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.