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?