Monday, 28 September 2009

the spiritual mortar which binds us together

bricks and mortar

Imagine what the built environment would be like without mortar. It is something that we take for granted and to which most of us don’t give a second glance – unless a quinquennial inspection is due. Sitting as a soft and wet splodge on a bricklayers trowel it looks decidedly unpromising as a means of holding brickwork together, yet once dry it clearly has great strength.

So what is the faith-equivalent of mortar? What is it that binds people together in strong relationships and resilient communities? Or might we say who is it? The tendency to think in more individualistic or kin-group terms when faced with an external threat of some sort is probably hard-wired into our evolutionary make-up as a species. It seems to be the case that attitudes towards other groups and interests in society harden during a recession, and self-interest becomes sharper. The Party Conferences exhibit and exacerbate some of the classic faultlines which now threaten to heave and shift to disrupt our settled ways as a nation. This is only to be expected when severe cuts in Public Services are in the offing, whilst glaring inequalities between the rich and poor remain undisturbed.

At times like this it seems to be to be more vital than ever that Christians seek to be like the mortar on a Brickie’s trowel, ready to repair and hold together that which might otherwise fall apart when cracks appear. Sometimes of course the task is to wield the wrecking ball ourselves, and to clear away the resultant rubble and build something new and stronger in its place. We do not want to prop up injustice, exploitation and unfairness. But in many instances surely our vocation is to hold and absorb many of the tensions that are flowing through the built relational fabric of society, which might otherwise cause the masonry of understanding and respect to shift disastrously. Perhaps there is a lot of truth in the old adage: “united we stand, divided we fall.”

Sunday, 27 September 2009

disclosing the beauty within

runner bean seeds in open pod copy

As we discovered yesterday, our last hidden handful of runner beans were way past their best and not suitable for eating. The pods were brown, weathered, dried and looked distinctly unappetising. A couple of them were already splitting open.  But the outer appearance of the pods, and the sense of disappointment each conveyed, belied the beauty that was cradled inside. Once opened out into the light the beans were gloriously vibrant with colour, each carrying a unique pattern and shading. The lining of the pods was a delicate tissue of white fibres. For a few pleasurable minutes I was quietly lost in appreciation and wonderment.

The whole experience reminded me that we all too easily and neglectfully take for granted or overlook so much of the beauty and complexity in life. Such treasures remain hidden to us unless in the first place we make an effort to see them. What gifts and wonders pass us by because we lack the time, sufficient curiosity or the caring inclination to be properly attentive?

Appearances, as the old adage puts it, can be deceptive, and not just in the case of runner beans. This is one of the prime difficulties we face when it comes to people.  How might our interrelationships and interactions be enriched if we took to heart this lesson from the natural world? What hidden potential would come to light? And what surprising seeds of hope might be discovered in us?

runner bean seeds in open pods copy

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Friday, 25 September 2009

unearthing treasures from the past

The unearthing of a huge hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure in a field in Staffordshire has so vividly brought a fascinating chapter of our violent history to the surface. In what looks like a hidden cache of victor’s spoils we see hundreds of pieces of ornately worked gold which were systematically taken from weapons, shields, helmets, jewellery and other ornamentation. Amongst these are highly decorated crosses and, as ‘The Guardian’ describes it,

a strip of gold with a biblical inscription …folded in half: it reads, in occasionally misspelled Latin, "Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."

 

This spectacular collection is thought to date pilgrimage missional prayerto between AD650 – AD750, a period which begins with the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria in conflict, the death of St. Aidan and the continuing spread of Celtic Christian mission from Lindisfarne, and the Synod of Whitby. It ends with the dawn of the Viking incursions into Britain and Ireland.

Looking at the pictures of this astonishing treasure trove one can almost touch, taste and smell that stream of missional Christian expression which goes back to St. Columba on Iona, and before him to the likes of St. Brendan. These great Celtic pilgrims and adventurers help us to unearth a special treasure from our Christian past: that of peregrinatio ( 'pro Christi perigrinari volens') or "wandering for the love of Christ".

This aspect of our faith obedience has its roots in the biblical experiences of exile, exodus and journey, and was of such importance in the development of the early  ascetic and monastic movements in Christianity. Peregrinatio takes us far from the comfort zone of the familiar and known.  Here we let go into God’s missional flow. That is why the sculpture of St. Brendan’s boat at Caherciveen in Co Kerry is such a powerful reminder of what it actually means to trust Jesus when he says “Follow me”. We cannot fully know what the journey will entail or where we will land.

No metal detector is necessary if we wish to unearth this treasure and hold it in our own hands. A simple heartfelt prayer will suffice.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

laying down and chalking up

cliffs on dorset coast From the totemic sea cliffs of the south coast, through the beautiful rolling Downs of Sussex and the idyllic Wolds of Lincolnshire, to the guillemot, gannet and puffin-clad cliffs of East Yorkshire’s North Sea coast, England has some stunning Chalk scenery. Laid down in the sub-tropical seas of the Cretaceous, between 65 and 135 million years ago, the rock we look at and stand upon today is a solid revealed ‘memory’ of a hidden and lost world. Each time we enjoy walking through a chalk landscape or looking at the gleaming whiteness of a freshly exposed surface of rock, we are simultaneously presented with an underlying geological echo of life as it was in the mind-bogglingly distant past. Between then and now Dinosaurs were wiped out in a major extinction event and the flowering plants, bees and mammals evolved in turn. Our own species stood upright and pondered its existence. 

Charles Darwin’s genius and the insights of early geologists such as James Hutton and Charles Lyell enable us to understand and appreciate the natural world’s dynamic story. Thanks to them we can make sense of what is daily beneath our feet and in front of our eyes. Evolution and uniformitarianism (‘the present is the key to the past’) are two of the essential scientific  lenses we need if we are to pull the breadth and detail of this ecological odyssey into anything approaching accurate focus.

Take chalk, for example. The single-celled Coccolithophorids which live as part of the phytoplankton in today’s oceans are covered in microscopic plates of bioengineered calcium carbonate. As they die these coccoliths sink to the ocean floor and the mechanisms of sedimentation will eventually lead to the formation of chalk. This identical process was happening over 65 million years ago. The sea bird colonies on Bempton cliffs nest on the geological end-result of the lives of billions of such  coccolithophorids. Ferry passengers arriving into Dover harbour marvel at the same thing but in a different place.

Understanding that all of this is true does absolutely nothing to undermine or diminish my faith. Why do I say this? One of the ‘advantages’ this week of being in bed with swine flu has been resting against my pillows with the laptop where it’s name says it should be. In my brighter moments I have blogged. In the wake of the publicity surrounding ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, Richard Dawkins’ latest book on evolution,  I have also been looking somewhat blearily at a selection of  atheist blogs and websites. Having done so I could be forgiven for thinking that as a Christian I am an endangered species without the benefit of a protection order in law. Clearly there are those who would welcome a global ideological ‘religious extinction event’ which would see the end of faith and its replacement by the inexorable rise of humanism based on scientific rationality. Conversely there are people of faith who seek to set aside the rigour of the scientific method and who choose to frame their worldview on a particular reading of holy scripture. To the more militant tendencies on both sides of this fault-line I want to say that  many of us just get along quite contentedly by trusting to both science and faith in equal measure. The one does not deny the other. As millions of people like me know, it is perfectly possible to try to live a fulfilling and well integrated life with a foot planted firmly in both camps, so to speak, with no fear of being split asunder.

The principle of uniformitarianism applied to faith suggests to me that people  have always been asking spiritual questions about meaning, purpose and value in life. Since first we stood upright, developed language and the ability to reflect on the world and our place within it, humankind has engaged with this spiritual dimension to life. The stratigraphy of the great religions bears witness to this process. The search for ourselves is a search for God who first searches for us in love. The Bible resembles a great uplifted cliff of chalk which lays bare for all to see something which was once hidden and personal. The religious experiences of countless individuals have been accumulated, compressed and shaped into layers of meaning which speak right into the present day.  Each act of religious devotion, each each act of service to others, each sharing of wisdom and cry of doubt added tiny coccoliths of spiritual encounter and insight to the collected experience of humanity. Today the exposed surface of this accumulation and transformation is open for us to see and appreciate as we read our bibles and explore our inherited traditions. The chalk dust of what was true and valid then can be seen on our own fingers as we make sense and meaning now, whilst underneath the surface of daily life the slow process of faithful sedimentation continues. What is laid down today will surely be chalked up in the far future for the benefit of generations as yet unborn.

The geological truths I saw displayed at Bempton Cliffs, on a beautiful sunny morning as the sea mist dispersed, in turn point me to the spiritual truths of our human encounter with God. To me these are no less valid and the view they offer no less breathtaking. Science and faith equally engender that awe and gratitude which lifts my spirit and enriches my soul.

bempton cliffs with sea mist and sunlight copy

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

today’s bright shiny fashionable innovation is tomorrow’s forgotten rusting relic

old coach being reclaimed by nature in peak district scrapyard

interior of old car rotting in situOver the last thirty years or so a field at Coplow Dale in Derbyshire has become an automotive graveyard. Bought very cheaply by the farmer and his family and run for a while until they became immoveable or unroadworthy, or just acquired for scrap value alone, many of the vehicles were simply left to rust in peace where they died, quite a few with the keys still in the ignition. Ever since that final turn of the crankshaft, Nature has been slowly and silently reclaiming each one of them. Nettles, bushes, trees and lichen now grow where once sat proud and smartly attired new owners, some enjoying perhaps the admiring and even envious gaze of their passengers. All across the field such heights of fashionable desirability have collapsed into the ground and are being taken apart by the impartial processes of rust and weathering, which are singularly incapable of being impressed by former glories. Physics, chemistry and biology take no note of history. Story is a human prerogative.

And what stories could these vehicles tell? What human dramas of joy, sorrow, anger and love have unfolded within them? What moments of passion, pain, delight and despair have they carried or occasioned? On these questions the decaying vehicles are as silent now as they were impassive when new. Such memory is ultimately held by God alone.

Why then do so many of us invest so much of ourselves in such things? Their very transience might cause us to reflect on timescales, values and eternity. Would we rather be remembered for what we have owned or for how we have loved, cared for and encouraged others? Which of these has a more persisting and persuasive value?

A world based on the acquisitive ethics of capitalism is heading for the junk yard of rusting dreams and rotten values. A globally informed and locally enacted concern for People and the Planet surely counts for more than an inventory of possessions and a tick-list of fashionable brands?

How to live a good life is the human conundrum which the Bible seeks to unfold. At the heart of this question is God. Time honoured and impervious to age, weathering, fads or fashions, this divine wisdom both informs and shapes our quest for meaning, value and purpose in life. Consider this passage from Proverbs chapter 2:

ford escort rotting into the groundGood friend, take to heart what I'm telling you; collect my counsels and guard them with your life. Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom; set your heart on a life of Understanding. That's right—if you make Insight your priority, and won't take no for an answer, searching for it like a prospector panning for gold, like an adventurer on a treasure hunt, believe me, before you know it Fear-of-God will be yours;  you'll have come upon the Knowledge of God. And here's why: God gives out Wisdom free, is plainspoken in Knowledge and Understanding. He's a rich mine of Common Sense for those who live well, a personal bodyguard to the candid and sincere. He keeps his eye on all who live honestly, and pays special attention to his loyally committed ones. So now you can pick out what's true and fair, find all the good trails! Lady Wisdom will be your close interior of old car being reclaimed by naturefriend, and Brother Knowledge your pleasant companion. Good Sense will scout ahead for danger, Insight will keep an eye out for you.

This is not hypothetical or speculative. It comes from the very depths of human faith experience and is tried, tested and trusted. Countless human stories testify to the veracity and promise of this ancient wisdom. It is to be treasured. And that is exactly what Jesus does as he teaches his disciples that God’s Kingdom of Heaven is to be discovered and built up in the here and now of our present struggles and delights.

As ever Jesus gets straight to the point. In Matthew 6:19-21 he says: Do not storold wolseley rotting awaye up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

And where the heart is, love is – and where love is found, there is God. As we treasure one another we discover the treasure that is God’s gift and God’s presence. Right here and now.

And this is one fashionable gift which cannot rust into oblivion.

 

 

old austin rusting into the ground

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Web of Faith

god the careful weaver of love copy

click on image for larger version

weaving a web of attentiveness

cobwebs on gate

One of the quiet joys of an autumn morning is seeing cobwebs backlit by the rising sun. This September it seems as though every vertical surface outside the manse is home to a myriad of spiders, each  remaking its web as needs be  in readiness for the return of the light. This morning these two webs at the top of the metal gate into the garden made an interesting and thought-provoking image.

I wonder whether these webs are the work of the same spider? If not, what has happened to the one responsible for the web on the left? Has it moved to a different location, or is it now dead? The contrast between these two orb webs could not be more striking. One is unattended and is but a torn remnant of  its once pristine beauty and completeness. The other is fresh, newly spun and glistening in its natural perfection. Its close weave will catch whatever small insect comes into contact with the silken plane of attentiveness. The other won’t. The gaps are such as to render it useless.

If we want to sense the presence of God in our lives we would do well to weave a web of attentiveness between the routines, relationships and opportunities which each new day brings.  This is an intentional work of perception and awareness. It is best done with a sense of expectant gratitude. If our spiritual web is in a state of disrepair and the gaps are too big and numerous, a disappointing end result -  the seeming absence of God - should not come as a surprise. It takes our loving openness, freshly spun and carefully woven each new day, to catch sight of the love which comes to greet us.

Monday, 21 September 2009

bridging the gap

old small and weak bridge in bradwell

weak bridge sign

This delightful old bridge spans Bradwell Brook in the centre of the village of Bradwell in the Peak District.  It looks like it has been in situ for centuries, connecting the community together from a time when the traffic it carried would have been mostly on foot or horsedrawn, right through to today. It still serves its original purpose well. Its comparatively dainty character by modern standards is photogenic and quite graceful. Walking across the bridge, pausing mid-way to watch a family of ducks bobbing downstream in the current, I had a tantalizing glimpse of a different pace of life in an age now long lost to us.

Life lived at walking pace, on the ‘small map’ of a well-known and seldom left locality, was once normative in rural communities the length and breadth of Britain. John Clare’s poetry reflects this strong identification with and knowledge of such an intimate sense of place. 

To modern eyes however this bridge is weak, dangerous even should a heavy lorry try to cross it – although I can’t help but think that the relative narrowness of the span between the stone parapets offers a small measure of in-built protection from that particular hazard. Nonetheless, it is labelled as ‘weak’ and all heavy traffic through Bradwell uses the low road bridge from which the top photo was taken.

Of course in faith terms we are constantly looking for new bridges into the communities of which we are a part. We yearn for strong spans which will carry and cope with the huge weight of our contemporary expectations of mission and discipleship. Rightly we make plans for increased volumes of traffic. But what if the bridges we need are best made small? What if some of the bridges we already have are actually sufficient for the task? What if walking pace is enough? What if it isn’t a gigantic eight-lane superhighway viaduct that’s needed but a series of new footbridges instead, crossing the gap at different yet equally significant and important places?

I just can’t get away from the fact that Jesus did ministry on a local scale, at walking pace or sat down around a table, the very intimacies which John Clare mourned with the coming of the industrial revolution. Maybe ‘small footbridge thinking’ would force us to reconnect with some essential truths concerning the intimate nature of God’s love.  Perhaps God prefers to travel at 3mph, walking alongside us and accompanying us at our pace, just like on the road to Emmaus. When we slow down like this there is so much more to be seen, appreciated, heard, smelled and noticed.

Are such small bridges weak? I think not. It seems to me that they can bear the full weight of the gospel of grace. The only weak point is our willingness to cross to the other side and live it.

old weak bridge in bradwell

the subtle religious art of disappointment

not in service bus at bakewell bus stop

This looked like a classic definition of disappointment to me. Take a bus, a bus stop and a queue of waiting passengers, and all should be well and as expected. Add the sign “Sorry. Not in Service” and what you have is solid gold-plated disappointment  decorated with bright gems of sparkling frustration. There have been a couple of times of late (a video meditation I put together for closing worship at our Synod and a Harvest sermon I gave yesterday morning using powerpoint) when I rather think I have arrived with something which disappointed and frustrated in equal measure, because for some it did not match up to expectations and, for whatever reason, I  missed the mark myself. Sometimes we just plain get it wrong. Mea culpa.

Preaching on the theme ‘God’s harvest of love, kindness and justice’, force of circumstances meant that I did a remix of the keynote address I had given the day before at our rural mission day – and perhaps therein lies one of my problems! A traditional take on Harvest, in this chapel bedecked with a full display of vegetables, preserves, fruit etc, was ‘not in the service’, neither was the hymn ‘we plough the fields and scatter’, which for theological reasons I find unsingable. As someone said to me afterwards: ‘that was controversial’. Taking Jesus at his word when he commands us to ‘follow’, I explored the implications of this as we seek to follow him into the suffering and injustice of the world. A disciple or church which fails to follow Jesus in this way is literally ‘not in service’ and resembles a bus with its doors firmly shut against the world outside. It is a disappointing and frustrating denial of purpose. 

One section of the material I used was a reworking of four slides from a presentation I put together earlier in the summer on ‘the stilling of the storm’. Jesus calls us out of the security of our comfort zone and tells us to journey over to new territory and discover what it means to be faithful to God there. You get the gist from the slides.

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I believe that Jesus calls us to disappoint and frustrate expectations which are inward-looking , bound up with maintaining the status quo and not determinedly missional. Just as he did. ‘Sorry. Not in Service’ is not good enough. The gospels warn us that this approach will be stormy. It certainly requires courage and trust. And it will be authentically Christian in outlook. This journey of service demands an open-door approach of being where the needy are. It is right there that we discover Jesus.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Christian Web and New Media Awards 2009: best christian blog

DSCN0863 copyIt was a huge privilege to attend the awards ceremony in London last night and receive a Bloggie award for ‘best Christian blog’. Premier Christian Media’s hospitality was so generous and gracious and the evening was held in a spirit of warmth, gratitude and excitement. At the centre of this fabulous evening and spread right throughout those gathered in St. Stephen’s, Wallbrook, was a wonderful celebration of God in our midst. Our digital presence within the internet today is for me the latter-day equivalent of the high Celtic crosses and smaller cross stones of the 7th to 10th centuries in Britain and Ireland. In a pre-literate age these stood at the heart of landscape and community as truly visible reminders of the living Christian story at the heart of ordinary and everyday life. Our blogs and websites are doing the same today within the digital landscape.

Global connectedness within this digital community brings such great potential for the rapid spread of innovation, insight and wisdom. What a Christian blogger writes in, say, Alaska one day can and does have  an impact right around the world by the next. One does get the feeling that we  are collectively surfing on the leading edge of God’s Spirit. DSCN0821 copyWe truly live in exciting times.

As I said last night, my blog is about seeing God in all things, which is a distinctly Celtic Christian perspective. The God in whom we live and move and have our being is always reaching out to us to make meaning and catch our attention. As we contemplate the world around us with open hearts and receptive minds God is in touch.  God’s loving presence  encourages, challenges and inspires us to turn our attention to Jesus and to seek him in the lives of others.

 

The photograph of a small bee sucking up nectar illustrates my own approach to blogging. Because my blog is photo-based, I get many hits from the Google Images search engine. Like the colourful flower, my images attract traffic to the blog which I might not otherwise get. No doubt very many who land here flit away as quickly as this bee did from the flower. It seems that others land and stay a bit longer, and find something nourishing. What I hope is true is that all leave with a little bit of incidental gospel pollen clinging to them. Even one tiny grain of grace, love and hope gathered here by chance in something seen or read might be a God-given gift to someone who needs it.

close up of hoverfly feedingMy sincere thanks go to the incomparable Rob Miles for suggesting that I take up blogging and for giving me great advice as to how to get started.  To Geoff Dowling ARPS, photographer in the Geography Dept at Birmingham University when I was a post-grad, who taught me to see creatively through the viewfinder of a camera. To the amazing and wonderful people called Methodist who teach me to see with eyes full of grace. And to Sue, Bekki and Judi who continue to teach me about the reality of true love.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

behind the scenes in public view: transmitting the story

talking to camera

This is the unseen story behind the ‘to camera’ head-shot that one TV journalist filed at the start of the Clipper race in Hull. Given the well established preference in broadcast news coverage for reporting live on air from where a story is actually happening,  these two found themselves on a boat out in the Humber estuary. With one hand she is holding on tight to the rail, with the other she grasps the well muffled microphone just out of shot. The cameraman steadies his back against the opposite handrail as he keeps her framed and in focus. This is a revealing cameo of something we don’t usually see.

It makes me think about the complex behind the scenes story by which we receive the picture of God as framed in the Bible.  Each book has its own unique narrative regarding its compilation and cultural perspective, its unseen history prior to transmission, which frames the view that we are offered. All of this involves people who have an important story to tell and deep truths and perceptions about God to share. Knowing that this is how biblical truth is transmitted does absolutely nothing to detract from its power and authority to radically reshape our story and enable us to participate fully in God’s unfolding narrative of grace.

The God who inspired people to follow in faith out of the mists of prehistory, the God we meet in the pages of the Bible and whom we see in HD clarity in Jesus, is the one whose presence enfolds and enthuses us now with a passion to tell our story too, and to change the world for good.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Exultant exaltation

exuberant fire tugs in the humber at the start of clipper 09-10 copy

exuberant fire tug in the humber at the start of clipper 09-10 copy

exuberant fire tug  following yachts in the humber at the start of clipper 09-10 no text copyThese two tugs provided an exuberant backdrop to the start of the Clipper 09-10 yacht race. With their water cannon operating at full tilt there was something quite ecstatic and jubilant about the way in which they were just being totally, utterly and completely true to their identity and purpose. In the presence of the graceful racing yachts it was as though these squat working vessels were celebrating a beauty and worth all of their own. It was a pleasure to see them like this, in their own right.

In the Bible it is so often those who are seen by others as having little or no comparative worth, or those excluded ones who are not seen at all, who truly exult in the love which God has for them. Being loved and cherished for who we are and as we are is the very essence of the gospel of grace. Enfolded in such divine love how can we do anything other than offer our wholehearted exaltation to God. The tugs are a nautical parable.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Clipper 09-10, Wilberforce and Racial Justice

lightning oat jamaica clipper 09-10

Have a good long look at this photo of the Jamaica sponsored yacht ‘Lightning Bolt’, taken as it sailed past the waterfront in Hull a few minutes before the Clipper 09-10 race began. Do you notice anything strange?

raced by people like youThat’s what I thought too. How odd that there is not a single person on deck who shares their ethnicity with Usain Bolt, the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen, whose nickname graces the yacht so proudly. How ironic that the race began and will end in Hull, the birthplace of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Did someone, somewhere, not have enough sense to ask the obvious question and join up the ethical dots on this one?

I applaud the organisers for encouraging ordinary people to experience this round the world yacht race. Breaking down the exclusivity of the sport and giving this opportunity to first-time crewmembers, some of whom would never ever be accepted on the books of a posh yacht club, has to be a great idea. The trouble is so many of them are people like me, rather than like Usain Bolt. What a pity. What a missed opportunity. What does this say about our commitment to racial justice, 250 years after Wilberforce was born?

But then again, take a look at this photo of just a few dozen of the thousands of  spectators who turned out to watch the race begin.   The cross-section you see here is pretty much representative of Hull as a whole. Unlike the West Midlands where I grew up, Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire, just like Lincolnshire, is noticeable for the absence of vibrant asian and afro-Caribbean communities. This is by accident and not design. It is not the product of incipient racism, far from it. I just happen to think that we are all that little bit poorer as a result. As is the Clipper race.

crowd watching start of clipper 09-10

hull and humber clipper 09-10

All of that said, when it comes to the outcome of the race I am unashamedly partisan and wish the fine crew of ‘Hull and Humber’ every success.

It’s all about trust: the Red Arrows display at Clipper 09-10 in Hull

The start of the Clipper 09-10 round the world yacht race in Hull was spectacular. A whole weekend of events combined the race with Hull’s own Wilberforce-inspired music and arts Freedom Festival. To add to the excitement prior to the start of the race the RAF Red Arrows put on a dazzling display of teamwork and skill in the skies above Hull Marina and the Humber Quays. Hull is just 6 minutes flying time from their home base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. A superbly informative on the ground commentary was provided by their road manager, ‘Red 10’ Squadron Leader Graeme Bagnall, and the commands from the lead pilots were also relayed to the crowd. The most striking piece of commentary was that which explained just how the pilots manage to fly so close to each other and hold formation through their aerobatic manoeuvres. Red 10 simply said: ‘it is all down to trust.’

During the display when flying in full formation the pilots of Red’s 2-9 keep their eyes fixed on the leader,  Wing Commander Jas Hawker, flying Red One. (From next year this spot will be flown by Squadron Leader Ben Murphy, currently Red 6.) All their experience and winter training means that by doing this they can keep formation and execute the intricacies of the various sequences. When Red One calls the whole team acts simultaneously on his command. The team trust the leader.  All eyes are fixed on his aircraft. Without this trust the team could not fly safely as a coordinated unit. The following photographs give you an impression of what this trust looks like in practice. It is simply awe-inspiring. The pilots trust in the professionalism of their ground crews too, whose vital job it is to keep each of the Hawk aircraft on the top line. And of course they trust in their own skill and confidence as the ‘creme de la creme’ of the RAF’s fast jet frontline pilots. There is no room for pilot error or mechanical failure when flying wingtip to wingtip a few feet apart at a couple of hundred miles per hour. And it is Red One who brings this all together in the air.

red arrows trust in leader copy

red arrows close formation enid copy red arrows all banking in formation copy

red arrows enid banking with smoke on copy

red arrows in close formation

solo red arrow copy

It is small wonder that the Psalms speak so often about trust.  What is true in the air is no less true on the ground. Trust in God is vital and essential if we are to achieve anything worthwhile together. We put our lives in God’s hands and trust that God knows what God is doing. It is when we divert our gaze that trouble begins.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

God’s Algebra of Grace

gods algebra of graceLooking through today’s gospel reading in the lectionary I was struck by something I have called ‘God’s Algebra of Grace’.

God’s unconditional love for each and every one of us is what we call ‘grace’. Methodists cherish ‘prevenient grace’ because it is so important to realise that God is reaching out to us in love before ever we recognise it and respond.

The question Jesus asks of his disciples -  “who do people say that I am” – points to this ongoing work of grace in the lives of his contemporaries in Roman-occupied Palestine. For us today it points to a conversation we can have with other people about their awareness of God and their perceptions of Jesus Christ. This conversation is sharpened when we have to turn it around and answer the question for ourselves. Who do we say that Jesus is and what is our awareness and experience of God’s grace?

Combine this pair of key questions to others and ourselves with a genuine openness to the Holy Spirit and we are talking about evangelism.

Add in Jesus' clear instruction to follow him into the hurt and pain of the world and to discover God’s grace there, the way of the cross which seeks to transform the world through the power of love, and we have mission. And viewed like this, mission always incorporates evangelism, and the ‘(b+c) x h’ of our discipleship will have an effect on the value of ‘a’. Let’s just hope to God that this is not negative.

And of course, the key term in all of is ‘h’: our openness to the Holy Spirit, the inspiring and empowering presence of God creatively at work in the world.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

cast adrift, washed up and forgotten: discarded lives and hurting people

cast adrift message in a bottle copy

Politicians are talking about deep cuts in public services. The credit-crunch and recession have seen so many lose their jobs and increasing numbers of young people despairing of  ever getting one. Those who are vulnerable, needy and poor face a grim future. And yet bankers still get their bonuses. The image serves as a warning to Christians that we simply cannot stand by and let a repeat of the divisive social destruction of the 1980’s happen now.  Our gospel is good news for the poor and oppressed: for all those cast adrift, washed up and forgotten by politicians in their thrall to the love of money, we have to engender hope and value. Discarded lives and hurting people are a call to action.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Teeming with meaning

meadowhall sculture

This sculpture in the Meadowhall shopping centre shows  three steelworkers  pouring out molten metal from a crucible into an ingot mould, a process known as ‘teeming’.  The huge mall is built on the site of a former steelworks in Sheffield, and the sculpture is a poignant reminder of the city’s steelmaking history. Viewed in context it is a jarring memorial to the cataclysmic economic upheavals Sheffield has experienced. As in so many other towns and cities across the Midlands and the North of England, the urban landscape has been denuded of heavy industry and manufacturing. This post-industrial desolation is characterised by rusting skeletons of once proud factories, post-demolition wastelands and the ubiquitous shopping malls and retail parks. The human cost is just as profound if less visible.

So the sculpture is teeming with meaning. Hundreds  of shoppers rush by it every hour. Few seem to stop and ponder its significance. But perhaps that isn’t the point of this striking piece of public art. What it does is hold and keep the human story in a temple of consumerism that is desperately soul-less. It says “this mattered; this is part of who you are. Look and learn. The triumph and tragedy of life depicted before your eyes can pour out meaning into your soul. If you will but look deeply you can leave here richer”. This wisdom cannot be paid for with Visa, bagged up and carried home from Meadowhall’s shops. It is offered for free to those who will engage with the art. The price has been paid in the blood, sweat, tears, toil and unemployment of the steelworkers and their families.

Might the Church in our time usefully rediscover the charism of ‘public art’ and the teeming of meaning in the secular, consumerist marketplace?

Do have a look at Sally’s poem ‘Wisdom calling…’ inspired by this post

Saturday, 5 September 2009

save this amazing gift for future generations to appreciate

lathkill dale thistle patch copyOn a gloriously sunny afternoon in Lathkill Dale at least five different butterfly species were feeding in this extensive patch of thistles. Pictured here are Painted Lady, Brimstone, Peacock, Small White and Meadow Brown. Dozens of individual butterflies were feasting on the readily available nectar in the great swathe of pinky-purple flowers. Despite the strong breeze I was able to capture some of this activity in close-up. The delicate structures of compound eyes, antennae, proboscis and legs, the ‘furry’ thorax and abdomen and the subtle and striking colouration of the wings are to my mind stunningly beautiful. These butterflies are evolutionary miracles in miniature, each species a variation on a successful theme.

painted lady butterfly feeding

 brimstone butterfly feeding

So with the allure of its sugary nectar this one species of thistle was attracting a real diversity of insect life. In return butterflies, bees and hoverflies were unwittingly carrying away and distributing the plant’s pollen. The thistle’s sexual reproduction needs the pollinators and in return they get a high-energy food source. Such ecological mutualism and interdependence has evolved over millions of years. In close-up it is wonderful to behold, even more so when one can linger over a still image and really appreciate something which so often happens in a blur in real time.

peacock butterfly feeding 2 copy small white butterfly feeding

The arrogant, hedonistic, rapacious, narrow-minded, short-term and prosperity fixated behaviour of our species is destroying the planet which is our home at an alarming rate. Politicians have bottled out and have neither the courage nor the wisdom to offer real leadership on green issues.  Maximising profit, wealth, returns on investments and dividends for shareholders is their governing paradigm, whichever party they represent. Care for the environment as well as for the global poor demands a wholly different and radical approach centred on ecological sustainability and justice. We urgently need new definitions of prosperity and wealth which relate much more to the interdependencies and mutualities you see in these images from Lathkill Dale  than to our current fixation with pound notes, dollar bills and individualism. Capitalism and ‘the markets’ will not deliver the solution: they are very much part of the problem.butterfly copy

Christians should have a deep care for creation. Our political views should reflect godly values, and God always has a particular concern for the poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable. God cherishes this fragile planet and commits its care into our hands. The natural world is an amazing gift. It is up to each one of us to do all in our poimagewer to ensure that it remains so for generations to come. Centuries from now I hope that people will still be able to enjoy the butterflies in Lathkill Dale. If this hope is to have any chance of becoming a reality the time for action is now. It may already be too late to save the rich diversity of tropical rainforests and coral reefs. The peoples of the low-lying Pacific Islands and of Bangladesh are already paying the price of our greed.

This why Franny Armstrong’s 10:10 climate change campaign is so significant. Please sign up. She says this:

All the talking, all the documentaries, all the international negotiations have resulted in a net achievement of less than nothing: global emissions just keep going up and up. As Pete Postlethwaite's character says in our documentary, The Age of Stupid, "We wouldn't be the first life form to wipe itself out. But what would be unique about us is that we did it knowingly."

I could have written a post which drew a churchy / spiritual meaning out of the images, but somehow I came to see that the whole point at issue is that the butterflies and thistles have to be seen on their own terms and in their own right. Our species has taken a terribly utilitarian view our environment. It has been something to exploit and use to our advantage. In my lifetime a saner ecological understanding has been gaining ground. With God’s help we can end the ‘age of stupid’. Hope in God’s Future is the only way to go. What could possibly matter more?

click on the image to order a copy of the report        

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All macro shots Nikon D90 handheld (without fill-in flash); Sigma 105mm macro lens, 1/640 – 1/800 sec, iso 640 - 4000