Wednesday 25 February 2009

Into the wilderness with Jesus (5): flowing back into the source

hayburn wyke In the sunshine of a warm summer's day a small beck flows towards the sea at Hayburn Wyke, on the North Yorkshire coast.  As the tide embraces the beach the gentle surf reclaims its own. The water which came from the ocean,  condensed into cloud and fell as rain, now returns to its source.

In the wilderness Jesus surely returned to the source of his being. All that he was and hoped to be flowed back into the limitless ocean of God's loving presence. This was a moment of awareness and sacrifice: of being at one with the Universe and committing to follow the divine purpose which moves restlessly within it.

Ocean, cloud, rain, river and ocean. The hydrological cycle resembles the rhythm of a life which begins and ends in God. In the security of this knowledge Jesus emerges from the wilderness and his ministry begins. Through him the love of God flows freely and abundantly. It is fresh, clear and sparkles with grace.

Monday 23 February 2009

Into the wilderness with Jesus (4): the shock of new life

wordsworths daffodils in close-up at ullswater

Wordsworth's daffodils at Ullswater

Life on planet earth is tenacious. The harshest conditions have not deterred evolution's insistent ingenuity. Even in wildernesses life flourishes.  Beneath the supposed barrenness of winter, below and behind what is visible, vibrant life waits the prompting of Spring to burst into view.  In some environments decades may pass, centuries even,  before the conditions are right for dormant potential to surge into actual growth.  Elsewhere it is dependable and predictable. The shock of new life is never far away. Sometimes it is right under our feet and all around us. It transforms the stale and familiar with colour and beauty.

Experiencing the love of God like this in the wilderness is what the Bible points to. It shapes our expectations.  In a poetic sense that Wordsworth would have understood and felt, the shock of new life is what the kingdom of God looks like.

In the light of Easter, such unfailing divine creativity helps us to live meaningfully in our Good Friday world.

Into the wilderness with Jesus (3): death in the landscape

dead tree landscape

Like an icon in the landscape this dead tree points to a truth beyond itself. As reminder, warning and memorial it stands out and demands attention. The tree refuses to be ignored and shares insistently the ultimate fact of every life; our mortality. The shape of its dying reaches up into the sky as certainly as the wild lightning which once and finally reached down and claimed it.

Wild places have their own particular sets of risks and threats. Wilderness brings questions of life, death and the meaning and value of one's living to the fore. These ultimate questions come down to a very practical decision: what am I to make of this gift of life? Day in and day out, all of our choices can be set against this question.  Small wonder then that Jesus emerged energised and focused on his life's task, eyes wide open to death in the landscape.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Into the wilderness with Jesus (2): a demanding route to follow

 beinn eighe trig point original

A snowstorm assails the Trig point on Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross. It takes a long, tough climb to get the reward of this view, but  the unexpectedly bad weather is a reminder of the challenges and threats which lurk in such wild places. You have to walk prepared for the worst of conditions, carrying everything you might need with you. Far below, away in the  distance,  the path makes its tortuous way across the landscape, penetrating still deeper into the wilderness. 

Decision time: turn back or go on? Who said this was going to be easy. It will demand every last vestige of determination and stamina to follow this route. Yet the reward for those who do is incalculable. The Bible makes that much very clear.

Wilderness is where we discover what it takes to follow God.

Into the wilderness with Jesus (1): seeing clearly

brothers water reflection

Wilderness helps us to see clearly. That which is inessential to our journey or which clutters the view is stripped away. What was once only glimpsed is seen more fully. The image attempts to convey this.

As Winter prepares to give way to Spring the bare branches allow us to see through and beyond the immediate to the far horizon. Soon luxuriant foliage will attenuate this beautiful prospect of the lake. However, the memory of what we saw will remain and will enrich our appreciation. To emerge from Lent is to carry the same hope within us. What we see during these forty days of wild journeying with God really matters.

Into the wilderness with Jesus

wetherlam wilderness At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him. (Mark 1:12-13)

If like me you yearn for wild places you will see the upside of journeying through wilderness. Taken in the context of our own imaginative faith journey through Lent, the subject of the wild is particularly pertinent. In his book 'The Wild Places', Robert Macfarlane posed this question: "would it be possible to make a series of journeys in search of the wild places that remained in Britain and Ireland? " In the course of 321 spellbinding pages he describes the answer. Towards the end of the book he says something which opens out a helpful way of reflecting upon our  journey with Jesus into wilderness:

"We are fallen in mostly broken pieces, I thought, but the wild can still return us to ourselves."

The idea of being returned to ourselves is a profoundly spiritual one which resonates strongly with Lent and Easter. Reflecting on his experience of wildness and wilderness Macfarlane offers this insight:

"In their stripped-back austerity, their fierce elementality, these landscapes remained invaluable in their power to awe. But I had learned to see another type of wildness, to which I had once been blind: the wildness of natural life, the sheer force of ongoing organic existence, vigorous and chaotic. This wildness was not about asperity, but about luxuriance, vitality, fun. The weed thrusting through the a crack in a pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake."

I like this way of appreciating wildness. I find echoes here of the wildness of God and of wild faith, which breaks out from and breaks through all that confines, stifles and inhibits human flourishing. Perhaps this connecting with the wild love of God makes wilderness / wildness an essential pre-requisite for faith explorers everywhere. Especially those who long to return to themselves.

I shall explore this theme of 'Into the Wilderness with Jesus' in a series of five short reflections, each based on a carefully chosen image

Saturday 21 February 2009

Landscapes of Meaning: Northumbrian Prehistoric Rock Art

 northumbrian rock art at ketley Crag

  northumbrian rock art rockshelter floor at ketley crag















northumbrian rock art at roughting linn

The cup and ring marks you see in the photographs are between 7.000 and 5,000 years old. They were probably carved by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and early Neolithic farmers.

The meaning of these mysterious symbols is lost in the deep past. We have no way of knowing why they were carved and the significance of the designs and motifs is irretrievable, enigmatic and puzzling.  Theories and conjectures abound, but the truth is permanently elusive.

Whatever their original purpose, what is clear is the power of these carvings in the landscape. Many are set on high ground overlooking river valleys, carved into exposed rock outcrops in what must have been significant vantage points. 

northumbrian rock art at WeetwoodThe repeating patterns of concentric circles make for a striking artform. Looking at these carvings in situ you have the strongest  sense that the circle is somehow deeply embedded within human psyche and culture. To my eyes these designs are hauntingly beautiful and evocative. To touch them is to feel connected to our ancestors. It is to ponder what they might have meant to those who knew them to be special. It is to reflect on mystery and eternity.

In an age such as ours it is good to sit with that which is always going to be ultimately beyond our grasp, no matter how clever and inventive we are. Perhaps that is why I like this rock art so much. It cannot be confined by reason. Existing as it does in a cloud of unknowing, such art has to be encountered on its own terms.

The motifs invite our imagination to respond. Like modern, abstract art, I rather think that this ancient, prehistoric artform has a lot to teach us about faith. Sometimes it is enough simply to be present to the mystery. And then to let the mystery engage with us at the deepest levels of our being.


Stan Beckensall is the acknowledged expert on British Prehistoric Rock Art and it was his superb book on Northumberland which helped me to explore the sites that you see represented here. England's Rock Art is a superbly comprehensive resource to browse too. You can also read a short online article about some of these sites here.

  northumbrian rock art at  chatton park hill













 northumbrian rock art at Buttony





Friday 20 February 2009

stepping into our sanctuary: a visual meditation for Lent

stepping into our sanctuary

Each of us needs a sanctuary.

It is safe space.

Bounded, secure, here in our sanctuary we are truly present to ourselves as we are.

Fear, doubt, raw emotion; these are safely contained and held. We are mindful of just being in the present moment.

Present to each moment, to each breath-gift of our being, we find stillness.

Negative self-talk, that judgemental narrative stream of self-destructive commentary, can be left outside the door like a leaky pair of old muddy boots that pinch and hurt. We have no need of treading such muck into the carpet of our self-worth.

The steps invite us to rise up and enter our sanctuary. To open the door and walk into that quiet spaciousness. To sit. To rest and be stilled.

To be enfolded in peace. And with each in-breath to breathe in love; with each out-breath, calm. Here we simply rest with our breathing, enfolded in the love which cradles eternity.

After a while we expand our awareness to the sounds around us. We become present to them and their meaning. We hold this gently, carefully, without judgement.

Then, when we are ready, we look out from our sanctuary, through the large picture window which fills the far wall, onto the landscape of our living beyond it. Mindful of each breath, held in the peace of each breath, we look and see.

Whatever we see, we see clearly and calmly, without judgement. 

And when the time is right we come back simply to our breathing and rest in the present moment.

Refreshed, we rise slowly and with great gratitude open the door and descend the steps gently back into our life.


Of course our sanctuary does not have to be a physical space. In truth it can simply be a state of mindfulness which we choose to enter. At anytime, wherever we are.

And sanctuary space is something we can offer to each other through the gift of soul-friendship.

How might the church become safe, sanctuary space too?

Attractive Effort?

remains of old tractor

To put it mildly, this tractor has seen better days. One can imagine its story. Once it was shiny, brightly painted and brand new. It gleamed in the sunlight and was the farmer's pride. Its tractive effort was a revelation and heralded a revolution in agricultural practice. Year in, year out it toiled in the fields and pastures.

Then it was superceded. Newer models were bigger, more powerful, more efficient and did the job better. This one was life-expired and redundant. Without ceremony it was quietly abandoned. It is going nowhere now. Its tractive effort is forever zero. Rust released atoms are slowly being reclaimed by the earth into which the forlorn chassis is sinking.

The tractor rots into the ground like the bleached skeleton of an extinct dinosaur. Finally it is nothing more than an archaeological curiosity.

Of what does this remind you?

The visual metaphor can apply to so many things. Not surprisingly, as we approach Lent the question it begs in my mind is this: what is the faith equivalent of 'Tractive Effort'?

As a non-engineer I can risk paraphrasing this term as 'raw pulling power'. What happens if we don't have much or any Tractive Effort?

If the life of Faith is crucially about our connecting with divine energy, this is a vital question. In particular, might it be the case that without an openness to divine energy we are in danger of resembling nothing more than the dead tractor? A church which depends on the living presence of the Holy Spirit and which trusts itself to resurrection as  a contemporary truth of our shared experience surely has raw pulling power? It is truly able to do the work of God in its community. In this respect its effort could be said to be attractive. And this energy is known just as much in the gentle holding of another's hand as it is in the sweat and toil of starting up a new project.

The Bible encourages us to believe that this has nothing to do with age. It has everything to do with outlook and expectation. And closeness to God. How does the picture of the tractor speak to you?

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Still Time for Lent

 bench facing isle of skye Looking towards the Isle of Skye

Time to sit and be still. Time to look and to see. Time to reflect. Time to seek a deeper awareness. Time to be receptive.

Lent can be all of these. There is still time.

Still Time is an initiative of the Methodist Church which offers a series of reflections and suggestions on the theme of time,
every weekday during Lent 2009. You can read them here or sign up for them via email.

Still Time is...
time for God...
time for yourself...
time for others...
time for action...
time for sharing...

"Still Time is about ‘right time’. It is saying, ‘there is still time to make a difference in the world. Still time to be a different person. Still time to relish the wonderful creation. Still time to reach out to others in love and affection. Still time to mend broken relationships. Still time to change the way we live and live in a way that helps us become the people we are meant to be. ‘Still Time’ is a challenge to all who have given up, or all who feel rushed off their feet, or who feel it is simply too late. There is still time – and now is the right time because God comes to us when most needed."

Tuesday 17 February 2009

DANGER: hazards, perils and risks ahead

 deep water





danger stay out

the sea can kill
















Signs like these aim to protect the unwary, the foolhardy and the vulnerable. More often than not they are in fact memorials to the unfortunate ones who did not know of or did not heed the danger ahead. As such they speak of tragedy and grief and are testaments to the cruel reality of finding out the hard way.

And it is a bitterly hard thing to watch history repeating itself; to see the danger signs being ignored and warnings going unheeded. To be absolutely honest with you, that is how I feel at the prospect of a Conservative government. The thought chills me to the core. Memories of the Thatcher years are unpleasant and horrifying to contemplate. Conservative philosophy spawned the City greed-culture which has now wrecked the economy, and systematically rewarded the rich and well-off. It did this at the same time as it was ruining the lives of millions of ordinary working people and condemning many to poverty. The Have's had a great time whilst the Have-Not's wept with frustration, despair and anger. The film 'Brassed Off' perfectly caught the mood of those years.  New Labour came to power in 1997 with an ideological vision of a fairer, more just and inclusive Britain. The betrayal of that dream is a bitter pill to swallow. I am genuinely fearful of what will happen should a party rooted in an ethos of  privilege, status and wealth form the next government. And I say this because I am a Christian who takes Jesus seriously when he speaks of being  'good news for the poor' and identifies himself with the lowest and the least in society. His was a grass-roots gospel of empowerment and equality which threatened the mighty.

To the Tories I simply ask that you heed the warning signs and lessons of the past and give good, careful attention to the dangers of an individualistic approach which ignores the mutualities, responsibilities and interdependencies which make for a healthy society. Tax cuts and incentives for savers and homeowners are as much use as a chocolate teapot if you are out of work, on a very low income or don't have a house of your own. Cuts in essential services and welfare hurt hardest those who should be most protected. You talk of being compassionate, show us you understand the cash value of the word and are prepared to prioritise accordingly.

To the Labour government I say for Christ's sake wake up and rediscover the meaning of that ideology and vision, passion and courage upon which you swept to power in 1997, and remember the blood, sweat and tears of the working class from which you were hewn.

I make no apology for this post. I have decided to be frank and pin my colours to the mast. And to those of you who are offended by what I have written and would wish me ill, please think on these words of Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)  Christians try their best to put this into practice. It is what being faithful looks like.

Monday 16 February 2009

Monochrome journey in a weirdly coloured world

monochrome journey in a weirdly coloured world

mini interior 2

Imagine for a moment that everything you see close to is rendered in monochrome. Greyscale is the palette of your immediate perception, though you do admit to an underlying tendency to black and white views. The world beyond your  touch is in colour, but as you can see, not accurate colour; the spectrum is shifted, distorted, grainy, weird. It all makes sense of course to you. You can relate and navigate by what you see. Your worldview is coherent, sensible even. And because this is your normality, you are not even aware that you are on a monochrome journey in a weirdly coloured world.

Insight and perception mattered to Jesus. So much of his time in the gospels seems to be spent encountering the perpetrators and victims of  faulty seeing and mis-perception, and countering its insidious effects.  Through his eyes we see and perceive the world and each other very differently. The colours of love are within reach and we are in touch with the brilliant spectrum of grace which frees and liberates. Our distant vision is transformed by the godly spectrum of inclusive, rainbow colour. We are placed at one with what we see, the world and everything in it.

This line of thinking has been triggered by PamBG's recent posts and comments in the 'methblogosphere' around the subject of 'Masculine Christianity'. Pam's comment on my 'Ad-Mission...' post took me quite by surprise and was an interpretation of my outlook that I had not seen coming, nor would I ever see. The viewpoint Pam describes horrifies me and bears no relation whatsoever to what was in my mind when I wrote about 'full-strength, unfiltered, Wild Christianity':

Yeah, the problem is that I reckon 'Unfiltered wild Christianity' means different things to different people.
When I hear that particular soundbite, I think Mark Driscoll, macho Christianity, women are crap and should be seen and not heard, let's go shoot some deer and proclaim a triumphalist Christianity, us good, you bad, us heaven, you hell, let's slap some people about in the name of God.

Insight and perception; seeing and not-seeing; being sensitively aware of other ways of seeing, and especially of being seen / unseen, really matters. We should be grateful to Pam for this wake-up call. Prejudice and hurtful ways of seeing are all too prevalent. There are far too many women who have been and are being hurt in the church. An integral part of our calling as disciples is to have the courage to say that we see things differently. To be willing to flag up crucial differences of insight and perception. Then we might hear Jesus whisper in our ear: 'but blessed are your eyes, for they see.'

Sunday 15 February 2009

space for living

georgian terraced housing

How much space do we need to live well? I was confronted by that question in Chapel Street, Caistor last Friday. I had just taken the photograph of 'comedy and tragedy', the striking decoration which adorns the white house just to the left of shot in this picture of the attractive Georgian terrace. As I stood looking at the houses I noticed their relative proportions. The end of terrace to the right occupies roughly double the space of the two to its left. Turning 90deg to the right I then pondered the imposing frontage of the three-storey house in the second shot, a property which stretches way back beyond the road.georgian house

I wonder what life was like for the first occupants of these homes? Without going all Dickensian I am struck by the socio-economic story that these houses seem to tell and the markedly different answers to the question  'how much space do they need' each offers. 

Notice that I have re-phrased the question. It is now a power question which betrays a determining authority. Growing up in the Black Country I was used to seeing streets of terraced 'two up, two down' houses. They were very common. This was where the working class lived and died. The grander houses were the preserve of upper class old money, landed gentry and aspirational industrial entrepreneurs - the factory owners. One set of people need this much space, and we can squeeze so many units of this size onto that piece of land. Another more privileged group clearly thought that they needed much more space, double in fact, and were spared this confining determinism.  And so on until the amount of space 'needed' is vast. Think Chatsworth House, Blenheim Palace, Holkham Hall. Whilst some barely survived in their small given space, others lived inconceivably well in their capacious, privileged splendour.

Those who determined that their workers could live in back to back streets of terraces would, of course, never be content or indeed able to cope in such limited space themselves. Status and position in society were directly reflected in bricks, mortar and servants. The same type of mind-set is rampant today. Identity and worth are relativised into the consumerist calculus of extravagance and excess. This unsustainable capitalist con-trick is the road to ruin. The space needed to live 'well' has become a very moot point in these carbon conscious times.

So to the disparity in the space needed to live well we now have to add a further, critical dimension, that of ecological footprint.  At its most chilling this measure shows how many planets just like earth we would need to support a given consumption lifestyle if this was shared by everyone on earth. Our small planet cannot support our current lust for capacious, resource hungry living.

The determining authorities of the World Economic Forum who gathered at Davos might helpfully consider downsizing as their most urgent priority. How much space do they think they need to live well? And why is that answer probably so very different to the rest of us? I can't help but think that the question 'How much space do we need to live well?' is a desperately urgent one for us to answer in a radical fashion here in the West. Right around the globe far, far too many people have little space to live at all. Let alone live well. For them there is no comedy, just unremitting tragedy. So lets turn the question inside out: How much ecological space can we each occupy in order to build a just future for all God's cherished people?

Friday 13 February 2009

Comedy and tragedy: a wordless visual psalm

comedy and tragedy

Caistor, Lincolnshire

An image to sit with and ponder.


Try this link for an informative discussion of comedy and tragedy in Shakespeare

See Sally's poems 'Faces of Being', 'Faces of Being 2' & Faces of Being 3 inspired by this photograph

Thursday 12 February 2009

Startled Space

At our recent GIM Retreat I introduced a session by reading the following lines from Rilke's First Duino Elegy:

the daring notes of song pierced through the barren numbness;

and then in startled space which a youth as lovely as a god

had suddenly left forever, the Void felt for the first time

that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and helps us.

That phrase, 'startled space', was what had caught my attention. There were echoes here of the poetry of the first chapter of Genesis, and its references to earth as that creative space within which God's loving purpose births life. This is variously translated as 'vast waste', 'formless void', 'formless and empty', 'soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness', 'barren'. So the extract of Rilke's  poem seems to fit well with this and conveys an extra layer of meaning, in that here is the surprising, unexpected, startling activity of God.

In fact Rilke was alluding to terrible, all-consuming and utterly numbing grief at the death of a young person. The startled space is precisely that which is so empty and devoid. It is into this chaos that, for Rilke, the notes of song could yet break through to startling effect.

My question was how we might think of 'startled space' as a metaphor for that which we need to find within the life and thinking of the church if we are to be present to God birthing newness amongst and through us. The consensus was that although being able to find or create such 'startled space' is not easy, it is vital that we try.

Julie Doddrell, a minister in the Boston Circuit of our District, has written some wonderful poems as her response to the extract from Rilke. She has kindly given her permission for me to share them with you, so here are two. 'Startled Space'  beautifully conveys that which I have struggled to say here. The second poem, 'Shock', also makes reference to the music which I used to introduce the session, Guru Josh's Infinity (Klaas Remix 2008), which in this instrumental remix combines a pounding, driving, insistent dance beat with fantastic saxophone riffs. I used this to represent the irrepressible energy of God's love as evidenced in the gospels and that which it calls into being so creatively from our startled space.

Startled Space

Waiting space

Stunned space

Silent space

…. like the space before creation

before Word and words

the space between breathing in and breathing out

after the gasp…. before the letting go

before dawn

before light

Creative, hopeful, expectant space

A space before


before blossom and bud

The space before resurrection

Dead space

Ending and beginning space

…. ripe, ready, opportune, kairos space

God’s space


How do we create startled space in our sleeping churches?

Churches who have forgotten how to be surprised by God…

who have been deluded into thinking Jesus was a conservative with a small ‘c’

who have been dulled by the familiar,

and remain stoically unshocked by the audacity of this radical Galilean preacher?

How do we hear… not again…. not ‘as if’… but really, truly for the first time

the startling message He brings

like the SHOCK of a heavy beat…

a rhythmic insistent heart-beat of love

jarring in every nerve,

thudding in every bone,

utterly absorbing and encompassing

…. somehow calling into being extempore jazz riffs of joy and hope… new notes to take our breath away…

when all we expected was orderliness and calm…

like the SHOCK of cold, clear water

like the SHOCK of falling down, down

like the SHOCK of seeing….

a man nailed to a wooden cross

O Lord SHOCK us with your




echoing NOW in the depths of my being

Open our eyes to your startling words


and make us NOW people,

shocked into newness,

called by heartbeats of love to dance

eyes wide open,

ready to speak

Word and words into the spaces you are creating.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

AD-Mission of Guilt

WESLEYS TAME CHRISTIANITY In its time one of these advertisements was hugely successful. The punters flocked to the product in droves. Now it would be banned, and rightly so. The other has been around for quite a while, can still  be spotted around the UK, is not yet prohibited,  and is blatantly a disaster. It should carry the health warning: this product can make you seriously bland.

The enamel Ad for Woodbines clearly belongs  to a former era and is an historical curiosity. Viewed now it is tempting to ask how anyone could ever have been taken in by it, such is the dissonance with today's health-aware culture. The other advertisement is how we are so often seen and perceived to be. No wonder the punters are disinterested. Worse still, this is how some actually experience our product. Its enough to make a marketeer weep with despair, let alone God. So it is time for an AD-Mission of guilt. This is the wrong message, badly presented, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.  We have misrepresented, misunderstood and undersold a fantastic product.

So all around the UK we are at long last beginning to tell a very different story. The useless old enamel ads are being torn down daily. We now speak of a full-strength, unfiltered, Wild Christianity. The sort which grasped the imagination and energy of the early Jesus movement and which inspired John Wesley and his followers to embark on one of the most successful global campaigns in Christian history. This is an authentic gospel wildness which refuses to be kept in standard cartons in our tame churches and which breaks free to flow, weave, dance and connect wherever the need is found.  The early signs are that when we do this, when we go wild with God's kingdom, the punters raise an eyebrow and take notice. Now there's an AD-Mission!

Monday 9 February 2009

Freeze-thaw theology: a parable for today's church

frozen fountain 1

Viewed from a distance this fountain appears to be completely frozen and ice-bound. Once up close it is obvious that something far more fascinating is happening. Bright, clear water is bubbling up from the top, sparkling as it catches the light. It then flows down the grooved sides of the fountain, beneath the solid outer accumulation of enveloping ice.

The trinity of water, sun and stone fountain are interacting together in the beautiful physics of freezing and thawing. Here the process is seen transitioning dynamically betwixt and between its endpoints of solid and liquid states. There is a provisional inbetween-ness to what we see.

So the image tells an unfolding story of  change and stasis, of order and disorder. It is a parable of water's back and forth tango between solid and liquid on the solid stone dancefloor of the fountain, with music provided by the rhythmic virtuosity of the sun.

And it is as the sun's seasonal music enters a quieter and slower passage that the temperature drops and everything about the dance appears more deliberate and less chaotic, more intensely ordered. It is now that free-flowing water can turn into ice. Molecules line up and join together to create expansive, spacious crystal structures which reflect the light brilliantly. Water takes solid form and is shaped and sculpted across the surface of the fountain in a myriad of diverse topologies, each being a different localised expression of the same basic structural building blocks. This is what water uniquely looks like when it freezes in this very particular time, space, place and context.

For a moment in eternity the nature of water is frozen into static shape. Hours, days, weeks pass by and turn into years and centuries. Then the sun draws close with melting intention. The season changes. The period of stasis is ending and the transition to liquid times is beginning. Freeze becomes thaw. Water bubbles up from the fountain and, beneath the solid ice,  living water flows.

Warmed from the outside by the sun and from within by the flowing water,  the supposed permanence of the ice-structure melts away. The inexorable thaw begins.  Drop by dripping drop, the source of water reclaims its own. Eventually no ice remains. Solid is now all liquid. The water molecules are energised and dancing with abandon. The sun's music is wild and freeing. The stone fountain rejoices at this vibrant awakening. The trinity dreams of icy delights for a new age and will wait until the time is right to call forth the physics of solid-shaped promise.  Then liquid water will once more take solid form and shape, sculpted in fresh ways by original intent.

frozen fountain 3

frozen fountain 2

    Photographs taken at 'Holiness and Risk', The Hayes, Swanwick

This is our story. We live in melting times. Holy times. Risky times. Jubilate Deo.

For an intriguing historical analysis of the cyclical nature of the growth and decline of various expressions of Christianity read  Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: how Christianity is changing and why.

I am indebted to Jane Leach of Wesley House, Cambridge, for pointing out the frozen fountain. Bless you Jane!

Sunday 8 February 2009

Footprints in the snow

footprints in the snow

The thought that only the best of what we are will be remembered is outlandish and over the top, yet that is exactly what God promises. In Isaiah chapter 43 God reminds his people how precious they are to him. The text brims with the close intimacy of God's loving companionship. And because it is written in this way the passage overflows with a profoundly restorative vision of a people with a hopeful future. And key to all this is memory, or more precisely the setting aside of bad memories.

God encourages us to dare to believe that our past need not be a blemish on our present.

I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing;  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

The picture I have is of a heavy winter snowfall cloaking the ground. A set of deep footprints criss-cross this once pristine whiteness. The imprint of someone's weight and chosen direction is obvious.

What if the snowfall represents the gift of recollection and forgiveness and the offer of a fresh start? The enveloping snow then transforms our present perception. It slows us down, makes us take care and watch where we put our feet.  The all-too apparent evidence of former mistakes, our hidden shame and public regret, all these are revealed in memory as though they were footprints in the snow. The snow can never again return to its unbroken perfection. The footprints cannot be unmade. The snowfall of memory in the icy chill of winter: we look, remember and ponder; and we wonder when it will ever melt. This is the sense I have of Isaiah 43.

God then invites us to believe that hurtful and harming memory may yet melt away like footprints in the snow. The  warmth of God's grace and the light of God's love transforms the deeply imprinted snowbound patterns of our wounds, grudges, resentments and pain. It will all melt. The snow will be gone. Colour will return, detail will be revealed and the green shoots of fresh growth will truly become  apparent once more.

God blankets our outlook with the healing gift of snow. God says look at all the patterns you have made in it. And having looked and recollected, we then watch as the snow melts away completely. It is gone. Disappeared for ever. This snowfall and all our footprints just melted away in the gracious light and warmth of divine love. And we walk without fear. And we run joyfully. We are filled with the exuberant energy of the thaw. We are then truly ready for God's 'new thing'.

Saturday 7 February 2009

What lies beneath


The molehill is a visual reminder of something ordinarily unseen and unremarked. Most of the time the activity of the mole lies beneath the surface of our everyday perception. The telltale eruptions of earth are an unmistakable signature of its presence. Like a neolithic stone circle whose original purpose is lost to us forever, the mounds in the photograph intrude into the  landscape as though from another world, whose subterranean darkness is as equally mystifying and alien to our contemporary culture as Stonehenge.

Perhaps the molehills are a metaphor for where churches find themselves today. Are we seen as odd eruptions on the surface of the twenty first century; signifiers of another world now strange and lost to meaning and understanding in the harsh daylight of post-Enlightenment and post-modern life?

What lies beneath? Surely that is the question which the both the molehills and our church buildings pose? What is going on under the surface which causes these things to intrude into our neat, rational landscape? The fact that we can't see the mole in the photograph doesn't mean that it isn't there. The evidence for its existence is blatantly obvious. The piles of earth are a pretty big clue to what lies beneath our feet. Our church buildings too are testimony to activity which is often hidden from view, beneath the surface of how things appear to be. There God is at work. The Spirit is active in the darkness of human despair, suffering and conflict. The earth of experience is dug out and made plain for all to see.

Our churches are the visible evidence of a hidden world of alternative meanings and values; they signify a subterranean and subversive activity of God which is always present. When such loves breaks through into the light and the evidence piles up before our eyes, we would do well to pay attention to what lies beneath our feet.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Emerging, mission-shaped, freshly expressed or just plain Godly: images for a questing church

church centred thinking of the churchmission centredl thinking









mixed economy  thinking of the church

godly thinking









(click on an image to open and download the larger version)

I have just started preparing for a centenary church anniversary celebration which I shall be leading in a week's time. This village church is forward thinking and are completing a major rebuild and renovation. They plan to use the latest technology in worship and so I am tinkering with Powerpoint and engaging with the gospel set for the day: Mark's story of the man with leprosy who comes to Jesus and begs to be healed (Mark 1:40-45). 

The text is a real challenge to the contemporary church, because the man says to Jesus “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean".  This raises the sharp question of what really motivates us and why we set the priorities we do.  When asked this question, Jesus is clearly deeply moved with pity and compassion, but a textual variant raises the possibility that in actual fact he gets really angry. For example, the excellent Preaching Peace website says: "What stuns me is Jesus response of anger to the very suggestion that he might NOT will the man to be clean. Not that he is angry at the man himself, but at the system that has taught him that the servant of God might understand God as desiring his illness, that he might somehow deserve to have it continue." Jesus gets annoyed with a worldview that implies that this man is not a priority for God.  Jesus gets annoyed that he could ever be thought of as being disinterested in this man's suffering. Jesus gets annoyed that anyone could think that God has caused this man's distress.

I wonder how many people would be taken aback if we got angry that anyone should think that we are disinterested in the private agony and suffering that is so commonplace in our communities? Would people be shocked to learn that not only are our churches willing to help but that we exist for their benefit? Would those who do not find it easy to fit in or conform, those whose sense of self-worth is minimal and those who have next to no hope be surprised by our welcoming acceptance of them as they are?  The irony in these questions will not be lost on anyone who has ever contended with a church-centred mentality.

Whether we are church-centred, emerging, mission-shaped, freshly expressed or just trying to be plain godly, the phrase "if you are willing" shakes us out of our settled ways of thinking. Kathy Escobar's latest post 'a view from the margins' really brings this home to me.

The four images explore our ever-widening worldview as we are shaken out of our settled or emerging ways and move from being church-centred to God-centred. When we are church-centred what happens in chapel is what matters most and the world around us has to come to us. Mission-centred thinking takes us outside and into the life of our community where we share with others in nurturing, growing and harvesting all the qualities and activities which make for healthy, hopeful and flourishing lives and relationships.  A mixed-economy approach  seeks to value and develop the life and witness of the existing church whilst encouraging them to invest their resources missionally in fresh ways into their community and networks, without strings attached, or at the very least to be willing for others to do so on their behalf.

Of course godly thinking always takes us by surprise. God engages with that which we do not see or hear. The last image shows the complete picture with nothing left out and no-one excluded. God spots the vivid colour that is hidden in the background and brings it right up front. Just like the man who confronted Jesus. We know what Jesus did. What, then, are we to do?

Wednesday 4 February 2009

St Hilda of Whitby

hilda of whitby

St Hilda, Stained Glass Window, Chapel of St. Oswalds Pastoral Centre

I took the original photograph on which this image is based at dusk. As the winter light faded the colours of the stained glass became vivid and beautifully intense, complementing the strength of the calm, welcoming kindliness which the artist has rendered in St Hilda's face. In the presence of such serenity the reassurance of St Paul that "there is nothing love cannot face" became especially real.

Nighttime can be particularly difficult for those who are poorly and unwell. The hours seem to drag interminably. The dawn sometimes seems a very long way off. The orientation of the chapel is such that this is the west window and each day it faces the sunset and the dying of the light. It is as though St Hilda waits patiently to remind us that there is nothing to fear. We are not alone.

BBC Radio4's 'In our Time' offers a really interesting in-depth assessment of the contribution Hilda made to the spiritual and political life of her day. It is well worth a listen if you are fascinated by history.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Upholding, sheltering and protecting: a treetop parable

treetop hospitality

Like beckoning arms raised high into the sky, with hands cupped and open and gentle fingers ready to cradle a fragile gift, the winter trees speak their wordless message of welcome. Here is space to find shelter and feel upheld by a strength which can withstand the worst storms. Here is a sanctuary far from the hazards and distractions at ground level. This is a space of wide vistas and far horizons; of the broad view and the complete picture. Upheld and sheltered, here at last is the secure framework in which to build the protecting nest from which will be birthed that which is new and precious.

The nest far up in the high branches says much about true friendship and the nature of love.

To uphold, to shelter, to protect; this is the precious gift of the heart.

To be upheld, to be sheltered, to be protected; this is our most needful desire.

The treetops speak a parable of divine hospitality.

Inclusive vision in a time of exclusion

no fishing St. Matthews Gospel seems well aware that fishing nets don't discriminate. One size of net catches all, if it is to catch anything. The EU Commission has the same practical problem to deal with in drawing up its fishing quotas for our much reduced fishing fleet.

The image of the first disciples being encouraged to catch people because God's kingdom is all about including those who are usually left out and excluded is decidedly radical. Jesus offers an inclusive vision in a time of exclusion. To hold and espouse such views was to put one's life on the line in Roman Occupied Palestine. The New Testament knows no other way of living an authentic Christian life than to cast our nets of justice, love and peace for the sake of God's alternative worldview of an inclusive kingdom. 

So wherever and whenever darker forces seek to impose an exclusive way of looking at those who are different, when they seek to discriminate and reject others on grounds of race, religion, sexuality, social class, gender and so forth, it is surely time to repair our nets and get fishing. Jesus did not take no for an answer.

Swans in the snow

swans in snow

Charnwood Water, Loughborough

Whatever eye to eye communication was happening between these two as the shutter clicked is a mystery. What would Beatrix Potter have read into this moment? It looks for all the world as though the swans are in conversation. Would she have had them grumping about the snow, complaining about the ducks, or delighting in some shared insight? Her imagination was fired by just such moments of seeing.

We know that Jemima Puddle-Duck's character was based on a duck that lived at Hill Top farm. Published in 1908, Jemima's sinister encounter with the foxy-whiskered gentleman  illustrates so well how Beatrix Potter's animal characters are cyphers of our experiences. We see ourselves in the stories, which is part and parcel of the delight of discovering them in childhood or reading them at bedtime to our own kids. It is quite a salutary lesson to realise how quickly one transitions from naughty Peter Rabbit to the angry Mr. McGregor chasing him with a rake. The story becomes a safe space in which to explore some of the hard lessons of life concerning risks, consequences and responsibility.

We know that finding a safe non-judgmental space in which difficult issues can be unpacked is the essence of good therapeutic or relationship counselling. Contrast this to the very public anger which is being ignited across the country by the dispute at our local Total Oil Refinery at North Killingholme. I have been told that the BNP are taking an active interest. A quite legitimate concern over the security and rights of the local workforce in a global marketplace could so easily degenerate  and be manipulated into something far more sinister and xenophobic. Writing in the Guardian, Max Hastings paints a bleak picture of a harder, nastier Britain which may start to emerge as the recession bites.  It is so vitally important that we retain a generous and inclusive spirit.

The ever-present danger in a liberal democracy under pressure is that the voices of extremism whip up popular support through a stereotyping, de-humanising blame game. As history shows us it is imperative that we stand up to all forms of hatred. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust puts it like this: Acts of hatred always involve making a choice. We choose to attack, to abuse, to exclude, to stand back and do nothing – or we choose to resist, to respect, to protect.

If we fail to choose to 'resist, protect and respect ' we can find ourselves sliding to the point at which the normative interpretation of the two swans picture is one in which the swans are saying: "what should we do with these not-swans?" And that is far more chilling than the snow.

Sunday 1 February 2009

The biology of grace

branching out

Branching patterns are commonplace in nature. The abstract image you see here could be a scan of veins and capillaries in your hand, the root system of a potted plant, or it could be a satellite image of an estuarine delta or an Arctic ice flow breaking apart. It actually shows the structure of two trees set against the sky in the depths of an English winter, with the addition of vividly unnatural colour as a background. Such patterns seems to give the maximum surface area contact for the shortest given path. In this case the trees fill the available space in such a way as to maximise the collection of light and diffusion of gases.

What does this strategy of maximal surface area contact have to say to churches about the biology of grace? How do we interact with the communities and networks in which we are set? What 'branching structures' of intention, action and engagement would be apparent if this was our primary purpose? How connected and in touch with the world around us are we? To what extent is grace diffusing in and through these mutual interactions? How does this process feed and nurture our healthy functioning? Is our commitment to maximise our contact with the light (of the world) or not? The picture provokes such questions as these.

If the pattern of our being church does not resemble the photograph, maybe nature is telling us something vitally important. Why should the biology of grace be any different to the winter trees?