Saltfleet, Lincolnshire Coast
Sanctuary lamp in the Chapel, St Oswald's Pastoral Centre
The candle burns in the darkness of the chapel as a reminder of the presence of Christ, the light of the world. So quite appropriately this weekend we celebrate Candlemas. We remember the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the words of Simeon "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
I became a Christian because of the words written in biro in this small bible by my Great Uncle Tom, a man I never met or spoke with. It was his gift to me on the occasion of my Christening in 1959. I don't know why he chose to do this, or indeed what led him to want to offer me the reference to St. John's gospel, chapter 8 and verse 12. All I know is that I am profoundly grateful that he did. And I regret that I cannot tell him so.
As a child, when times were tough, I would often pick up this Bible and turn to the page in it you see below, and read the verse Great Uncle Tom gifted to me. In the darkness of what we were living through as a family, with my Dad suffering with schizophrenia, alcoholism and life-threatening asthma, these words were a great comfort and I knew that this was what I longed for, but didn't know how to get. Light and darkness needed no explanation. I think their meaning is instinctive and deeply felt.
Years later, as an undergraduate student in Birmingham, I first set foot in a Methodist Church and decided to give faith a go. I was looking for the piece of the jigsaw that was missing in my life. At that moment the meaning of Simeon's words, Jesus's promise in John 8:12 and my Great Uncle Tom's gift came together in my soul. The candle of faith has burned ever since. My trust in God goes right back to a man I never met, who out of all the verses in the Bible he could have chosen, wanted to offer me these words:
Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will not walk in darkness. They will have the light of life.
I took the first step to follow, and am following still, because his promise is real and true.
GIM Retreat 2009
I got back yesterday from our annual Growing In Ministry (GIM) retreat at St Oswald's Pastoral Centre at Sleights, near Whitby. Our GIM group is for all those in their first five years of ministry, which usually means that someone joins as a newly arrived Probationer Minister and stays in the group for three years post-ordination. They meet monthly, or thereabouts, and support and encourage each other under the care of Duncan, our GIM Coordinator, who is a former member of the group. Each January our custom is for me to join them for a weekend retreat (Friday evening - Monday morning) which I co-lead. This year we took John Caputo's What Would Jesus Deconstruct? as our starting point and over four sessions sought to deconstruct / reconstruct ourselves and our ministries. In addition Duncan offered two meditations based on Henri Nowen's The Wounded Healer, which encouraged us to reflect upon how we live with our scars and wounds in such a way that they are non-destructive for ourselves and those around us. Our well-established pattern is that during the morning there is time for group discussion, small group conversation and individual reflection. Afternoon's are kept free. After our evening meal we share in a time of prayer in the Chapel. Each year we always include a gentle time of healing and anointing with oil, and on Sunday at noon we join together for a Eucharist to which we are always pleased to welcome the Sisters.
The photo shows the group settling down on Saturday evening in one of the lounge's we use as an impromptu cinema. The lights are turned out, drinks and snacks are offered in abundance and we enjoy a film together; with the die-hard's staying up for a second one. This year's food for thought was Amazing Grace, In Bruges, Once, The Bucket List, Mama Mia! and Atonement. Having fun and enjoying each others' company is an essential ingredient of what is on offer as we seek to provide a gift of time and safe space to reflect upon our vocations and contexts. Stepping aside from the hurly-burly unsustainable blur of demanding ministries we move into a different rhythm and a communal lifestyle which together offers a precious mirror in which we hope to see clearly fresh insights and glimpse eternal truths.
The key to this working well is the hospitality offered by the four Sisters of the Anglican Order of the Holy Paraclete who live at St. Oswald's. We share lunch and dinner together and just delight in being with such amazing women. This week Sister Barbara Maud celebrates 60 years since she took her vows. The love and holy wisdom which enfolds us as we eat and chat together is wrapped up in a keen sense of great fun and much laughter. It is as though one steps through the Looking Glass into an alternative, counter-cultural world where the essence of being human is disclosed gently and offered as gift.
The money-grabbing individuals who have wrecked the global economy and wrought misery on millions look small, mean-spirited, stupid and pathetic in this company. Their yachts, pension-pots, gated-residences and lust for bonus mentality is as attractive as a dose of the plague bacillus when one spends time in this very different spiritual universe. The twelve men who between them made £1billion as bosses of banks such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Merril Lynch would do well to visit St. Oswald's to appreciate the true meaning of the word 'bankrupt' as it applies to them, their attitudes, practices, decisions and choices. The most valuable currency is loving kindness and empathy; the best investment is spiritual wisdom and contemplative insight and the most precious bonus is grace itself.
Look again at the amazing people in the photograph. They are talented, bright, fabulous individuals. They earn around about £20,000 per year as Methodist Ministers. They often work ludicrously long and damagingly hard working weeks. They have given themselves to God and have been prepared to go where God needs them. They are highly trained and skilled. They believe passionately that the gospel is good news, especially for the poor. Their faith and enthusiasm is stunning. The fact that God is calling such as these into ministry is a profoundly hopeful sign in a desperately hurting world.
To those who are glad that buses now proclaim that "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." I would simply say look at the evidence in this photograph. Our GIM retreat at St. Oswalds has much joie de vivre. We have got this one life and we know that to make the most of it, it is entirely sensible for us to put our trust in God. Faith works. God is. Let's party.
There is a sharp clarity to Midwinter. I am forced to watch and wait whilst the landscape endures its frost-bound slumber. It is as though the very cold itself is insisting that I slow down spiritually and take time to reflect, for there is much to ponder before Spring's energy bursts into view. The habitual rush of thoughts slows like a waterfall's freezing to ice in my mind. The tempo of Midwinter is 'wait and watch'. The short hours of daylight lend an urgency to my seeing. Although often dank and dismal at other times, the light at dawn and dusk has a magical quality. These are precious minutes, fleeting and demanding a quick eye lest the moment be lost with the changing light.
So it was that I saw the tree in the photograph. It was set apart, alone. The image captures exactly the pastel tones and fading light at dusk, with the frosty air still shrouding the landscape in veils of white, enveloping mist. And with Midwinter clarity the tree reveals itself as it is. A story of death and life. Long bare branches reach to the sky in forlorn hope. Now bereft of sap, for these branches leaves are a far distant memory of a springtime which will never return. Yet that is not the whole truth for this tree. Clusters of densely packed twigs and branches suggest it is ready to embrace Spring's invitation to relish the light and warmth when they arrive. Buds will form. Leaves will unfurl and catch the sun. Sap will flow.
The tree is not perfect. Its imperfection is not hidden or subtle; it breaks the skyline like a clamour of rooks rising from their roosts. It speaks to me of what it is to be authentically and honestly human. Christine's post 'A Midwinter God' at Abbey of the Arts explores these themes beautifully. It prompted me to work with the images of the tree, and I hope you will take the time to read it. She says:
My own multiple journeys through grief have demanded that I take the Midwinter God seriously. That I look her fiercely in the eye until I see the reflection of my own terror and stay with it, breathe through it, begin to enter it with curiosity to see what it has to teach me about living in meaningful ways, to live a life of depth that takes seriously both suffering and joy. I am called to become friends with the thing I hate — the inevitable loss of everything I love. A friendship that plunges me into the precious nature of each single moment.
Perhaps this is what the tree evokes as I gaze upon it in the Midwinter light.
Weather Vane, Holthorpe Hall
The title of Bob Dylan's famous song provides a tantalising insight for anyone seeking direction for their future. 'The answer is blowin' in the wind' is a very biblical and true to life understanding of what we might expect in such circumstances. Seeing the weather vane last week straightaway set me to thinking about how changes of direction come about and the role of God's Spirit in this process. The story of Jesus's baptism encourages us to expect that the Holy Spirit will play an integral part not only in our own self-understanding but also in the formative perceptions of those around us. This being so we can expect to be surprised, challenged, unsettled and prompted to journey in directions which are not of our choosing. Many of the prophets knew precisely what this feels like, as did the early Jesus movement post-Pentecost. The wind shifts direction, the weather vane turns, and our gaze is drawn to a part of the horizon we have not considered before, or have dismissed previously.
We become aware that an intention greater than our own is at work. The passage from John's gospel quoted alongside the picture of the weather vane conveys this well.
The wind of change tussles our hair and buffets our clothing; trees sway and leaves take to the air swept along by the godly fluid dynamics of possibility and promise. The creative presence of God, which the Bible pictures as breath and wind, invites us to 'go with the flow' and be carried by divine energy. The alternative is to dig in and turn around head down into the wind and wait it out.
In Lasse Halstrom's film adaptation of Joanne Harris's novel Chocolat, similar thoughts are visualised and brought into play as an intriguing plot device. Juliette Binoche's character Vianne and her daughter Anouk live an itinerant life, "travelling with the North Wind dispensing ancient remedies." On Shrove Tuesday this wind brings them to a small, closed in community in rural France where open-heartedness, pleasure, grace, freedom and joy are desperately lacking and indeed are suppressed by the mayor (in the film) and the priest (in the book). The film brings Easter alive by showing how real love cherishes others and sets them free to flourish.
Just as weather systems coming in from the Atlantic determine the weather over the British Isles so godly intention sweeps through and affects our daily experience. The answer is blowin' in the wind, if we are prepared to trust the Holy Spirit. So far I have not chosen where I have served in ministry. I was sent to Weymouth as a Probationer Minister and then stationed to Hull in a priority appointment. In both cases I was told I was going and that there needed to be exceptional reasons not to go. I was asked to apply for my current post. Initially I said no, then 24 hours later said yes, because saying no seemed to be digging in and facing into the wind before even giving the church a chance to offer its formative perceptions of what the Holy Spirit might be up to.
Now the wind is blowing again and I am waiting to see where the weather vane will point next. My current appointment ends in 2011 and I have said that I am not seeking re-invitation. The District will begin the process of appointing my successor in the Autumn. Just like me they will be open to the wind of the Spirit taking them in a fresh and exciting direction. We shall I hope continue to grow and flourish in our time together; this is a great District with a real mission mind-set and a heart to share the love of Jesus. By the time I leave I will have eleven years or so to offer and I am excited, daunted, enthused and scared at the prospect of the unknown, but above all I am looking forward (literally) to the destination, as yet beyond the horizon, which God has in prospect for me. I trust the wind. I expect those God-incidences which mark its creative presence. I look for its prompting's in the conversation and wisdom of others. Open to the Spirit, in my good moments I relish the gathering breeze. As one of Mr Wesley's preachers I am committed to "travelling with the North Wind dispensing ancient remedies." I know that the answer to my future is blowin' in the wind. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
You can also see my post on Windmill Spirituality for a companion piece to this one
What difference do Christians make? Or put another way, what would the world at large notice if Christians simply gave up their faith? How can you tell that Christians are about?
It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the answers to such questions would be framed in an affirming way if they were asked of the general public. The very fact that I can write that sentence with a high degree of confidence that what I am saying corresponds to the truth is worrying. Contrary to some popular perceptions, the litmus test of Christian presence is not bickering and acrimony, but sacrificial love which is very much down to earth and profoundly creative.
Why? Because God is creative. That is how the Bible begins. Its pages bear testimony to the outpouring and outworking of this divine creativity in the chaotic particulars of human history. God's loving purposeful presence is restless and dynamic. Each and every circumstance and context has within it the possibility and opportunity of a godly outcome.
The pictures of the rose bushes which I took this morning show what I mean. Last years blooms are long faded. In the dull, damp gloom the plants look forlorn and winter-bound. And in this first week of January fresh buds are readily apparent and new leaves are beginning to unfurl. Everything that has served its purpose and is now superfluous is decaying away and the plant is becoming newly revitalised. Authentic Christian faith in action looks something like this. This is the effect that Jesus had in the lives of those around him. Everything had the potential to be reinvigorated and made new. The first disciples learned to put this into practice. In every aspect of their common life, work, worship and witness they trusted in God's creativity. The early church had confidence in God because the first Christians were themselves becoming new creations in Jesus. They walked the talk. The old biblical promises birthed new life and hope in the world through their lives. So Christians are by definition creative. Buds of love, newness and hope should attend their presence. Fresh shoots of transformation and challenge should be obvious. The passionate presence of Jesus will be in the air. Chaos itself will be dispersing in the creative breath of God.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.
2 Corinthians 5.17
whose mechanism has broken. No, I'm not thinking about George Bush or the Israeli understanding of peacemaking, though it could easily be either of these. What I have in mind is the Methodist Covenant Service which usually happens in the first couple of weeks of January in churches up and down the Connexion. As the service says :"In this covenant God promises us new life in Christ. For our part we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God".
I wish. Like all things in life the reality is rather different and, in fact, little different from the stories of promises made and broken which litter the Bible from end to end. The intention is laudable, the delivery often laughable, and I am talking about myself.....
As much use as a wind-up Santa in January whose mechanism has broken. Which is why the service is realistic and tells it how it honestly is:
For the sin that has made us slow to learn from Christ, reluctant to follow him, and afraid to bear the cross: Lord, have mercy, Lord, forgive.
For the sin that has caused the poverty of our worship, the formality and selfishness of our prayers, our neglect of fellowship and the means of grace, and our hesitating witness for Christ: Lord, have mercy, Lord, forgive.
For the sin that has led us to misuse your gifts, evade our responsibilities,and fail to be good stewards of your creation: Lord, have mercy, Lord, forgive.
For the sin that has made us unwilling to overcome evil with good, tolerant of injustice, quick to condemn, and selfish in sharing your love with others: Lord, have mercy,Lord, forgive.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your constant love; in the fullness of your mercy blot out my offences. Wash away all my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Give me the joy of your help again and strengthen me with a willing spirit
In other words, please fix my faith-mechanism and wind it up again that I might yet point others to the gifts you bring all year round. And put your living word into my action. Please.
I am no longer my own but yours. Your will, not mine, be done in all things, wherever you may place me, in all that I do and in all that I may endure; when there is work for me and when there is none; when I am troubled and when I am at peace. Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded; when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking; when I have all things, and when I have nothing. I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage......
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route (Mt.2:1-2;12)
I took this image of a shop front in Hull on Saturday to convey something of the shabby reality of the prosperity myth which has manifested so cruelly amongst us. Looking at the windows we see a distortion of reality: economic greed has consistently warped what we have seen and financial illusions have been reflected back to us. For liberty read oppression, for promise read despair. So whilst the name of the store is irrelevant, the name of the street points to a cruel credit-crunch irony.
This prosperity myth has been peddled by generations of politicians and has been exploited wantonly by bankers and financial greed-merchants the world over. The bright shining star of wealth and money which has burned so persistently for so long, promise-laden with the lure of liberty, has turned out to be a meteor crashing to earth with cataclysmic power. The name of Bernie Madoff resembles a blackened fragment of meteorite amidst the destruction. Woolworths has been obliterated. More carnage will follow.
Writing in today's Guardian Jackie Ashley traces the contours of this new wasteland: "This year, many hardworking people will lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Many businesses, built up with care, will be destroyed. Millions of savers, often older people, will find they don't have the interest or dividends they'd depended on. High streets will have more boarded-up windows."
She then poses a question which I want to put alongside the photo I took in Liberty Lane:
"The political challenge is whether this dark and burgeoning recession could actually make us a better country." If the promise of the free-market star has crashed to earth, where can we look for an epiphany? The Christian Festival of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. The story of open-minded, truth-seeking wisdom outwitting conniving, self-serving political power is beguiling. For those of an imaginative, self-reflective turn of mind, however, the outsider / insider dynamics of the tale are more than a little unsettling. It is much easier to cast ourselves as Magi than to see ourselves as Herod. Vested interests are habitually resistant to the challenges outsiders bring. Politicians find it hard to say sorry and accept responsibility for messes they have made. So often we are little different. The bankers, fat-cats and Madoff's of this world delivered a star which politicians - and so many of us - found irresistible. The price of all this is being paid for in untold misery right across the world.
I wrote about epiphany last year and said "epiphany is hard won and costly; it has all to do with the question "what are you looking for?" and the sense of emptiness and incompleteness out of which it arises." This seems especially so now.
As you can see, the units in the new St.Stephen's Shopping Centre in Hull are warm and inviting. Yet the emptiness of the dream is all too apparent. Is there enduring liberty here? Can we spend our way out of emptiness? Will the latest fashions remove our incompleteness? The mannequins look desolate somehow, lovely clothes on something that is anything but real, and the sign to the cash desk showing what this transaction is really about. Profit rather than wellbeing; debt rather than fulfilment. Here in the dark night of the credit crunch, consumerism has turned up empty handed to the cradle where promises are birthed. Not-so wisely we have followed a bogus star.
Yet the Liberty Lane street name stands like a cross offering a different star, a fresh dream, a dependable promise and a guaranteed epiphany for those searching in the economic wreckage for a way ahead. Just around the corner is the house where William Wilberforce was born. Does this not say something about the power of Christian Faith to motivate people in every age to challenge the forces of exploitation and to hold to account the merchants of misery and purveyors of despair? True liberty and real freedom cannot be bought and sold. Goodness is not for sale. Kindness is not a commodity. These virtues arise out of that living truth of love which alone sets us free. Jesus offers in his kingdom way of life a liberty that does not depend upon cash, stocks, shares, equity, derivatives or financial instruments. Kindness, compassion and justice are his way to liberty. They offer the potential for a new politics.
Saturday's Guardian carried an extract from 'On Kindness' by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, a book which reads like a word in season. They have uncomfortable things to say about religion and its woeful track record on kindness. Like the Magi they are deeply challenging to our vested interests. Yet they bear gifts to us. Kindness may yet be our credit-crunch epiphany. If we are prepared to travel home by a different route.