course at any one moment much of the surrounding countryside remains unseen. This mix of direct vision and reflection, of framing and light, is at once both powerful and thought-provoking. It is also a very individual experience of perception, imagination and interpretation.

pendle panopticonThe English philosopher Jeremy Bentham coined the term panopticon for his humanitarian design of model prison. The word as used today, with its sense of 'all in view', can carry negative connotations of one being under surveillance without necessarily knowing that this is happening. Our own government's panopticon fervour for a society under surveillance, with all the threats to civil liberties which this entails, is well documented. In the case of the 'Atom' sculpture  however, the word is blissfully neutral and simply refers to "a structure, space or device which provides a comprehensive or panoramic view".

Standing within the 'Atom' I was struck by the thought that here is a representation of how faith works. The shape speaks to me of our concrete worldview, that combination of values and beliefs which determine not only what we see but how we see it. Yours will be different to mine. The actual bits of reality that catch your attention need not be the same as those which catch mine. The reflections in the sphere give us an opportunity to try and put the bigger picture together. Here I am drawn to compare the sphere itself to the life of Jesus as disclosed in the bible and explored in theology. It is on this surface that we do our sense and soul-making, illuminated by the light of God's loving-kindness.

So your 'Atom' will be uniquely yours. And for the first time in Christian history we now have the means of sharing such individual panopticon visions of faith, spiritual viewpoints and theological reflections within and across networks, traditions, countries and continents at rates and in volumes which are quite unprecedented. It is hardly surprising then that the internet is now taken to be a participatory panopticon; what you think, see and believe can reach a global audience. Rapid change in Christian praxis is now a hard wired  consequence of the way we communicate in a digital world. As Mulder and Scully used to say, the Truth is Out There; now it can be in here , downloaded and making a difference  to me and my network with one simple click. Our global participatory panopticon is the collective experiential cloud of millions of 'Atom' viewpoints. Web 2.0 faith is a reality.

And within it ideas spread virally. The rise and spread of emerging ways of being church and their constitutive networks might be an example of such pandemic theology in action. Because such networks tend to be open the information within them is highly transmissible and can easily infect other networks too. Such digital reproduction has similar benefits to sexual reproduction in terms of  the continuing evolution of Christianity; the mixing of ideas and specific bits of praxis, like mixing genes,  increases the potential for adaptability, vitality and vigour in the face of a rapidly changing or heterogeneous environment. Such imaginative synergy is probably a real driving force for rapid change in our time. To be shut off from the pool of such genetic variation is to play the evolutionary equivalent of russian roulette. Denominations which dont or wont adapt face the prospect of extinction.

So each individual panopticon can play an essential part in the wellbeing of the whole global  faith community to a degree which was undreamed of only a few years ago. Viral imaginative synergy in open networks is here to stay; perhaps this is one way in which the Holy Spirit is bringing a new VISION to birth.

(With apologies for the contrived acronym.)

Friday, 22 May 2009

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

imagining faith: a synergy of symbolism

cross, lifebelt and bridge

(as usual click on the photograph for a larger version)

I wonder whether the  person who hammered the wooden stake into the ground by the Lakeside at Swanwick saw it as anything other than something upon which to hang the lifebelt? If this act was simply just another tick on a health and safety checklist it has achieved in my mind far more than was intended. Coming across it for the first time I was struck by this powerful conjunction of symbols, set against the sky.  The next day I went back and took more photographs, of which this is one. This time I expanded the field of view to include the junction of the paths and the small wooden footbridge, beyond which the path leads on around the lake. The light and weather were different too, as the bright morning sunshine was about to be interrupted by an oncoming shower.

The photograph presents a synergy of symbolism. The cross, lifebelt, junction of paths, footbridge, sunshine and approaching rain speak to me of that timeless place where christian disciples seem perpetually to stand. What I mean is that somehow it is always like this. The challenge to take up our cross is driven into the ground right where we are standing, with all that is says about our commitment to that costly kingdom lifestyle of unconditional, transforming, liberating and prophetic love which was the way of Jesus. The cross is the fact and the future of christian faith as it reminds us of the cost and challenge of God's grace in a world like this. In his life and death Jesus discloses the very nature of God. On Good Friday the world throws the worst it can do back in God's face, as Jesus is executed as a radical revolutionary and the way of love is rejected. Easter Day is God's answer to all the worldly violence of Good Friday. Christ is risen and nothing can defeat the vulnerable love of God, which always rises up and comes back, now matter how many times and how hard it is trampled underfoot. And it reminds us that love is the eternal given of God, and that God's love is eternally present.

God's universal and unconditional purpose is consistent; that we should all have life, and have it in its fullness. The lifebelt hanging from the cross symbolises this truth for me and reminds me that this is something I have to take into my own hands. To leave God's purpose hanging there on the empty cross is to deny the very essence of my faith, that it is about being actively engaged with the suffering and injustice of life, seeking out and participating in the work of resurrection which is going on all around me. The lifebelt challenges me to be receptive to the place where Jesus is standing and with whom he stands; for that will be the place,  person, people and the task in which he needs my hands and my love, now.

So for a disciple there is always a junction of the ways and a time to choose. How could it be otherwise? Sooner or later God beckons us on from the place where we are standing and asks that we go in a new direction. There will be bridges to build and bridges to cross. This could be difficult, demanding and profoundly challenging to us, as we seek to cross the barriers which keep us apart from those God loves and to whom God sends us. The footbridge reminds us that we will need to travel light.  There may be  much we will need to leave behind if we are to get to where God needs us. So we carry just the essentials; our trust in the God of loving kindness disclosed in the Bible and met face to face in the risen Jesus, our openness to the presence and empowering of God's loving energy through the Holy Spirit, and our commitment to participate in God's life-saving work of liberation and transformation.

Scripture, prayer and action was the way of Jesus, and it is our vocation too. No matter how threatening the weather ahead may look we are called to take fresh paths and to cross new bridges. We always journey on as we become the person whom God longs for us to be and travel to the place of discipleship where God needs us to be. And the sun will shine.

Coniston Water Triptych

coniston water triptych for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face 1 Corinthians 13 v12

It is dusk and the clouds are taking up their familiar position over and around the summits of the Coniston Horseshoe in the Lake District. The village itself nestles deeply between the fells and the lake as though cradled in the palm of a hand. The evening breeze is picking up and the still surface of the water is becoming ever more rippled by a myriad  of small waves processing gently across the lake.

With the camera on a tripod a shutter speed of 1 second captures the scene as we could never see  it unaided, but in a way that a theologian might recognise.

The upper panel of the triptych shows everything in clear detail; we are seeing the landscape as it is and can recognise the particularities of this place and its complex features. The seasons and the weather change, but the basic picture remains constant.

In the middle panel we are dealing with reflections from the surface of the water. Here the scene from the upper panel is inverted, its details made blurry and indistinct by the breeze sweeping across the lake. Outlines and form can just be discerned, as can the brighter areas of the sky and the darker shapes of clouds.

In the lower panel we are challenged by an almost complete lack of detail, save for the changing tonalities which hint at the possibility that here might be something we can interpret, understand and ultimately recognise. The slow shutter speed has captured a sequence of tiny waves, which has had the effect of blurring and smoothing the surface of the water in the closest parts of the image to the camera. This resembles an averaging out of the reality which our naked eye would see crisply and clearly in an instant of perception. Taken by itself this part of the photograph is a puzzle. The panel seen solo is enigmatic. Pictured alongside the other panels it slots into place in our mind

In my experience, trying to understand God as God is witnessed to in the Bible, understood in theology and encountered in our daily lives is like looking at the panels of this triptych. And I have learned not only to be relaxed about this, but to really value this triptych aspect of faith. I would contend that in order to have a healthy, open and receptive faith we need the mystery and uncertainty of the lower panel. Here we are tantalized and perplexed by the reality of God; here answers slip through our fingers and we are left holding only questions. It is as though we are looking at a reflection of a cloud of unknowing, which as the mystics would testify is an uncomfortable yet soul-makingly essential place to be. Perhaps it is here, way out beyond clarity and certainty, that real trust in the ultimate reality of God is forged.

And the middle panel is for me the place where I do most of my theology - which probably explains a lot - and live most of my spiritual life. Reflections are beautiful things to behold. There is an intensity to them which is similar but quite markedly different somehow to viewing the 'real' thing. I think this is to do with that sense of there being something deeper, behind and below, just out of sight, especially when the surface of the water is perfectly still and calm.

So the top panel, far from being the norm, represents for me those rare and precious moments of insight and faith experience which are exceptional, stunning and life-changing. Here one knows that one has seen God in such a way that the particularities and details of ones being snap into tack-sharp focus. These are moments of profound  recognition about ourselves and God together. Moments perhaps of calling and vocation, of deeply knowing and of taking heart. Moments of Godsight which change us forever. Treasured glimpses of eternity. Mountain top encounters which happen at the ground level of our living.

The difference christian faith makes looks as dramatic as this

swanwick fountain and labyrinth in sunshine after rainfrozen fountain swanwick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

swanwick fountain in sunshine after rainOne photograph was taken in February, with the ground shrouded by deep snow and the fountain sheathed in thick ice. The others were taken this afternoon after a thundery shower of rain. At ground level a colourful labyrinth  adorns wooden decking, above which the  fountain stands distinctively in its square container. The same fountain stands in the same position, yet everything looks different. In the snow covered scene there is no inkling whatsoever of the colour, form and detail which lies hidden and out of sight. Come the thaw an astonishing revelation unfolds.

When the Bible speaks of the love of God as it is met and understood in Jesus, this is what it looks like, feels like, is like. This is the radical transformation of which St Paul speaks and to which our hymnody bears witness: "I once was lost but now am found" (John Newton, Amazing Grace). 

When  blizzards return and ice envelops this is all still true; it simply needs to be uncovered by the warmth of the sun. The colour, form and detail is still there, it is just waiting to be disclosed.

The Bible begins with Original Blessing. All is good. Our deepest truth therefore is not our snowbound frozen souls, but rather the beauty which lies waiting to be discovered deep down and underneath the compressed snowflakes of shame, regret and hurt. The warming of love will melt it, if only we trust to the light of God's love in Jesus.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Tender Reflections

reflections

For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.

(Wisdom of Solomon 7:26)

Each line of this verse offers a profound insight into the way in which the Holy Spirit seeks to shape both the church and each and every one of us. To my mind we are rather like the locomotive tender pictured in the photograph.  The manner in which we are held together spiritually, emotionally and intellectually is often plain to see on the surface, with a profusion of rivets and seams much in evidence, but what lies beneath the outer appearance, in this case the water and coal to provide the energy and power for the journey, is hidden. The emblem leaves no doubt about identity. The surface of the tender, though shiny, is scratched and marked. The black paint is polished to a high sheen, so much so that as it catches the light the colour disappears and the tender becomes a mirror. Imperfect and impromptu it may be, but at this moment it is a mirror nonetheless. And reflected in it, caught in a moment of time, are lives bathed in sunlight, radiant with colour.

To be a reflection of the eternal light of God's love in Jesus, to be a mirror of the working's of God's grace and compassion, to become an  image, however imperfect, of God's goodness and loving-kindness; this is a holy vocation and the work of a lifetime. To trust the liberating presence of God hidden deep down in the centre of our being is to discover the energy, fuel and power for the soul-work of personal transformation which God longs to gift to us, and for our discipleship and mission to which God calls us. Such tender reflections get to the heart of my faith.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Back to the Future: scrapped, preserved, rebuilt or revolutionised?

yorkshire pullman yorkshire pullman 3 The photographs show steam locomotive A1 60163 'Tornado' blasting up the east coast main line near Newark. This is a brand new locomotive of the A1 class, the last example of which was scrapped in 1966, and it cost three million pounds to build. The Guardian editorial had this to say as Tornado took to the rails:

It is almost 40 years since British Rail sent its last mainline steam locomotives to the scrapheap. When the final steam-hauled train left Manchester Victoria station on August 11 1968, and arrived (half an hour late) in Carlisle, most people assumed that the days of rail travel behind snorting, smoking and dirty steam engines was over. The future was to be diesel and electric. But they underestimated the British love of the past - and the emotional pull of steam, which is a vibrant thing compared with the robotic predictability of modern travel. Tornado, a recreated Peppercorn A1 engine...is a copy of a 1940s design, built by the London and North Eastern Railway to pull trains on the east coast mainline.... The engine is the first to be built from scratch in Britain since 1960. No one can doubt the commitment of the enthusiasts who raised £3m to build it, or the pleasure that people will get from travelling at up to 90mph behind a steam engine. Some might wonder, though, whether Britain's love of past glories has come at a price: a country that can recreate its old trains lags behind the rest of Europe in adopting the best and fastest of the new. France has the TGV. England still loves steam

And love steam I do, hardly surprising since my grandfather was a driver on the GWR based at Stafford Road Shed in Wolverhampton. Here he brings King Class locomotive 6020 King Henry IV into Birmingham Snow Hill station on an express service to Paddington.  I am glad that today it is still possible to travel behind examples of this class of locomotive; to smell the hot oil and enjoy the crisp bark of the exhaust and the steam powering the cylinders.  I applaud the work of enthusiasts who ensure that across Britain preserved steam railways lovingly maintain this part of our national transport heritage for future generations.

driver wp chester bringing 6020 king henry iv into birmingham snow hill with a wolverhampton - paddington express

And I am equally glad that I can travel quickly, reliably, safely and in comfort on today's modern railway. Public mass transportation systems, based on renewable energy, are an essential part of planning for a green future. To be still using coal would be unthinkable.

It is this tension between nostalgia and the cutting edge needs of tomorrow which the Guardian editorial highlights. The choice facing Christians is essentially the same. Many of us are attached to that which has been special for us, whether a church, an activity or a way of worshipping; many long for this way of being Church to flourish again, just like in the old days.....

So what are we to do? Do we scrap all our old motive power and much of the network, like an ecclesiastical Dr Beeching, who put the axe to much of Britain's Railways in the 1960's? Many communities would find themselves no longer connected to the network, especially those which are smaller, rural and more remote from large centres of population. In the early to mid 1960's steam locomotives which still had years of life left in them were surrendered to the cutters torch because the British Transport Commission's Modernisation Plan decreed that it would be so. Diesel and Electric traction was to take over from steam, and steam had to go. Many of our branch lines, and some main lines too, went with it. Competition from road transport provided the economic and political death knell. Passenger and freight totals were in decline. Working practices were outmoded and unprofitable. Today of course, we are beginning to realise what an asset those thousands of miles of lost lines would be to us. And it seems silly to scrap something which still has lots of working life left in it just for the sake of scrapping it. Is it not the case that with minimal effort there are churches which can still do good work and which could be usefully maintained, not least by dedicated enthusiasts who know that they are valued?

Or do we preserve a representative cross-section of locomotives for future generations? The policies of English Heritage seem to want to preserve many of our churches like a prehistoric fly caught in amber. History and heritage demand that examples of the past are kept as just that. Modern mission needs - the very purpose of our churches - seems always to come a very poor second. And so many churches struggle to exist and witness in buildings which are hopelessly out of date for the task.  Who will keep these museums going, for isn't that what they are in danger of becoming?  And what of nostalgia? How is affection for the past to be turned into commitment to the present? Is preservation marketable?

Or do we rebuild; just like Tornado taking an old trusted design and reworking it to the latest standards? Will that attract the crowds and drive up passenger numbers? In some places it seems to.

Or do we revolutionise everything? Do we retain a commitment to public transport and radically revisit the primary purpose for which the network exists  and ask how best this can de delivered in a sustainable way? And then put all our resources behind it? The urge to plant fresh expressions and parallel congregations, develop pioneer ministries and youth participation whilst growing social action projects which engage with our communities is part and parcel of this new impetus of the Spirit.

Mapping a Way Forward: Reshaping For Mission has elements of all of this. There is no great predetermined plan of what the Methodist Network will look like in 20 years time. There is no hidden agenda to scrap anything. There is simply the godly question of how Methodism is to be fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Back to the Future: our Methodist Vocation

John Wesley founder Methodism Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn

To be rooted deep in to the earthiness of our history is to become alive and refreshed to the way in which God chooses to  use Methodists. To be rooted deep into the presence of the Holy Spirit at the heart of our history is to be empowered by the one who shapes the energizing truths and defining charisms of our Methodist identity. To be so rooted is to come alive and flourish in that distinctively Methodist way: as a people enthused and vibrant in the down to earth pursuit of scriptural and social holiness.

Last Saturday I accompanied the President of Conference on a visit to Epworth, the birthplace of world Methodism. It is here that our roots are especially apparent. To walk around the Old Rectory where John and Charles were born and brought up is to understand how our particular charisms were birthed. Having been rescued from the fire which gutted the original building, John was shaped by his mother's spirituality and his father's religion, and all of this in conditions of poverty. Behind the grand facade the family struggled. As Parish Priest Samuel Wesley was a man who did not court popularity, and he quite literally paid the price for it.

epworth old recory home of john wesley founder of methodism

Samuel's own bible is held at the Old Rectory. To look at it is to gaze upon something which was so crucially formative for John and Charles. Scriptural Holiness grew up in this home, not least through the pages of this very book.

john wesley's father samuel wesleys bible saved from epworth rectory fire

epworth old rectory home of john wesley heart shape in chair

samuel wesley's chalice, used by John wesley, held by the President of the Methodist Conference at EpworthAlthough there is little furniture which actually belonged to the Wesleys on display, one piece seems to speak right into their passion for social holiness, and it is easily overlooked. Just inside the front door, by the window, is a small chair with a high but narrow back. Carved within it is the shape of a heart, through which the light coming from the window shines. What a great image for a warm-hearted movement: Methodists are a people shaped to let the unconditional love of God shine through.

On leaving the Old Rectory we walked down to St. Andrews Parish Church. There one can look at the font in which the Wesley children were baptised, and ponder the beginnings of their Christian journey and perhaps, our Methodist passion for prevenient grace; God's unconditional love is always reaching out to hold us before ever we respond. Here too the President, Stephen Poxon, took into his hands another precious reminder of our common heritage, as he held the chalice which both Samuel and John used for Holy Communion. Stephen's hands embraced the chalice as a potent sign that contemporary Methodists offer that same earthed pragmatic understanding of unconditional love which so enthused their founder.

Then we moved outside to the tomb of Samuel Wesley. When John was fast becoming persona non grata within the Church of England he returned to Epworth with the intention of preaching. He was barred from the Parish church. Such was his determination to preach the good news of Jesus that he stood on his father's tomb. Stephen preached his heart out last Saturday from that same tomb. This was another powerful symbol of a movement energized by its roots in scriptural and social holiness to be on fire with enthusiasm for the gospel and to let nothing stand in the way of our being in touch with those most in need of God's amazing grace.

 president stephen poxon preaching from the tomb of samuel welsey at epworth

Then to Wesley Memorial Church in Epworth, and this stunning stained glass window. In their own ways John and Charles sought to communicate and embody this profound truth. The challenge for Methodists today is to do likewise with the same enthusiasm as the Wesley brothers. They were full of the Holy Spirit and alive to God, inspired and inspirational. 

the best of all is god is with us window wesley memorial church epworth

As we go back to the future, we discover the living power of our contemporary Methodist vocation.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

All-Weather Faith

As I sat  in the car at Hull Paragon Train Station dark, rain-laded grey clouds  scudded by overhead, driven by the blustery wind.  I watched the changing patterns of raindrops on the windscreen and listened to rain lashing down on the roof as the latest squall hurried through. I realised how warm, dry and isolated from the weather I was; cut-off, cocooned and sheltered inside the car I felt like  a spectator of what was happening outside rather than a participant. The raindrops on the windscreen, so very close, transparent,  yet out of reach, emphasised the point.

rain on windscreen

So I thought, is this what we expect faith to be, something which protects and shelters us from life? Is this what church should offer? Then my mind turned to the Rollright Stones which we visited back in March on a day when the clouds were equally grey and lowering. Whatever sacred meaning and purpose the Kings Men Stone Circle had for the neolithic people who built it is forever lost to us. One thing is obvious though: this is not a place which shelters you from the elements. Here you are outdoors in the midst of the landscape, utterly exposed to the worst of the weather. For this reason faith here speaks very immediately into life experience; there is nowhere to hide. All around the views are expansive and one can see for miles into the far distance. The site is open to the sky and the vista of surrounding countryside. It was well chosen. In such a place as this religious meanings and values have very visibly to withstand and inform the totality of human experience. The ancient symbol of the circle makes good spiritual sense in this context. Ancient Celtic prayers invoking the  'encircling' of God need no explanation when one stands here. Encircling is a felt truth and an inherent need.

rollright stone circle

Looked at today from the perspective of my Christian faith these stones speak to me of resilience, of abiding truths which work, of a very public witness to the faith experience which sustains us. Like some long petrified worshippers from another long-lost age the stones stand to remind us of what we stand for now. Each one is unique and each has its place; each belongs in this encircling of diversity. There is space to enter and find that deeper sense of being encircled which has little to do with being kept dry or warm, but everything to do with being and belonging. Here I relearn the truth which Jesus embodied as he walked and talked and died out of doors. Whether the sun beats down on our brow,  or the rain lashes down to soak us to the skin, or the windchill freezes us, here faith celebrates the reality that there is nothing love cannot face. Here faith stands up and makes sense. Here, with an out of doors faith, meaning, purpose and identity are shaped.

Is church then too safe, too sheltered? Does it more reflect a 'raindrops on the windscreen' experience of being spectators, or is there still that sense of being out of doors participants in an all-weather faith? I wonder......

rollright stones close up

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Landscapes of Grace: shaped by God's mission

disher force wensleydale Situated below Ivy Scar near Woodhall, Disher Force shows well some of the geomorphological consequences of glaciation in Upper Wensleydale.  The 90 degree change in the direction of flow is particularly obvious, as is the sculpting of the immediate landscape. To a very great extent the present form of the drainage basin is determined by the power of ice, which is now nowhere to be seen, the last vestiges having disappeared some 10,000 years ago.

Lives, ideas and activities shaped by God should be equally clear and distinctive. Even though the shaping force is not visible, its presence and power should be readily apparent, its effects obvious right across the varied landscapes of humanity.

If we look, we should be able to see God shaping the world right in front of our eyes.

And if not, does this mean that we are more resistant than the hardest granite? Unlike glaciation, God does not impose the shaping power of loving intention, God invites us to participate in God's mission. The degree to which our contemporary landscapes of living will be reshaped is down to our personal and collective response to the grace which gives us a choice.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The ravages of time

far ings derelict brickworks wharf

far ings derelict brickworks rotten woodwork

These photographs show some of the decaying remains of the Adamant Cement Works jetty, on the south bank of the Humber estuary. It closed in 1926 and ever since its constituent atoms have been slowly dispersed into the surrounding environment as wind, rain, tides, sun,  ice and biology  take their inevitable toll on the structure. Whereas many biological systems have the inherent capacity to repair and renew themselves, our built structures do not. Without maintenance and given enough time, nature will inevitably bring to dust even our most pristine creation.

Ideas can erode and weather too. Without maintenance and attention they will fall into disrepair. Some become superceded by better and more effective concepts, others fall out of fashion. Progress and changing tastes render them redundant and surplus to requirements. Like the jetty they are left to rot in the seldom visited backwaters and byways of the intellectual history of  human imagination.

In his poem, 'The Chapel', RS Thomas captured something of this process as it applied to a particular expression of Christianity in his native Wales:

A little aside from the main road
becalmed in a last-century greyness
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass


But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire,
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

The idea that God is Love is utterly resistant to the ravages of time. Wrathful, vengeful, capricious, exclusive notions of God have come and gone, have been expressed, sometimes violently, and then subsequently been eroded to dust by the necessary,  needful and irresistible forces of compassion within the human soul. Theology changes and evolves as once proud and powerful notions lose spiritual traction, grind to a halt and rot in situ. Throughout history, ineffective, outmoded and failing expressions of God's love have and will inevitably settle a little deeper into the grass of contemporary life and thought. Time ravages them. But once, perhaps, they were fresh, new and exciting too. The Bible knows this and is up front about it..

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3.1)

That God is Love is always relevant is an essential given in the time ravaged, contemporary blur of our human existence. What matters is what we do about it and with it. Surely that is and should always be provisional, contextual and time-bounded, itself shaped by our response to God's intention? Otherwise the time will come when the chapel settles a little deeper in the grass, and the world passes by unheeding and not-needing. More important still is that God is not an idea or a construct, but a truth which comes alive as we relate to and encounter God's presence. In Jesus we see this happening face to face, a truth that time will never ravage.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Nesting Swans

nesting swans

The female was turning their two eggs with great care; the male was busy completing the nest. The seasonal urge of life to reproduce itself  becomes one of the particular wonders of avian biology. Every Spring the cycle is repeated as bird species, in all their populations and individual breeding pairings,  follow their natural genetic programming. Such nestbuilding and nurture is a choreographed delight to behold. These two made an enchanting spectacle as they carefully prepared to birth the next generation.

The inbuilt imperative of these swans to perpetuate their species leads one to ask some searching questions about  our experience of institutional religion. What urgency is there to prepare the conditions out of which new faith can be birthed and nurtured? How willing are we to shape our activities for the benefit of those whose task is to fly the nest to fresh habitats and establish new populations there? Why is it that year-in, year-out we continue to re-use old dilapidated nests when sometimes the much better way is to build fresh ones? (for 'nest' read buildings, theology, worship, organisation, or whatever else you see that is outmoded). Is our spiritual DNA urging us to see the faith grow and reproduce, or are those particular religious genes dormant?

Fortunately the swans are untroubled by such things. They just naturally get on with the business of being swans. Can't wait to see the cygnets.

Tuning in to the Spirit

listen to the spirit

now

unseen

everywhere

analogue, digital, spiritual signals in the air

no aerial =  no vision, no picture, no programmes

tune in faith

FREEVIEW

high definition

high contrast

Church

wow

God

SEEN

HEARD

now

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Daisy-chain discipleship

ephesians 3v8 daisy

Springtime;  clumps of ground-hugging daisies are opening out their small flowers into the sunshine. To linger appreciatively over such natural beauty is to be refreshed in one's soul. Slowly, questions are gifted and the simple daisy becomes an icon of  needed truth, a personal handwritten note from the heart of God.

To be a disciple is to be fully opened out in the presence of God; all the way from those deep-down hidden roots  of experience to the shiny fresh petals of the me that presents to the world. Testimony brings out into the open and makes plain the unseen photosynthesis of grace, the biochemistry of faith, that sustains and transforms us.

To be a disciple is to make daisy-chain connections and to bring out into the open and make plain the pattern of God's activity and intention in the world as it is. It is to open out the gospel so that questions are asked and truth is seen, however risky that may be, for daisies are small and easily trampled. Picked out and linked together daisies become a thing of child-like enchantment,  easily catching  the attention of bystanders, pointing to that secret, behind the scenes activity of God which sustains, births and cherishes, challenges and transforms each present moment.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Gender injustice: a deliberate irony?

ducking stool sign

This collection of signs is to be found on the corner of the ladies public toilets in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire.  When I first saw it I just could not believe that anyone could be so insensitive as to put such a blatant reminder of gender injustice in such a place: a ducking stool remembered on this of all buildings. On reflection perhaps it is the best place for it to be. The bitter irony makes a sharp point. A local guide says that Duck Street was "the site of the old ducking stool for the “wet punishment of scolds” in the River Isbourne."  Women would be subjected to this cruel and unusual public punishment by the misogynist male system of justice which prevailed at the time.

ducking-stool

BBC Radio 4 carries a fascinating piece about the use of ducking stools.  Sadly such mistreatment of women is not relegated to history. The wicked law enacted by  Harmid Karzai rightly drew outrage from the international community because it spelled utter misery for Afghan women. Why is it that here, single, unmarried mothers on benefits can expect to be stigmatised as a political matter of course or that women in work so often still earn less than their male counterparts?

Ducking stools are long gone, but what of the the way that women are seen by men?

This is an altogether more troubling question. One which needs to be signposted and which requires justice, not irony.

At least Carol Ann Duffy has today been named as the first female Poet laureate in 341 years. My, isn't progress swift.... 

Why politicians should care about children. not prosperity. not power. not polls. not position. not privilege. not party politics. not perks. care about children. please.

beth shalom stones

Children are always the victims of political ambition. Unregarded casualties of those adults who seek power. Easily sacrificed pawns in games of party political chess. They have no vote. They become dispensable commodities for those who would govern us. As the most powerless  members of society they are at one and the same time its most vulnerable. 

memorial stones

Each stone represents a precious, unrepeatable, unique and beautiful child; beloved of God.

memorial stones in close up

Each stone represents a child who was despised and murdered by the Nazi political elite. Look at some of their faces and weep.

child victims of the holocaust

Child victims of the Holocaust from Bendzin, Poland (composite image courtesy of and copyright to Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre)

Why does child poverty in the UK remain at scandalous levels? If children are valued, how can this be so? Why can we find billions of pounds to start wars or bail out incompetent banks when child poverty is so prevalent? Put this conundrum alongside the 50p rate of income tax which has wealthy celebrities, city types and entrepreneurs squealing in outrage. They castigate the government and foretell dire consequences for our national life if they are 'forced' to move abroad.  For them and their right-wing political cronies the unfettered accrual of personal wealth is of the natural order of things; the rest of us, especially the least fortunate, are merely unvalued means to their end of personal gain. We just don't count. Until they need 'our' money to fix 'their' economic mess. These are the same people who will vote for massive cuts in public services and lower taxes on income come the general election. Because debt is a bad thing and we have to be thrifty. This is deliberately seductive language for those who are rich, comfortable or reasonably well-off. It would usher in horrendous consequences for those reliant on social provision, the low-waged and the increasing numbers of people who are becoming unemployed.  And it would be disastrous for many children. Such slash and burn populist politics has predictable consequences in such an unequal society as ours, as the 1980's showed only too graphically. Sure Start Children’s Centre's, such as that at the Wainfleet Magdalene Church of England / Methodist School, might well be threatened with closure as a result. I know from first hand experience that this is a project  which makes a huge difference to children and parents who live with the daily consequences of appalling deprivation. It is well worth paying tax for, but a tick in an ideological political box which abhors taxation and which sees social spending as 'wasteful' means that our poorest and most disadvantaged children will suffer.  For the elite, child poverty is a consequence of parents who do not try hard enough. Such 'layabouts' are a drain on those good honest folk who work hard and earn their bonuses. Such is the barren rhetoric of those who are  almost inevitably always wealthy and comfortable themselves.

I have deliberately loaded that paragraph with the dynamics of stereotyping and prejudice. As long as there is an us and them, an ingroup and an outgroup, children will suffer. When will adults realise that this is so? As well as picking up a stone to remember the child victims of the Holocaust we should demonstrate our commitment to children by picking up and using all the political tools at our disposal to eradicate child poverty.  Looking deep and long into these innocent faces from another age should surely motivate us to do all in our power to transform the lives of vulnerable children now.  In so doing we will transform our unjust society and discover the real meaning of 'wealth', not as an economic construct but as a social reality. A coalition of compassion is what is required, not short-term political points scoring. Stereotyping their parents because of what they are not just perpetuates misery for our poorest children. The bible tells us that it is amongst the poor that treasure is to be found. To treasure the poorest and most disadvantaged members of our society is surely to discover real wealth. And to see just how poor the apparently 'wealthiest' people in our society really are. We, together, have to have the courage to look into the faces of children and see God's passionate priority gazing back.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

My two month absence from blogging and reading blogs has finally come to an end. A combination of holiday in March, a run of talks, service prep and presentations, and latterly ill-health put paid to my best intentions. It is good to be back.