Thursday 31 July 2008

Celtic Imagination No 16: Dragonfly spirituality

dragonfly 2

This beautiful specimen of Anax imperator - the Emperor Dragonfly - explored our garden pond last week and rested on this marginal plant for about a quarter of an hour. As luck would have it, at the time I was sitting outside with a mug of coffee and Pete Rollins' new book The Fidelity of Betrayal, so I could simply enjoy the sight of this magnificent insect darting about over the surface of the pond. When it landed I drew up close and was transfixed by such an exquisite example of evolutionary bioengineering. Eventually the thought of getting my camera meandered through my brain and so, despite the fairly strong breeze which was buffeting the plant, I fired off a few handheld grab shots with fill-in flash in the hope of getting at least one sharp image. And here it is. OK, so it's not as good as a DSLR with a Macro lens, but it's good enough for my purposes, which is what matters after all.

So what does the ecology of the dragonfly have to say to today's church? What analogies spring to mind?  A quick peek at Natural England's helpful  Dragonflies and damselflies in your garden provides a clue:

Most of a dragonfly’s or damselfly’s life – perhaps as much as 95 per cent of it – is spent in the water. The eggs, which are usually laid underwater, develop into larvae, free moving, water-dwelling nymphs, from which the flying adult insects eventually emerge. The whole process may be completed within six months, but for most species takes one or two years. In contrast to the larvae, the adults are generally short-lived.

So there are two very different phases in the life cycle of the dragonfly: the first occurs immersed in an underwater habitat until the nymph develops to the point at which it can enter the second phase, emerging into the air as an adult, to fly, feed and reproduce. One phase is effectively hidden from view, the other catches our attention. Both are essential to the continuance of the species. Now we might be tempted to lay to one side the inconvenient biological truth that dragonflies are voracious, ruthlessly efficient predators, but that would be a pity. Being effective at what you do and making the best of what you are is in some ways a tagline for the process of evolution. Why should Christianity and its churches be any different to dragonfly species and their local populations of individuals?  Just as a dragonflies genes code for what it is to be a dragonfly and selection pressures over millennia tune the result for whole species, what if Christianity is meant to code for expressions of the kingdom of God?  The lesson of evolutionary history is stark: species which are less effective and adaptable stare extinction in the face. Now I know that I have grossly oversimplified complex matters and drawn dodgy parallels, but there does seem to be more than a ring of truth to looking at the church in this way. Brian McLaren's cause celebre is precisely about this fundamental point: Christianity is meant to code for expressions of the kingdom of God, not church per se.

There are at least a couple of other points we might usefully ponder too. For a dragonfly nymph, being deeply immersed in one appropriate habitat / place is essential to growth and maturation. Obviously there has to be enough food and vegetation about and sufficient dissolved oxygen in the water for it to thrive. What parallels do you see here? If we think about churches we know, how appropriate as habitats are they for Christians to flourish and grow as disciples? And if the evidence is that they are not, what can be done about it? What is deficient? What is polluting? What makes for a good environment out of which mature Christians can emerge?

Then of course we are drawn back to the adult dragonfly in our garden and its genetic drive to reproduce. Relying on just one pond or watercourse would be a terribly risky strategy for a species to adopt, an evolutionary version of russian roulette. Actively looking beyond the familiarity of a particular pond for new habitats in which the species can flourish is a better strategy. Might the same be true of the church too? Remembering that Christianity is meant to code for expressions of the kingdom of God it seems obvious that we should be seeking places and contexts where mission can flourish and love can come alive. This means looking beyond the familiar local pond which we know so well. If that pond should become spoiled, the species is secure because it is present elsewhere in conditions which favour its flourishing.

So this lovely specimen of Anax imperator leaves me with much to think about. The question I now face is what shall I do with this flight of imaginative fancy? How will it inform the decisions and conversations that I will be involved in? Has my spirituality really been enriched because I happened to see a dragonfly?

Thursday 24 July 2008

Celtic Imagination No 15: Out of the Depths

coppermines copy This digitally reworked image shows some of the old mineworkings adjacent to Levers Water in the Coppermines Valley of the English Lake District. To the left the black gash in the rock is where the ore has been worked out deep down into the mountain. To the right a small adit burrows horizontally underneath a covering of debris and rubble into another worked out passage. For the unwary and ill-prepared this is a dangerous place to venture and the surrounding fence, just out of shot, is there for good reason.  Exploration of the mine is best left to the expert cavers who know the workings well and are familiar with their particular hazards.

Keep out of the depths.

Of course we can all bring to mind people whose personalities might also require a fence around them because of the inherent risk of getting hurt if you get too close or involved. Let me put it this way: how many churches or groups do you know where the relational dynamics are skewed because everyone has to work around and cope with the one or two individuals whose demeanours are spiky or just plain awkward? No one knows how to break out of the repetitive cycle of hurt and offence which so often ensues. No one really wants to resort to just telling the person that they are a malicious sod and should **** off - however tempting that might be. Everyone can see that this would be a failure of nerve, courtesy and of gospel. If the situation is to be resolved in a truly Christian way it requires that we ask why they are the way they are. We have to deconstruct the accepted narrative and look beneath the surface. This means speaking the truth lovingly, committing to the individual and lovingly holding the pain that results. It means enabling them to explore lovingly the dark depths within themselves which make them what they superficially appear to be. And we engage in all of this with the loving self-honesty that recognises the hazards and dangers within ourselves too.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord

So as I reflect like this I am drawn to some lines from RS Thomas's poem Inside:

To the crowd

I am all outside.

To the pot-holing few there is a way

in along passages that become

narrower and narrower,

that lead to the chamber

too low to stand up in,

where the breath condenses

to the cold and locationless

cloud we call truth. It

is where I think.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

With this in mind I look at the picture and I think about the miners and their families; what were their stories I wonder? I try to hear the cadences of their long lost cries and supplications. It matters somehow, that I make this effort to pause and 'listen' for these sounds from so long ago, like an astrophysicist picking up the microwave radiation signature from the birth of the universe. What long forgotten hardship, toil and misery does this picture represent? And who enjoyed the profits? These days I find that I often approach industrial archaeology with this hermeneutic of suspicion: who was exploited, what was the human cost, who reaped the rewards?  The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs reminds me of the close link between Methodism and the birth of the Trades Union movement. Such pictures as the one above recall why rights for workers were so important; why each and every human life cannot be reduced to an insignificant figure on a balance sheet. The words of Jesus are good news for the poor and the oppressed. This is the truth his followers are called to embody and proclaim.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Celtic Imagination No 14

Portraits of adventure


Not one of mine this time, but a shot which has such great imaginative possibilities that it is far too good to miss.

The photo belongs to a series called Portraits of Adventure and I discovered it on The Guardian website.

Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner holds the record for the world’s lowest BASE jump, from Brazil’s 40m high Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust and the death of capitalism

These badly weathered headstones are in the clifftop graveyard of St Mary's church in Whitby. For me there is something incredibly poignant about them. It is not just the obvious references to grief and loss, it is the sense that these lives and their unique stories are finally being erased and lost too.  It seems to me that these headstones are a visual parable both of what time does to our collective memory and of the honest corrective to our human 'pomp and circumstance' which the Bible provides. Just consider these lines:

Ecclesiastes 3.20: All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Job 10.9: Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again?

Job 34.15: all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.

Genesis 3.19: By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

As I reflect on these verses and the photos they beg many questions and trigger off many thoughts. They somehow put our lives into a fresh perspective; one which is not afraid of facing up to mortality because one day this will be true of all of us too. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. So these images reinforce the sense of how profoundly precious life actually is. In the face of such an inconvenient truth as the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when, what choices do we have?  Time then for a rant.

Well, let's not delude ourselves: for many of the world's population there is no choice. The poor don't have the luxury of choices. However, for others in the wealthy world of developed economies the situation is rather different. Just think of the message of the BBC programmes 'The Apprentice' or 'Dragons Den': to succeed is to be another Alan Sugar or Peter Jones, absurdly wealthy with every pleasure and choice money and influence can buy, right at your fingertips. What these shows peddle is in part nothing less than a false hedonistic 'live today, kill the planet and stuff the poor tomorrow' consumerist ethic so typical of capitalism the world over. The relative worth of our lives is measured financially as net worth, as in Ultra / High Net Worth Individuals. Limits to growth? Not on the radar. As one commentator put it: "a lot of people are getting very rich from the current situation, and they like it that way. The current elites are well enough served by the current situation that there isn't a lot of incentive for them to really push to change it." Politicians talk of increasing prosperity  either because they are too scared and hence too self-interested to be truthful or because they are wedded to the emperors new clothes that is capitalist market economics combined with the belief that technology will solve everything. To my way of thinking this is all bare-faced suicidal hogwash in a world in which the limits to growth and indefensible inequities between rich and poor are already so painfully and damagingly apparent. The lure of the impossible economic dream is fast turning into the nightmare of global ecological catastrophe. The original authors of the Limits to Growth report offer an alternative take to that of unrestrained market economics when they state that "ideas of limits, sustainability, sufficiency, equity, and efficiency are not barriers, not obstacles, not threats. They are guides to a new world. Sustainability, not better weapons or struggles for power or material accumulation, is the ultimate challenge to the energy and creativity of the human race." When George Monbiot speaks of global warming as a brutal truth he is pointing the finger at the predominant culture of prosperity driven consumption: "Those who are most responsible for carbon pollution are – being insulated by their money - the least likely to suffer its effects." Tellingly he goes on to observe that "The most powerful story of all, endlessly narrated by the hired hands of the fossil fuel industry, just as it was once told by the sugar slavers, is that we are both all-important and utterly insignificant. We are too important to be denied any of the delights we crave, but too insignificant to exert any impact on planetary processes." If humanity is to avoid condemning itself to a future which resembles the lost lettering on a Whitby gravestone, we need to tell a different story. And each of us must begin to live a different, sustainable and co-operative story.

Faced with the certainty of death and ageing some take another route, although yet again, one that is not an option for the poor, who tend to die younger and age prematurely. However, all the cosmetic surgery, fancy dentistry and hair dye in the world cannot alter this most absolute fact of all. So why bother? What is the point? How does 'doing a Berlusconi' actually help anything except vanity, when everything under the skin just carries on becoming even more clapped out? Trying to be what one is not just seems fake somehow. If beauty is only about appearance we live in a soul-less world. As I look in the mirror and then marvel at the disappearing act worked by the twenty three year old man staring back at me in our wedding photographs, I can't help but think that it would be far far better for us all to work at some nip and tuck for the soul. The gains won't be as visible but they will be well worth having and will, arguably, make us much more attractive, which is sort of the point of spending oodles of cash on the surgeons knife isn't it?  The only snag is that unlike cosmetic surgery a soul-lift is free, so there is no capitalist market driven cache to be had. After all, we are talking about a poor Palestinian peasant as a role model, someone for whom 'travelling light' was a way of life and in whom loving kindness, liberation and non-violent resistance became defining lines in the sand of human history. Not a high net worth individual then, quite the reverse in fact, but the ultimate example for many of us of an 'ultra-value-added-to-others' individual. A man rich in love, justice and compassion who transformed the lives of those around him. A man in whom God was met and seen and experienced, who was, therefore, such a profound threat to the elite of his day who lived by very different values. In Jesus the fallacy of so much of today's politics and economics is laid bare as an empty promise. Capitalism is dead, but only the planet and the poor seem to have noticed. Long live co-operation.

When our names are long weathered on a headstone and we are returned to dust, our choices, what we owned or did not own and how much money we had or did not have will probably be long forgotten; the fact that we chose to live our lives centred on the value-added radical life and teachings of Jesus might just still be visible in the lives of those who are as yet unborn.


Wednesday 16 July 2008

Celtic Imagination No 13: Re-enchantment of Nature

old man of the woods

When I first came upon this tree on Wenlock Edge I could not help but see a face in the bark; the pattern recognition software in my brain instantly detected the obvious 'eye' and 'nose'. I stood for a long time and simply enjoyed the sight and revelled in some imaginative whimsy as I recollected childhood storybooks with their anthropomorphic representations of plants and animals. Also here before me was the Green Man of Pagan spirituality, or even a Tolkein-esque Ent such as Treebeard. So I just stood and simply appreciated this magnificent tree with its literally wonder-full tangle of roots. And the more I looked the more I valued its being. And the more I valued its being the greater was my sense of biological and ecological interconnectedness and interdependence. The tree was no longer a potential table from Ikea or logs for the fire, it was not a thing to be used as we please; it was a living tree to be cherished simply for what it is, part of the beautiful web of life on our fragile planet. This was a moment of communion with the sacred. A glimpse of the re-enchantment of nature. A foretaste of a gentler way of living as part of our ecosystem, rather than against it. Just writing this brings to mind the heat of the summer's afternoon and the dappled light as I stood gazing at the tree. It brings back too the inner warmth of seeing a deep truth and of cradling its meaning for a moment. So I share it with you.

For Methodists is 'Emergent Church' simply social holiness rediscovered?

Wesley-PreachingThe Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness 

John Wesley

In 2002 the Irish Methodist theologian Johnston McMaster wrote a paper on Wesley and social holiness as part of the  Scriptural Holiness Project of the European Methodist Theological Consortium.  The essence of what Johnston says is worth quoting here:

The purpose of the Methodist movement was to ‘spread scriptural holiness throughout the land’

It is within Christian community that holiness of life is to be realized. ... It is within the socio-economic and political community that holiness of life is to be realized 

If holiness of life was described in terms of perfect love, then holiness involved social relations including environmental relations. For Wesley the spreading of scriptural holiness entailed ‘the transformation of the economic and political order, the establishment of Pentecostal commun(al)ism and the abolition of war’. Holiness was nothing less than a new creation.

The failure of the Methodist holiness project was ultimately the failure of the Methodists to stand in radical solidarity with the poor. Yet Wesley had repeatedly called on the Methodists to go to the poor and not simply to wait until the poor came to them. To one ‘gentlewoman’ member of a society he wrote;

"Do not confine your conversation to gentle and elegant people. I should like this as well as you do. But I cannot discover a precedent for it in the life of our Lord, or any of his Apostles. My dear friend, let you and I walk as he walked … I want you to converse more, abundantly more, with the poorest of the people, who, if they have not taste, have souls, which you may forward on their way to heaven. And they have (many of them) faith, and the love of God in a larger measure than any persons I know. Creep in among these, in spite of dirt, and a hundred disgusting circumstances; and thus put off the gentlewoman."(Letter to ‘A Member of the Society, February 7, 1776, Works 12: 301)

Yet Wesley did believe that the church had fallen when it entered the Constantinian era in 313 C.E. For Wesley the greatest wound Christianity received "Was struck in the 4th century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honours, and power, upon the Christians; more especially on the Clergy … Then, not the golden but the iron age of the church commenced." (Works VI: 261-62).

The task for contemporary Methodists is still to develop the great social ethic of scriptural holiness. This will mean going beyond Wesley, not least because we live in a very different world, especially where globalization is dominant. It will mean in practical terms ‘getting rid of our preferential option for the affluent’ and developing a socio-political hermeneutic of scripture. This will mean a more contextual reading of the text in our 21st century context. It will mean engaging with the principalities and powers of racism, poverty, nationalism, ethnocentrism and the systemic violence which they express with such devastation and destruction of human and environmental community. This also includes the violence of sexism and the personal and structural domination of women.

Scriptural holiness may still be a worthy Methodist project in an ecumenical context but only if we take social, economic and political structures seriously and learn to read scripture and theology from a new socio-political perspective.

Johnston's words may well prove to have been prophetic. Beyond Methodism the rise of the Emergent / Emerging movement is rooted in what Wesley called 'social holiness'; namely a rediscovery of authentic Christian discipleship as understood and lived out in the Kingdom of God orthopraxis of Jesus. Let me grossly oversimplify a complex issue - and I apologise to historians in advance: if what Wesley longed for was a radical 'sermon on the mount' movement of passionate 24/7 disciples, what he actually got was much more a 'sermon on the back pew' church. The social and political activism which characterised the Methodist movement was in large measure dissipated by the energy-sink of becoming an institutional church centred on Sunday worship. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

Hal Knight's article on John Wesley and the Emerging Church is well worth a read. Like Johnston McMaster, he seems to connect with all the 'out-there' orthopraxis energy and passion that I see in John Wesley, as portrayed in the picture of Wesley preaching in the marketplace. Ryan Bolger's brief snapshot of Emerging Church should surely resonate strongly with Methodists. And what of Moot, an ongoing experiment in community thinking, when they struggle with what it means to be human in the city and ask the sharp question Whatever happened to kindness and generosity? Methodist ears should tune in and take note, because so much of this is in our ecclesiological DNA. So why does all or any of this matter?

Alan Finlayson's and Jeremy Seabrook's thoughtful articles in the Guardian  Big Brother's message: we are a selfish society and Slash-and-burn economics caused the blade crimewave, push my social holiness buttons probably just as much as the state of eighteenth century English society pushed Wesley's. Here in Lincolnshire, the birthplace of world Methodism, we take social holiness seriously. At the Methodist Conference in Scarborough our Lincoln and Grimsby District brought a Notice of Motion in response to the global food crisis. It arose from the passion of Alan Robson, our Agricultural Chaplain, and the social holiness driven concern of the the Alford,  Skegness and Wainfleet Circuit. As Methodists we must not stand by in our chapels and sing our hymns and worship songs as the world weeps. We were raised up to be authentic disciples. The Emergent movement shows us what we are at our best. I for one am up for the challenge.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

The Methodist Conference 2008: what does it all mean?

scarborough rep on balcony

I took this Photoshopped grab-shot between sessions of the Conference at Scarborough. Looking up I saw that the woman on the balcony appeared to be really deep in thought as she gazed out over the sea, and the conjunction of her intensity and the Conference banner seemed to beg some sort of question in my mind. Of course I have no idea whatsoever what she was actually thinking; whether superficial or profound, joyful or sorrowful, urgent or trivial her thoughts remain unknown to me. But as I look at her on the balcony I have a nagging feeling that she symbolises something critically important for our Church. 

She stands at the Interface of the structures of institutional Church and the world and she looks outwards, not inwards. Her expression could so easily convey the question, 'what has all of this to do with all of that?'  It is a very godly question; a necessarily urgent and troubling question for sure. I have a hunch that it is a question which was very much on the mind of Jesus as he stood within the religion of his day and looked out into the faces of the poor and needy who so often gathered around him. The goodwill of the Methodist Conference gathered in Scarborough must now be translated into God-will in every village, town and city across the UK.  Each of us has to ponder how our being Methodist relates to the wider world. Each of us stands on the interface.

So as we look at this woman on the balcony I believe we are challenged to consider what it means for us if we are to be an Effective Christian Presence? In collaboration with The Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and The Humber these new case studies from Faithworks give some excellent insights into what this looks like in practice. As you reflect on the mission of your church and on what is needed to be an effective presence where you are, this paper in the Methodist 'presence' series on the Arthur Rank Centre website might be helpful too.

The decisions of the Methodist Conference challenge us to pause, look outward and to ponder; then, in the words of David Walton, our new Vice-President, we 'Choose Life.' What do you think?

Reach Out I'll Be There: a truth we learn hand in hand

This exquisite twelfth century sculptured panel forms part of the lavabo in the ruins of Wenlock Priory, Shropshire.  Day after day, month after month, as they came to wash their hands, this is what the monks would have seen. I guess that eventually the picture and its associations would have become imprinted within their psyches, so I am left wondering why the Cluniac Order choose to carve this particular story in stone? Perhaps the reason lies in the timeless potency of what is represented: the powerful narrative in the gospels of the disciples caught in a storm, fearing for their lives and struggling to make for the shore, when Jesus comes to them walking on the water and saying Courage! It's me, don't be afraid. The sheer immediacy of the story, with its easily recognisable feelings of being threatened, at risk and worryingly powerless when confronted by forces we do not control, is what leaps from the stone. Like a medieval Post-it note it grabs our attention and reminds us of something we should not forget.

Yet I wonder how many of the tourists who gaze on the carving today actually make the connection to the gospel story? They will see one bloke reaching out and grabbing the hand of another, with a third holding out his hand in expectation, but what does it mean? What connotations does it have for them? Nowadays some might more readily think of Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy,  with its strongly masculine images of danger and bravery, conflict and comradeship, and make connections there, such as when Sam desperately grabs onto Frodo's hand inside Mount Doom and prevents him from falling to his death in the lava stream below. The theme of a hero or heroic few being engaged in a struggle to save the many from powerful and overwhelming forces of evil seems as old as time itself; such myths, sagas and epic tales are embedded deeply within our collective human story. The intense camaraderie and bonding which is typical of such narratives will be familiar to many who have served in the Armed Forces, but it is not found exclusively there, nor is it gender-specific. The context for the sculpture in Wenlock Priory was exclusively male, and the monks may well have connected deeply with such themes. Yet the fundamental dynamic of the gospel account carved in stone speaks into what it is to be human. Even a cursory reading of human history shows that heroism and courage are no more gender-bound than fear or suffering. In all our adversities the sculpture reminds us of a fundamental truth for men and women alike: Jesus always reaches out to grab hold of us when we are in danger of being overwhelmed. We need to be reminded of this every bit as much as did the monks in Wenlock Priory. The real test of Christianity is to experience this reality for oneself. But of course there is more. If we can readily identify with the disciples in the boat, we are then challenged to identify with Jesus and do likewise for the sake of a world that is overwhelmed by suffering and fear.

In this sculptured panel the figure of Jesus models a pattern of behaviour which is intrinsically part of what it is to be human. The urge to help, to get involved and do something, to stretch out a hand, to hold on and risk being there for one another, these are profoundly good aspects of what it is to be human. So often we don't even need to think about what to do, our first reaction is to plunge in and risk our own wellbeing in order to save someone else. The picture of Jesus standing alongside the fearful disciples and grabbing hold of them is a vocational challenge to the Church. It reminds us of the priorities of Jesus, those of the Kingdom of God about which he spoke so frequently and which he demonstrated so often. It reminds us of what Incarnation is all about. It is a Post-it note about the very nature of God who is love.

As a life-long devotee of Motown and Soul Music I am well aware of the way in which all these very human themes were at the heart of the struggle for liberation in the Black communities of inner-city America. So much of Soul reminds me of the photo from Wenlock Priory. This is not meant to sound trite or ill-informed, it simply reflects the way in which music naturally mirrors the struggle of being human. The Four Tops 1966 Motown classic Reach Out I'll Be There really nails this truth for me in a similar way perhaps to what the monks might have understood when they gazed upon the gospel carved in stone:

Now if you feel that you can't go on (can't go on)
Because all of your hope is gone (all your hope is gone)
And your life is filled with much confusion (much confusion)
Until happiness is just an illusion (happiness is just an illusion)
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin
reach out come on girl reach on out for me
reach out reach out for me
I'll be there with a love that will shelter you
I'll be there with a love that will see you through

Edward Holland Jr., Lamont Dozier & Brian Hollandspa centre

Having recently returned from the Methodist Conference in Scarborough I am keenly aware of the tension between focusing on our own needs as a church (in the boat) and reaching out to others. My own frustration was keenest when we were locked into debates of the 'how many presbyters can you get on a pin-head' variety. The waves breaking on the shore outside the Spa Centre were a constant reminder to me of an ocean of suffering, of the need to plunge in and do something incarnational. In the space of the last ten days my mother has been twice rushed into hospital by paramedics. She is still in as I write. The photo from Wenlock Priory is pretty personal just now. And its truth is just as real for me as it was for those monks.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Celtic Imagination No 12: a pint of Guinness

Its a lovely hot and sunny day here in North Lincolnshire so what better image for our theological reflection than this exquisite pint of cold Guinness in a straight glass. At the top of the glass is the classic creamy, frothy head, made by slow pouring and lots of patient anticipation. The Guinness swirls and bubbles until slowly the head emerges and settles from the beer so that below the froth lies the body of the drink: black and dark and cold. At a rough guess there is something like an 9:1 ratio by volume of dark beer to froth. How does this image play in your imagination?

I originally used it at Harvest Festivals. I was especially concerned to avoid worship being all about the froth, the light and bubbly things on the surface of our common life. I wanted to plunge below the froth to the dark, cold and bitter experiences which were surely there beneath the superficial jollity. There was no getting away from that 9:1 ratio, which is one reason why I struggle when worship consists largely of praise songs only. I yearn for the integrity which reflects honestly and lovingly upon what lies beneath the froth. I guess this is why I am so drawn to the Iona Community's approach and the material produced by the Wild Goose Resource Group. For me they get the ratio just right.

At Harvest Festivals my particular bete noir is the hymn 'We plough the fields and scatter', which I happily admit to loathing. I'm sorry if its one of your favourites, but I'm just being honest. God feeds and waters, God sends all manner of meteorological phenomena and, most of all, God sends us all the good gifts around us. The message is - God is responsible. Snow, warmth, sunshine, rain, food, life, health: all these good gifts are sent in and by 'his' love. As an ecologist I find its theology infantile and as a pastoral practitioner I baulk at the lopsided notion that God sends all the good things around us without this hymn once giving thought to the 'bad' things.

Below the froth there is a verse to 'We plough the fields' that the world has every right to sing, and which I wrote in my anger and frustration as a student minister confronted by a 4 year old girl dying from cancer: I am distressed and anguished at the pain I see, the cancer and the cruelty seems so unjust to me; has your God fallen silent, why is our world so bad, how can you sing such nonsense when I am left so sad? All bad things around us are they from heaven above? O tell me please, yes tell me please, how can you talk of love? For the good gift of rain we see drought, for health we see illness, for food we see starvation, for life we see death.

In so much of the new missional writing there is a profound realisation that our calling as disciples will only come alive and have meaning when we plunge into the dark, cold and bitter places in the communities of which we are a part and find God's love there. Or if the truth be told should that more often than not read in which we are apart? That 9:1 ratio points us to where Jesus waits beyond our froth. It points to those hurting people way beyond 'church' to whom he calls us.  

There is a beautiful and powerful grassroots Kingdom movement arising all over the globe ...  people are waking up to the truth that the Kingdom of God looks like Jesus and that the heart of Christianity is simply imitating him. (Submergent)

...a growing network of people who want to put the ethical teachings of Jesus into practice (living simply, caring for the poor, practicing hospitality, making peace, etc.) Jesus calls us to a revolutionary way of life. He challenges the economic, political, social, and religious status quo. And we want to follow in his footsteps. (Christarchy)

Please read Kathy Escobar's quite brilliant post about being missional and ponder what she says. Dan from Vancouver, who blogs as poserorprophet, has really got right into the heart of this: This, then, is the question I would like to ask, as I attempt to start a meme: when confronted with 'the Poor' of our day, how do you justify your own academic endeavours?  In his post Why I am Drawn to the Places and People with Whom I Journey Dan explores this further:

by far, the single greatest thing that draws me to these places and people, the thing that draws me inexorably, is the presence of our crucified Lord, who resides therein. To my own amazement I have discovered that such places, and such people, are often overflowing with the presence of God. What else can explain the existence of vibrant communities within neighbourhoods that stand condemned? What else can explain the existence of radical acts of sacrifice, sharing, love, and solidarity, amongst those who are used, despised, and forsaken by the vast majority of us? What else can explain the joy that bursts forth with such freedom from those who, by all of our standards, should be completely miserable? It is all of these things, all of these sacraments of God's presence with, and within, 'the least of these' that draws me most forcefully to places and people of exile

In his comment on Ben Myer's post, The pornographer's dream: or, the problem with contemporary worship, he goes on to say that

I suggest we heed the words of Porfirio Miranda: The question is not whether or not someone looks for God, but whether he [or she] looks for God where God himself said he was. Thus, the intimacy we seek with God, is to be found in the company of the poor.

In her prize-winning take on what it means to be empowered by the Holy Spirit Julie Clawson  finds herself equally drawn to life beneath the froth:

We should be the ones loving boldly, sharing the good news, and taking care of the needs of the hurting.  We should be the ones out there bringing families back together, healing broken marriages, and restoring broken friendships.   We should be the ones overcoming oppression, setting captives free, and seeking justice.  We should truly be acting as witnesses to God’s power

Worship which engages me is that which reflects this 9:1 ratio; worship which bubbles up out of and emerges from the totality of life just as the creamy froth appears out of the beer. And church which is only to do with the froth is surely not church?