Saturday 31 May 2008

Celtic Imagination No 1

The first in a series of photographs to sit with and contemplate. In Celtic expressions of Christianity, God is to be encountered in all things. The world around us is profoundly sacred and through the openness of our creative imagination becomes a means of dialogue with God. Such a sacramental way of seeing is a gentle and reflective way of nurturing a more contemplative spirituality.

So what does this image say to you?

Blea Tarn, Lake District

Thursday 29 May 2008

Opening up the wells

I took these photographs inside the magnificent ruins of the twelfth century White Castle, near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire. Walking around the site my attention was drawn to the old, disused well. As I drew closer I saw that it was padlocked. This striking image took hold in my imagination as a metaphor for how the church so often finds itself portrayed in popular culture today: a ruined relic of passing historical interest, having little contemporary relevance and still less to offer to thirsty souls, its wells long dry and closed up by the rational mind.

But are our wells dry? The bible offers an intriguing insight. In the book of Genesis there is a brief episode in the story of Isaac which speaks into our dilemma. As he journeys Isaac needs to find sources of water. The old wells dug by Abraham have been blocked up by the Philistines and are disused. In the face of this we are told that Isaac dug wells, or more specifically that he opened up the old wells and drew up water from the wellsprings which were still there.

In St.John's gospel this imagery finds fresh impetus in Jesus. Jesus memorably makes the relational link between our common thirst for meaning, purpose, hope and justice and the love which God offers through him and which flows abundantly through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives (see John 4:5-15; John 7:37-39). The wellspring is there, but it takes an act of faith and trust in order to unblock it and remove centuries of rationalistic rubble.

When I first became Chair of the Lincoln and Grimsby District we worked with the metaphor of church as a wellspring. Liz Smith, now Chair of the Leeds District, was instrumental in providing this powerful image of wells and wellsprings and of working through the implications for the church of using it. What we thought then is especially relevant now:

"What language and imagery will inspire and sustain a new vision of “church” for the present time? The image of Wellspring is proving extremely fruitful in our thinking. Wellsprings rise and bubble to the surface where they will, even in hard and stony places if there is a fissure beneath the surface.The Wellspring image frees us from always thinking of church in terms of buildings. A church building might be the focus of living water in a community, but such a wellspring may take many other forms. Access to the well must be free and open to all: it is a place of meeting, of sharing stories, it is essential to the life and well-being of the community. No single person is the source, yet together human beings in all their holy diversity become the wellspring to which others are drawn and become participants.Given that this is our vision of “church” we have been led to ask the further question: what kind of leadership qualities are compatible with the Wellsprings vision?

The most immediate response is that we do not need Well-masters! Wells imply a shared responsibility for keeping the well fresh, clear, unpolluted and inviting. Our vision therefore suggests a departure from styles of leadership that keep others in passive roles or squeeze them into permissible spaces. We suggest that the following qualities are those to which we should aspire: visionary, in partnership, enabling others, honest about our vulnerability and woundedness, decisive, passionate, journeying, laughing."

Natural Wellspring (Lud's Well, Stainton-le-Vale, Lincolnshire)

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Godly insight

On our recent holiday in the Lake District we visited the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal. Two paintings in particular caught and held my attention. One was a portrait by Frank Auerbach. This was in his trademark heavy impasto, black and white paint being layered and scraped back until the end result was more like a three dimensional model of a ravaged landscape than a portrait in the traditional sense. It was simply spellbinding and, like the best poetry, conveyed a deeply felt truth about the human condition. The same was true when I sat in front of Tony Bevan's large canvas 'Horizon' (pictured here). This shows two abstract faces seen from unusual angles, the one on the right turned on its side. This is so very far removed from say, a nice neat photo of two people side-by-side; yet Bevan's canvas conveys something of the deeply complex reality which we know is there beneath the surface appearance of our humanity.

It is this same sense of recognition and making sense of the complex and chaotic experiences, feelings and thoughts of one's own life which I discovered through therapy about five years ago. Bevan's picture reminds me of what it is like to be me. And it is this me which I know God sees, and it is this me which God loves, something which I still find hard to take in, let alone accept. Yet it is true. Maybe this is why I have always been drawn to the story of Legion in the gospels. When asked for his name, this poor, tormented soul says "My name is Legion; for we are many." He is honest about the chaos and complexity of his being human. For me the story gives permission for us to be just as honest, indeed it encourages us to be so, if we are to be set free. Jesus says to the man who he has just healed, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” In my experience the church, like life, is full of Tony Bevan people. At our best we provide for one another a safe space where such Godly insight and honesty lets mercy do its healing work. It is not easy. It is vital that we are accompanied well. But it is possible. And it does happen. As for Legion, "And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed."

The miracle of grace is that Jesus still comes to meet us, calling us lovingly by our name and wanting so desperately to set us free. I know, because this is what he has done and continues to do for me too. So when we look at each other perhaps we might try to see with such godly insight and compassion.

Faith in Action

Inaction is not an option for Christians. The picture shows a clay model of a life-size bronze sculpture of a beggar by the American artist Timothy Schmalz. I have used it in worship to focus and ground our prayers for others because it is such a disturbing image. It challenges and unsettles because it demands a response from us. We have to choose. And we choose knowing that Jesus identifies himself with the beggar. The open outstretched palm is his.

Colossians ch.3 makes the point crystal clear: "So if you're serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that's where the action is. See things from his perspective." 

We are to see as Christ sees, to be attentive and alert to where he is active, to look at situations with a resurrection perspective. This also means looking up at ourselves with the eyes of the beggar and seeing things from their perspective too. All of this is why inaction is not an option for Christians.

The Earthquake in China and the Cyclone in Myanmar are powerful reminders of the ever-present challenge of this image and of the fragility of life. The Generals in Myanmar sat on their hands and watched their people die, when the global community was ready and waiting to respond. The worsening global food crisis is punishing the poor worldwide. The credit crunch has added untold misery to the lives of millions. Soaring energy prices compound the distress. Climate change is already hitting the poorest and most vulnerable people across the planet. Inaction is not an option for Christians.

If you want examples from history, how about these for starters: St Aidan is given a fine horse by King Oswin, and promptly gives it to the first beggar he meets. St Francis embraces a leper, St Martin shares his cloak with a beggar. Timothy Schmalz's sculpture gets to the heart of what was going on in these encounters; they met Christ face to face.

And what of today? Brian MacLaren's new book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope is a superb read for all of us who wish to be challenged to put faith into action in a way that gets to grips with these global crises. Take a look at the video. Get the book. Put your faith into action where you are. Go to where the vulnerable and needy stretch out their hands and that is where you will meet Jesus.

A Word in Time

I'm sorry for the lack of action here on my blog. A combination of holidays, being frantically busy and latterly being unwell have put things at a standstill, so its good to resume our journey together. If you are looking for a source of daily bible-based inspiration have a look at A Word in Time on the the Methodist Church website. Each week there are daily themed bible studies and questions to ponder. As it happens I have contributed the material for this week - The Compassion of God - which is a prime example of why this blog was inactive. So it is good to be back!