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.

discerning the reality within reality: the gift of deepsight in Lent

reality within reality

Divine presence is the reality within our everyday reality. Its disclosure is but a moment of awareness away. Once seen, it turns our perceptions upside down and inside out. Such spiritual deepsight gifts insight and temporarily dispells our habitual blindsight. God is close. Very close. So close. And for an instant of startling clarity we see alternative realities with crystal-clear Godsight. And we are changed.

Practicing such deepsight is an appropriate discipline for Lent. Each day holds within it the potential gift of deepsight moments.

The following is a prayer which I have just finished writing for inclusion in the next Methodist Prayer Handbook. It is my own take on the deepsight reality of God’s presence and purpose.

Extravagant God,

in the arid sparsity of my faith expectations

may your generous presence

surprise my questing mind

with liquid moments of inspiration.


In the voices of the unloved and unseen

may your prophetic presence

challenge my myopic ways

with an invitation to deeper insight.


In the warmth and words of others

may your healing presence

gently tend my soul

with unfathomable compassion.


So may each present moment of my life

shine with your extravagant presence,

and may your living word of grace in Jesus

become ever more fully and freely expressed

in the loving kindness of my heart.

live the word copy

Thursday 4 February 2010

Falling, thawing and melting

falling thawing and melting

A couple of inches of fallen snow lies across the surface of a tree stump. At its exposed margin this silent gift is already retreating back from the imperceptibly warmer outer edge of the wood. Crystal by crystal this first tiny thaw is transforming the ice into free flowing water, which in turn is seeping slowly into surface of the stump. When the thaw proper sets in warmth will return the gift invisibly as vapour to the air from which it came. When the conditions are just right, it will grace the landscape as snowy gift again.

Love comes to our life as gift, falling. We are enveloped. It transforms our seeing and self-understanding. It seeps into us below the surface. And as we warm up it naturally thaws and melts and we release it beyond ourselves freely as gift, the vapour of promise, to fall where it is needed in gentle flakes of intricate beauty.

Falling, thawing and melting is the cycle of generosity and grace at the heart of the human spirit.

out of sight and just below the surface there is always so much more going on

out of sight and just below the surface

The bright, white pristine snowfall cloaks the ground with a beguiling sense of uniformity and newness.  Here and there though, intimations of hidden realities peep through  to disturb this calmly attractive monochromatic illusion. The transient visitation of snow is at best temporary camouflage for what is underneath, the real ‘is-ness’ of things, which will soon be revealed and laid bare in the warmth and light. The cover-up will melt away.

Perhaps the snow is kindly, gifting a brief respite from what lies just below the surface.  In this does it resemble grace, that enveloping with unconditional love which prepares us for the task of soul-making? As the pure enveloping snow melts and the landscape beneath thaws, little by little and at a rate which is right for us, the ground of our identity and becoming is brought into sight. The real nature of things is disclosed.

And there will be colour and life and good growth there, more perhaps than ever we imagined to be possible.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

the way through is closer than we think

the way through is closer than we think copy

Paradoxically it is the shadow which casts hope, signifying that the way through is closer than we think.

The outline and shape is unmistakably that of a latch, its beautifully formed curved handle resembling the unfurling first note of a freshly divined melody which needs our touch in order to be heard into life. The first bars of this developing awareness herald our release.

God inspires this freeing insight through an act of conception in our imagination. Godly intention comes alive within us as hope. The idea develops imaginatively, gestates into expectation and finds final form as full-bodied intention.

As proximate as the form of our out-breath in the chilly air of a winter’s morning, this process of insight imparts the truth that the way through is closer than we think. The work is now ours to act on the thought and make our way towards the threshold of departure and breakthrough.

And the gate is already unlocked and open. The way through awaits our footfall.