Some altered "Greenpatches," for you to browse through. Most of these first saw the light of day in "OldChurch" magazine.
You called? - or What Shape are you?(March 2008)
S.H.A.P.E. Not slimming yoghurt! It’s a tool used on the CPAS Growing Leaders course to aid discernment of God’s call; based on identification of your Spiritual gifts, Heart’s desire, Abilities, Personality and Experience.
Some years ago I described my struggles adapting to a new life, country and church. This focussed on a vivid dream and subsequent ‘cross-shaped’ experiences – which gave me reassurance of God’s presence. This sense that his purpose could include a “me-shaped” something, somewhere, has kept me searching ever since.
Seven years later, I’m at another crossroads. Of late, DH and I have experienced death of loved ones, stress-related illness, and with the fledglings almost flown the nest - are wondering what shape the future might be. For DH, a keen amateur cyclist, lycra - shaped. Myself? As middle-age spread threatens , and I’ve started looking at the “secret support” section in Marks’ lingerie department with a new thoughtfulness, I’ve found my faith, too, has been stretched, challenged and at times almost burst its moorings. Thankfully, various factors have kept it anchored, but some of them are also indirectly responsible for this same “lycra effect”, forcing me to reassess my spiritual underpinnings.
So what might these “secret supports” be? Firstly, a “listening ear.” I’m an introvert. Left to my own devices I would rarely venture out of my own little world into the fresh air! It was somebody at a Myers-Briggs course who suggested I find a spiritual director, someone with whom to make a periodic “stocktake.” Now before readers’ imaginations run amok with visions of some Christian elite or Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” sketch, relax. Spiritual directors don’t bite. They certainly won’t tell you what to do. One good definition is of “two people sitting down together in an attitude of prayer to try to discern where the Holy Spirit is directing.”* Such a “safe space” helps me keep a sense of proportion and humour whilst developing confidence in my own judgement. Even, reluctantly, move outside my comfort zones every so often.
It also provides a detached viewpoint within which I can mull over life’s ups and downs - not only the “churchy” bits - and consider the classic question: ‘Where do you think God is in this?” To which I usually give that equally profound answer: “Ummm?” Interestingly I’ve learned that God can speak into the everyday as much through the “still, small voice” as through the “earthquake, wind and fire.” For someone whose middle name is “worry,” and who struggles to balance “Mary” and “Martha”, just being - silent prayer, retreats, quiet days or simply pausing for a few moments - is vital. Not self-centred; simply providing bases from which I can best reach out to others.
Nevertheless I’ve experienced odd ‘thunderbolts’. One arrived during a confirmation service. I was wallowing in “what’s the point?”, Eeyore-like gloom, when suddenly a verse from a hymn by Charles Wesley hit me with all the force of a ten ton truck:
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and think and speak for thee.
Still let me guard the holy fire
And still stir up thy gift in me.
Everything looked the same outwardly. But inwardly I felt utterly changed. It was like being turned inside-out. God was calling all right, even if I had no idea of the “where” or the “what.” A recent Advent reading reiterated this, reflecting that often journeying with God means not immediately knowing your destination. More important is grasping that he is starting something and you need to follow regardless.
One means of feeling my way has been through study. When I stumbled across the Extension Studies Department of St John’s College, Nottingham, I couldn’t help thinking this was no coincidence. I’d inherited a small sum from my late grandmother, enough to pay for my first few modules. It would have pleased her and I’d wanted to study theology ever since I was told I couldn’t do an A Level in RE at school. However, I’d assumed that to be eligible, you needed to be of potential Archbishop of Canterbury calibre! Not so. Students work at their own pace with options slanted towards their particular interests. A budding evangelist? Try that unit. A member of the worship support team? Tackle “Worship in the local church.” After New Testament, Ethics, and theological reflection, I’ve begun a unit on Christian vocation. It’s been challenging, especially in ethics where material often bears a resemblance to real life too close for comfort! Isolation and lack of motivation are also real hazards with distance study I’ve discovered.
Early on a tutor challenged me to avoid “ivory tower” theology; rather apply what I was learning to life, even (gulp) to the world outside church. So my “underpinnings” have changed shape – as matters I’d considered “givens” have been questioned and doubts aired. I’ve learned that Christianity is richly multi-layered and become aware of many different strands of spirituality and churchmanship outside my own. However, the essentials remain, just expressed differently. So extending the foundations analogy, the fact that I favour the patron saint of the High Street’s basic cotton essentials whilst my neighbour swears by another brand makes neither of us an inferior (or superior!) Christian.
What of my S.H.A.P.E then? I’m deliberately leaving this unanswered as I’ve grown to realise that our primary call is to live out our faith where we’re “planted.” In our homes and jobs, with family and friends. The Growing Leaders course helps participants discern God’s direction in a more focussed and practical manner by developing a Personal Life (Vision) Statement. I’m doing this in tandem with a similar “rule of life” for a group of lay Franciscans, whose path I’m currently exploring. It’s not easy, especially knowing that no call is purely private. It needs to be discerned in community. What I might think I’m suited for might not be what others feel I’m called to.
Not forgetting - what does God think about it all?
* From Gordon Jeff, Spiritual Direction for Every Christian (SPCK, 2007)
Gifts and Traditions (December 1998)
My reflections on Christmas, here and in Strasbourg where we previously lived
“Saint Nicolas, patron des ecoliers,
Apportez-moi des bonbons
pour mes petits souliers.”
(St. Nicolas, the children’s saint,
Fill my little shoes with sweets.)
So goes the old song, sung by children throughout France, but what has this to do with church here in the UK? Well, on 6th December, when you are celebrating our patronal festival, one family will be missing. We will be spending a long weekend in Strasbourg, visiting the city’s famous Christkindelsmarik, (Christmas Market). The Fete de Saint-Nicolas looms large in the calendar of most Alsaciens, as it marks the beginning of over six weeks of junketing and celebration leading up to Christmas and continuing beyond.
“What a coincidence," I thought; and decided to write a short article telling you just a little about some of the customs and traditions that we have come to know and love over our seven years living in France. How could we possibly cope without them? Since then, several things have happened to make me think again.
Firstly, the piece just would not sparkle. Alsace is absolutely steeped in tradition (dictionary definition – unwritten body of beliefs, facts, etc, handed down from generation to generation, practice, custom of long standing). I had not enjoyed Christmas in the UK; it was too commercialised, and so was overjoyed to encounter the many customs, both religious and secular that mark the festive season in Alsace. Fete de St Nicolas, Christmas Market, Advent Crown, vin chaud, pain d’epices, the creche beneath the tree…wonderful, 'tradition,’ warmth, cosiness, safety. A veritable winter wonderland, in fact. Except that when I put it on paper it sounded more like the worst kind of travelogue.
Had I really only imagined it? Out came my books on Alsacien folklore, cookery, and history. And I sat down to watch two souvenirs – Christmas videos – one made by our local Alsacien television station, the other by the Strasbourg tourist office.
The first included interviews with a number of people; the plantation worker busy cultivating Christmas trees for sale at the market, the man working in the family business carving traditional wooden toys, the country priest who works eight parishes, grabs a simple dinner of potato and eggs, and finally gets to sleep at 5 am on Christmas morning.
The next took me on a tour of the city, led by a be-furred Christkindel and backed by a heavenly choir. This was the Strasbourg that I remembered so well, except that something was missing. Where were the familiar faces that we had grown to recognise over many years? The unphotogenic, the unmentionable, those figures hunched in shop doorways; the drunk, drugged and merely dirty. There was no film footage of the beggars and down-and-outs, genuine and otherwise. No mention of the bus that nightly distributes clean syringes to drug addicts, the man who froze to death in the street last winter, the refugee clutching a drugged, comatose toddler, or the prostitutes that DH and I glimpsed as we drive out of the city for the last time.
Today, I opened the post to find a copy of something I had written a year ago in response to an increasing feeling of frustration at the sheer daftness and Political Correctness of the British at Christmas. Walking along the High Street and seeing the shops decorated (on November 5th!) confirmed my opinions.
Suddenly, I remembered a conversation we’d had that morning about how so many people today were unable to grasp even the slightest significance of the Easter Story, if indeed they had ever been exposed to it in the first place.
I thought of the St Nicolas song that began this piece with its subtext of “gimme, gimme, gimme!” I thought of the tourist video with its seductive message of sugary goodwill, the Christmas message hijacked by secular forces. And another piece of the jigsaw fell into place.
Traditions are good, but if they become fossilised they may as easily hide the true meaning. Struggling through the Christmas crowds in the Christkindelsmarik to the accompaniment of
‘Petit Papa Noel,
quand tu descendras du Ciel’
(Dear Father Christmas, when you come down from the sky/Heaven!).
is no better than battling through Sainsburys to the dulcet tones of Slade, John Lennon, Wham! et al. If we do not keep God’s real gift central to the forthcoming celebrations, how can we ever help others or even ourselves to reach Easter Day?
To Be a Pilgrim (March 2012)
Last Spring, Mr and Mrs GP laced up their boots, caught a train to Durham and began walking. 250 miles plus later, GP tells us a little about what it was like ‘to be a pilgrim.’
What prompted you to go on pilgrimage? Our Silver Wedding Anniversary in 2008. Plans made over a quiet pint one rainy evening in Newquay snowballed. We originally intended to walk to Iona from home but in the broad light of day Durham, with its Celtic roots seemed more realistic.
What route did you take? We walked three major routes: Hadrian’s Wall, Southern Uplands Way and West Highland Way, with all manner of paths in-between. Memorable places included Durham Cathedral, Hexham Abbey, Traquair – the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, an old cattle drovers’ route, Queen Elizabeth Forest in the Trossachs and Loch Lomond. We branched west to the coast and three and a half weeks after starting out we were thankfully hanging up our boots in Oban. Finally, two ferries and a bus took us to Mull and Iona.
Had you had any previous experience of pilgrimage? Save a trip to the Oberammergau Passion Play 2000, my sole notion of pilgrimage was through Bunyan’s hymn with its ‘hobgoblins’ and 'foul fiends,’ and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, However, with nearly three years before the off, it all looked terribly romantic. Fools rush in…
How did you prepare for the trip? I marvel at the little we got away with. GP dog enjoyed extra ‘walkies’. Otherwise we simply strode forth. I joined the 2009 'NewChurch' pilgrimage to Coventry Cathedral; only to discover that hiking boots and I hate each other. Before attempting a section of the Wayfarer’s Walk and another church pilgrimage, I bought some walking trainers. My feet loved me for it. On a 100-mile stretch of the Santiago de Compostela route the Other Half's knees complained loudly on the descents, whilst I learnt that humming Faure’s Requiem and munching Haribos makes the ascents more bearable.
And spiritually? We determined simply to remain open to whatever the experience brought. The years between 2008 and 2011 brought their share of challenges; in a sense the pilgrimage began then still continues. Would we have to abandon the idea? As we finally heaved our rucksacks aboard the train, all I wanted was to get walking. Which brings us to…
What did you pack? ‘Travel light’ was our motto! I lived in the same couple of woollen shirts and walking trousers for over a month! Gloves, sun, rain and woolly hat were needed; blister plasters a necessary luxury. Hardest of all – no books apart from a small paperback Bible and journal. Gerard Hughes’ maxims rang true: luggage is for the journey, not the journey for the luggage; the more attached we are to our own likes and dislikes, the greater our capacity for misery along the way and the burden does not lie in the goods we carry but in the way we relate to them.
Luxuries? My favourite soap and a set of my oldest, comfiest clothes posted on ahead to Iona!
Your most memorable experience? Undoubtedly the ‘day off’ when we took the train along the West Highland line to Mallaig: through the vast wilderness of Rannoch Moor where the railway ‘floats’ on a bed of tree roots, remote Courour, the highest point of the line 450 m above sea level; Loch Treig, and Fort William, the spectacular view over the viaduct (of Harry Potter fame) at Glennfinnan, Arisaig with the Islands of Eigg, Muck, Rumm and Canna on the horizon and much more. Pure magical ‘How Great Thou Art’ moments.
And worst? The infamous eastern shore of Loch Lomond where the craggy path rises to what the guidebook euphemistically calls a ‘small cliff,’ supposedly the hiding place of Rob Roy. Conditions were wet, dark, misty and slippery. Mr GP, shouldering both rucksacks, nearly lost his balance retrieving my dropped sticks; I was crawling on hands and knees, whilst our only means of crossing the loch lay in locating a remote jetty and raising a buoy to alert the ferryman. One interpretation of ‘Loch Lomond’ – that the ‘low road’ refers to the souls of the dead being transported back to their homeland felt way too close for comfort.
Any wildlife? Wall-to-wall sheep - so biblical! We treated the hairy highland cattle with due respect. Sadly, despite my virtuoso performances on the haggis whistle, we only encountered the edible variety. The corncrakes on Iona were noisy yet elusive.
And Iona? We’d booked ourselves into one of the Abbey’s regular ‘Gathering Weeks,’ where guests from all over the world learn about the way of life of this ecumenical community founded by minister George MacLeod back in the 1930’s. There’s been a spiritual presence on Iona – even before St Columba settled here in 563; then in medieval times the site housed a Benedictine order, whilst the ruins of a of a nunnery lie nearby. So visitors are often surprised to learn that there is no ‘monastic ‘community here. Resident staff members and volunteers run the Abbey, MacLeod Centre and Camas on Mull. Community members live throughout the UK and beyond, meeting in groups for support and accountability, following a common rule with emphasis on work for justice and peace. As a member of a similar community (Franciscan Third Order) I was curious to compare and contrast the two. I concluded that Iona’s is the tougher call.
Guests join in building community – sharing meal duties and domestic chores. We gathered for a worship ‘space’ twice daily; each with a different theme incorporating the call to action characteristic of Iona liturgy and music. There were discussions with a community focus, opportunities to visit Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, and of course, the ever-popular pilgrimage walk around the island.
Did it live up to your expectations? Initially I felt ambivalent. Being plunged into community after weeks of just the two of us was a bit of a shock! Iona is renowned as a “thin place,” where little separates the material from the spiritual; it has an iconic status with tremendous weight of expectation for visitors. I’d experienced fleeting ‘God moments’ all through the pilgrimage: by a woodland waterfall on Good Friday, for example, Psalm 42 resonated as never before; through the immense solitude of the Southern Uplands Way where it’s possible to walk days without encountering another living soul; watching a ewe jump a stream to be with her distressed lambs. Why should Iona have the spiritual edge? Nonetheless – it cast its spell as I began to let go of my expectations of not having ‘correct’ expectations! The sheer rawness of the landscape spoke volumes: with weather often harsh and unpredictable, you are acutely aware of your dependence upon the elements. Struggling over the hills to St Columba’s Bay, I relaxed into and let myself be carried by the icy wind - in the moment with God. I felt the same closeness when stumbling my way round the bay’s stone labyrinth: that sense of ‘this is why I’m here; nothing else matters.’
What did you bring away with you? Mr GP loved the almost Zen-like simplicity - each day a new start. Myself? A pebble from the beach, a handful of sheep’s wool, insights into my personal ‘baggage,’ a tremendous sense of achievement, but most precious of all – memories of that afternoon at St Columba’s Bay.
Pilgrimage – A Simple Guide, (Diocese of Oxford)
Sally Welch – Making a Pilgrimage, (Lion, 2009)
Gerard Hughes – God in All Things, (Hodder, 2003)
Jane Bentley and Neil Paynter - Around a Thin Place – An Iona Pilgrimage Guide,
(Wild Goose Publications, 2011)
Mud, Meditation and Music: Some reflections from a first- time visitor to Greenbelt (October 2008)
On paper Greenbelt’s long-established formula of successfully mixing faith, music, arts and social justice issues looked irresistible. As a world-weary ‘oldie’, however, I’ll admit to some last minute reservations. Would there be mandatory attendance at knit-your-own-intercessions workshops? Might earnest, bearded young men press-gang us into devoting the rest of our lives to saving the lesser-spotted dodo? And mud! Surely squelching around Cheltenham Racecourse in the company of 20,000 other people all Bank Holiday weekend is an activity more suited to our 18 year old son. I’m not a hippopotamus, after all.
Fortunately, Greenbelt doesn’t “do” compulsion. What’s more, the only exotic species we spotted was the non-endangered Adolescent Domesticus Vodaphonus, charger in hand, huddled round every available socket. Most of our recharging took place at beer and tea tents. From whence we set out refreshed and ready to navigate our way round a bewildering array of events. Names like Brian McLaren, Philip Yancey, Joel Edwards, Robert Beckford, Salley Vickers and Douglas Alexander MP jostled for position with organisations such as Christian Aid, L’Arche, Faithworks, Amnesty International, Stop the Traffik and many more. Panel discussions and workshops ranged through interfaith to internet, Dalcroze to Salsa; music from Michael Franti to Faith and Spirituality in the music of Oliver Messiaen. Plus worship from Godly Play to a Goth Eucharist (far too long after our bedtime!).
As the weekend wore on, I was delighted to discover a festival in which DH, an atheist, did not feel too out of place, yet in which I, as a Christian of many years standing could still find plenty to challenge and inspire. In fact, it was DH who kicked off on the Saturday by listening to RC theologian Tina Beattie pleading for mutual understanding in the debate between Christians and ‘new atheists’ as exemplified by Richard Dawkins, for example. Meanwhile, thanks to earlier ‘gremlins’ I succeeded in walking straight into one of several rescheduled ‘must hears.’
Dave Tomlinson - in ‘Re-enchanting Christianity:’* explored how confronting faith’s trickier questions can result in a stronger, more authentic spirituality. It was not without its “ouch” moments, as were elements of John Bell’s reflections on similar ‘desert times’ in the church as a body, and how these may be part of God’s purpose in enabling us to move on together.
I valued the occasional escape into the ‘soulspace’ provided on the top floor of the grandstand. Here you could read, pray - or simply sit gazing out over the surrounding countryside. It also hosted a number of low-key reflective events, including one I found especially helpful: ‘Crying for the Light,**’ a gentle series of meditations by author Veronica Zundel, based on her recent book about living with depression,
DH enjoyed pottering about from mainstage to performance café with the occasional diversion to the beer tent or food stalls to rendez- vous with myself and debate vital topical issues. Such as what to do the next day. Or whether wearing socks with my crocs was permissible. (Grounds for divorce, apparently). Although let it known that forced by the arctic chill into succumbing to the lure of the many eco-friendly, Fairtrade stalls; our town's fashion guru ended up sporting a panama and jersey that made him look a cross between Clint Eastwood and a yak!
Taking part in the huge open air communion on Sunday afternoon turned out to be an unexpected highlight. I’d gained the impression beforehand that Greenbelt’s efforts at inclusivity here aren’t always to everybody’s liking. Co-ordinating thousands of worshippers across two venues, with processions appearing from all directions, a worship leader and pastor from Brazil, musicians from Nepal and the various responses in Taiwanese and Hindi takes some nerve. Add hymns like ‘Summer Suns are Glowing’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ - the 2008 theme was Rising Sun/Son - and you’re courting disaster. In the event, this nervous attendee rather enjoyed it. Although the sun had gone AWOL, I felt God’s light shone through all the same. There was something so typically British about sitting huddled together under groundsheets and umbrellas, valiantly trying to get through before our service sheets disintegrated in the rain. The crowning moment came just as we launched into Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’ - when the heavens opened!
Our verdict? Well, we’ve already booked our pets into kennels for 2009! I was conscious of barely having scratched the surface of an event in which no two people’s experiences are identical. It may, or may not take you to the edges of your comfort zones. But if like me, you’re still hesitating about whether to visit or not, I’d say, be brave and go along. You may be pleasantly surprised.
*Re-enchanting Christianity, Dave Tomlinson, Canterbury Press, 2008
** Crying for the Light: Bible Readings and Reflections for Living with Depression, Veronica Zundel, BRF, 2008