Thursday 30 July 2009

Our spiritual heritage: Gods, goddesses and a romano-british altar

carved altar to the north british god maponus and the roman emperor copy romano british altar description card

In this far-flung northern corner of the Roman Empire four men go to the expense of having an altar carved.  It looks like they were up against it: dedicating the altar to the local North British God Maponus could have been a shrewd ‘hearts and minds’ tactic to win over the locals, but much more likely is that they needed all the help they could get in the face of pestilence and disease. Viewed across 2000 years of history it is poignant to think that this sculpture was their equivalent of both my NHS prescription and my chalice and paten. Four Germans, a local deity and the Emperor of Rome make an intriguing thread in the spiritual cord which binds us to our religious past. If the style and function of the altar seem about as remote as can be from the one’s you will find in any Parish Church today, the presenting human drama is probably much closer to home than we might think. Medicine may have changed beyond all recognition but the human instinct to turn beyond ourselves to something deeper means that the word altar is familiar and not arcane.carving of seated mother goddesses holding baskets from the third century in britain











And what human story would have brought people to this third century carving of three seated mother goddesses holding bowls on their laps, of whom only two primitive british sculpture of ram-horned celtic godfigures now remain? What needs, desires and anxieties taxed the minds of those who gazed upon this sculpture? Were they that much different to our own? And what of the violence and aggression which surely surrounded this primitive Celtic sculpture of a fiercesome ram-horned warrior god? Two millennia  have done little or nothing to diminish our tendency to resort to warfare.

female british celtic pottery head from the third century










And back in the third century what was the religious significance to the Celts of this female pottery head on the neck of a jug? Again, what did it signify to those who were familiar with it, and is this something we would recognise within ourselves today? And what is the story behind this pottery head of a bearded Celtic god? What triumphs and tragedies were played out in the lives of those who gazed upon it, andpottery head of a celtic god what did it mean for them? What wellsprings within the human psyche did it tap into and how was it used?

bacchus the roman god of wine reverlry and fertility from britain

I suspect that this delightful little figure of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, revelry and fertility, requires much less effort to decipher into contemporary meanings. All of these carvings and representations are an integral part of our spiritual heritage. They meant something to people just like us. Some may scoff at the ‘primitive’ and ‘misguided’ nature of their pagan practices and beliefs, but I prefer to see these artefacts as more of a spiritual mirror in which we see some deep, precious, troubling and truly common parts of human nature reflected back to us across the centuries. When it comes to faith we humans need things we can touch and see and use. They allow us to enter into the mysteries and meanings of life in a deeper way. And they help us to connect with the deepest reality of all.

So what of our Christian faith-based paraphernalia today? Are our digital video installations, DVD’s, Mpegs, labyrinths, photoblogs, communion tables, , fonts, stones, candles, songbooks, high-tech alternative worship and low-tech sunday services really so very different to these ancient pagan spiritual artefacts? And if humanity is still around in another 2000 years, what will anthropologists and archaeologists make of us and our artefacts? How will we look to them? And will they recognise something of themselves in us?


Photos taken courtesy of  Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, Cumbria.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

What makes for beauty?

ashness bridge view copy

This scene at Ashness Bridge above Derwentwater, looking over to Keswick and Skiddaw beyond, is held to be one of the classic viewpoints in Lakeland. Even on a day when the cloud cover overhead is almost complete and the light is as flat as the proverbial pancake, one can see why. The tumbling waters of the stream provide plenty of foreground interest, leading our gaze to the little bridge in the middle distance, and then to the trees and bracken covered fellside beyond, before finally settling on vista of the lake and mountains in the far distance. From near to far the view is complete and full of interest. Lines of perspective seem to meet naturally at the bridge in a manner which is harmonious and pleasing.

So here is a thought experiment: remove the bridge and what are you left with? The stream tumbling down the valley into the distance would be pleasant enough, but would the resulting picture be as beautiful? I think not. There is something about that bridge which is the key to the whole composition. Divide the image horizontally and vertically into thirds and the answer becomes clear: it sits just about slap bang on the conjunction of the thirds in the upper left of the picture. Put your main point of interest ‘on the thirds’ and usually you can’t go wrong. In this instance the fact that it is an attractive and quaint old stone bridge, something which is not a common sight anymore, seals the deal. This basic piece of compositional wisdom works: our brains are wired in such a way that it just does. Seeing beauty like this does not need to be learned, it is a given of how we see the world.

So what are the compositional rules for seeing beauty in other people? And by this I mean something more than outward appearance. Which presumably is the first rule……

But what might the others be?

empathy for a tree: a pastoral parable

wounded tree dying from within at derwentwater

damaged tree with decay and woodworm close up

Sitting having lunch out of the rain in the shelter of a large tree I could not help but notice the smaller damaged tree in front of us. At some stage in the past a catastrophic event had mutilated it, stunting it forever.

As you can see the damage was extensive. Although the wound in the bark appeared to be old and to have healed around the edges, much of the heartwood looked to be riddled with woodworm holes and signs of deeper decay. And all of this was exposed to the elements in Borrowdale, the wettest valley in England.

Yet here it was, still alive with its remaining branches in full leaf. Clearly sap still flowed inside the trunk and the tree displayed a noteworthy resilience to what might otherwise have been a rapid terminal decline.

Many lives are lived like this. Sometimes the wounds and brokenness are clearly visible to an observant onlooker, but oftentimes less so. Much remains hidden and too many people decay slowly from the inside, bearing damage from their past which never heals.

Like woodworm and fungus, life-events have a way of not only making the damage worse but also of jeopardising longer-term wellbeing and quality of life.

All the more remarkable then are the times of luxuriant foliage in their lives and the shelter and delight which they give to others. The wound is not their only truth nor does it define them.

The beauty here is that of the whole tree being a tree, being alive and turning sunlight into sustenance, deep-rooted into the soil of its existence, just doing the best it can.

Each and all of us can empathise with this tree. We recognise ourselves in it. And like the tree our past wounds are not our whole truth nor do they define us. Rooted in the soil of love and bathed in the sunlight of acceptance the sap of dignity and hope rises still.

welcoming or warning, hospitable or hostile: a disquieting challenge

cottage in Ennerdale copy

Seeing this dwelling at the end of a three hour walk around Ennerdale triggered a line of thinking which led me to get out my camera and take this shot. The cottage with its enclosed mown lane was a striking sign of domesticity in the midst of a managed yet still wild landscape. My attention was led naturally to that door in the whitewashed wall. And that is when the questions started to flow.

What reception would I get as a stranger if I knocked on the door? If I were in the cottage, how would I react to such an unexpected intrusion from outside? Whichever side of the door I was standing on, what would be shaping my expectations? And should the door open, what would govern my response to the person I would see? And most disquieting of all, do the answers to these questions vary depending upon which side of the door you  imagine yourself to be? In other words is there an ethical double-standard in play here?

Our perceptions of threat and neediness are likely to be made before ever the other person has a chance to speak. Such initial judgements resemble the matrix metering in my Nikon; the camera’s onboard computer seeks to recognise scenes and their particularities of lighting by referring to an inbuilt database of exposure information which correlates to what the sensor is currently detecting. This system is very reliable and highly sophisticated. It produces great results. It is not foolproof and it does not see what I see through the viewfinder, because it does not see how I see. To get close to that I need to use other software in post-processing. In other words the initial perception can be way out, a little out, or spot on. We won’t know until we put it to the test.

Hollywood has traded on this perceptual doorstep dilemma in countless thrillers down the years. What if our judgement is mistaken? What are the consequences of getting it wrong? Screenplays dwell on these issues and play with our inbuilt ways of seeing the world and each other. Perhaps the best are those which throw our prejudices back in our faces and humanise rather than demonise the ‘other’. Such are not flavour of the month with neocons or fundamentalist extremists who prefer to deal in terror and threat laden stereotypes. It is so much easier to blast the ‘other’ out of existence and repress the freedoms of your own people if you do. Being open to an open encounter with the stranger is so much more threatening because it threatens the very mechanisms of power, profit and control which seek to shape our perceptions into stereotypes in the first place.

On our way back from holiday in the Lake District one of the tyres on our caravan blew out. We ended up standing by the side of the M6 in pouring rain waiting for a commendably short while for the AA rescue patrol to arrive. The guy was great and had us back on the road very quickly. When he first drew up and got out of his van I ‘saw’ that he was a young Muslim. He was in his twenties and had a long beard and short hair and was ‘clearly’ of British Asian ethnicity. Elements of the right wing press and politicians across the political spectrum, but chiefly of the right and far right would have me see him as a potential threat. They would seek to put into my head ways of seeing which play to their agenda, rather than see a really friendly, careful and efficient young man who is good at his job. This is what was going through my mind as he changed the wheel on our caravan. The real threat to our society are those who would prevent us from ever getting across the doorstep of authentic encounter out of which trust and mutuality are forged. And yet these same people who engender fear and mistrust with labels of ‘Muslim’, ‘Asylum Seeker’ and ‘Benefit Cheat’ would no doubt be appalled if they knocked on the cottage door and were met by anything less than welcoming hospitality, especially if the cottage were in Tuscany or the Cayman Islands. Double standards abound and yet they seem only too willing to slam the door shut in the faces of people who are not like them. The current  ‘this is what you are not’ exclusivist favourite of our political class, that of  ‘Hard Working Families’, is an insidious and cynical case in point.

Opening doors and seeing with an open mind is a risky business. It requires courage. So too does knocking the door in the first place, especially if you are ‘different’. Jesus did both of these. He was the outsider who drew people inside. He was the stranger who taught others to stand on both sides of the door and to know that he was to be found in the face of the ‘other’. And his way of seeing seems so ‘other’ in these deliberately fear-filled and suspicious times. It is why we need it so much, lest we lose sight altogether of a global vision of justice and peace for all.

Monday 27 July 2009

high speed surface details with slow speed underlying certainties

river liza ennerdale flow at 4000th sec copy

These two photographs were taken within moments of each other. They are identically framed, showing exactly the same view of  the River Liza in Ennerdale. Even though the resulting images look very different, the only technical difference between them was the shutter speed. The top photo was taken at 1/4000 sec, and the movement of the water has been frozen; individual droplets and the chaotic nature of the current at the surface are all readily apparent. Without a camera this all happens much too fast for us to be able to see the action with this degree of definition. Less clear is the bed of the river. In contrast the slow shutter speed of 1/10 sec in the second photo has blurred the surface details of the flow so that more persistent patterns river liza ennerdale flow at 10th sec copywithin the current become visible and what lies beneath, although blurred, is easier to make out. This image has a much more ethereal quality to it than the first. Time has juxtaposed and superimposed chaotic fine detail to show us what we do not normally see.

Looking at our life is like this. Each moment is different. It is good to be mindful of the details of the stream of  our being as it flows through the ever present moment of our perception. The high speed surface detail in the upper shot seems to me to be a good metaphor for what life feels like sometimes, a maelstrom in miniature with so much happening  and so many things clamouring for our attention. It is then that it is good to slow the shutter speed of perception and see through the chaos and detail to the calmer picture of enduring flows and underlying certainties. In a sense this is what our faith tradition seeks to do. The pastoral eye which notices details and cherishes individualities also gives good attention to the enduring divine realities within and beneath human experience. One photo without the other gives half a story. In Jesus I see both high and slow shutter speeds of perception in harmony and symmetry. If only the same were true of my own seeing.

Two colours Christian

two colours of faith red light stop

From the do not’s of the ten commandments to the supposedly hard line attitudes of St Paul our faith tradition has had a bit of problem presenting a positive image. Christians and their churches are those people who tell you what you must not do or be. Judgement is the name and stopping your good times is the game – especially and obsessively where sexuality is concerned. Add a dollop of seemingly baffling and irrelevant dogmas dressed up as the one-way entry point to belief and the picture could hardly be less rosy. But then again, call yourself a Methodist and the difficulties of public mis-perception are exacerbated to the nth degree: our ‘brand’ is seen to be firmly at the no drink, no gambling, let the (no)fun times roll killjoy end of the religious spectrum. I fear that we are seen by what we are assumed to deny rather than by what we actually advocate. We are ill-judged on the basis of ridiculous absurdities which we are alleged to believe rather than by the down to earth gospel values which actually motivate us. And isn’t all of this the massively frustrating rub for Christians in general?  The facile, intemperate, caricatured attacks of some prominent atheists only makes our already difficult public image so much worse. In our time there is a whopping big red cultural stop sign preventing people from getting close to church and faith.

I for one lament the culturally pervasive anomaly between how religion is framed in and by society on the one hand and the Christians I see who are putting effort and commitment into serving the needs of their local communities and making their own working relationships and networks more humane and wholesome, on the other. The two colours of faith green light goessence of a Jesus-shaped life has to be a full on green light ‘Yes’ to life in all its fullness, for that is what Jesus promises. His life and teaching open up the inter-personal realities of a healthy and wholly good lifestyle, which flows so naturally from a gracious understanding of love and its practice. The gospels are a green-light for a positive, affirming and life-liberating view of personhood and society. Jesus describes the very essence of what it is to be wonderfully human. In him we see what the ancient biblical foundations of  loving-kindness, mercy and justice look like.

This being so and a priori true, the red stop light aspects of Christianity are a necessary and needful corollary to this essential God derived green-light perspective which sees the world as ‘Original Blessing’ and humanity as inherently good and beautiful. The red light is there to stop crashes from happening. It protects us from ourselves and each other. Cross on red and you may very well be hurt badly, or worse. The Christian faith offers values and ways of behaving which seek to enhance the experience of being alive for everyone without exception. This explains its radical cutting edge politically. And because we are as we are as a species, with our unceasing propensity to harm and destroy the wellbeing of others, our faith tradition also carries the common memory of what happens when things go wrong. The Stop lights represent the costly, accumulated and always evolving experiential wisdom of millennia. And for that matter, so too does the green light for Go. The Stop lights warn of the consequences of our actions for ourselves and others; Green seeks to maximise the social capital of love and build a mutually assured future for the human race.  Both lights are necessary if we are truly to live by and for the love of God which we see in Jesus. If only our secular contemporaries would see Green first…….which of course is a challenge for to us to get our collective act together first.

Thursday 16 July 2009

John Clare: eco-poetry and the re-enchantment of nature in a time of climate challenge

helpston village sign showing john clareIn these ecologically precarious times of climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion, John Clare is a poet we would do well to read.  From the troubled years of the early nineteenth century his authentically working class and profoundly rural voice speaks right into our contemporary dilemmas. In his lifetime the world around him was changing almost beyond recognition. Patterns of agriculture and communal village life which had pertained for centuries were being uprooted and displaced in the wake of the monstrous land grab facilitated by the Enclosure Acts. The effects of new agricultural technologies and the onset of the Industrial Revolution meant that Clare lived in an atmosphere of great upheaval and tension, john clare's birthplace in helpston copyexacerbated by political revolution abroad.

The landscape of Clare’s England and the lot of the rural poor was changing for ever under the hard fists of greed and privilege, wielded with such alacrity by the rich and powerful.  Land which was once a common benefit was appropriated into private hands. Old ways and customs were supplanted and disrupted by fences, hedgerows and the notion of ‘trespassing’. Commodity prices were hitting the poor hard. From his rootedness in the area around Helpston and his family life in the cottage of his birth, Clare’s poetry charts the ecological, cultural and psychological impact of this socio-economic paradigm shift.

john clare's countryside today

It all sounds so very modern and familiar. Communities across the globe who have to live with the impacts of Big Oil, Big Mining,  Big Agriculture and Big Money will be able to empathise with the hard truths and the outrage he describes. Today the heaths and common land of his childhood are a vista of large scale commercial agriculture. Yet for all this contemporary resonance it is another aspect of Clare’s work which is especially important as, with increasing urgency, we seek an ecologically sustainable way of living together on planet earth.

Clare was a poet enchanted by the natural world. He revelled in its detail and diversity. His was a poetry of local ecology. Hjohn clare's countryside - a lane near his home in  helpstone saw and valued what others might pass by without appreciation. Species, patterns, habits and habitats were his vocabulary.  His solitary walks through fields, byways and woods were those of a natural naturalist wholly immersed in the intricate beauty of his environment. Here in the Sonnet ‘A Pleasant Place’ we find Clare speaking of a deep sense of blessing -communion even -  which comes from such an intimately local acquaintance with nature. 

NOW Summer comes, and I with staff in hand Will hie me to the sabbath of her joys,—                      To heathy spots, and the unbroken land                     Of woodland heritage, unknown to noise                   And toil;—save many a playful band                            john clare the flitting wordleOf dancing insects, that well understand           The sweets of life, and with attuned voice       Sing in sweet concert to the pleasant May.             There by a little bush I’ll listening rest,                   To hear the nightingale, a lover’s lay                          Chaunt to his mate, who builds her careless nest Of oaken leaves, on thorn-stumps, mossed and grey;                                                                                Feeling, with them, I too am truly blest                    By making sabbaths of each common day

Tellingly Clare says that each day becomes a sabbath. Read today this becomes for me a timeless and poignant counter-cultural sideswipe at the driven nature of rampant capitalism, where time is money rather than a precious non-renewable gift.

john clare I am wordleAnd he mourned the degradation of  his beloved landscape with a degree of feeling perhaps unmatched by any other poet. The first wordle shows part of his poem ‘The Flitting’, in which he evokes the dislocation he feels at having moved just a few miles away from Helpston. This pervasive sense of loss underscores the loss of his sanity too, which seemed to slip away just as irrecoverably as the landscape he cherished. The second wordle represents his poem ‘I Am’, written from his iconic final isolation in Northampton General Asylum.  

So many of our current ecological woes stem from that estrangement from our natural environment and injohn clares grave copycipient and disastrous disconnection between economics and ecology which became so prevalent in John Clare’s lifetime.

The annual John Clare Festival in Helpston, which finished this last weekend,  sees the poet’s grave adorned with posies. It is a quiet and beautiful place; somewhere to become still and listen, to pause and see.

The madness of unsustainable development may yet find its cure in the words and insight of a man who ended his days in a madhouse. The genius of John Clare, eco-poet par excellence, is a gift for our times. What we see afresh we may yet learn to value. And like Clare we live in troubled times; john clare's tranquil grave in helpston churchyard and time is running out if we are to reverse the suicidal trends which are driving climate change.

So I return to the photo of the village sign in Helpston at the top of this post, and the figure sitting on the ground writing down his stream of consciousness impressions of what it is to be enfolded in the web of life. Here John Clare is carved lovingly into the common memory.

Today his words offer us the chance to carve out a respectful and sustainable way of living  lightly in the world and with each other. They deserve to be read and cherished.

The ‘Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’ is how Clare john clare memorial copyis described on the memorial to him in Helpston, which is somewhat ironically built on the site of the former village pond. Those who saw themselves as better than him, the powerful cultured elites of his day, have under the guise of progress bequeathed an enduring legacy of despoilation and degradation to succeeding generations. The time has come to celebrate the wisdom which shaped Clare’s understanding  of the natural world. This is not to romanticise Clare or to disregard the benefits of technology; it is to restore a much needed sense of proportion, balance and interconnectedness to our worldview.

Clare’s poem ‘Summer’ expresses the wealth and richness of an ecological outlook which is beyond price. Perhaps it is in the quiet celebratory simplicity of such a ‘green’ point of view that our common future will be re-envisioned.

HOW sweet, when weary, dropping on a bank,      Turning a look around on things that be!                     E’en feather-headed grasses, spindling rank,               A trembling to the breeze one loves to see;                 And yellow buttercup, where many a bee       Comes buzzing to its head and bows it down;          And the great dragon-fly with gauzy wings,             In gilded coat of purple, green, or brown,                    That on broad leaves of hazel basking clings,       Fond of the sunny day:—and other things                   Past counting, please me while thus here I lie.       But still reflective pains are not forgot:                    Summer sometime shall bless this spot, when I    Hapt in the cold dark grave, can heed it not.

Friday 10 July 2009

Translations from the edge, codecs at the centre: Methodist Conference 2009

methodist conference wolverhampton civic hall  2009Now that I am back home from the Methodist Conference I am mulling over the significance of the many hours of debate, decision making, conferring, conversation and worship which took place.

How is the world a better place today because of all that was said and decided in Wolverhampton? What difference will it make here in Lincolnshire, or anywhere else for that matter? How will it be understood -  if it is noticed at all -  by British society? What meaning will it have for poor and disadvantaged communities here and on the other side of the world?

How has it changed me? What happens next?

These are some of the questions which I now have to answer as I seek with others to translate the experience of Wolverhampton into strategic vision and practical action across the Lincoln and Grimsby District. And translation is the right word to use for this vital task.

As you can see there was ongoing real-time language translation provided for our world church guests. Sitting in the Conference Hall each of the Districts is processing the business in real-time too. We put the stream of information through our own contextual filters and get ready to contribute if needs be. This is especially important when views from the edge which speak of being marginalised, hurt, inspired or encouraged need to be voiced and heard. methodist conference interpreter for world church representativesNaturally enough in all of this we  translate the proceedings into the familiar faith-speak and language which works in our context but crucially we are challenged with new vocabulary and fresh idioms from elsewhere too.  The variety of 'faith-dialects' and nuances from across the globe as well as across the UK is one of the joys of our being together. So many postcards from the edge gathered in one place for us to appreciate.

For all of us in Conference, wherever we are from, there is one unifying task going on under the surface.  The question mark on the screens in the Conference Hall could usefully have been there all week to provoke the thought: what does this mean to me/us and for me/us?

methodist conference wolverhampton 2009Note - not just 'to', as that points to a response which could be far too narrowly cerebral and liable to become inconsequential, but 'to and for', as that implies purposeful thinking turning into attitudes, actions, imperatives and real consequences. And because such a process of translation is hugely contextual the end result here in Lincolnshire could look markedly different to that in South London or Cardiff. It need not, but it might.

Perhaps this is the genius of being a connexional church. The collective, connected us has an amazingly diverse and fantastically rich identity. That which is expressed locally in a myriad of Methodist faith dialects reflects our rich common language.methodist conference wolverhampton 2009 vote being taken This is why Conference cannot fail to be inspiring.

And because we are Methodists what happened at Conference will make a difference locally and globally; that is how we are and this is what we do. When we vote on issues that matter to us the whole Connexion is represented.

On climate change and racism we have taken landmark decisions this week which will affect the whole church.

Ekklesia picked up the story about the BNP like this:

"The Methodist Church has become the first major denomination in the UK to ban all its members from joining the British National Party (BNP). A resolution passed by the annual Methodist Conference, meeting  in Wolverhampton, declared that “No member of the Church can also be a member of a political party whose constitution, aims or objectives promote racism. This specifically includes, but is not solely limited to, the British National Party”. The news follows a similar ban on Church of England clergy, but the Methodists have gone much further, saying that no-one can even be a member of the Church while also belonging to the BNP. “We must be clear that racism is a denial of the Gospel” said Rev Sylvester Deigh, who proposed the motion. “An openness to all people, regardless of nationality, is at the heart of Methodist identity” he continued. The motion was seconded by the Rev Dr Angela Shier-Jones. While strongly condemning racism and the BNP specifically, the motion declares that “those who support racist parties are also God’s children, and in need of love, hope and redemption”. Supporters of the measure are keen to emphasise that no-one will be banned from attending a church – only from membership of it."

conference crossCrucially we hope that we express our identity in ways which the world will take notice of and understand. So far today I have yet to see this vote making headlines in the media.  Through Google I did find this response, though, posted by a  BNP member on an internet forum:  "Following on from the C of E's banning of priests being BNP members, the rapidly declining Methodists have now gone one step further in banning BNP members from even being part of the church. Even emptier pews for the Accrington Stanley of the UK's religious league."

Now I would expect a pejorative  reply, so no surprise there. Culturally, however, I am fascinated by the picture of Methodism which this man espouses, because I have a hunch that what we see here would in fact be a very widely-held view in British society.

For the record Accrington Stanley finished mid way in the Coca Cola League two table for the 2008/2009 season, three places below Lincoln City and well above Grimsby Town. We are not talking top-flight Premiership here. So in terms of numbers this guy is wrong. But what of "rapidly declining" and "empty pews", these are things which we have said about and to ourselves!  As key descriptors of our church is it any wonder that such things can be said about us when for too long we have engaged in such a narrative of despair? More worrying still is the implication that our pews already contain significant numbers of BNP members. I don't believe this to be the case at all, but even if there were a grain of truth in what he says it shows just how timely was the notice of motion on racism which we agreed yesterday.

The laptop on which I am writing these words needs specific bits of software  - codecs - in order for it to play music and video in a wide range of formats. A missing or corrupted codec is a right pain and can be really annoying. Society at large needs up to date cultural codecs if what we say and do is not to be seen and heard as gibberish, irrelevant or, at worst, as being simply unplayable. out of darkness cometh light wolverhampton art gallery stained glassIf this is to happen we have to tell a fresh story and, more importantly, live the transforming story of the gospel at the heart of our local communities in ways which are meaningful, engaged and relevant to local needs and contexts. The resolution we passed on racism and the BNP demonstrates clearly what we stand for, who we are and what we are prepared to do. A church which is committed to improving social capital and to working with others to transform society because it is wholly and enthusiastically open to God, the gospel and to all sections of society is a resurgent church. This is who we are becoming.  Right across the age spectrum. We have to do all that we can to get this new codec embedded at the centre of society, and the best way is surely to live out the gospel of grace at its sharp and painful edges. The nails which comprise the conference cross convey this truth powerfully without words. Every person on the edge is at the centre of our concern. The BNP member has a wonky codec and half a story. Through our new story we hope that he might yet find that transforming grace for himself which leads to life in its fullness. In this context the motto of the city council in Wolverhampton is highly appropriate, and is depicted in this stained glass window on display in the city art gallery. Out of darkness cometh light.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

the pouncing gargoyle

winchcombe pouncing gargoyleI originally used some of these images at our Ministerial Synod earlier in the year, and then again shortly afterwards when I was asked to lead devotions at our Chairs of District meeting. For some time I have been meaning to work them up and post them, so at long last here they are.

winchcombe grinning demonThese magnificent gargoyles (or more accurately 'grotesques') are a selection of those to be found on St. Peter's Parish Church in Winchcombe.  They are extraordinary examples of a surprisingly common ecclesiastical artform.  Here the masons have carved a health warning in stone, for the grotesques are refreshingly candid and show with commendable honesty what someone can expect to experience should they enter the church and engage in the life of faith with this particular group of people . The grotesques demonstrate the reality of those warped and contorted behaviours and attitudes which wait to strike the community of faith. It is why we have procedures to deal with complaints and discipline. The pouncing gargoyle, the cat-like creature in the top image poised to leap down on the unwary passer-by, is particularly striking and fits well the text from 1 Peter. Whatever one's views on the language and symbolism used, the psychological reality to which it points is real and familiar. Medieval faith appears to be up front and honest about the broken and vulnerable nature of our selfhood to a degree which we find strange today. Perhaps our comparative reticence does not serve us well. Anyone looking up at the Winchcombe grotesques would hardly be likely to expect the congregants to be perfect. Today the charge of hypocrisy is easily levelled at church folk because the common view is that we are supposed to be a cut above your average secular 'sinner'. Winchcombe gives the lie to this misperception and offers a common bond of neediness to those inside and out the church.

winchcombe demon

Take this image for example: in this striking representation the king of demons is having what seems to be a well self-satisfied laugh at our expense. Trying to live a good life is clearly no easy matter. The carving is a public admission of this uncomfortable truism, and a warning to be on one's guard. Might it then also be an invitation to enter and find release, the medieval equivalent of a neon-sign?

The ancient service of compline is redolent of this need for vigilance and preparedness in the face of temptation, wickedness and evil. It acknowledges a primary reality of being human which besets us still. And because it is honest about how we are, not least towards each other, this church is a beacon of hope. The grotesques very visibly project a powerful message out into the community: if this is what you wish to be released from, come inside. It is only when we recognise the grotesque-ness in our own thinking and behaving that we can seek to transform it and find release from its power.  It is as though the carvings say: bring it on, do your worst, for here you will find a power greater than your torment. Again the service of Compline offers this sense of realism and hopefulness. Surely the healing power of God's love in Jesus can set us free from the psycho-social 'demons'  of our time too?winchcombe winged demon

winchcombe gargoyle

So although the carvings and the liturgy of Compline seem to belong to another seemingly unrecognisable world, they do in fact point to something ever so contemporary. Violence, corruption, abuse, addiction and exploitation could very easily be some of the names for those things which the masons sought to represent by their grotesques. The power of such to pounce and inflict hurt and harm in our time is very real. Perhaps we have much to learn from this honesty of stone and liturgy. And by so doing we might just have much to offer to our communities too.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

discipleship means...

see tell and call

The window looks out onto the world around. From this high vantage point much can be seen. The window is also ajar, so the sounds from outside enter freely and can be heard readily. The weather vane can do nothing other than tell it as it is and point out the direction of the prevailing wind, which is of course invisible. The bell waits to call people to action. 

For me this is a picture of discipleship.

And in this shot it is the bell tower and weather vane which are exceptional and which first caught my attention, for this part of the building is truly out of the ordinary.

As disciples of Jesus we  are called to see the world as he sees it. So we try to look at everything and everyone from a godly viewpoint. This is a tough call because seeing appreciatively, generously and compassionately, with great grace, is not our natural human default position. Our evolutionary psycho-social development means that quite the reverse is often the case.  To practice lovingly understanding, empathetic and inclusive vision is too see each other with eyes full of delighted hope, from a heart full of grace.

Then we can truly listen deeply to what the other is saying, and saying not just with words but with the whole of their life. To listen in this way is to be alert for those cadences of need and insight which hint at and sometimes reveal where Jesus is standing in the life of this person, group or people.

So far to so good. And then we come to the exceptional bell tower and its weather vane. Having seen and listened, our discipleship comes alive when we move on to do naturally what  Jesus did, which is to tell and call. And I guess it is at this point that we move into the territory of matters which are more out of the ordinary. Having seen and listened to the pain and distress in the world around him, Jesus told it as it was and pointed to the eternal loving purposes and ceaseless activity of God at work in the world. Faced with needy and suffering people Jesus responded. And he responded with the gospel of God's love which meets us face to face. He responded with that activist, subversive politics of passion which he called the kingdom of God. Jesus embodied, enfleshed and made real the hidden reality at the heart of creation; the love in whom we live and move and have our being. Such love is constantly striving to make all things new. His disciples are called to do likewise; to see and listen deeply and to respond by making the presence of God's love really apparent and relevant, as we strive to make all things new in and through our passionate kingdom lifestyles.

And then Jesus called those he met to make a personal, heart-felt response to this face to face love of God for them and others. Jesus calls us to respond and become agents of change, to be transformed and transforming, and to follow him into the suffering and hurting places within the world and in ourselves. We are to know and to be the gospel right there. Through such prophetic love the call to that which is hopeful and holy is manifest. Telling and calling are surely central and essential to such a ministry of encouragement and social justice.

Seeing, listening, telling and calling are at the heart of our vocation as followers of Jesus. When we see, listen, tell and call as he did, we really are acting as his disciples in the world.

Saturday 4 July 2009

global emissions: downslope to eco-disaster

global emissions dowslope to eco-disaster

"It is now intellectually and morally irresponsible to fail to acknowledge and address the urgent need for radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent intolerable damage to human populations and mass extinctions of many plant and animal species."

Hope in God's Future: approaching God in the context of climate change

The Methodist Conference in Wolverhampton has an historic opportunity to use 'Hope in God's Future' as a springboard to initiate radical action right across our church. Climate change and the urgent need to reduce global emissions is one of the truly great mission challenges of our era. Lack of political will, economic incentives and meaningful global agreements to curb greenhouse gas emissions mean that we are already heading downslope to eco-disaster. So the question is not how can we avoid it, as the time for that is past; instead we now have to ask how can we minimise its effects.

And it is the poor in the developing nations of the world who will be hit earliest and hardest by the climate-driven consequences of the rich world's laissez faire attitudes and practices.

The time for rhetoric is over, because the time for dying has already arrived for our most vulnerable sisters and brothers worldwide. Jesus stands tearfully in their midst and looks at us in utter bewilderment, just as he wept over Jerusalem and the failings of its policy-makers and decision-takers at the end of his own life.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

Luke 19:41-42

Friday 3 July 2009

With wonderful tenderness God already loves us behind the locked door to our inner self

hidden secrets and shameful memories behing a locked door

and waits there to embrace us. Right there in the very place which is so enduringly troublesome for us to enter. Right there in the damaged soul-space in which it so difficult for us to love ourselves. It is there, right there where we feel most unloveable, that God desires to cherish us into life.

An image for use in worship and personal reflection

And a  wonderful poem written by Liz Smith, which gets to the heart of pastoral ministry and the gift of truly safe space which it can provide. Perhaps it is just such a bounded and protected space which is at the heart of 'the cure of souls'.

When the door slams shut
and I turn the key
on the inside;
when I permit no window of hope,
no glimmer of grace,
nor comfort of companionship;
then, in your tenderness,
You gift me with one
whose kindness turns the key,
whose courage cracks
the combined codes of pain
and fearfulness;
one who eases the door ajar
to welcome first shafts of sunlight
and promise of freedom.

Thursday 2 July 2009

enlightenment in an Indian restaurant

light fitting

You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God

Matthew 5:14-16

Sitting in an Indian restaurant having a meal with friends my imagination was caught by these elaborate light fittings. Rather than having a shade the light was  shining off a brightly coloured background and shining through the translucent petals of a flower pattern fitment. It seemed to be a visual analogy of how we radiate the love of God in Jesus Christ. The utter simplicity of the imperative to "love one another as I have loved you" is personalised and individualised within and through each one of us. Although each human 'light stand' is unique the spectrum of God's inclusive and liberating love is consistent. The shapes and patterns of our being should not detract from nor blot out the light of divine love, but rather they should complement and draw attention to its marvellous propensity to enlighten and illuminate us.

As the images make clear, the light brings out the very best in that through which it shines so brightly. It changes our perception of something which might otherwise be perceived as being dull and unattractive. What we see are "God-colours" and an illuminating testimony to a radiant beauty which would otherwise be hidden. The challenge is to open up to others about the light of the world at work in our lives in such a way that they might then in turn be open to the possibility of what life might look like when the light shines through them too. 

light fitting 2