Monday, 27 June 2016

Who's Kingdom is it?

In this week's live talk, I explore a Christian response to Great Britain's EU Referendum result. The bible reference is Matthew 21: 33-46.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Queen refuses hot dog

In 1999, whilst I.was working for a multinational energy company, Queen Elizabeth II was to visit our headquarters as part of our centenary celebrations. I was running our UK filling station business at the time, and was asked to show her round a mock-up of one of our convenience shops.

As the afternoon of her majesty's visit approached, I remember feeling rather apprehensive. Would this be her first experience of such places? Was she familiar with the concept of snacking on the move?  As the afternoon arrived, the Queen was shown around various exhibits, until she arrived at my store and I was introduced.

My feelings at the time were a mixture of terror and anxiety. I responded, as I sometimes do in moments of panic, by striking an air of slightly false informality. After a few introductory remarks, I led her majesty and her retinue towards the roller grill section, which was proving so popular in our Scandinavian operations.

Informality held sway over sober judgement: "Would you like a hot dog?", I asked the ruling monarch. The uncharacteristic speed at which she moved on to the car care section told me all I needed to know. The next morning, the Times reported on its front page "Queen refuses hot dog".

I offer this story, partly as a reminder of the type of situation with which the Queen has graciously dealt over many of her now ninety years. But I also offer it on my own account, not in confession, but as a reminder of the errors of judgement we all make during our lifetime. This particular one was not disastrous, merely a minor breach of royal protocol.

I was recently asked over lunch by friends: "what advice would you give your 16 year-old self?". Re-reading Richard Foster's words on confession, I might be tempted to advise not to go through life afraid of our making mistakes, but in wrongdoing against God, to embrace the cycle of confession and forgiveness we receive through Jesus Christ. When so embraced, we carry with us the desire to 'lead better lives' that is rightfully the burden of authentic Christianity. We will never be without sin, but to live without the heart to change is the worse fate.

I later discovered that I was not alone in having offered a reigning British monarch a hot dog. Roosevelt as President of the US, (back in June 1939) had served two hot dogs to the current Queen's mother and George VI in Hyde Park, Washington DC. Had I been a better historian, I might have pointed this our to our Queen back in 1999. How she would have replied will remain a matter of speculation.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Love Remembered

Bob and Olive lived in a tiny village, by the sea, a couple of miles south of Amble in Northumberland. There was nothing beautiful about the village but it was situated just above the endless, hard, flat sands that are characteristic of that part of the North East coast. It still has that wild beauty.

Both were born in the 1890s and had lived in that tiny hamlet all of their lives. Bob had worked as a coalminer and his hands had severe arthritis from the relentless and hard nature of his work. When I knew them, as a weekend and holiday visitor, both were in their 70s. Bob was mobilised for the First World War but never got further than 'Bormin'am'. Olive had never travelled as far as 'N'cassel', only 25 miles to the south.

Their marriage and lifelong commitment to each other defies many contemporary descriptors of relationships, but I was reminded of those things in reading Richard Foster's chapter on the discipline of service.

Neither had ever enjoyed alcoholic drinks. Olive loved lemonade ('pop') and Bob would walk into Amble and back to bring her a fresh bottle or two, and take the empties back. They would pick blackberries together and make a pie with the fruit. If one was ill, the other would sit with them until they got better. The service of small things. Theirs was a life of complete co-dependence, mutual service and care.

Their tiny home, ten yards from the beach over which the Northern winds blew, was a place of the most generous hospitality. All and whatever they had would be made available to guests. A bowl of pease pudding was a favourite. Conversation was boundless and Bob would fuel a fire with the sea coals he had collected from the beach. For one who had seen so little of the world, Olive had endless funny stories about people and their idiosyncrasies. Service was not limited to each other, but something extended to those who visited, even those from very different backgrounds.

To enter into the spirit of service, not just once a day but as a way of life, might be the most challenging call we receive. Bob and Olive's world was a simple one, but they kept it so. Their devotion was Godly, it was to each other and those put in their path.

As Christians, the 'narrow way' set out for us is one where service is not just a feature of our closest relationships, but of our approach to all those we encounter....believing that, by humbling ourselves to serve others, we bring our God in Jesus Christ the greater glory. We may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task of service, but God sees that we are strengthened and not diminished by it.

My recollections

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Wrestling with truth

One of the dubious pleasures of 1970's TV sport, was the inclusion of British professional wrestling in ITV's 'World of Sport' programme on Saturday afternoons. Colourful characters like Mick McManus, Jackie Pallo, Pat Roach, Adrian Street and Big Daddy would, rather theatrically, try to force each other into submission.

Professional wrestling of that sort bred eccentrics. In an interview of the time, Welshman Adrian Street revealed that his hobbies were the making and painting of model soldiers, sculpture and the study of reptiles. Meanwhile, everybody's 'gran' was an avid follower of the wrestling. Mine would sit in rapt attention, with a bag of boiled sweets and shout at the telly. The events themselves were attended by large numbers of female followers.

The bout was over when one of the 'grapplers' shouted or tapped out submission, and the referee stepped in.  The rendering of the other as powerless was the aim. No freedom of movement,  Defeated. Occasionally, if it was sensed that the wrestler was in danger, his manager would literally 'throw in the towel'.

It is counter intuitive to read that there is a freedom in submission (Foster p138).

Foster makes the point that getting our own way, winning arguments, being treated well by others are those things we have come to expect as reflections our merit and aspiration. Submission to a contradictory discipline gives a freedom that stretches our heart towards God. By submitting to God and not ourselves we grow in grace, consideration towards others and unconditional love.

When I checked into a hotel this week, the room I was allocated was a quarter of the size of the one I had previously stayed in at the same hotel. It would have been good for my ego to have complained and been upgraded, Instead, it was good for my soul to remain where I was and learn to find something new and wonderful therein. Life is made up of hundreds of experiences of which this is one trivial example....countless opportunities to submit, be humbled and grow.

Submission is difficult, perhaps the most problematic of all of the disciplines. It reverses our desires and the compulsions of human nature. But without it, what are we? Without it we wrestle with the world, but not with the truth.

Sunday, 15 May 2016


The conductor’s baton is held loosely; the orchestra not engaged.

In 1952, American composer John Cage premiered a now notorious piece of music which required the performer(s) not to play their instruments. For 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

The result was silence. Well, almost silence. Certainly, no musical notes were issued from the instruments. So any noise created during that time was the noise of the building, the audience, the traffic outside.

Originally, Cage’s working title for the idea was “Silent Prayer”. In it, he was trying to challenge the audience’s and critics’ perceptions of “what is music?”, or I might add “where is music?”.  In doing so, he brought us into fascinating territory.

If we sit in a concert hall, the pianist opens the piano, we will expect music. If we walk into a meeting at work, we expect talking. If we walk on a beach, we expect the sound of waves and seabirds.

Silence challenges every part of us – our expectations of ourselves and others, our need for predictability and more. Silence can bring us peace and, in different circumstances, bring us anxiety. It is a universal sign of respect, yet also a sign that we have forgotten what it was we meant to say.

Richard Foster directs us towards moments of solitude and silence in our day. He calls them sanctuaries. They are the empty places (and spaces) where we listen to ourselves, listen to God. They are the silences that put the noise into perspective. They are the times of alone-ness  where we see ourselves in relation to others and to God.

Just as Cage’s piece encouraged listeners to ask those challenging questions concerning the nature of music, it is in silence, too, that we are inevitably drawn to the eternal questions of our place in God’s universe and heart.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Alone Again (Naturally)

Back in 1972, my friend Susan and I were constant features of the Newburn Swimming Club (Under 14) team in the west of Newcastle; she on girls' backstroke and I on the boys' freestyle. We were great friends; not hindered by the fact that her older brother played in goal for Blyth Spartans, a hero of their FA Cup runs at that time.

However, there was one thing about Susan that I couldn't immediately appreciate. That was her deep admiration for the works of singer/songwriter, Gilbert O'Sullivan....and in particular for the song, Alone Again (Naturally). It is the story of a young man, jilted at the altar, who in deep humiliation finds himself feeling completely alone.

Listening again forty four years on, the song has a real pathos, its full of charming innocence too. Yet, the 'naturally' suffix is ironic; typifying the common conception that to end up alone is somehow, well, a failure.

The current chapter from 'Celebration of Discipline' looks at Solitude from a very different standpoint, and challenges that conception in two ways.

First, that Solitude and Alone-ness are not the same thing. Solitude is a 'state of the heart that can be maintained at all times' (p120). Jesus sought that type of solitude in countless ways.
Second, that Solitude is the opposite of failure, it is the essential precursor to a 'deeper, fuller exposure to the presence of God' (p133).

I asked a friend today whether, as a married man with young children, he ever craved Solitude. He replied that he could find that in a relationship where silence was not an embarrassment, and being together and 'spiritual solitude' were both simultaneously possible. There are real encouragements for us there, whatever our status, and wherever it is we find ourselves.

Gilbert O'Sullivan found himself, in his jilted and 'alone' state, feeling that he had also been abandoned by God.  Foster claims something rather different for us. That Solitude, far from an divine desertion, is the very gateway for knowing God.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The emergency stop

This week, a friend mentioned that she had noticed a homeless man outside her Battersea coffee shop as she went in to buy a morning coffee. She stopped on seeing him. She noticed how cold he looked. And she asked if he would like a coffee too. He did.
Her story reminded me, ever so slightly, of one told by Donald Nicholls in his book 'Holiness'. He relates the story of a group of American theological students undergoing an experiment conducted by psychologists. They were told it was an exercise in verbal retention. Each of the students was invited to a separate room where they were read a passage, then sent to the end of a long corridor outside to another room where they would try to repeat what they heard. Words were recorded and verbal retention would be measured by comparing the student's words with those in the original passage.
In fact the psychologists' aims were rather different. Half the students were read the story of the Good Samaritan. The other half a random story. They had stationed a person halfway down the corridor in a shallow alcove, someone clearly rather battered and distressed.
The proportion of students stopping to help this person was very low, and was no higher amongst those who had just been read the Good Samaritan parable. One further twist - within the 'parable group', a proportion had been told to hurry to the end of the corridor. Of that group not a single one had stopped to help.
Hurry blinds us. Our lives are lived in a hurry; we are continually 'very busy'. As if our busyness is necessarily a virtue. I attempted to sit entirely still for ten minutes on Thursday. It was not as easy as it might have been, and my mental state remained rather rushed, even when my body was still.
Learning to stop is a prerequisite of a spiritual life. If we cannot stop, what chance is there we might experience God? In his compelling chapter on the discipline of solitude, so asks Richard Foster.
Following her act of coffee-generosity, my friend was pursued by a man who enquired: 'what did you do that for?'
What would it take to make us stop?

Saturday, 23 April 2016

From poverty to power

What is the great spiritual danger of our age?
In his chapter on the discipline of simplicity, Richard Foster makes a strong case, based on Jesus's own teachings, that it is the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Especially in an affluent society such as our own.
This week has reminded me of parallel truth. I have been helping a friend who runs a small charity in inner London. The charity supports parents and families who rely on food banks and yet have no way of paying for fuel to cook the food they're given for their children. Or to heat the water that might keep them clean. So the charity issues vouchers which add credit to high-tariff pre payment meters.
Simple enough. Yet charity volunteers consistently  report the complex web of problems amongst those for whom these basics have, often alarmingly quickly, become beyond their reach. Chief amongst them are the disabling impact of extreme poverty.
The loss of hope. The decline in self-esteem of parents who can no longer provide. The feeling that they are uncared for, at the bottom rung of the ladder. Theirs is more than fuel poverty - it is the removal of power....power to hope, power to trust, power to believe that things might get better.
Luke 6:20-21 reminds us of Jesus's overriding concern for those in poverty.
That there is spiritual danger in wealth, yes, but a deeply concerning spiritual danger in poverty. Of the hidden and the voiceless.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Hope where the heart is

I was in conversation this week with someone involved in City of London fund management. "There's no such thing as a truly ethical investment", he told me. "What is ethical means different things to different people, and no single company - and certainly no portfolio - can satisfy everybody. ".

His words may be a fair reflection of things, and I recalled the Church's struggle to rid itself of stock it regards as unprincipled. However, as a judgement on modern commerce, I found it a little, well - disappointing. It would seem every investment has in it, somewhere, the traces of natural or human exploitation and worse.

Richard Foster presents a very different, and much more hopeful, picture. As we approach the second section of his 'Celebration of Discipline', we read in his chapter on Simplicity an emphasis on 'seeking first God's Kingdom' (p107). He adds: 'when the kingdom of God is genuinely placed first, ecological concerns, the poor, the equitable distribution of wealth...will be given their proper attention'.

We may invest some money in a flawed economic system. But where do we invest those things that matter more? Our hope? Our heart's desires? Our responsibility to each other? Our response to the creator God?

We invest those things first in God's Kingdom. So, my hope is that the acts of spiritual discipline that we'll explore in the pages to come bring you and I closer to the 'how' of the matter.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Ski Sunday

My television viewing, I have to admit, is usually based on sport, and this winter I have derived enormous enjoyment from watching the Alpine World Cup skiing, with highlights often captured on 'Ski Sunday'.

I have never skied myself, but I am a great admirer of those who do it well; for their strength, agility, courage and concentration. For the downhill competitors ski not on fluffy snow but on hard ice up to speeds of 75 miles per hour, where small misjudgements of line or contact result in calamity.

My Sunday afternoon musings as I view the snowy scene, have brought me to two understandings related to the spiritual life.

First, that the context of our communion with God is often far too narrow. We can concern ourselves with what we want, what we have, what we need to do. We are like anxious skier, rapt by the details of our own internal we have the time to study? Why can't we pray as others do? In this mode, we are kept in a kind of perpetual unrest - not allowing ourselves to 'be'. For to 'be' is to be attentive to God and the movement of the Spirit in the world and in the circumstances of our lives.

Next, that when we shift our attention to God, we are no longer the isolated, self-centred performer...but one existence in a vast world, directed by a single source of light. We are, to quote Evelyn Underhill: "like a chalet in the Alps, a homely existence gaining atmosphere, dignity, significance from the greatness of the sky above it and the background of the everlasting hills."

My favourite part of the World Cup skiing coverage is always when the camera pulls away from its focus on the course and the skier and shows us the full panorama of peaks, valleys and snow-covered villages. Thus I am reminded of the vastness of the enterprise and each person's small but unique place within it.

Friday, 11 March 2016

A racing certainty

Reference Point wins the 1987 Derby at Epsom
I have a good friend who is a close follower of horse racing. I don't share his enthusiasm to any great degree, but his dedication to the cause is remarkable. As long as I can remember, on raceday and before, he has studied the form of horses, jockeys, trainers, courses. He has studied the impact of the weather forecast and travel distances. Parentage too is taken into account and the strengths and weaknesses of 'line'.  He will observe behaviour in the parade ring and as they take their early steps towards the starting line. With him, the study becomes a science.

The focus of the study is, of course, to successfully predict the outcome of a particular race. Once his prediction is proved correct, or not - the studying stops. I have never seen him analyse the outcome of a race with any urgency, or to reflect on what was learned with any great enthusiasm. The point is - only - did his horse win or not?

I sometimes wonder if there is a danger of our spiritual lives bearing some of these hallmarks. In other words, did God give us what we thought he would? Or worse, did God give us what we wanted?

It seems to me that the discipline of Study reverses this process. Study is based on reflection, looking in the rear-view mirror of life and, as Foster puts it, 'seeing things from God's perspective....In reflection, we come to understand our subject matter, but ourselves." It is in reflection that we see God most clearly - in that way, the past offers a glimpse of his perfect love.

The extent of Richard Foster's reading list proposals may be either challenging or off-putting in their scale and ambition. Yet, reflection is something we can all do. We can do it today, when we are shopping, listening to music, walking the dog, or when a neighbour has left us to consider the conversation we shared. At those times, and at countless others, we can all ask ourselves: "where was God in that experience?". Or "how does God seem to working in my circumstances now?" Or "what am I learning about his desires for me?"

When we reflect in that way, continually growing in self- and God-knowledge over the course of our years, we are fully leading the spiritual life. We may not be able to predict the daily outcome, as the race goer would love to do, but we do meet the enjoinder of the letter writer:

"...let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." (Hebrews 12:1)

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Down the Tube

Sitting on the London Underground this week, I became conscious of a tendency I have to judge others, positively or negatively, by their appearance.
Before me were the hard-working builder with paint-stained cargo trousers, “Polska” on his shirt. The tired-looking office worker, preoccupied with a colourful game on her phone. The Fijian student seemed powerful in rugby gear. The Daily Mail reader…you see, there I go again! The tendency I have (and I am not alone surely) to pigeon-hole people based on their appearance is not only a regrettable, but sinful one.
I was made especially conscious of it by reading Catherine Marshall’s thought-provoking piece, “Fasting on Criticalness”, on the train down from Sheffield. In it she describes her fasting from her own tendency to judge others and situations, instead engaging in exploration of her relationship with God and God’s people.
So, I began to look around the carriage, landing eyes briefly on each individual, praising God for something about them and turning those thoughts into unspoken intercession.
I was immediately reminded that of the huge potential of fasting. Not for exhibitions of holy living, but for removing those things that occupy spaces where God can be active. Jesus warned against the human tendency to judge others (Matthew 7:1-5).  Judging others is tempting – not least, perhaps especially, for Christians. It can seduce us into pride for the choices we make or doctrine we espouse.
Instead, fasting from critical judgement brings us into a creative place where we begin to see the potential of others with clarity, and in doing so we both honour God’s unique love for every human being, and we fulfil our purpose as those called – not to judge – but to love as God loves.  

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Golden Slumbers. Golden Arches

There are two closing lines in the beautiful hymn, "Jerusalem the Golden", which read:
"O sweet and blessed country that eager hearts expect! Jesu, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest". I was reminded of them by Richard Foster's recollection of Charles Spurgeon's entreaty on fasting and prayer: "never has Heaven's gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer the central Glory". Both quotes share the same sense of being within touching distance of an eternal home with God. And in Spurgeon's case, underlined by much of Foster's chapter on Fasting, it is that discipline that brought him closest to that spiritual epiphany.

Yet, if fasting is so efficacious, how is it "not for everyone"?  Foster points out that true fasting must be "God-initiated and God-ordained", yet some have not felt directed in this way, just as others have. A straw poll at home group this week showed a three-way spilt between those who had never fasted, had done so in the past or were fasting now. And the benefits were? "A slowing down. A receptiveness to God in a different, more relaxed, state" were reported.

All agreed that our eating habits, some would contend a modern obsession with food, can be a distraction from Godly living at best, at worst a different kind of idol. A golden calf from golden arches, you might say. Phones, tablets, media, work, relationships - also have the potential to distract us from God and yet all have the ability (well used) to help us in our Kingdom endeavours.

Imposing control over our will is the central but often seemingly impossible task of holy living. Overcoming sinful habits is one part of that. Another is those good and necessary things, like eating and drinking, the denial of which (for a time that is undamaging to our health) builds fortitude. In any case, God is needed as the reason, the power and the outcome.

In our weakened physical selves we might become - paradoxically - strengthened in our vision of God and his Kingdom - a golden Jerusalem, with milk and honey blest!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Godly Conversation

I met up with my new prayer partner this week; nothing new in the meeting; we've known each other for a number of years. But this time the topic was committing to pray to God, together, into the future. And yet something was troubling both of us.

"I get stuck in prayer when it becomes a rigid pattern...You know, you tell me A,B and C. I tell you X, Y and Z. And then we repeat as much as we can remember but in prayer-speak, as though God only arrived halfway through our meeting, and somehow needs to be brought up to speed".

"Yes, can't we just acknowledge the Holy Spirit with us and offer our conversation to God, as our prayer". The idea excited us, but we knew that we'd need to be attentive to God's leading...

And the conversation-prayer flowed wonderfully. There were questions, listening, clarifying, patience, responsiveness. We were acutely aware of God's presence with us in a unique and liberating way. We shared things that had heartened us, things that were frightening us, confessions and hopes. The Spirit guided at every turn, prompting bolder prayer and deeper listening ...

We learned a few things that helped our fledgling partnership in its new journey of Godly conversation,
  • To open and close in prayer as something offered to God and received from God. 
  • To be acutely aware of the Spirit alongside and within us, gave space for listening and were acutely aware of each other: our space, our feelings, our rights 
  • To take turns, carefully. Both of us avoided monologue. 
  • To know the subject area: things to be brought before and offered to God. Thanks, praise, sure, but also relationships, work and life. 
  • To recall what the other had said, to be patient, and willing to offer in response.
A Godly conversation, then, which turned a 'chat' into meaningful prayer under the Holy Spirit. It could work individually, in pairs or even in a small group. That time gave us a taste of (what Foster refers to, in his chapter on prayer) 'the growing perpetual communion' - the ultimate aim of all prayer. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Green Monsters and Yellow Submarines

In the past, when prayer has at times run dry, I have often turned to words that reassure me that I'm not alone:“We yearn for prayer and hide from prayer. We are attracted to it and repelled by it….What holds us back…is the notion that we have to have everything ‘right’ in order to pray”.

I paraphrase a little, but so writes Richard Foster in the opening words of his book called simply ‘Prayer’. He gives in that book a more complete picture of prayer that squeezing a huge topic into a single chapter of Celebration of Discipline might allow.

I offer you one image from the opening chapter of ‘Prayer’ that has stayed with me: “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture, a child of God cannot pray a bad prayer”.

Green monsters, blue days, yellow submarines and dark nights. No prayer is too simple when offered from the heart.

We are in good company. Nearly all of the prayers offered in the bible are simple prayers. Children of God opening their hearts and making their requests.

Jesus taught the disciples how to pray. There is more for us to learn too, but its only worth learning if it makes us more open before God. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Visitors' Book

High Trenhouse, Settle, North Yorkshire

In the 1990s, periodically, I used to invite the Shell oil marketing team I led to a retreat house in the moors high above Settle in North Yorkshire. Time away together changed much, but not everything. We shared our lives, our stories and used to pray together in the evening. People’s experiences of that were different. There was nothing conventional about the retreats, which were different to the ‘conference’ norms of the time. We became a close and trusting team.

Happy recollections of those times were prompted by this week receiving photographs of the visitors’ book from some of those occasions. My and others’ names were written inside, bringing back memories of faces, people and moments. The photographs were sent by a friend now revisiting the retreat with his own business.

At the end of the 1990s, based then in Claygate, Louise and I joined a home group, which after an eight year intermission, I have just re-joined. Much has changed, but not everything. Last night, we meditated on Wednesday’s scripture passage from Chapter 1 of Celebration of Discipline; very beautiful words from Psalm 1:1-3:

“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers” (v3).

People’s experiences of meditating on that scripture were very different. One described being taken and opened out in choreographed movement; another that calm and peace had replaced resentment. A reflection, too, on a multi-facetted God (whom I had seen as the ‘planter’ implied by the Psalm). For one, the experience was bumpier and needs new entry points. “To breathe the name” became the mantra of another.

Meditation had allowed us, in individual ways, to abide in God for a while. “Opening ourselves to be acted upon”, as Foster describes it (p37). .

We had signed the visitors’ book. Yet we are also free to take up a more permanent residence. A place where we “realise that God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good…..His inscrutable love seeks our awakening”*.
*from Thomas Merton’s “Seeds of Contemplation”

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Take Heart

Saltburn by the Sea December 2015

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus heals the paralytic man, physically with the words “Get up!...”, and spiritually with the words “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” (Mt 9:2)
It is those latter words of Jesus that I took into meditation last night*.
If someone was to say to us that “having a child is a huge commitment”, most of us (parents or not) would readily accept the principle. But when the commitment has been a personal one for us, when we have given love, time, money, ingenuity and bounced back from our failures to try again – then we have experienced all and more than the principle implies. We have known the difference between theory and practice.
“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven”….
As I placed myself before God in meditation, those words were no longer merely theology. They became personal. I was moved to ask: “what..even the time that I….?”
And I heard again….”Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven”
“And the times that I have…?
“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven”. I began to sense a rhythm. I can only describe it as like the motion of the waves crashing on a shore. With each ebb, each movement of repentance,  forgiveness and grace flowed inexorably back. Cancelling, cleansing, crossing out.
The intellectual knowledge of God was surpassed by something else, an experience of the grace of God.  Theory into practice.  Universal into personal.
“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:7)
 *See Richard Foster’s quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on page 33 of ‘Celebration of Discipline’

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Re-placing Ourselves

Nothing excites me more than the idea of being on the move.

Most of my travel these days is in the United Kingdom but motion usually brings me to novel, silent places and always prompts thought, prayer and reflection. There is something about being slightly ‘away from ourselves’ that can help us to see ourselves, others and God in a new light. Movement is seldom merely a physical displacement, but is often a place of spiritual opportunity. In his book, ‘The Art of Travel’, Alain de Botton writes: ‘Journeys are the midwives of thought’.

In Chapter 1 of CofD, Richard Foster stresses time and again that the spiritual disciplines we will explore together in the weeks to come are journeys, but not destinations. They merely ‘place us before God’. And being before God is a place of change and blessing which is the true destination of the follower-pilgrim.

Last Monday, together with a crowd at church, I listened to stories of change and providence: Jenny (now praying in partnership), Charlie (changed by small acts of service and listening) and Dorothy (connected into a new community from a place of isolation).

As I listened (and many of us wept), I was reminded that these places of change (and the dozen others that were spoken of) had not been arrived at accidentally. Each one was the result of a conscious, spiritual act of movement towards a place where God might work. Each bore the hallmark of spiritual discipline. Each was within the reach of young and old, too.

In moving to a new place closer to God, we ourselves are re-placed for the good.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Above and Below Ground

Outside St Pancras Church just off Euston Road, the church's resident street artist, Daniel McCarthy, has erected one of his murals on the corrugated iron barriers that surround the church's building work. It's a depiction of two realities. The ground above, green, flowered, with its hints of statues and lions (the iconography of the church outside which the mural hangs). And the place below with its underpinning arches, descending staircases which take mysterious interlocking paths – often apparently circular. It's the artist's interpretation of the paths and tunnels of the crypt which lies beneath the church, now housing its art gallery.

Between those two different realities, an intrepid figure takes the steps downwards. Surprisingly, the body seems to be taking light, almost weightless, steps.

On page 1 of his book, 'The Celebration of Discipline' (or the CofD as I will call it in this blog), Richard Foster invites us "to move beyond surface living into the depths" and "to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm".

On the opposite side of the Euston Road, the British Library houses a museum of the Library's Treasures. Currently on display are original manuscripts by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Mozart, Bach and Chopin. Alongside them, on the back of a child's birthday card are the lyrics to a Hard Day's Night, scribbled out by John Lennon. Together, they are some of the most stunning iconography of this and previous ages in life 'above ground'.

It seems to me that Richard Foster's invitation implies that exploration of the inner life will lead us to more, but rather different treasures. Not just the things we can see, but the treasures of God. Our exploration isn't seeking more of ourselves or the world, but more of God.

The paths that I hope we'll take together as a church may resemble the artist's depiction, twist and turn. There will be dead ends for me/us, and places that draw in light. But as we take first steps deeper, we can do so with expectation and excitement.