Thursday, 28 January 2010


abandoned sculpture by naomi blake

Photograph of sculpture taken at Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre

Naomi Blake was born in Czechoslovakia and as a child survived Auschwitz, although many members of her family died there. After the war, she lived in Milan, Rome and Jerusalem, before making her home in North London. She studied at Hornsey School of Art, and has been exhibiting since 1962.

“One cannot leave Beth Shalom without a stroll through the magnificently landscaped gardens, with their imposing sculptures and images and bushes planted in memory of numerous Holocaust victims. The centrepiece sculpture, Abandoned, by Naomi Blake, poses the rhetorical question: how could God have allowed the Holocaust to happen? The exquisite gardens are an unparalleled site for silent contemplation.”  Howard Spier


after the title of Naomi Dum Blake's sculpture.This is in the garden (at Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre) which she has dedicated to the Dum family's ten grandchildren, who perished in Auschwitz.

It's important that there is a record
in the heart of the English countryside.
'Out of the depths have I called thee, Oh Lord.'
'Why do you forget us? Where do you hide?'

In the heart of the English countryside,
Beth Shalom - I assumed was run by Jews;
Why do you forget us? Where do you hide?
In undertaker's suits and unbrushed shoes?

At Beth Shalom, which I assumed was run by Jews,
two Christian brothers, trying to make amends,
in undertaker's suits and unbrushed shoes.
For those who never returned - families and friends,

two Christian brothers trying to make amends.
Formal rose gardens, in memory
of those who never returned - families and friends,
honour 'their courage and their dignity'.

Grandchildren's garden. In memory,
Naomi Blake, sculptress, moulds sadness and rage,
honours 'their courage and their dignity'.
For each, a red rose, a plaque with name and age.

Naomi Blake, sculptress, moulds sadness and rage
for millions who died, those dying now,
for each a red rose, a plaque with name and age.
From Rwanda, Auschwitz-Birkenau,

for millions who died, those dying now
it's important that there is a record.
From Rwanda, Auschwitz-Birkenau,
'Out of the depths have I called thee, Oh Lord.'

Marilyn Longstaff

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Holocaust Memorial Day

holocaust memorial day copy

My photos for this composite were taken courtesy of Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

(George Santayana)

Hope without memory is like memory without hope

(Elie Wiesel)


“On HMD 2010, we hope people will think about how they can make a difference in their own communities, asking themselves what they can do today to build a safer, stronger society so that the risk of the building blocks of genocide ever being laid is removed.” (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust)

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

wrecking-ball compassion and the 2:1 imperative

pull up and tear down copy

Your job is to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish, and then start over, building and planting  (Jeremiah 1:10)

The prophet Jeremiah is offered a ‘brown-field’ commission by God. Not for him the option of ‘green-field’ construction. No; Jeremiah’s understanding of his vocation is such that he will not be able to avoid the eyesore- ridden, run-down, dilapidated, redundant and squalid areas of our psyches, relationships, common life and social fabric.   God’s Civil Engineering of Grace is a regeneration project of epic dimensions because it encompasses every person with cherishing love and hopeful, purposeful intention. All are included in this collective Kingdom paradigm of equality, responsibility, commitment and accountability. Building lives, relationships and societies of love, justice and compassion is the (unchanging) job spec for those willing to let their brief and precious existence be shaped by God’s presence.

We are called to take the wrecking-ball of compassion to all that is unjust, demeaning and hurtful, to all that divides, diminishes and degrades our humanity. We are tasked to “pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish” structures which promote, maintain or shield such things as these. And to do this without ever resorting to the methods which built them in the first place. God engineers with compassion, constructs with compassion, is pure compassion. WE – US – TOGETHER is the overall creative plan. The simplicity, sustainability and mutualism of Jesus’ compassionate way of loving are the tools. Empowered and inspired by God’s Spirit, construction is delivered on site with insight by you and me in trusting partnership. We build and plant structures of grace and love. The skyline of contemporary life is to be transformed by this architecture of  compassion and justice.

And what really mesmerises me in this text is God’s 2:1 imperative. The ratio of destruction to construction is just that, 2:1. Every act of building and planting is matched by a double emphasis on demolishing and tearing down. God’s yearning that we should be set free sets the priority for our action together as compassionate disciples of Jesus.

Just imagine it: no listed buildings and no preservation orders to keep in place structures which are no longer fit for purpose, because in the divine economy bricks and mortar are always a means to an end. No ‘no-go’ areas or sink estates. No gated communities. Just compassionate people working to transform our communities. Light, warm, welcoming, inclusive and intentional spaces are what God seeks to construct in our minds, hearts and neighbourhoods. And that is a ‘brown-field’ commission for each one of us, straight from God.

The Charter for Compassion is a good place to start. Why not sign up today?

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

Monday, 25 January 2010

Form factor fallacy

form factor LP vs iPod crop

Sometimes when I am reading a book or the newspaper a sentence or phrase catches my attention and takes my thoughts way off at a tangent, running riot in my imagination. "It is more defined by its form factor – its shape and appearance – than its use" was the latest example of this. The article in question was in the Guardian G2 section and was about Apple's latest product release, the eagerly awaited 'tablet' electronic reader. As soon as I read the quote I could not help but instantly make the connection with Christianity.

Why? All too often our collective life of faith as followers of Jesus is defined in popular perception by the shape and appearance of churchy things and doctrinal propositions, rather than by the purpose to which such faith is and should be put. In other words we are more defined by the form factor of our religion than by its use, which is why the quote in the Guardian struck home. Form factor fallacy indeed.

Which brings me to the image of the iPod sitting on top of one of my old LP records, Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”, which I bought when I was a teenager and well into Motown Soul. Like the iMac and iPhone, the iPod is defined by its form factor, which is the hall-mark of Apple design. It is a delight to use, holds dozens of albums, is small, light and portable and can be taken anywhere. Contrast this to the LP which could only be played on a mains record deck and the music listened to in one room. The LP is for indoors, but the iPod truly frees up the music for everywhere and everyone at anytime. Wherever I am my music can be too.

In the same fashion Jesus takes the original intention of religious life and shows how the music of love is meant to be heard through our words and actions wherever we are, rather than being confined to one place or building, or limited to one way of hearing or expressing it. Jesus is not for church alone; through the presence of the Spirit his way, truth and life is in action way beyond the form factor confines of Christianity. We carry it within us. Ultimately it is the music which matters, not the device which plays it. What is the point of an iPod if I never listen to the music?

So what catches my attention as I read the gospels is not so much the faith form factor content of Jesus the Jew. It is what this belief inevitably means in practice for how he lives his everyday life empowered by and embodying the music of divine love in the Holy Spirit. To be God’s faithful people is to be in action, whereas inaction puts a huge question mark beside the assertion of faith: this is what the life of Jesus says to me. Christianity is actively purposeful. Wherever we are the music of God’s inclusive, liberating love should be heard too.

Friday, 22 January 2010

let your spirit soar

let your spirit soar seagull sculpture colour

The picture shows the wonderful seagull sculpture adjacent to the main entrance of 1 City Square in Leeds. I am grateful to Liz Smith, Chair of the Leeds Methodist District, for introducing me to it. As dusk fell I managed to get a useable shot on my little Fuji Z35, but made a mental note to return with the D90 to make the most of its far superior definition and capabilities. For now though this will do.

My imagination was captivated by the juxtaposition of the bold red ‘To Let’ sign advertising office space for rent and the soaring succession of individual seagulls. It was as though the two were linked by an unseen, unspoken promise: come inside and commit to this space and your spirit will soar. Which is precisely what I believe about the Christian Faith.

And this is exactly the sense I get from the gospel set for this Sunday too. Now it was as someone unmistakably and unquestionably “filled with the Holy Spirit’s power” that his contemporaries first experienced Jesus (Luke 4:14). The transformative vision he sets out in his home synagogue at Nazareth is one of our spirits soaring when we enter into the freeing space of God’s energising presence. Quoting from the Isaiah tradition he challenges those present to truly get inside and inhabit God’s spacious and gracious promises by letting the Holy Spirit indwell their soulspace.

What spaces have we ‘to let’ God into?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Now is the time and now is the place to act

now is the time now is the place

Walking through Lincoln I took a quick grab shot with my compact camera of this sign outside a hairdressing salon. Great message. Clear, fresh and attention grabbing design. Brilliant incitement to act on the spur of the moment and cross the threshold.

Put this alongside the powerful text set for this upcoming Sunday and the synergy is obvious. All that needs to be said is said. Cross the threshold and experience this for yourself is the clear message.  Now is the time and now is the place to ‘get’ Jesus and his life-bringing Kingdom. And as for God’s design, love’s purpose is equally clear, fresh and attention grabbing.

Now is the time and now is the place to act. It always is.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Floodplain of the soul

floodwater at river derwent bridge colourriver derwent floodplain colour view copy

imageThe River Derwent in East Yorkshire is notorious for flooding, a fact which is all-too obvious from these photographs taken yesterday at Bubwith. As you can see from the second photograph, the whole area of floodplain to the north of the road in the satellite image is currently inundated with water and transformed completely beyond recognition. The embankment resembles an accusing green finger of marooned failure. Fences stand partly submerged like memorials to Canute-like intentions of control and order. Signs prohibiting access and defining exclusive rights are overwhelmed by the trespassing floodwaters.   This is one floodplain which aptly deserves its name.

And if we are to be energised and revitalised by God it seems to me to be imperative that we allow our floodplain of the soul to be just that, an area of our being where we can be overwhelmed by the presence of divine love. This is as much the normal state of our being human as is the Derwent periodically overflowing its banks. A natural and unmodified drainage basin of faith would lead to us experiencing awareness of overflowing grace and being inundated by the presence of God. It is when we seek to divert, engineer and artificially manipulate the flow that we get into difficulties. The storm drains, culverts, canals, barriers and barrages of religion give a false sense of  control and security when it comes to God.

At the same time our covering of the intellectual landscape with vast and continuous built up areas of narrow rationalism disrupts the natural hydrology of grace: these hard, impervious surfaces drastically limit the opportunities for God to seep naturally into our common consciousness.

I think that the mystics understood these tendencies and chose instead to centre themselves in the natural floodplain of the soul. Reading their stories I am struck by how often it is this utter and total overflowing of grace which brings them to life. Far from being something to channel, control or avoid, they are renewed and their faith made fertile by such periodic experiences of godly innundation.  Perhaps the Derwent can teach us a vital lesson about the refreshing of God’s people in the floodplain of the soul.

frozen floodwater of river derwent

Friday, 15 January 2010

emergency exit

i will not keep silent copy

Sitting in the same room this week for four consecutive days of meetings my attention kept being drawn to the emergency exits, and the world outside beyond the glass. The green signs intruded into my imagination as DSC_0004though they were begging a question. A person running, an arrow giving direction and a door through which to escape to safety – what sort of prophetic message might this be? Aside from the obvious personal connotation of wanting to be back home, in my faith perception the image became rooted in the lectionary reading from Isaiah set for this Sunday, the second after Epiphany: For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. (Isaiah 62:1) A quick perusal of other translations gives added force to what is intended by the two key decisions at the heart of this text: I will not keep still, I can't keep my mouth shut,  I can't hold my tongue, I cannot remain silent, I will not hold my peace, I will speak up for your good, I will not remain quiet….

If the emergency exit signs are meant to incite action in a context of threat and apparent danger to those inside, getting them outside and into comparative safety, so the reworked theological one incites God’s insiders to get off their butts, leave the comparative safety of church life, and with a real sense of urgency to get out into the suffering and hurt of the world. Once there they will not keep silent about injustice or rest whilst people’s lives are needy, broken and falling apart. Seen like this the challenge of the Christian faith is starkly and wonderfully simple. We are called to be where Jesus already is, being present with longing, compassion and loving intent in the hidden hurting places all around us.

As the alarms of decline and despondency sound throughout the life of the institutional churches in contemporary Britain, staying put and sitting still as we are is a spectacularly stupid option. Those with an eye and ear to the signs of the times and the promptings of the Spirit have long since rushed through the emergency exit of mission and discipleship and emerged at the heart of their communities in new and relevant ways. Once there, such pioneers do not keep silent nor do they rest. And there is still time for the rest of us to follow and rediscover what the Kingdom of God looks like in practice.

Having recovered our identity outside, we will truly be faith ‘insiders’ again.


And please note that I am not suggesting that we never rest, become still, reflective, silent or attentive to what others say; it is really vital that we seek an appropriate and healthy balance in our spirituality for our own sakes as well as for those around us

Thursday, 7 January 2010

an iconic presence

an iconic presence robin in winter

Make that two presences. Ever since I was little and first enthralled by the magic of winter, fresh snowfall and the Robin have been etched into my mind as classic icons of this season in Britain.  You can imagine my simple sense of delight this morning when I took these photographs of a Robin as it was attracted to the fresh supply of nuts, seeds and sultanas which I had just put out in our garden for the birds. Here was a truly iconic combination just waiting to be appreciated.

robin in winter garden with snow

The images simply and unmistakably say ‘British Wintertime’.

So if we ask the question, ‘what are the iconic images which unmistakably say authentic faith / authentic church’ , what might your answer be? Having followed the bible readings set for the Christmas Season it seems to me that the presence of the Holy Spirit is as fundamentally iconic as that of the Robin. From the first shimmerings of promise to Mary through to the Baptism of Jesus the narratives are as laden with the activity and presence of the Spirit of God as the skies over Barnetby continue to be laden with snow.

Such an iconic presence is apparent when people discover hope, belonging, meaning, purpose and direction. When they awaken to the fact that they are beloved of God and cherished, when dignity and self-respect are birthed in those least likely to expect them and when loving kindness and generosity well up, something iconic is in our midst. When structures of oppression and division are challenged and when the whole creation is appreciated as a precious gift to be conserved and tended well, an iconic presence is at work.

Christians are intended to be iconic too, each of us visible reminders of the deeply loving reality of divine presence. In these chilly and bitter times it is more than ever vital that it is this above all which the world associates with the followers of Jesus.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

It’s time to get a grip on God

it's time to get a grip on god copy

Outside the air temperature is below freezing. It has snowed, is currently snowing and more snow is expected. The roads on our estate our snowbound, icy and treacherous. Beyond the village even gritted surfaces struggle to keep the roads safe. Whether you are driving on the highway or walking along the pavement, grip is everything. Without good grip there is a real danger for motorists of losing traction or skidding out of control. And even shod with a good pair of hiking boots venturing out can be perilous for pedestrians when black ice is about.

The photo shows boot prints and tyre tacks of cars and bikes imprinted into the first, light snowfall.  The degree of good grip is evident. No slipping or sliding here. The reading from Isaiah set for this Sunday seems to me to be similarly concerned with getting a grip, but this time on the reality of God. Or perhaps it is more accurate to speak of being gripped by the real presence of God amidst the threats and hazards of wintry life. Blizzards of misfortune can blow in unexpectedly on freezing winds of  circumstance and spiritual black ice is an ever present danger underfoot. All too easily that which is stable, well-balanced, secure and taken for granted can be threatened.

Trust enables us to get a grip on God. Trusting that what the extracts from Isaiah 43 hold to be true is indeed true in the present moment. Then we get a grip on the divine reality below the surface of snowbound appearances. Then we get traction in our life of faith and a secure footing beneath us. What this feels like – the experience of getting a grip on God – is not something to withold, neither is our personal testimony to the benefits of an all-weather faith. Such at-traction is surely attractive in our slippery-slidey winter world?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Arise and shine

arise shine

Arise and Shine: what an illuminating resolution this is as we enter a new decade. The brevity with which Isaiah 60:1 encapsulates the core faith vocation of the followers of Jesus is perfect. There is simply no wriggle room, obfuscation or space for doubt as to what is required of God’s people of light.  God’s two-word graffiti of grace is spray painted across the surfaces of contemporary Britain, challenging Christians to action wherever we see it:

arise shine graffiti copy

So what are we to make of the command to ‘Arise’ ? The very word sounds so irredeemably twee and passé, much more likely to evoke thoughts of Walt Disney’s ‘Sword in the Stone’ than of the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Yet what is being asked of us is nothing less than a popular uprising; strong stuff indeed. And of course the light of God’s revolutionary love in Jesus enlightens us to a different manner of uprising to that of armed insurrection and bloodshed, a way of non-violence epitomised in the twentieth century by Gandhi and exemplified by Jesus himself. As we face the combined threats of climate change, financial meltdown, peak oil and food security I think we have already seen the power of popular 'uprising' pointing the way ahead. In particular we can look to the impact on global political strategy of  Jubilee 2000 and the subsequent ‘drop the debt’ and ‘make poverty history’ campaigns. People power works. In a democracy such as ours the voice of the people has to be heard – and I don’t mean focus groups. People of faith are called to arise and protest against injustice, unfairness, violence and oppression wherever and whenever it is found. We are called to arise and hold those responsible to account, not tut with indignation from the safety of the sidelines, and to be constructively part of the solution. To arise means putting our heads above the parapet and getting actively involved with God’s kingdom of love agenda.

We are to arise, and shine. Not glimmer, flicker or glow, but shine with all the radiant intensity of God’s radical love in Jesus Christ, made manifest amongst the neglected, written off and discarded ones of the world. Shine with all the awesome brightness of God’s glory which is good news for the poor. The faith imperative is that our lives should shine brightly with love as luminous beacons of hope in these dark times. As we embark upon this new decade the wax of good religious intention needs to soften and melt and fuel the flame of our discipleship. Arise, Shine, is one resolution we have to keep.