On a recent visit to the first church of which I have been minister (1982-8) I was rather surprised to discover collage panels, which had been created during a children's Easter activity day, were still on display! The panels, of which four are below, illustrate the verses of Sydney Carter's song 'Lord of the Dance', which expresses the belief that, through the experience of Jesus, God's life is present in every human experience - life and death.
This came at a time when I was working on the painting (left) based on the photo of two dancers at La Chavanneé in France a few years ago.
This also prompts reflection on our 'dance' with Christ.
I am intrigued by the fact that, while the dance is performed as a couple, each partner is engaged in different movements (not just mirrored). They are, however, in time and rhythm with the music and therefore find a physical harmony in the dance.
There is independence, but also inter-dependence and some intimacy, which say something about our relationship with the God known in Jesus. He provides the melody for our lives and we need to find an intimacy with and dependence on Jesus if we are to live within it.
I am seeking to express all these aspects in my painting - I leave you to judge whether or not I have achieved my aim!
Having heard today of the death of Jean Vanier I feel I must acknowledge the influence of this gracious man on my life and ministry, recognising that this is also the case for thousands and more who over years have been touched by the L'Arche Community or read any of his books or reflections.
My own story began in the early 1990s when I spent a month of a sabbatical with the L'Arche Community in Liverpool. This had been sparked by a felt need to work with those in a residence for people with intellectual disabilities near the church in Runcorn, Cheshire, where I was minister.
The richness and depth of relationships both in L'Arche and in what became Stepping Stones at Bethesda, along with the need to establish and sustain them, were echoes of those first relationships Jean Vanier and Fr. Thomas Philippe built with Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux in 1963 in Troisly, France. Jean himself has said,
“These communities are schools of the heart which have transformed the lives of countless people across the world.”
but I suspect that he himself would have been unaware of the full extent of his influence.
At the end of one Summer holiday in France Judy and I visited Troisly, where the first L'Arche Community was established and remains. Then, when I began work for the Free Churches Group nationally, I was invited to participate in L'Arche's Church Leaders' Consultative Group, meeting regularly with Community leaders to explore how L'Arche relates to and influences the wider Christian community.
This led to my participation in a UK L'Arche gathering, with hundreds of community members living for a week in St John's College in Durham. Here we celebrated Jean's birthday with lots of fun and laughter, a cake and a giant puppet of Jean. One cannot describe such an event, but some of my many photos (below) illustrate the relationships of support and trust and celebration that marked the event and are the life-blood of L'Arche.
The papier maché wild goose which 'flew' amongst the crowds on the green and in the cathedral, a symbol of the Holy Spirit moving amongst his people was perhaps the most significant image for me, for L'Arche is indeed a movement of the Spirit that brings change and life to the world.
And in the midst of this movement has been a simple man of faith, for whose life we thank God.
Pots- best china and everyday crockery
One of the things that I find attractive about the craft of pottery is that it is about making something special out of the basic ’stuff of the earth’. Also, that the 'something special’ is more often an item of basic practical everyday use, in contrast to the ’Sunday best’ china or the ornate porcelain vase that is worth thousands of pounds.
In the world of craft pottery every item bears the finger-marks of the maker. It is individual and it is special, while often being quite ordinary and for basic purpose.
This prompts me to take more careful notice of the ‘ordinary’ in other areas of life, as it is very likely to hold aspects of the ’special’. People, in particular, may not stand out in a crowd for any reason, yet be ’special’ in so many ways, as created by the Divine Maker. Some everyday tasks will just be done in the course of things yet, if not done, would reveal an importance.
So many of the images we see in magazines etc. have been very carefully planned and posed, while most of those that we capture on our phones are very much ‘of the moment’ and capture the ordinary aspects of life. Much of life easily passes us by, but caught by the camera our attention is drawn and the special is revealed.
We have two sets of wedding photos. The album created by a professional photographer carries the planned and posed while a collection of informal shots taken by a friend capture the really special moments that were probably not noticed at the time. It is this latter collection that is most special to us, as it captures something special about the day and those who were there.
Andi Ashworth writes in the Art House America blog of how her mother and she record the ordinary, everyday.
Many of her diary pages contain only the fragment of a sentence — “sewed and listened to baseball game.” Other pages report cleaning the house, having friends over for dinner, taking kids to the doctor, canning peaches, meeting with clients, watering the yard, cooking, ironing, keeping grandchildren, paying bills, running errands, going to meetings, and visiting neighbors. By keeping track of her daily life, she gave a cheerful dignity to all the particulars.
… the words on the page gave me eyes to see the significance of the smaller things that are always present.
Sure, there are high points, nameable moments of climax — but most of my daily life still takes place in the in-between. I live in grocery stores and farmer’s markets, at the stove and the kitchen sink. I pull weeds in the garden, sort the recycling, fold laundry, write e-mails, get the oil changed in the car, meet younger folks for coffee and long conversations, and sit for hours at my computer laboring over words and sentences.
Along with the aid of my journals, perhaps it’s been easier for me to see how much the smaller things matter in the creation of a whole.
Paula Gooder -Everyday God - Spirit of the Ordinary
Ordinary Time is probably the soggiest season of all …
I remain passionately convinced that we need to look again at a spirituality of ordinariness because without a proper understanding of the importance of ordinariness, our lives become an impoverished waiting room, as we loiter between one big event and another.
What is important is the celebration of the ordinary in all its forms: in the lives of ordinary people; in a God who defies our best attempts to put him in a gilded palace; in a kingdom that is best likened to seeds, yeast and fishing nets, and in everyday decisions which, lived out with God have extraordinary consequences.
The Bright Field - RS Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I guess that most have enjoyed CS Lewis’ ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’, whether as book, film or play. Our childhood fascination with the ability to be transported from one world to another in an instant is fulfilled. Children playing with toys in an imaginary world are brought back to reality by tea or bed-time. Sometimes the transition is easy and at other times not – ‘Oh Mum, just let me finish the story ….’. Older ‘children’ delight in the likes of Dr Who – not just the time-travel and the not knowing where he might appear next, but also those almost unseen boundaries through which characters can step. Sometimes it happens in an instant, at others it involves light-years of spinning galaxies. The distance seems to matter little as the difference between two worlds remains.
The different worlds can seem so close, yet are so far apart.
One of the elements of these fictional creations that creates excitement is the uncertainty of what is to be found in the new situation. Is it a world of promise or danger? The children in CS Lewis’ creation discovered a land of wonder, but also of threat. It was a land of struggle and battle, but also a place where Aslan, the Christ figure, gave his life and gained life. Dr Who has become a little more predictable, in that there is always an enemy and always the ‘get out’ of another time-travel journey when the going gets tough! We sit on the edge of our seats in the meantime. For the child living in their imagination there may be the comfort of ‘imaginary friends’, but equally fearful elements can creep in and become quite real.
In ‘real life’ we find similar boundaries that are created between ability or incapacity. We move home and in a different situation may find our lives more fulfilled, or not. The element of risk or struggle is there too. Some occurrence in our lives may move us into the world of the less able or disabled. Accident or illness may cause a lack of mobility or faculty such as sight or clarity of thought. We move in an instant or over a period of time into a different world, from our perspective.
For all of us the transition between worlds that is caused by ageing cannot be avoided. I don’t imagine that it is easy for anyone, but for some it is a gradual process that can be taken step-by-step, while for others it comes quickly. The world we live in is shaped not so much by age, but by capability, physically and mentally.
Boundaries exist for all of us - driving, travel, language, thought, imagination, physical height or flexibility, mobility, stairs etc. - and as we get older most boundaries seem to close in. Some gradually, but others quite suddenly.
The occasion of moving into a Care Home is likely to happen quite suddenly or unexpectedly. It is usually governed by ‘events’ or ‘others’, but even if it is a rational and accepted decision our world changes drastically. ‘Our home’ is left behind for this new world of both prospect and uncertainty. We seek comfort, care and security, but in the strangeness of this new world we will likely feel very uncomfortable and insecure initially. We have travelled ‘through the wardrobe’ and, while we may not have entered a world of danger, it is a place of uncertainty with the necessity of it all blinding us to any hope or possibility that this new world might hold.
Of necessity, the world of a Care Home is usually one of routine. This and the lack of human resources restricts opportunity for individual interests or activity. The boundary between independence and dependence is clearer than it might perhaps be, with the dominant characteristics of a Care Home being dependence and care.
What is the Christian perspective on all this? We understand a life that is shaped by our physical and mental capabilities, but what of the spiritual life that is shaped, not by boundaries but by eternal life? The Biblical testimony speaks of many in the Old Testament who’s worth at great age was recognised, even to the point of providing leadership and offering wisdom. The Gospel account offers examples of many who’s lives were not shaped by capability – physical and mental illness and disabilities are overcome, boundaries of culture, religion, social standing and political influence are broken through and over all is the lived-through experience of Jesus Christ – of life that promises more than death.
The reality for a Christian is of boundaries expanding infinitely, not closing in. This is the primary message that the Christian Church has to offer, but we struggle.
Although I would not want to push the analogy too far, I imagine that the Christian Church would see itself in the role of the wardrobe in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here is the gateway to this other world, or rather this other world-view. As Christian communities we do seek to witness to a world where love, forgiveness and justice are the dominant values and to live it out within our church fellowships. The door, however, opens all too often onto that closed space where we meet for our worship and church activities.
What then for those who have been valued members of the Christian family but find themselves needing to be in a Care Home? For the most-part we accept the ‘dependent-care’ culture of the Care Home and make it the Church’s way of working so, while we do wish to have a caring role, we tend to omit the obligation we have to enable those in Care-Homes to fulfil their part within the life of a community.
A Christian who has grown up within and lived by a culture of love, giving and sacrifice finds themselves in a position of receiving and of care. What does this mean for their spiritual life? Do they not have something to contribute still? Their world has been shaped by capability, physical and mental, but what of the spiritual?
THE CHURCH IS THE WARDROBE
The challenge for the Church is to live the life it is witness to. To be the wardrobe that leads to Christ’s life of promise, rather than be a cupboard full of musty coats. To discover its presence beyond the ‘four walls’ and the traditional structures and practices. To enable those whose lives are naturally restricted by a different ‘four walls’ to live this same life that is spiritually free.
Recently, there has been much talk of boundaries broken through the energies of the human spirit, as we have witnessed the Olympics and Paralympics. Christians witness to a life that reaches its fulfilment through the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit of God.
(Originally written in relation to the Generations Project - enabling the Church in Care Homes - in Solihull, West Midlands. 2013)
17th March marked my retirement, with a last Sunday service in Solihull and people saying nice things. But how to even begin to reflect on 37 years of ministry?! Apart from the day-to-day details, I return again to the image of the Potter which is offered by both Isaiah and Jeremiah in their prophecies and which naturally appeals to me.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, ‘Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.
Jeremiah 18. 1-6
On the one hand there is the experience of shaping a pot and, when things do not go quite right, being able to 'start again', remoulding and creating something fresh. The experience of ministry may well be of things not going to plan, but the opportunity to re-shape something, to heal or re-build is something that comes from God.
At the outset I had no idea where my ministry would lead me, but now, looking back, I can see a shape, a pattern, a plan, as if I have been the clay in God's hands.
Pastoral ministry in Crosby, Liverpool, and ecumenical parish in Runcorn, Cheshire, Birmingham Churches Together, the Free Churches Group nationally and back to pastoral ministry in Solihull amalgamating three different congregations. Many are the times when plans have not worked out (they were not of God) and it was 'back to the drawing board' of prayerful reflection. But far more are those time when it has been clear that God's hand has been in things. He is the Master Potter and I have only ever dabbled in faith!
Silence - may seem to be the only response to what we come to remember and acknowledge at Remembrance. It may be out of respect for lives given. It might also be because war and all that it is ‘messes with our heads’ in such a way that we do not know what to think or say. We struggle to know how to express our feelings.
Those who lost loved ones struggled the most and on tombstones expressed themselves in 66 characters (less that a Twitter message) and we glimpse love, sorrow, grief, humour, pride and despair and faith:
We are numbed by the horror and the scale of untimely deaths - We want to rage against the futility of it and the situation and decisions that brought it about.
We puzzle at why lives need be given for the sake of a few feet of mud-churned countryside, while needing to uphold the value of a clear right over a shadowy wrong.
We are led to question motives when politicians see war as the only solution to a set of complex international relationships.
We wonder, did young men march to defend or to conquer?
We are awed by the scale of suffering, death, loss, expense while also being moved somewhere deep down by individual stories of hardship, heroism, sacrifice.
What can be said? Nothing perhaps? And we keep silence.
Yet we seek to, and we need to unravel this mess for the sake of the future. The ‘war to end all wars’ was not, but for the sake of humanity we need a better way.
We need far more than impressive displays of poppies.
We need more than prayer (US mother who lost son in recent shooting cried ‘Don’t let anyone offer me any more prayers! I want gun control.’ )
We need more like the education of the young in the mistakes, cost and sacrifice of past generations, to shape future generations.
And we do have Jesus - not as personal Lord who can make us feel better, but as Saviour of the world who calls us to action - sharing in his work of redemption.
The silence is best used to listen - to discover that God is with us within all in the mess of war and will show us his way beyond it.
Matthew 5. 1-12
1Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them.
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
What is the message for the Harvest season?
Our church noticeboard is not best placed to give people details of events - it faces a busy road with lots passing, but at speed! So, how to convey something to the community encouraging their engagement with God?
The 'poster' is a collage made by Solihull URC folk out of food packaging. The connection in relation to Harvest is obvious, but it also connects us to all those who bring the harvest to our supermarkets and meal-tables. We hope is sparked some thought - and thanks!
This tapestry was made during Lent, giving time and focus for reflections around the theme of desolation - and ultimately the presence of God within such an experience.
We began with the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, but the images are of Gethsemane with sleeping disciples and bearing the agonies of faith on your own, the empty city, where the cheering crowds of Palm Sunday quickly dissipated and reconvened in hostility towards Jesus, and the Crucifixion with the sense that even God has abandoned.
If you decide to reflect on this theme too at some point, I recommend doing this along with the physical activity of making something similar to this tapestry.
Having been 'in storage' for a few months, the tapestry was displayed again in relation to Remembrance Day and the 100th anniversary of the WW1 Armistice. We need reminding that desolation does not equate with the absence of God in our lives.
I wonder who is?
Originating in a cartoon puppet show on children’s TV, our grandsons will point at people and in a gruff dinosaur-like voice declare “Not the Mama!”. Please don’t ask me what it is all about, but it has caused me to reflect more broadly on “Who is the responsible adult here?” and how this plays out in our relationship with God.
Recently I made the journey to see my Mother in Dorset in order to arrange some regular Carer visits. These are a necessity from the viewpoint of my brother and myself, but have not been viewed as such by my Mother who, not unnaturally, wishes to maintain her independence. The long car journey afforded much time to reflect on the changing dynamic through the ageing process between the responsible adult and the dependent one. Grandson Arthur cannot really shout “Not the Mama!” to his Mum, but things are very different for my Mother and I, as the arranging of Carers and the sorting of Power of Attorney for financial matters means she is no longer the responsible adult who brought me into the world, fed, clothed and cared for me through to the time I left home for college. But she is still my Mum!
What then of God our heavenly Father? He is and remains the responsible adult in our relationship with him, doesn’t he? Creation continues, he knows far more than we might ever, he feeds and clothes and cares, he loves and forgives, picking us up and giving us another chance. God desires the best for us and gives us the gifts for a rich and fulfilling life. We depend on him and are more than ready to make him the responsible one when things go wrong! Yet, God allows us to stand on our own feet, to make our own choices and decisions. He gives us the gifts we need to take the role of ‘responsible adult’ ourselves and we discover that he is, in many ways, dependent on us to fulfil his purposes and life. But he is still God!
In our family relationships we all experience the dependent-responsible-dependent transition, however difficult it might be, and there we can find some understanding for our relationship with God. There are times when we will wish to be “Not the Mama!” and allow God to bear the weight of responsibility, but we must also acknowledge that out of his love and through his Holy Spirit God gives us all we need to responsibly fulfil his purposes in us.
I recall my youthful bemusement when persuaded to view abstract works of art on school trips to the Tate Gallery. “Anyone could do that” is perhaps the most common response, but they don’t! “What is it meant to be?” is the next response, assuming that all art should represent something recognisable.
That all ended when I was taught to simply ‘see it as it is’. It is not trying to be something other than a painting – colour, shape, form. Yes, I interpret what I see because it arouses feelings (excitement, boredom, indifference) and associations from my personal experience, but it is the work of the artist and not of my imagination or memory.
I wonder if God is perhaps a little like an abstract painting. He is who he is. He is not meant to be anything else and while we attempt to define him in terms of our human experience we will always fall short.
In the same way, we get closest if we attend to our feelings and not our knowledge. Above all, God is love and while we might see and experience this in action it is in those relationships where we feel and experience love that we find God.
What then of Jesus, the man who shared our experience in order that God be made real within it? Certainly, he was not abstract but we do find it hard to ‘get a handle’ on him. He was a first century Jew and for that reason many find it hard to discover his relevance for the 21st century in western culture. Artistically many have placed Jesus in their own time. Many of the greatest painters have represented gospel stories set in the time in which they lived, but this misses the point in many ways. Jesus is not the white anglo-saxon with blonde hair of the old Sunday school painting, but neither is he the dark-skinned dark-haired man of more recent films. He is love. He is forgiveness. He is life lived in relationship with God and neighbour. He is who he is.
The photograph is chosen with a hymn by John Mason in mind - “Thou art a sea without a shore”
1 How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?
2 Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing, because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.
3 Enlighten with faith's light my heart,
inflame it with love's fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
4 How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.