Tuesday, 30 June 2009

the ever present danger is that we will destroy that which we do not value

bryn cader faner snowdonia

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have  an affection for ancient monuments, especially those from the earliest periods of our prehistory in Britain. I find the sense of sacred mystery which enfolds such sites really attractive: a good dose of the unfathomable and impenetrable is good for my soul I guess, especially when it is combined with beauty, artistry and a palpable sense of human achievement and expression. These places are precious for they are part of the story of who and how we are; they are waymarks on the spiritual and cultural journey which has led to here, now and today.

It is all the more vexing then when one discovers that such a site has been vandalised - perhaps the word should be desecrated - at some time in the past. One such example is depicted here: the Bryn Cader Faner bronze age ring-cairn in  North Wales. Treasure seekers in the nineteenth century and soldiers in the twentieth have all taken their toll on the monument. Clearly each group had another purpose in mind which took precedence over the cairn circle, regardless of its antiquity or archaeological value. Bernie Madoff took a similar approach to the wellbeing of the investors he ripped off and ruined. Short term personal gain so often proves more powerful than long term collective good. Which is why we are frying the planet with human-induced climate change.

bryn cader faner bronze age ring cairn snowdonia

The Christian Faith takes a diametrically opposed view to this selfish outlook. We speak and act out of a conviction which prizes interdependence, mutuality and the long view. We seek to uphold the intrinsic value of everything from people to landscapes and complex ecosystems. They all have inherent worth, and should be treated and regarded respectfully and carefully. When everything is seen as sacred one treads gently on one's path through life. Loving-kindness and justice are expressions of this way of looking at and being in the world. 

The ever present danger is that we will destroy that which we do not value. The present state of Bryn Cader Faner is a simple and stark warning from history concerning our cavalier attitudes to the planet and the people which are our home. Before a stone was displaced and the cairn disturbed there was a real need for the contrary view to be put and upheld.

In today's world that is our ethical task. And the stakes have never been higher.

bryn cader faner bronze age ring cairn snowdonia close up

Monday, 29 June 2009

Fortifying faith without limit

40mph limit railway speed restriction sign

An image for use in worship and personal reflection

You can play with the sense and meaning of this sentence in any number of ways. Naturally the irony is intentional. Some see faith as being fortified by limits, restrictions and exclusions. Others maintain that faith can only be strengthened when love is unlimited. Where do you stand?

Sunday, 28 June 2009

the shape of divine love in the life of Jesus always casts light on the challenges of today

the shape of divine love in the life of Jesus always casts light on the challenges of today

An image for use in worship and personal reflection

(click on the image for a larger version)

Friday, 26 June 2009

disempowering patriarchy

disempowering patriarchy constantine york minster

Here is a cover waiting for a book if anyone is minded to write it.

As you see it is both a statement of fact - patriarchy is disempowering - and a vision for one way in which the  church might be remade in God's image - disempowering patriarchy.

I offer the image as my response to the funeral of my Aunt, which was yesterday.

The service took place in an Anglican parish church which does not welcome the priesthood of women and which is under what I believe is called 'alternative episcopal oversight'.

The priest who conducted the service was well meaning and very sincere.

As a Methodist presbyter, however, I found myself in a foreign land and could not separate the specific act of celebrating the life of a remarkable and much-loved woman from the surrounding context of an ideology of gender exclusion.

How can 'power patriarchy' be anything other than a blight upon both church and gospel? How can silencing women and excluding them from key roles in leadership be 'according to the mind of Christ'? Get a life.

The gospel I read tells me that Jesus empowered the powerless and included the excluded.

The picture of the statue of Emperor Constantine outside York Minster is not a criticism but a whopping question mark concerning power in the church, any church.

Does God weep or rejoice that women are excluded in this way?

I don't hear divine blokey-bloke laughter at this iniquity. And tears fall silently. But the hurt is real.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

well-worn steps of faith

well worn stone stairway


Well-worn steps of faith

the soul-making way to God

and true-self.

Fresh expressions

emerging church

alternative worship

the latest cachet enhancing

unchurched attracting

ideas and inspirations

all lead here


don't they?

The footsteps of Jesus.

The dark night of the soul.

So many feet

so much hope

such great love.

Each step a 'yes': the pathway of assent into God.


Sally has written a great  poem to go with this image. See Danny's helpful post too.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

shape without substance and form without power

shape but no substance


It has the recognisable shape of a first generation Mini, but.....it's a classic case of shape without substance and form without power. It resembles one thing but is actually something quite different.

'Shape without substance' may well have been on John Wesley's mind when he penned his  "Thoughts Upon Methodism":

"I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out."

In our Methodist understanding then,

To try and do church without being totally open to the lovingly creative power of the Holy Spirit would be a bit like trying to drive this garden planter: don't be surprised if you get nowhere fast. Yet still we reach for the keys.....

And to try and do church without an active commitment to social justice and the poor would be to have the form of religion without the power too (read Blake Huggins post for more on this)

Shape without substance and form without power is both a warning from our collective past and an encouragement for our collective future: in all things we can ask the question of ourselves, what shape and form should the church adopt in order to express the revolutionary transformative substance of the gospel and the powerful liberating presence of God's grace?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Christianity: a lens and a window onto other worlds

Men-an-Tol  (lit. holed stone) is an enigmatic megalithic structure in the far west of Cornwall. Sadly for us its original meaning and significance are forever lost and irrecoverable in the dead silence of the oral traditions of our prehistory, as is the case with the Rollright Stones and Northumbrian prehistoric rock art. A2M, the online guide to Cornwall's archaeological heritage, says this about Men-an-Tol:

a recent site survey identified a number of recumbent stones lying just beneath the modern turf which were arranged along the circumference of a circle 18 metres in diameter. ...If this is indeed the origin of the site, the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds.

It is that last provocative sentence which triggered my train of thought in this post. Christianity is a religion in which the original meaning and significance of the life and death of Jesus is known and recovered through the passionate praxis of contemporary disciples every bit as much as it is through the scriptures, doctrines, traditions and theology of their predecessors in the faith. Looking at Mel-an-Tol today we are left in the dark about its ritual and sacred value in the culture of its time, as the flow of praxis was broken and the story lost. Not so with Christianity. We have 2000 years of richly diverse spirituality to inform our understanding; two milennia of theological reflection, discipleship and ecclesiology to consider. The line is unbroken and the story is still strong.

The world may sometimes look with puzzlement at what we do and the things we say, a bit like modern tourists looking at the stones of Mel-an-Tol and thinking "what is this all about, what does it mean, why is it here?", but we are here, and here to stay. The down to earth realities and truth of our faith are as strong and vibrant and pertinent now as they were when Jesus broke bread with his friends. Jesus was a  lens and a window onto other worlds: the roman imperial world of political violence and socio-economic oppression, the Jewish religious world of power and exclusion, the ancient world of sickness and death, the cruel world of hunger and poverty, and most of all the living world of God's presence and love for all.

The challenge to the church of today is to avoid becoming an enigmatic monument disconnected to the story, experiences and needs of contemporary humanity.  To remain in touch and connected it is imperative that we continue to offer what humanity seems to value highly, that lens and a window onto other worlds of meaning and significance. Surely it is vital that we continue to offer and live out alternative ways of seeing each other and the world in which we live; framing for ourselves and others the world as Jesus sees it. One thing is certain, looking through the lens and window of Christianity there are many worlds to be seen: the world of gross economic inequality and social exclusion, the world of racial hatred and ethnic violence, the world of mental illness, the world of gender injustice, the world of loneliness and despair, the world of climate change and environmental degradation, the world of exploitation and trafficking, the world of HIV/Aids, the world of war and terrorism. And there are so many more besides.

Not least the worlds that Jesus saw so very clearly: the world of political violence and socio-economic oppression, the religious world of power and exclusion, the world of sickness and death, the world of hunger and poverty, and most of all the living world of God's presence and love for all.

We look at these worlds through the lens and window of Jesus Christ, whose God-story is always and forever our story too.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The squeeze

the squeeze on side pike 2lingmoor fell and side pike mapHaving read about 'the squeeze' in a fellwalking guide to the Lake District, I just had to see it for myself. You have to pass this way to get from Side Pike onto Lingmoor Fell if you want to avoid having to backtrack almost to the road. The precipitous sides of the crag offer no other direct alternative to the path you see in the photo, which is viewed looking back to 'the squeeze' itself. This narrow passage on a small rock shelf is at best only about a foot wide. If you didn't know that it was just around the corner it would come as a very unwelcome surprise. I wonder how many unsuspecting folk have come this way over the years only to find that 'the squeeze' is impassable? Just imagine how frustrating it would be to have to turn back and retrace your steps all the way back to the road, when your goal is in sight. 

Is 'the squeeze' an unsettling visual corollary to the way that the side pike squeezeChristian faith is commonly perceived? You can look at it and think that this is all about what you must not be in order to get through. In other words it is a judgemental negative cipher for how one achieves godliness, a brutal and blunt filter which is about exclusion and denial, rather than inclusion and affirmation.  You have to put stuff down, take stuff off, become a 'lesser' person, to get through.

And if we turn to the Bible this does indeed seem to be the sense we get. Matthew 7:13-14 uses 'squeeze' imagery to get the point across and seems to leave little room for interpretative doubt.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it

But looking again we see that the narrow gate leads to life and is not a checkpoint at which we will be included or excluded from the Christian faith. If the spiritual starting point is the question of where on the spectrum of life in its fullness or emptiness we find ourselves, then the image of 'the squeeze' begins to have real pastoral potency. The point of the journey is that it is a pilgrimage in godliness, in becoming Christ-like. You do not need to be able to squeeze through the narrow one-size-only-if-you-are-to-fit filter in order to journey with Jesus. He does not wait on the other side of the squeeze as though it were a religious turnstile. That is not what the Bible is saying.

'The squeeze' reminds me that the life that I long to lead and the wholeness and fulfilment for which I yearn are not gained easily or without a struggle. There are attitudes, inner scripts, bits of baggage from the past, stubborn ingrained selfishnessess and behavioural blind-spots that I would do well to set down and leave behind. Such soul-work is demanding, often painful, seldom less than draining. The Bible is really honest about this: the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life. And it is on this road that Jesus companions us. 'The squeeze' on Side Pike is a check and a question mark for this particular part of my journey as a disciple. And of course it's also a recurrent challenge and reminder, not a one-off point of passage.

I will have to leave behind nothing essential to my wellbeing . Far from it. The wonder and the joy is that getting through 'the squeeze' is about being more fully human, not less. It is not about squeezing out our joie de vivre and diminishing our capacity to relish life and make the most of it, the very opposite is true; it is about increasing these essential qualities as the shape of our living becomes more godly.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

the craggy side of divinity

"Over the course of three centuries a tremendous revolution of perception occurred in the West concerning mountains. The qualities for which mountains were once reviled - steepness, desolation, perilousness - came to be numbered among their most prized aspects. So drastic was this revolution that to contemplate it now is to be reminded of a truth about landscapes: that our responses to them are for the most part culturally devised. That is to say, when we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there. We attribute qualities to a landscape which it does not possess - savageness for example, or bleakness - and we value it accordingly. We read landscapes, in other words, we interpret their forms in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory."

Robert Macfarlane Mountains of the Minddow crag

Blessed be my rock,  and exalted be my God, the rock of my salvation (2 Samuel 22:47)

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,  my God, my rock in whom I take refuge (Psalm 18:2)

The people standing on the skyline to the right of the summit of Dow Crag not only give a sense of scale to the picture, they also provide a clue as to why the Bible probably uses rock as an image of God. All sorts of connotations come to mind: the comparative sense of proportion puts our own lives into perspective, the sheer vastness and rugged solidity of the crag implies permanence and reliability, then there is the real awe which is engendered when you are overshadowed by such a wall of rock, and the breathtaking vista which opens up when you stand on the summit, which is so different to the view at ground level. In a world of threat and danger the Bible clearly sees such places as having a defensive military advantage too, as well as being good places to hide.

But of course the crag is a dangerous place to be too. It is not free from risk. There a real hazards which must be respected and over confidence can all too quickly lead to catastrophe, not least for inexperienced rock climbers and incautious walkers. And this is part of the thrill of such a place as this. Here you are right on the edge. You can push yourself to the edge of your experience and beyond and have the deep satisfaction of knowing that you have extended the boundaries of what you thought possible. Perhaps this sense can be discerned in the role that mountains play in the Biblical narratives: in such places God is met and humanity is challenged.

But there is a very different side to this metaphorical use of rock which open up a fresh perspective on the craggy side of divinity. Dow Crag is not unchanging and immutable. The base of the rock face is covered by a steep angled blanket of scree. These frost and ice shattered fragments of rock  have been torn away from the crag by the constant battering of the elements it has endured since the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. 

To me the scree  resembles countless tears falling from the face of God. It points to the cost and risk of such open, down to earth love.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

light and shade

sunlit tree early morning light bannishead quarry nr torver lakes district

sunlit tree afternoon bannishead quarry nr torver lake district













About five hours separate these two photographs of a tree on a bright sunny day in the Lake District. Viewed from the western rim in the early morning light the eastern face of Bannishead quarry near Torver is in deep shade and the water appears dark . The tree is backlit from the left and its shimmering leaves stand out against the darker tones. By early afternoon the sun has moved round and is high in the sky. The tree is now lit from the right and the far wall of the quarry is in full sunlight.

You can judge for yourself just how different are the mood and feel of these two photographs, even though they were taken from an identical point of view.  Of course the tree hasn't changed; how we see it and our perception of its context has. In the early shot the tree stands out against the two large diagonal blocks of darker colour in the background, its shape and texture accentuated by the highlighting catching the leaves. Here it is the main point of attention. In the later shot the background has come to life and is much more detailed and busy, the shimmering coming this time  from the surface of the water rather than the tree. The lighting is flatter, and the tree competes for attention with its surroundings. Which photograph you prefer is entirely a matter of personal taste.

How we see one another and how we see ourselves - our self image -  is subject to similar sociological and psychological vagaries of light, shade and context. Moods, opinions and feelings can be as fickle as the interplay of light and shade in the photographs. They too are subject to changing with time. What we see can alter dramatically according to the sort of comparisons we draw with our own background and surroundings and those of others.

It is simply not possible for us to see someone as they are within themselves, nor for that matter, to see ourselves as others see us. Only God has such insight into the true nature of your soul and mine. This being so it is imperative that we hold fast to the truth that God is Love, and sees us and loves us as we are. No mood swings, no fickle feelings or changeable opinions: just the most tender and deep compassion for what it is to be you or me and an absolute commitment to bring us to wholeness and true wellbeing in mutual community with one another. In all probability this grace of vision and understanding is something we shall never attain, but it is at least something to which we can aspire.