A Summer jazz festival on someone's back lawn in Orford, Suffolk, brought out the garden chairs, the picnic baskets and the hats!
Recreating the scene caused me to analyse a little what it means to be an audience. In a similar way to the coffee shop experience, the question is about whether one is there to simply receive - observing and listening, remaining on the outside - or is it more about participating - entering into the spirit of the performance, reacting with feelings and emotions, responding with applause and cheers?
Certainly the performance would be rather empty without an audience, but then there are those who object to too much participation, which causes a distraction.
Perhaps it is more of an exchange, with the performers being given their space to give of themselves, without undue interruption, while the audience have their own, necessary, moment in which to respond. A performance is not a performance without an audience and, even in a relatively passive way, we are essential.
Similarly, in relation to the performance that is creation, there is a need to give God his space to do what he desires, but we are also participants responding and sharing in what is going on. What we should not do is take on the role of the performer, the Creator. But entering into all that is going on in our world we have our essential role. God is on his stage, while we appreciate and are moved.
The Barbarossa Tower stands in its ruined form above the coastal town of Gruissan in the South of France, affording a spectacular view of all that surrounds it. The rooftops of the town, which lies immediately beneath the tower, while being an amazing display of terracotta colours, give the impression of a sort of armour, protecting all that lies within. One can see the whole town and beyond, but little of the people and the life that are what really makes it a town!
My interpretation of the view seeks to emphasise the fact that the viewer can only glimpse the life of this busy and bustling seaside town.
My imagination conjures the varied lives and the activity that is hidden from sight and carefully protected. I am certain that it is not just the town's 'best face' that one glimpses in the street and that the real life of it's people remains out of sight and probably behind closed doors.
Most residential communities are much the same as this. We protect our lives and privacy very carefully. Living in a second-floor apartment I am aware that our home-life is totally hidden from view, except to those who we welcome in, and even then there is much of personal life and thought which is not readily shared with others.
We would naturally refer to Gruissan as a community, as we would Dickens Heath, our home, but how can this be when we share very little of ourselves? For community to happen there needs to be a greater sharing of self and a willingness for others to get to truly know you. An openness to receive as well as to give.
It is such an open relationship that we also need with God, who knows us entirely whether we like it or not, not closing ourselves in so he cannot reach us. All that we surround ourselves with may be as colourful as the rooftops of Gruissan, but a life that we share with others and with God will be much richer in its colours.
And there are those who, behind the counter, are there to serve us, engaging in a professional way and offering their 'barista skills' for our benefit. Usually these folk are cheerful and polite, but there are those times when, annoyingly, they can seem more absorbed in their own schedule or in conversation with colleagues.
I realise that in 'people watching' I am choosing to 'sit outside' all that is going on, rather than participate. It is as if I am not a customer and more a fly on the wall. As I begin to reflect on relationships in my life, I wonder to what extent I remain rather aloof, rather than fully entering in? How often am I so absorbed in what I want to be doing that I neglect relating to others fully? How many conversations have remained superficial or cursory because my mind is actually focussed somewhere else? Have I neglected to offer what someone else is really wanting from me (attention, interest, information ...) because I am too self-absorbed?
In the coffee shop it is fascinating just watching others and interesting to let one's imagination roam around what is going on for people. However, it would be a whole lot more interesting to really engage and relate, to meet and chat, to explore a conversation, a discussion or even an argument, that means you are truly relating to someone else.
What then of that crucial relationship with God?
I suspect that most of us would need to admit to being more self-absorbed than is healthy if God is to have his place in our lives. Many are likely to be, like me in the coffee shop, sitting on the edge and watching it all go on for others but not attending to our own relationship with God. Like those who make a single cup of coffee last for an hour or so, we may not be open to being served by God as he would wish to with his gifts.
Of course, those who relate to all those sitting in the coffee shop are those who serve, with their cheery smile and 'how my I help you?' and this seems rather closer to the God who gives of himself in Jesus. The image is rather spoiled, however, by the fact that they tend not to be so good at clearing the messy tables - and clearing the mess is at the heart of God's relationship with us, so that we might appreciate his gifts the more.
During my teenage years I had a real fascination with Gothic architecture. It probably began with visits to numerous French cathedrals and a real wonder (in both senses of the term) about how they came to be built. Reading William Golding’s novel ‘The Spire’ gave me a sense of the fragility of these massive structures (insubstantial foundations) and a real interest in how they were built. On touring holidays around France with many long car journeys I often engrossed myself in Bannister-Fletcher’s ‘A History of Architecture’, which taught me much of the technical as well as the aesthetic aspects of buildings. My particular fascination with the Gothic then led to a wider interest in ecclesiastical architecture and how church buildings have been shaped to express faith, encapsulate worship (in various forms) and, like the Gothic, lift the eyes and the heart in worship.
While the spiritual aspect, along with the dedication and skill required, is very worthy, there are aspects of these grand buildings that are well removed from faith and God. Even today cathedrals are institutions of status, prestige and wealth. They are also communities within which ambition, power and influence are at play and where some of the baser expressions of human relationships work themselves out. These are brought out quite clearly in ‘The Spire’. These are all elements of human life and nature where faith plays out in a transformative way leading then to a greater appreciation of God and indeed worship, but care is needed that such inspired structures, while encouraging our eyes and hearts to God, do not foster the baser elements too.
For me, it is an awareness of the fragility of these structures that proves most important. They are not solid monuments to human achievement, but rather more delicate expressions of human weakness out of which spring aspirations towards the Divine. They are places where, yes, people’s eyes are raised toward heaven but also where people are to be found on their knees.
The first image in a planned series entitled 'Big', exploring the scale of creation, from microscopic cells to the planets of space.
Honey bees are perhaps a quintessential example of interdependence within the ecosystem, carrying a disproportionate influence on the future of life in comparison to their diminutive size.
30% of the world's crops amongst 90% of all plants require cross-pollination to spread and thrive, for which the honey bee is the most important pollinator.
Bees earn their reputation as busy workers by pollinating billions of plants each year, including millions of agricultural crops. In fact, pollinators like bees play a key role in one out of every three bites of food we eat. Without them, many plants we rely on for food would die off. Equally many birds and other insects depend on bees as food.
The threat to their existence therefore brings a consequent threat for much of animal life and humans too.
Changes in the climate are perhaps the largest threat, with a late flowering of plants leaving bees struggling for food at the beginning of the season. Chemicals and pesticides used by humans to overcome some threats to agriculture are themselves a threat to bees and ongoing life and growth.
So, all respect to the honey bee, who is not alone in 'punching above their weight' in the great eco-system that is creation.
How do you see the world?
Is it the 2 dimensional image that is monotone and with little detail? Do we like this because it keeps things superficial and does not draw us in too much?
Is it the 3 dimensional layered image, which adds some perspective and allows us to add in the bits that are hidden, from our knowledge and experience?
Is it perhaps an image to which we add a 4th dimension? - To whom are the houses home? Who is driving the car, where has it come from and where is it going? Who is that elderly person on their way to the shops and what is their situation?
Who is my neighbour?
The dimensions of this image might spark thoughts about the identity of the neighbour - who lives next door or down the street, lives far away and passes by in the car on their way to who knows where, potters by on the way to the shops etc. - giving shape to the web of interdependency that we live within and are sustained by. Even at this local level the web is wide, but spreads to all those on whom we depend, or who depend on us, around the globe.
The big issues of the current time - migration, climate change etc. - emphasise how we all need to be aware of this web of interdependency and allow it to shape our decisions and way of life, rather than shrink away into a defensive nationalism that offers a false security.
What is it that prompts such a wide awareness in us and has the ability to counter the fearful conservatism and narrow-mindedness of so many currently in places of influence? It is nothing other than the Spirit of God who conceived the whole creation and every race of people. The Spirit of Jesus, who through life, death and resurrection demonstrates a love for all in this world and beyond.
There is a responsibility amongst those who have a sense of the unity of God’s creation to share this vision, this way of life, with others. It is not all about protest and political action, although these have an important place, but it is also about introducing others into a life where the Spirit of Christ is within, prompting and calling response.
I recall an initiative in the ecumenical parish I served in the 1990s where folk were encouraged to pray for their neighbours - not just those who lived next door, but those who passed by and those they encountered regularly. People were invited to simply note down something that identified their neighbour (elderly man with cap, young mum with three kids, or a name if they knew it etc.) as a prompt for prayer, drawing others into that relationship with God that they enjoyed themselves.
This takes witness to Jesus out of the institutional life of the church and into the everyday, into the life of the community, into the world where our dependency on God and our interdependency with people around the globe prompt action.
In a world situation where so often we can feel helpless, faced by such enormous issues, it is a knowledge of who is our neighbour, along with a care for them, that gives us our role and purpose.
This fine fellow was an attractive cause for some amusement at Baddesley Clinton (a National Trust property near us) a few years ago. He really does make one wonder how effective he is, as he is far from being scary for you or me..
But it may well be different for the crows, for whom he is the intended deterrent. Scarecrow is different, alien and, perhaps, enough to frighten the birds.
I then wonder about all those people who are 'scary' to us simply because they are different? We can be nervous of people of a different nationality, language, colour of skin. Those whose behaviour, shaped by a different culture, may concern us or appear threatening. It may be that anyone who is 'unknown', and this might be our neighbour, encourages a caution in us simply because we a nervous of difference. Yet, how often do we overcome our caution, discovering that difference does not mean scary or threatening in reality?
Don't tell the crows, but it is good to realise that the scarecrow is indeed harmless and that the smile is genuine, even if he is a bit dishevelled and showing the marks of sleeping rough!
It is claimed, and I have no reason to dispute this, that more than 90% of all we consume arrives in the UK by sea. It is an astonishing figure and the beginning of an insight into the scale of global trade that takes place, largely unrecognised by us, the consumer. In addition, there is no real awareness of the human costs involved to make all this happen.
The scale of global trade to sustain our way of life is mind-blowing and humbling when one becomes aware of the human costs. Wages within the shipping industry kept to an absolute minimum to both keep the industry afloat and the prices we pay low. With safety standards often compromised, none of this is comfortable for us to know, which is probably why we don't bother discovering more than we need to.
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.