Wednesday 7 April 2010

Davesdistrictblog has now become Visualtheology

I have taken the opportunity to rename and refresh my blog. I now blog at and davesdistrictblog remains here with all its content as an archive.
The new name reflects the purpose of the blog more accurately and sums up what I am trying to achieve through the use of photography. I hope you continue to enjoy my work.
Please check that your rss feeds and bookmarks are set for the new blog.
Love and peace, Dave

Monday 5 April 2010

Moments of enlightenment: divine presence in focus

sun and shadow as light resurrects

If divine presence is an unvarying constant, a given term in our theological equations like the speed of light in physics, then our awareness of God is not. On the human side of the equation everything seems to be in a constant perceptual flux, like the wind, rain and sunshine of this Easter weekend.   For me picturing God and capturing decisive moments of spiritual meaning-making has far more to do with the art of photography than with the intellectual pursuit of truth through philosophy and academic theology. Beauty, not logic, is what ultimately persuades my soul of the enfolding presence of God’s love. Images and not arguments convince my heart to trust. Why? Surely it is because love is primarily sensual and experiential rather than intellectual and propositional.  ‘God is love’ is not simply a gobbet to be deconstructed and picked over; it is a living, breathing, passionate truth which encounters us personally. This line of thinking has been triggered again for me by Madeleine Bunting’s excellent piece in today’s Guardian ‘God is attracting more debate than ever’.  She says

“The faithful are not mugging up on critiques of reason for an argument with New Atheism, but turning to religion to offer meaning and purpose…This search for meaning is part of what drives the religious spirit….belief is a commitment not a proposition; faith, as in "I have faith in you", is an expression of confidence, not an assertion of the existence of something. Dogma is "a truth which cannot easily be put into words and which can only be fully understood through long experience" – rather like the love of a parent for their child growing into adulthood.

The loss of the original meanings of all these words show how religious faith in the west came to be interpreted as a matter of the head and the intellect, and was bound up with the authority of an institution which expected submission: God was regarded as something to think about rather than do in large chunks of western religious practice…

The paradox of New Atheism is that in its bid to make religion unacceptable, it has contributed to making it a subject that is considered worth talking about again…God hasn't attracted this quantity or intensity of debate for decades.”

Meaning and purpose often come as flashes of insight, like the light catching the reeds in the photograph. Light makes photographs. The quality, quantity and direction of  light is principally what brings an image to life. It determines the contrast between the various components of the picture. For a few moments the light paints a composition which holds our attention, then it is gone, and the scene is rendered flatter and somewhat lifeless. The photographers particular viewpoint coupled with their choice of lens and their judgement of the best moment to press the shutter determine whether the response to this enlightening gift is dull or arresting. I would contend that our faith is enriched most by those mystics whose spirituality has a recognisable style in respect of their generous seeing and appreciation of God’s love-light and the distinctiveness of their inclusive point of view. Pondering my own story I realise that Julian of Norwich, the Celtic Saints,  Aelred of Rievaulx, St Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, St. John of the Cross, John Wesley, Thomas Merton, Joan Chittister are the sorts of names which spring to mind, gifted artists of light each one. And many more ordinary Christians whose faith, companionship and support has shaped my own seeing of God’s love in the world around me and pulled it into sharp focus.

In often fleeting moments of deep contrast, the light of the world invites us to see, record and share the brilliance of resurrection which is such an unvarying constant of God’s loving presence and intention.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Waiting for Resurrection: try looking out of a different window

last remains of wrecked wooden boat at saltfleet

With each passing year this wooden wreck disappears a little bit more completely. It is difficult now to imagine it as it would have been when new, freshly varnished and painted. I suppose it could even have been a tiny jetty; my untrained eye struggles to make sense of the wooden skeleton poking up through the enveloping mud. And what of those whose craftsmanship and energy constructed this rowboat, skiff or landing, are they lost forever too?  I am left wondering what was in the minds of those who first used it and of the stories of which it was a part. Whatever its original form and purpose, life here has long since gone on without it. Looking down at these pathetic remains resurrection seems irrelevant and unengaged, a word denied meaning by the cloying mud and the ravages of time. But what if I am looking in the wrong place?

In his autobiography ‘The Eye of the Wind’, the acclaimed naturalist Peter Scott recalled a wonderful piece of wisdom which was offered to him by a Sikh in the RAF. Scott was a naval officer, but in August 1941 he wanted to have a couple of trips with Bomber Command so as to better understand that aspect of the war. Singh, the second pilot of a Stirling bomber in which Scott was to fly that night, said this to him: “Tonight, when you are looking out of the window, if you see something you do not like, look out of a different window.” As Scott acknowledged, this simple piece of advice seems applicable well beyond its original context.

How sad it is to look out and dwell on all the things in life which resemble the wreck in the photograph. Once a valued ‘given’ of our everyday world, now they are gone and are lost forever. Destruction, decay and death seem to have an inexorable grip upon our perception. But what if we look out of a different window? What if we frame our seeing from the standpoint of resurrection? What do we see then? Well the wreck is still at wreck, it is not magically transformed and restored to its prime. It does not rise phoenix-like from its muddy tomb. But looking around it soon becomes apparent that the purpose for which it was built is still evident today. Looking out of a different window, as it were, and just a few tens of metres away from the wreck, this is what we see.

small wooden boat at saltfleet in colour

Out of the water and perched on the mud a boat is tied up next to a small landing stage. The particular craft that became the wreck was clearly not an ending. The sea still entices people to cast off from this place and venture out on the tide. This unchanging purpose and intention are as real as the salt on the breeze and as tangible as the call of the lone curlew away on the marsh.

At Easter we celebrate the spectacular view from the window of God’s creative love at work in the world. Jesus takes us by the hand and points to where we should look. From wreck to resurrection. And within our imaginations the salt-fresh tang of the Holy Spirit’s presence births the divine purpose afresh.  The tide turns and we are minded to voyage.

Friday 2 April 2010

Cross stitch

cross stitch

As his life ebbs away the cross of Jesus casts a deep shadow. This absence of light imposes itself across the landscape like a shroud. All that sparkles and shimmers in humanity seems threatened by enveloping darkness. Evil and wickedness blot out these love lit highlights, leaving the surface of life devoid of the luminous and bereft of enlightenment. Dark stitches of death embroider hopelessness and dejection within the fabric of reality.

As his life ebbs away the cross of Jesus casts a bright light across the unlit wasteland of dejected humanity and disempowered belief. The light of divine love blazes with fierce, self-giving intensity. The creative word unleashes hope with astonishing power: ‘Let there be light’. All that is dark and shadow-cursed is transformed by the pure white brilliance of grace delighting in the human. Violence and hatred disappear, wickedness is overwhelmed and death served notice to quit. The bright stitches of God’s presence embroider hopefulness and exhilaration within the fabric of reality.

Cross stitches of darkness and light embroider Good Friday with meaning.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Look carefully and the cross can be found everywhere

look carefully and the cross can be found everywhere copy

seeing the cross in the windows of the wellington street hotel hull

As we approach Good Friday the gospels challenge us to engage in pattern recognition, something at which our brains are particularly adept. We have evolved to be hard wired to see patterns and make sense of what we see. Look at this picture of a rockface in the Scottish Highlands and you should see exactly what I mean. Once you ‘get your eye in’, the arrangements of joints and fissures produce numerous “crosses”. As soon as you start looking for a shape you will usually start to see it all around you.

Look for the cross in the weatherbeaten and fractured surfaces of everyday life and for sure you will find it. The meanings signified by this pre-eminent symbol of Easter are easily discerned, because all around us there is suffering, pain, agony, cruelty, violence, injustice, loss and distress. As recounted in the gospels the death of Jesus spares no indignity to its victim and causes immense distress to those closest to him. Nor does it hide from us the blunt realities of facing the end of life. Mapping these experiences from the first century onto our twenty first century world is not difficult; the psychological patterns are clearly recognisable today.

Interpreting their meaning theologically, however, is fraught with difficulty. In what way is the death of Jesus about God being at one with suffering humanity? This simple question exposes one of the main fault lines within Christianity today, our theological equivalent of the Pacific ‘ring of fire’  (for example see Gladys Ganiel’s post about reactions to  Brian McLaren’s ‘A New Kind Of Christianity’ for a snapshot of what I mean’)

Is the crucifixion and death of Jesus a transaction or a demonstration? Is it a divine transaction which balances the books and gets the human account out of the red, a sacrifice demanded by God in which Jesus takes our place and suffers our due punishment? Or is it a divine act of demonstration – in both senses of that word – in which God in Jesus demonstrates the self-giving depths to which love goes for the sake of those beloved by God and demonstrates against all the forces of injustice which deny life to those same beloved? The notion of demonstration seems entirely consistent with the Kingdom lifestyle, actions and teaching of Jesus. His death was the predictable outcome of his revolutionary non-violent stance against the forces of oppression, exploitation, inequality and cruelty of his time, as one who stood firmly within the radical socio-salvific teaching and tradition of the Hebrew prophets.

It is this theological pattern which is so instantly recognisable today too. All around us the cross is evident as people take up its challenge and follow in the footsteps of Jesus to confront all that is wrong. God’s passionate love for this beloved world is being demonstrated by people of courage right across the globe. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that the power of love is ultimate and will not be denied. Look carefully and the cross can be found everywhere.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Holy Week exposes the roots of our faith

tree roots exposed on the banks of the river ure near aysgarth falls

To the botanically uninitiated the exposed root system of this otherwise unremarkable tree is a staggering and wholly unexpected sight. Normally the roots are hidden away below ground level, but here the River Ure has washed away the bank side soil and exposed them to the atmosphere and not least  to the wonderment of passers by. These roots both nourish the tree and anchor it within the ground. They are the vital key to its continuing success or failure. In large measure they determine its capacity to withstand the threats and hazards of the changing seasons in this habitat, everything from drought, inundation and raging storm. To be uprooted would be a total calamity, a natural catastrophe from which there would be little hope of recovery.

I have the sense that during Holy Week the roots of our faith as Christians are similarly exposed for all to see. This sight is equally surprising and also has the capacity to astonish the casual observer. Hidden away beneath the surface of a healthy faith is a remarkable system which likewise anchors us within our immediate context in God and the world, and nourishes and sustains us. It helps us to withstand the many vicissitudes and challenges which life brings to us. Without it we would be all too easily uprooted in our faith.

As we walk with Jesus through the events of Holy Week what do we discern beneath the surface regarding his own faith-rootedness which gives us the pattern for our own? As I have pondered this question for myself several possibilities have emerged; you can no doubt think of many others:

To be grounded, enfolded and held fast in our personal experience of the truth of God’s love

Confident that nothing can separate us from the loving presence of God

Knowing that there is nothing that such love cannot face

Being completely open to the empowering and transforming presence of God’s creative Spirit

Courage and integrity to follow the purposeful way of God’s liberating Kingdom

Strength and resolve to face up to all that is wrong

Willingness to accept the personal consequences of loving like God loves

Absolutely committed to be the human face of God’s love  to and for others

It seems to me that in this way Jesus was already living what an Easter faith looks like. He was demonstrating what resurrection power can do in the life of the faithful. Without such rootedness and sustenance beneath the surface of his journey to Calvary it is difficult to see how Jesus could have given himself for the sake of love in the way that he did. Jesus lived and modelled the Kingdom life in action to the end. He only ever dealt with truth and reality. He steadfastly encouraged those around him in their discipleship and mission, no matter how tough the going got. He challenged those with responsibility and authority with the consequences of their actions and held them accountable.

And he calls us to follow him as those rooted and grounded in the same faith. Beneath the surface of church, discipleship and mission we should always find the vibrant truth of Easter.

Saturday 27 March 2010

A Very English Crucifixion

a very english crucifixion copy

A risk assessment for a typical English Good Friday would conclude that there is no undue cause for concern as far as the religious element of the bank holiday is concerned. It is as threatening as a children’s play area. Safe, benign and predictable would adequately describe what is likely to unfold; bold revolutionary fervour challenging the dominant world order, does not.  The Stations of the Cross might as well refer to a succession of sleepy rural stopping places on a bucolic 1950’s branch line railway, for all the sense of radical resistance to the forces of oppression which they engender nowadays. The crucifixion too is stripped of anything which might offend our sensibilities. It has the character of the classic black and white ‘Brief Encounter’ type of British Cinema: cut glass accents, impeccable manners, emotions acknowledged but held firmly in check, all stiff-upper lip, decent and upper middle-class.  All this is wrapped around with ‘there is a green hill’ sentimentality and topped off with a doctrinal framework of substitutionary atonement which resembles an out of court settlement reached between specialists in corporate litigation.

For 2000 years Christians have been unwilling or unable to stomach the truth that Jesus was murdered by the state. Now this is not something your average official state religion is going to major on when the time comes to celebrate the events of Holy Week. Not a wise move during the time of the Roman Empire under Constantine for sure. Nor for that matter during the British Empire under Queen Victoria. The prospect of the church encouraging the general populus to reflect annually upon the seedier aspects of imperial power and of the consequences of their being governed by ruling elites would have been viewed as treasonable and seditious, something to be avoided at all costs. Far better to doctrinalise its power away and make it an individual issue between the believer, God and Jesus Christ. Better to say that he died for them than admit that he was murdered by the state for being a troublemaking one of them. A neat trick this, which has served the alliance between church and state well down the centuries.

But put into contemporary terms the truth of Holy Week still has the power to shock.

operation golgotha

The interplay between civil liberties and the rights of the individual versus the collective security of the state are current, pressing and very much in the news. Torture, extraordinary rendition and imprisonment without trial are not just tactics of the Roman Empire in the time of Christ, or of Stalin's Soviet Union, they are practised now in the name of western democracies, allegedly for our common benefit. States do not take kindly to citizens questioning their methods and motivation. We are expected to accept that such things are necessary in order for us to sleep safely in our beds. Politicians loathe being held to account for their actions.

Holy Week is a wake up call from God which should inspire us to non-violent action. If it renders us compliant and tame it has failed utterly. If it reawakens in us a sense of holy outrage against all that conspires to oppress and harm ordinary people then it will have achieved its purpose, for then we will truly be following in the footsteps of Jesus. A Very English Crucifixion is the last thing we need. An authentic Palestinian one, complete with the horrors of foreign military occupation and oppression, most certainly is.

So the death of Jesus is not safe, benign and predictable. In no sense is it a play area for children. It is dangerous. This is risky territory, not to be entered lightly. It is the spark which ignites the flame of radical action and which changes lives forever. It is holy ground and the place where good and evil, light and darkness, fight to the death. And new life, rising, has the last living word.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Salvaging Easter

united salvage hull copyderelict northern divers building copy

They left the tomb and broke the news of all this to the Eleven and the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them kept telling these things to the apostles, but the apostles didn't believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up. But Peter jumped to his feet and ran to the tomb. He stooped to look in and saw a few grave clothes, that's all. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head      (Luke 24:9-12)

A salvage company which looks derelict and in need of salvage itself does not inspire confidence. I think this is one instance of appearances not being deceptive. The premises seem deserted, empty and devoid of life, the building resembling the disappointing shell-like void of a snail that has long since died. There is no light, no sound and no movement. Behind the brightly painted white doors, with their bold purposeful logo and more recent graffiti, all is quiet and still, like death.

Looking at these images we are left with questions: has the business gone bust or simply relocated elsewhere? Are divers still working? Will anyone answer the phone? What became of Marco? Are Daz and Caz still in love? Who or what does ‘em’ signify? What is on the doors is as fascinating as what is absent behind them. The power of story and human interest is compelling.

As are the gospel narratives set for Easter Day. Looking at the stories of that resurrection dawn is similar to standing in front of the empty building of United Salvage; we are  confronted with mystery, enigma and questions. People of faith believe that God is in the salvage business, raising wrecked lives and refloating sunken humanity. Our inherited tradition is of God diving deep below the surface of life into all that is wrong and hazardous, and of dignity, hope and fresh resolve emerging from the depths of all which was deemed lost and irrecoverable. Yet God’s revolutionary paradigm of love in Jesus was scuttled and sent to the bottom on Good Friday.  The disciples had watched the disaster unfold. They had witnessed the waves of death claiming Jesus. To these grief-stricken, distraught, confused and despondent people the kingdom of God appeared deserted, empty and devoid of life. Behind their doors all seemed quiet and deathly. The graffiti of hopelessness was written on their faith. From both outside and inside the whole edifice of the Jesus movement now looked derelict and forlorn, a salvage company that could not salvage itself.

By Easter morning some his closest friends and followers began to realise that somehow its immediacy and power had resurfaced. There was indeed something to be salvaged. But it all seemed so improbable, so enigmatic and wrapped around with so many questions. Was the appearance of the empty tomb deceptive? What on earth was going on? What could they hope for? What would happen to them now? What had become of Jesus? What did the women’s experience signify? Did God still love them?

And it was from this empty void and out of the seemingly derelict premises of this failed movement that  new life and energy emerged. God salvaged these people. For each of them in turn resurrection was transformed from a distant far-fetched concept into an immediate experience of face to face encounter. God raised Jesus to life in their consciousness and intention. The reality of his loving presence became compelling and energising.

It is just as puzzling and powerful today.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

sedimentary spirituality: from weathering life to the bedrock of faith

river hull showing thick layer of sediment

As the tide ebbs in the estuary the river reveals the muddy truth of its channel. Great banks of sludgy sediment, feet thick and sculpted by the current, deter all but the most curious or foolhardy from descending the iron ladder to explore their pungent and glutinous depths.

But we should at least look on the grey-brown gloop with respect. Here history is deposited at our feet. The grains and particles of sediment were weathered and eroded from landscapes near and far, each with their own story. Once they would have been part of rock, gravel, sand or soil. Sunshine, rain, wind, ice and flowing water wrenched them away to rest here for a while. Perhaps in time to come they will be reformed into solid rock again by geology’s hidden processes of genesis. For now they spend much of the time submerged and out of sight.

As a spiritual parable  we can find our own truth here too. All of those experiences, relationships and memories which have shaped our identity are like sediment which is hidden beneath the surface of our life. They steadily accumulate and at times of ebb and low tide are revealed to the world. The unwary can be trapped in their depths and held fast. But it is out of such muddy realities that the bedrock of faith is made. Deep down in our soul, in that place where the pressures of life and the sheer immensity of God’s love come to bear, we are transformed and the hard rock of faith and trust arises. Such is the unseen miracle of grace which tells the truth of resurrection’s timeless process.

Tuesday 23 March 2010


ripples and reflections

Moments of great clarity often occur when the surface of things is perfectly still and mirror-like. In such conditions of profound calm everything can just click into place and make sense. Our seeing becomes deep and crystal clear. The merest breath of wind or the tiniest disturbance will send ripples of confusion out across our perception. The whole picture fragments and distorts. The familiar is rendered strange and we see but don’t comprehend. The arrangements of colours and shapes lose their meaning.

Then patience is a virtue: the ability to sit with and endure the rippling derangement of pattern and order. The courage to watch and wait for that moment, however brief, when the chaos subsides and the incongruous superficialities disappear. To trust that there is an underlying picture which will make sense; one which will be disclosed, revealed and made plain to us. A picture which once seen is never forgotten; one which will therefore enable us to be patient when the ripples of confusion return.

Easter is just such a moment.

Flushing away integrity: below the surface, beneath the rules and down the drain with the politicians

cobbled street with drain cover and painted double  yellow lines

With the manhole covers of privilege removed the hidden world of our parliamentarians is not a pretty sight. Peering down into the murky depths the sheer volume of effluent is staggering and the stench is truly appalling. Until recently the raw sewage of political endeavour at Westminster has been filtered and discharged largely unseen and undetected into the flow of national life. This below the surface and beneath the rules outfall was as unknown to most of us as the sewers beneath our streets.

And all the time our politicians have been flushing their integrity and our trust down the drain. The expenses scandal, the Ashcroft affair, the money-making intentions of Byers, Hewitt and Hoon, the freebie trips abroad in return for questions asked in the House, the millions Blair has made since leaving No 10, Cameron and Osborne cosying up to billionaires: politics has been brought into disrepute. Our elected representatives seem enthralled by wealth and mesmerised by the super-rich. And indifferent to the plight of ordinary people.

As the General Election has drawn ever closer our attention has naturally been focussed on the bright yellow lines of legislation and policy which politicians of all persuasions seek to paint across the surface of our national life. It is surprising just how sloppy, shoddy and careless some of it seems when seen close up.  Isn’t it just so sad that these days we suspect that their minds are on other things, money and personal aggrandisement for example, with politics simply the means to their own more lucrative, status hungry and power obsessed ends.

Where are the good, decent and honest individuals with a passion for public service and the common good who will put people first and their own personal gain last? I meet them all the time in the life of our churches. I have no doubt that there are many of them in Parliament. Now, more than ever, they need our support and encouragement and we need them to have the courage to disinfect politics.

The issues which face our nation and our world are grave and pressing. We need politicians of the highest calibre and personal integrity to lead us through. Bullies, chancers, arrogant toffs and hot-air merchants just will not do. We deserve better. And we are not stupid. The power of the ballot box is ours to wield.

Monday 22 March 2010

The demise of deference

driver w p chester stafford road shed

As a boy I can remember seeing this faded letter framed and in pride of place above the sideboard in my grandparents sitting room. My grandfather had been a top-link driver on the Great Western Railway at Stafford Road shed in Wolverhampton and he took great pride in having driven the royal train in 1955. Reading the text now in these postmodern times I am struck by the culture of deference which is so evident within it. Both this and the class-based social conventions of post-war Britain are long gone. Then the monarchy was still wrapped in majesty and mystique and deference was as natural as breathing. Nowadays, in our meritocratic culture, parity of esteem is the default position and we no longer depend on or defer to external sources of authority. In consequence royalty is seen much more for what it is, namely a rather curious and bizarre relic of an historically and morally dubious institution, rendered anomalous, anachronistic and absurd by the massive changes which have reshaped  British society since 1955. That the terms ‘majesty’ and ‘highness’ should be applied to members of particular family and that ‘commoners’ are somehow less worthy sits badly in our celebrity-besotted and unapologetically egalitarian culture. The postmodern turn has swept away deference for good.

And I think that this goes some way towards explaining what has been happening to the churches in the 55 years since my grandfather received his £2 gratuity for driving the royal train. Once deference became passé and authority was located internally within the self  it should have come as no surprise that religion was faced with a predicament.  If the mystique, majesty and authority surrounding the monarchy was breaking down irretrievably, why should God and the church have fared any better? Respect was something that now had to be earned, not expected by virtue of one’s status and social standing. The radical attitudes of the 1960’s, the quest for equal rights and the struggle against inequality were here to stay. And as part of the old narrative, God and church were woven into the fabric of establishment, power and class. Citizens within a liberated society would not be told what to do or conform to norms, conventions and expectations; they would choose what they wanted to do and decide for themselves. They would no longer play the game as ‘subjects’ of the monarch in a society ordered and stratified by birthright and privilege. Religion became one commodity amongst the many that were on offer, each competing for the time and attention of secularised, emancipated ‘consumers’. Deference was well and truly dead.

So why should someone defer to God when that very model of relating was discredited and redundant? Surrendering one’s precious autonomy to a deity began to look as tenable an option as touching one’s forelock respectfully in the presence of the landed gentry. And of course the tragedy is that religion and church were bundled up with the rest of the cultural mechanisms of subservience whose power and authority had kept us in our place. What I believe is happening in the emerging church movement is the rediscovery that Christianity

is about self-giving love not self-serving power

is about service and not subservience

is about empowering people and not wielding power over them

is about choice and not imposition

is about following Jesus rather than about doing church

is about immersing ourselves joyfully in the presence of God rather than having our noses rubbed in our sinfulness

is about becoming truly human and has nothing to do with committing intellectual suicide or becoming less than we are and can be.

In other words it is all to do with living the gospel and being enlivened by the gospel. It is not about believing gobbledegook or being put down firmly in our place. The manner in which Jesus meets people in the pages of the New Testament should be music to postmodern ears. It is not old-school, old-fashioned or out of touch. Quite the reverse in fact. It feels startlingly contemporary in approach.

I think Jesus is waiting for the church to catch up with him. Perhaps he always is.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Shadowcasting reality

the impact of our faith should correspond to the reality of Gods lovebridge at tarn hows with wavy shadows

Even approaching from a fair distance away it is clear that something is amiss; the wavy shadows cast by the handrails of the little footbridge are wrong. Handrails are always straight so the shadows they cast are straight. What on earth is going on here? And of course the shadows are entirely correct and faithfully reproduce the curvy shapes which are a signature feature of the woodwork of this bridge. It was my assumptions that were at fault.

Often in the life of faith it is as though we are dealing with theological shadows cast across our experience by the reality of God. From these we intimate what God is like. The impact of our faith should correspond to the reality of God’s love and not to the fears and doubts of others. If not, we risk making God in our image as the sum total of our assumptions and ignorance, and how odd would that appear?

Friday 19 March 2010

No more shackles

Freedom and liberty lose out by default because good people are not vigilant

You would think that today slavery is a thing of the past, like this long disused and forgotten shackle by the side of the old cobblestoned wharf. Not so. You would think that in an enlightened and progressive society abuse of children and vulnerable adults would be unthinkable. Not so. You would think that extremist politics fuelled by race hatred and supremacist views ended with the Holocaust. Not so. You would think that the church is a safe space in which those in positions of authority and oversight have your best interests at heart. Not so. Experience suggests otherwise.

Paedophile priests in the Catholic Church, the odious policies of the BNP, the deaths of Khyra Ishaq and Baby Peter, and the continuing sex trafficking of women and exploitation of foreign workers all give a loud and clear “Not so”.

Desmond Tutu is absolutely right: good people need to be vigilant.

Look closely and you will discover that the shackles of exploitation and control are never too far away.

So when freedom and liberty are imperilled and innocent people are in jeopardy what are we supposed to do? The Bible takes an interventionist line, as in the story of Moses which unfolds through the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus. Faced with the slavery and mistreatment of his own people, there is no room for misunderstanding what God requires of Moses. Get stuck in and put it right.

Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:9-10)

Moses and Aaron went and spoke to Pharaoh. They told him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1)

As disciples of Jesus we each have the God-given responsibility to be vigilant and engaged when it comes to the shackles of injustice, oppression and abuse at work in the world around us. As the road to calvary demonstrates, this is a costly vocation.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing

Thursday 18 March 2010

When money is the weapon who is in the line of fire?

old cannon at minerva terrace in hull

Old cannon at Minerva Terrace in Hull

Old days mean old ways. There would be no mistaking the target when this cannon was fired; the crew would have simply sighted along the barrel, ignited the charge and the cannonball would have shot out along the same axis. As a crude piece of not-smart weaponry this cannon is a reminder of  the darker side of our history, of ‘might is right’ imperialism, of seemingly endless conflict and the brutal ways in which power was deployed to build and maintain a global empire. History was written without regard to those peoples who were defeated and subjugated. Such ‘rebels’ and ‘savages’ were as nothing compared to the ‘conquering heroes’ of Empire. Only in very recent times has revisionism opened our minds to the horrific truth of what was done in our name and to the wholly one-sided portrayal of such expansionist terror.

Of course nowadays more damage is done by those who wield the weapons of finance in order to achieve their aims. Huge global corporations, bankers, media moguls and billionaires exert the sort of heft that politicians dream of but struggle to achieve. It would seem that many of them are simply seduced by it. Are there any limits to what money can buy these days? With depressing regularity massive corporate takeovers, restructuring and outsourcing to cheaper labour markets lays waste to thousands of lives. The global financial crisis has caused and will continue to inflict collateral damage of epic proportions way beyond the banking sector. The greed-based culture of a few bankers has wrought carnage across the globe. Cuts in public services are likely to be savage and enduring. We are all in the line of fire.

What links the cannon to the bankers bonus-pot is a seemingly complete disregard for those who will inevitably suffer the consequences of such arrogant, self-serving and narrow-minded behaviour. And the fact that it is always the poorest and least powerful who suffer most. These are the ones who are always in the line of fire.

It was for them that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

The Bridge

pedestrian bridge overmouth of river hull

In so many ways in the gospels Jesus strives to bridge those gaps in understanding and acceptance which keep individuals and groups apart. In his words and actions he spans the chasms of prejudice and self-interest which divide his contemporaries. The passage from John set for Sunday is a neat example of this: the lavish devotion of Mary in anointing Jesus with expensive oil and the sharp rebuke which this draws from Judas, who sees this as a waste of a precious resource which could have been sold to benefit the poor, means that Jesus finds himself caught between two seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints.

This is a draining and demanding place to stand. Bridging such gaps is an essential work of grace and one which Jesus does not shirk. His love spans hatred and persecution and even death itself. But for the rest of us such redemptive bridging can take all that we have to offer and more. This is why I am so drawn to a telling phrase in Sundays New Testament reading from Phiippians 3; verse 10 reads like a real cry from the heart: “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead.” Bridge-building requires nothing less than this if the anger, hurt and mistrust which so deeply divides our world is to be spanned.

In “The Bridge Poem”, Donna Kate Ruskin explores the cost and the strain which so many bridge-building people bear. It is written from the perspective of someone at breaking point. Perhaps it will build bridges of understanding and insight between those for whom the task is too much and those who consistently demand too much of them.

I've had enough 
I'm sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things 
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Can talk to anybody
Without me


I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister 
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists 
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks 
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the 
Black separatists to the artists the artists to the my friends' parents. .

Then I've got to explain myself

To everybody 
I do more translating 
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

Forget it 
I'm sick of it

I'm sick of filling in your gaps

Sick of being your insurance against 
The isolation of your self-imposed limitations 
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners 
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches 
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people

Find another connection to the rest of the world 
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip 
I will not be the bridge to your womanhood 
Your manhood 
Your humanness

I'm sick of reminding you not to 
Close off too tight for too long

I'm sick of mediating with your worst self 
On behalf of your better selves

I am sick 
Of having to remind you to breath
Before you suffocate 
Your own fool self.

Forget it 
Stretch or drown 
Evolve or die 

The bridge I must be 
Is the Bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses I must be the bridge to nowhere 
But my true self 
And then
I will be useful.

From This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua, 1981


In her comment Rachel very kindly shared ‘The Bridge’, a poem by Seamus Heaney, which I gladly include here:

    Steady under strain and strong through tension,
    its feet on both sides but in neither camp,
    it stands its ground, a span of pure attention,
    a holding action, the arches and the ramp
    Steady under strain and strong through tension

Sally has also written a superb poem ‘to bridge a gap’ based on this post.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Reality Check

real hull hdr bw composite

What is the truth you see in this photograph? Is it a portrayal of marketing sleight of hand which conveniently distracts attention from the desolate reality of this part of Hull in order to big the place up? Or is it carefully positioned in this stark context precisely to make a deliberate counterpoint concerning the existence of  alternative and altogether more hopeful and vibrant realities? Well I don’t whiff deception here, quite the contrary in fact: the jarring juxtaposition gives the message both an honest context and, therefore, real power. The apparent absurdity is critical. It enables this declaration of the real to be a bold statement of truth which draws one’s perception to a different narrative which is at work within the reality of this place. Taken in its antithetical context the hoarding says much about the character, outlook and spirit of the place. In spite of what you see, this is true; this is real. Therefore one can rightly cherish the hope that transformation and regeneration are not only possible, but close by and perhaps getting closer, maybe already here. The shiny modern fence which defines the foreground seems to corroborate such optimism. Clearly even here the new story is indeed already at work.

The division of the image into three distinctive components of foreground, middle-ground and background is the reality check to the truth of what we see disclosed. The background is a dispiriting collage of dereliction; a dismal, dilapidated vista of what has been and gone. It roots our viewing into the history and soul of this place without which we are blind. Our interpretation of the image is earthed deeply into questions regarding the story of this part of the city. Against this monochrome gloom the middle-ground shocks with outrageous and unexpected vibrancy. It tells us that there is more to be grasped and held if we want to wrap our minds around the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are provoked to imagine and dared to dream. And the foreground demonstrates that such hopefulness is not misplaced, for here, right in front of our eyes within touching distance is the startling evidence of newness and creativity.

“Forget about what's happened; don't keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I'm about to do something brand-new. It's bursting out! Don't you see it?”  (Isaiah 43:18-19)


I am currently in my third week off work with back trouble, having initially been laid up in bed for 10 days. This explains my absence from the blogosphere. At long last I have been able to get my mind in gear, even if the rest of me is still dawdling a frustratingly long and painful way behind!

Wednesday 3 March 2010

making an impression

making an impression footprint in snow

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

HAD I the heavens' embroidered cloths, Enwrought with the golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
William Butler Yeats

With eyes fixed on their destination far across the fields a walker marches across fresh snow with a rhythmic crunch crunch  underfoot. Seen in close up the effect of each footfall on the previously untouched surface of the snow is all too apparent. The delicate layers of snowflakes are crushed and compacted to a fraction of their original depth and the rugged soles have left their imprint with all the subtlety of a tabloid headline.

Whatever we do we make an impression and our interactions leave their mark: the question is how deep, how damaging and how long lasting? Do we tread softly and carefully, mindful of the impact we are having? Or are we so wrapped up in our own particular journey that we fail to notice the crunch crunch disturbance under our feet? After all, its only snow (or any other exclusive value judgement you care to make which favours your own superiority).

And how light on his feet was Jesus?

use the whole palette of your being

tubes of boldmer acrylic paint

So it is with every artisan and master artisan who labours by night as well as by day….they set their heart on painting a lifelike image, and they are careful to finish their work        (Ecclesiasticus 38:37)

For we are God’s work of art          (Ephesians 2:10)

The tubes of acrylic paint lying in the tray wait to have their seemingly limitless potential explored by the artistic desire of someone willing to express themselves in brushstrokes of vivid colour. Close by, the blank emptiness of white canvas taunts the imagination and dares it to disrupt the pristine surface with something worthy of its sacrifice. Painting can be a daunting task, as for most of us converting imagination into artwork is seldom a lossless process. Unless we are particularly adept and skilled, the pure signal of inspiration gets so easily degraded and corrupted between brain and brush. For this reason the finished work can be disappointing rather than satisfying when judged by the artist against their private and hidden inner picture of perfection.

Such self critical judgement can prevent us from developing our creativity. Comparisons with the work of others may simply exacerbate this sense of not being good enough and stifle our natural ability to express ourselves artistically. And in the process we become stunted and held captive; unwilling or unable to take the caps off the tubes, squeeze out the colour, and swirl paint freely onto the blank canvas. This is a tragic denial of our uniqueness.

The same is true when it comes to painting our lives and expressing what it is to be fully and authentically human. If we are to be a truly lifelike image of humanity at its best then we need to use the whole palette of our being. Why be limited to one or two colours when you have a whole box of paints available to you just by being the you that you are? If we are God’s continuing work of art we should expect love to liberate, nurture and develop our whole being, not just selected bits of it. All our potential is there to be expressed in vivid colours on the canvas of our life. Our vocation as disciples is to become artists of grace, painting bright brushstrokes of love and hope across the emptiness of being. And when together we offer our palettes to each other we can create amazing communal works of art which have the power to transform the way we see the world. In some places this process is called church. At its best it is where we are encouraged to be authentically and creatively who we are as God’s work of art.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

For everything there is a season: delight and dereliction

bench at st oswalds in snow bw for everything there is a season copy

On a bright, warm Spring morning under a cloudless blue sky with the scent of blossom in the air this bench will be a delightful place to sit and take in the view across the valley. Not today. Today the temperature is sub-zero and the seat is covered in snow. Far better to be well wrapped up and to keep moving in order to stay warm than to sit, get a damp backside and freeze.

What matters is the imagination to see this scene as it can and will be when Springtime comes. And the patience to wait and return when the time is right. Perhaps it is along such lines as these that biblical wisdom asserts  “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The key is to know whether the time has past or is yet to come. Are we looking at faded glory or incipient birth? How likely is delight, how inevitable dereliction? Jesus tells a story which plays with this conundrum:

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down        (Luke 13:6-9)

clarence flour mill hull riverside

clarence flour mill hull copy

The derelict Clarence Flour Mill on the banks of the River Hull is likely to be demolished and reduced to rubble. Its days of being fruitful are long gone and it seems that it has no future. Once it was a world beating production facility and was at the heart of the business empire built up by Joseph Rank. Badly damaged by the Luftwaffe during a raid on Hull it was rebuilt after the war. Traces of its Victorian heritage are still evident in the photographs, which convey a strong sense of both history and decay. In its heyday it was bustling with life and filled with noise. Today all is quiet and still in its gloomy interior. Now it is merely “wasting the soil” as the parable puts it.

Wisdom is much needed when it comes to knowing the right point at which to stop trying to turn a situation around and accept that the end has been reached. No wonder Jesus told a parable rather than dictating a rule. Such decisions are seldom easy as everything has its seasons and its cycles and its vested interests. Add in to the mix the fact that Christians are called to be brimming with hopeful imagination, and delight or dereliction can be a tough call to make.

And today’s church needs all the wisdom it can muster as we work out for ourselves the implications of Jesus’ deceptively simple little story. A bench in the warm sunshine of a delightful Spring day, or a dingy, derelict ruin that is a waste of space; which is it to be?

Sunday 28 February 2010

seeking and calling

seek the lord isaiah 55v6

Our certain awareness of God’s presence can be as transient an experience as fresh snow in February: something all-encompassing, brightly reflective, transformative and all too soon melted away into memory. Moments of such intense perception are precious gift; they are intimate encounters, involving knowing and being known deeply. They disclose with feeling that which is always true about our relationship with God. For the rest of the time much of this does not register in our busy preoccupied minds.

This is surely why the Bible encourages us to actively seek and call after God. There is an inherent unpredictability at play here. God is not ours to conjure up.  The caveat ‘while’ in the text from Isaiah is refreshingly honest and frustratingly recognisable as a spiritual truism. Which is why reminders of presence are so vital.

The one pictured above is especially appropriate. To me the simple symbolism suggests God at the heart of creation, sustaining our world and the whole cosmos in love. Here carefully crafted wrought ironwork expresses the shape of theological understanding and religious belief. It is a vital visual clue and a necessary prompt; simple yet effective. It has the power to render expectation and sharpen awareness, that we too might be still and know the love in which we are always enfolded.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

rest a while

come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile lighter

Leisure. Such a simple word yet such a difficult concept to own in these high demand, high pressure times. Even now the malign presence of the Protestant Work Ethic still casts the shadow of malingering over our understanding of life, work and worth. It is so easy for us to load guilt upon our shoulders if we take time for ourselves. For too many ministers the work-life balance is tipped disastrously in the direction of overwork at the expense of self and family. So much to do, so little opportunity to just be.

Jesus nailed such nonsense. We simply choose to ignore what he said. We fail to make the cognitive link between his pattern of life and our own. In the little verse quoted above he exercises sympathetic oversight of his disciples. He cares about their wellbeing. He takes action to protect it. He encourages them to rest. So often in the gospels Jesus is simply with his disciples; they chat, eat and reflect together. They need time away from the pressing work of the God’s Kingdom because there will always be too many people clamouring for their attention.

Jesus is still saying the same thing today. We ignore him at our peril. We need to take time, sit still and reflect on his meaning.

journeying, travelling and shining

journeying with faith travelling in hope and shining with love copy

DSC_0088 cropped What do I expect from each day? More to the point, what do others expect of me? Looking back at the manner in which the day’s journey has unfolded will reveal this winding pathway of expectation, with all its twists, turns and moments of confusion as to the way ahead. The vantage point of the day’s end has much to teach us if we are to travel wisely and well. The journey of faith is no different. It is good to have companions with whom to reflect and share the way in retrospect like this. Trusted friends who will listen carefully to our tales of  blisters and blessing, waymarks and wonder, turning points and trepidation along the path. From such understanding comes the encouragement and commitment to continue the journey and face all that is in prospect or is as yet hidden and unexpected.

For Christians discipleship is as much about the manner in which we travel as the destination we have in mind. It is all well and good to say that I want to live a more godly life, but how am I going to get there? Looking back at the life of Jesus and the message of the early church from the viewpoint of the Bible it seems to me that if we make our way by journeying with Faith, travelling in Hope and shining with Love, we stand a very good chance of following in his footsteps. Wherever that leads us.

So you'll go out in joy,  you'll be led into a whole and complete life (Isaiah 55:12)

O God, you are my God, I seek you (Psalm 63:1)

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Impressed into service

alexander johnston the press gang 1858 copy

card for alexander johnston the press gang 1858 detail copy

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” 

(Luke 13:31-32)

“Art galleries contain forms and experiences that inspire, question and extend human experience. Art is the way that life tests and expresses itself. 

It is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive.”

(Antony Gormley, 2010)

On a recent visit to the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull I spent some time with this painting, Alexander Johnston’s ‘The Press Gang’. It depicts a scene which would have been familiar in the time of the Napoleonic wars.  A young man, possibly just married, is being wrenched away from his beloved by the Press Gang. This brutal use of power contravenes the man’s human rights, but that would not have been a concept which had any meaning whatsoever in that most unegalitarian Britain. The absolute authority of state and monarchy was a fixed point of reference. The painting portrays the consequences.

The details are fascinating. At the very left of frame a man in a blue coat is seen running away, presumably trying to avoid being impressed himself.  Has he caught the attention of the sailor immediately standing behind the young couple, or has his gaze fallen upon the pair of lovers in the middle distance who are hurrying away up the street ? If it has, will they escape? And what of the woman dressed in dark clothes, to the left of the central couple. Her face is enigmatic. Is it sorrow we read there? Simmering resentment perhaps? Might she be a widow, her husband killed at sea following just such an unexpected encounter with the Press Gang? Is she pondering the fate that will befall the young woman as her partner is taken away too?

alexander johnston the press gang 1858 detail copy

The painting is suggestive of a whole range of emotion and narrative possibility. For all its Victorian sentimentality it portrays the cruel uncertainties of life as they are.

And in the main image you can make out the reflection of golden picture frame, that of a painting on the opposite wall of the gallery. This appears to float within the scene, suggesting another frame of reference is at work too. The gospel reading set for this Sunday is also about the brutal misuse of power and force by the state. Herod Antipas, having murdered John the Baptist, is now determined to eliminate Jesus. Jesus’ defiant response is startling and typical. Set in the oppressive political context of his time his healing work is a highly symbolic revolutionary act . The poor and needy are put first in his divine economy. This is a massive threat to a ruling elite whose power is based on force and coercion. The contrast between their ways and values and his could not be starker.

As one perceptive commentator puts it: “followers of Jesus are to be engaged in the issue of dealing with powers, of all kinds, and what they do to people.” Quite so. Johnston’s painting shows exactly what power does to people. So too do the gospels. Most of all, they show what divine power is capable of doing when ordinary people catch the vision and follow Jesus.

He invites us to follow him freely, willingly and wholeheartedly into the depths of the world’s suffering. The power of his non-violent love is truly impressive.

Photographs taken with the kind permission of the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

repairing our lost connexity

missing drainpipe lost connexity

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)

The psalmist’s optimism is not misplaced as long as we make the connection between the love which God has for everyone and our need to express it to others. Without this essential piece of theological connectivity we will wait around wondering why God hasn’t showed up yet. So Lent is a good time to ponder how we might set about repairing our lost connexity.

Connexity is an apt word: it means close interconnectedness, interrelatedness and interdependence, all key descriptors at the heart of our Methodist identity as a ‘Connexion’. It points us to the inescapable truism that  Christian Faith must always be grounded and earthed in the pressing needs of community and society if it is to be authentic. By definition there can be no such entity as a disconnected church. If it isn’t connected it isn’t church.

So how are we in Britain challenged by the following stark statement which betrays a lost connexity at the very heart of our society?

1,000,000 people have no-one to turn to and no-one who appreciates them.

Psychological needs have become as pressing as material ones: the risk of loneliness and isolation; the risk of mental illness; the risk of being left behind. New solutions are needed to help the many people struggling with transitions out of care, prison or family breakdown, and to equip people with the resilience they’ll need to get by in uncertain times.

Society’s ability to meet people’s psychological and psycho-social needs appears to have declined. The buffers of religion and family that helped people cope with setbacks have weakened…Some of the shock absorbers – from faith to family – that helped us cope in the past have atrophied.


Extracts taken from ‘Sinking & Swimming: Understanding Britain’s Unmet Needs’

Summary Report, December 2009

see The Young Foundation website for further information and to download the full report

(Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Young Foundation, memorably deployed the word ‘Connexity’ in his book of the same title.)

Traditionally during Lent we seek to reconnect with God. And all the while God is longing for us to connect with the hurting, lonely, sad and struggling ones in our midst. As we ponder the life of Jesus it should come as no surprise to us that the best way to make connections with God is to set about repairing our lost connexity with those whom God loves. Then the goodness of the Lord really will be known in the land of the living.

Saturday 20 February 2010

stairway to heaven

stairway to heaven staircase in methodist church house london

there's far more to life for us. We're citizens of high heaven!” Philippians 3:20

Some dodgy poetic reflections on the Epistle set for the second Sunday in Lent.

Heaven: a dirty word, a nonsense word, a no-no word, a brand turn-off of a word. Become gibberish, heaven freights no meaning now along the shiny tracks of our intellect, yet conveys the deadweight of cultural absurdity with ease. Is heaven best shunted out of sight and left uncoupled in the rusting sidings of belief?

Heaven: looking up the sky is empty of divine intimation, even the clouds, once proud portents of presence, are agnostic now. Rainbows are merely physics, lightning simply discharges of electricity not personally tagged volts of retribution from a displeased God; drought and flood climatological facts, never punishment for moral misdemeanours from an aggrieved deity.

Heaven: hardly a here and now word, more a thee and thou word lost from common speech, a sterile dogma, an indulgence which sensible folk decline without thinking.

And yet this is our homeland, our commonwealth, our community, and we are its citizens. Where shall we find our stairway to heaven now? Do our uprising steps lead anywhere?

Heaven: we have spent too long with a crick in the neck, all this looking up makes for a disabling spiritual posture. Looking down is a better viewpoint, a gospel perspective, down down deeper and down into the status quo realities of futile dreams and hurting lives. Heaven becomes real at ground level. Out of sight, in the basement where the trash is kept, is where love intends to sanctify. Heaven: God’s now response, down to earth, here, in which we glimpse eternity.

It looks like Jesus.

Photo: Main stairwell in Methodist Church House, London

Sally has written a superb poem based on this post.

Friday 19 February 2010

solve the mystery of faith

statue of sherlock holmes outside baker street tube station copy

statue of sherlock holmes attracting attention

Just across the road from Methodist Church House in London stands what must be one of the few statues in the capital which depicts a totally fictional character. On leaving Baker Street Underground station you are confronted by the imposing figure of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, with trademark deerstalker hat and pipe characteristically in place. Twice in the last couple of weeks I have been down in London and walked by this statue. On each occasion it was clear that it attracts a lot of attention from the passers by and tourists who throng the narrow pavement at this point. And of course Holmes' address was fictional too, 221B Baker St did not actually exist either. All this adds to the quite surreal nature of the encounter on Baker Street itself.

Isn’t it ever so slightly odd to commemorate someone who never lived?

That is a teasing question as Christians begin their holy journey through Lent towards the climactic celebration of the risen Christ at Easter. Is Jesus as depicted in the gospels a work of fiction? Is the story of the resurrection nothing more than a ripping yarn? Is ‘221B Baker St’ just as reliable as an actuality in history as the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness?

The solution to the puzzle is elementary. It is what Lent is about. Anyone can rediscover the truth about Jesus. The clues are scattered through the pages of the gospels and adorn the lives of the faithful. The mystery is all about love….

love is the clue copy

Thursday 18 February 2010

Lent inwards leant outwards

leant outwards lent inwards copy

voyage sculpture hull

The photographs show the ‘Voyage’ sculpture on Hull’s Victoria Pier. It leans outwards towards the sea in a deeply symbolic gesture of solidarity towards its unseen and far off sister sculpture ‘For’ on the Icelandic coast at Vik. Sculptress Steinnun Thorarinsdottir said she “was inspired by people who made their living on the sea, and the loved ones who waited on shore, longing for their return.”

These two sculptures express the bond that exists between the people of Hull and their seafaring counterparts in Iceland, forged over a thousand years.

To my eyes the symbolism of leaning outwards towards that which we cannot see but to which we are bound in love is profound, not least in this season of Lent. Set high on its plinth the sculpture embodies an unshakeable commitment to the beloved. It depicts an unchanging attitude of love. An outward looking perspective of grace. Two individual works of art, yet one in togetherness, the sculptures incline towards each other across the expanse of cold ocean which separates them.

The poet Carol Rumens wrote ‘The image of me’ to celebrate the dedication of ‘Voyage’. She says of it: “I am imagining that the sculpture speaks. The message is that only by voyaging can we find out that the foreign is not exotic or dangerous, but very much like ourselves. I think the paired sculptures express that idea, and I wanted to do the same.”

Lent is just such a voyage in faith. The inner soul work of Lent is a voyage across the uncharted oceans of self. A voyage made possible by God who inclines towards us unceasingly and waits to greet us on the far shore of our identity, in the open handed love of Jesus. And Lent inwards, we are then better able to be leant outwards in love towards others, just as was Jesus.


How it hurts my spine
To voyage on land;
Unbraced, to lean
Into the wind
And, sightless, strain
To the far strand.

On the far strand
Where night is day
You’ll find black sand
That sings, they say,
Ships that are horned,
And no friend.

And no friend
Am I, unknown
To myself, a thin
Ripple of ocean,
Cast and christened,
A fixed notion –

Fixed, until
From this aching stand
I leap, and fill
Like a sail, to find
What my shore-bound mind
Could never see –

The image of me.

Heart shaped but razor sharp and dangerous

heart shaped but razor sharp and dangerous

The heart shapes made by the coiling of the razor wire are unmistakable and cruelly ironic, an antithesis in sharp edged steel. Sometimes individuals and groups are like this. Sometimes they don’t mean to be but just are. Sometimes they definitely mean to be. Either way innocent people may be at risk and vulnerable people will be in danger.

All too frequently throughout history religious extremists have perverted a message of loving others and self into the razor wire of prejudice, suspicion, hatred and even violence, often for political ends.  The Pogroms and Crusades of yesteryear are replaced today by ethnic cleansing,  genocide and geo-political violence, drawn out by some on the axes of religion as camouflage for more base reasons. For witch-hunts read sexual and gender-based discrimination and exclusion. Such attitudes and behaviour creates relational space which is anything but safe for those victimised and targeted in this way.

Such razor wire is forged in the brokenness, vulnerability and fear of ordinary people. It is heart shaped because it represents an inner failure to love others in a bounded, generous, unconditional and respectful way.

In the wilderness Jesus recognised and faced up to the razor wire of human nature. He spent the rest of his life entangled in it. His disciples are called to follow him there and do the same. We have to be honest about the problems which beset both our society and our world and also root out those which may be lurking beneath the surface of our common life. Everything which warps our being and forms razor wire is under the scrutiny of God’s love and grace. During Lent the Temptation narratives encourage us to go deep into all that is wrong. Not least within ourselves.


Please do read the powerful poem ‘Love’s Touch’ which Sally has written based on this post

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Unlock the past, step into the future

real hull campaign little lane display

This is part of a contemporary street display on the site of the former entrance to Little Lane in Hull. The old photograph shows the medieval brickwork as it was in 1903. The woman and young children are long dead. The ancient structure is long gone too. Beyond the hoarding lies a dusty, rubble-strewn and empty wasteland. Yet here toil, tragedy and delight were once woven into community in ways that we would recognise today. The image is a doorway into this lost world. And it is padlocked.

It is as though we cannot cross the threshold until we have stood still for a while and pondered the meaning of all this, not least personally for ourselves. In this respect rushing through would be pointless. If we are truly to appreciate the space beyond sight we must wait until the weight of expectation is felt and realised. The gravity of this place must draw us down close to what is to be sacred for us here. Only then can we enter in and expect to discover the gift that awaits us.

So Jesus waits in the wilderness before entering into public ministry. There the old meanings come alive and the faith-history of his people dances before his eyes. The gravity of divine purpose takes hold of his soul. Sacred insight energises his spirit.

And when finally he walks through into the dusty, rubble-strewn and empty wasteland that was once the land of promise, his kingdom-building project begins. Having unlocked the past, he steps into the future.

Lent is the gift of time for us to do likewise.