Category Archives: Community Blog

Penalties and the inevitability of disappointment…

Being in Spain on retreat for the month, I can only follow the World Cup very much at a distance but even I couldn’t fail to get a little caught up in England’s dramatic penalty shoot out last night. I went online around full time to see the result and was pleased to see England winning 1-0. Before I could log out though the drama began – a late equaliser in stoppage time – here we go again I and many others were thinking. A tense extra time with Columbia rejuvenated… and then the penalties themselves. Morale was sinking – England have never won in such a situation…and they are the first to miss and we feel stuck in the well worn script. But then the surprise. .. they win…

I shouldn’t have doubted but I did. How appropriate that this all happened on the feast day of St Thomas the apostle. Even as I found myself saying ‘I can’t believe it’ I realised I was echoing some historic words from someone else who seemed caught up in the inevitability of disappointment. Thomas was surprised by Jesus appearing exactly in the place where a week previously he had insisted that unless he touched the very wounds of Jesus he would not believe. ‘Come and touch the wounds’ said Jesus ‘and then believe’.

I’m sure that last night touched the wounds of many a football supporter – 52 years of hurt and all that – but then came the surprise. That’s resurrection. Just as we are caught up in the inevitability of disappointment we are surprised. Sometimes God’s surprises hit us in the face as in the case of Thomas. Sometimes they are more subtle and need sniffing out in mindful attention. We need to make sure we are spotting them. A lot of what being here on a thirty day retreat is about is really taking time to see what God is doing in my life and the world around me, to notice his surprises. In fact they are more sure than England winning a penalty shoot out.

Finally lets remember to pray for the Columbians… After all we know how they’re feeling.

The simplicity beyond complexity

Oliver Wendell Holmes is attributed with this insightful quote. “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” 

The simplicity this side of complexity tries to make life more simple than it actually is. It is what many now see as the wilful simplicity that was inflicted on the electorate before the EU referendum, making out that leaving Europe would be a magical panacea for ‘getting our country back again’ – whatever that means – and the recovery of untold millions being wasted on Europe and its institutions. The complex web of relationships, benefits and difficulties was airbrushed out of the picture for the sake of some generalised feeling of ‘life is difficult and it’s all the fault of Europe’. The full extent of the complexity is now becoming apparent as the Brexit negotiations crawl forward and the government struggles to agree with itself, let alone Europe. 

However I would argue that the remain campaign also failed in so much as it was not able to articulate ‘the simplicity on the other side of complexity’. Beyond the arguments around the single market, and immigration and all the issues where Europe brings costs and benefits there needed to be a vision of partnership that owned the complexity but was not compromised by it, but rather contained it as part of a greater  meaning and purpose.

It is no different in the church. We can swing from easy certainties about God, the gospel, church growth or human sexuality to seemingly muddled complexities about theology, morality  or ecclesiology where no-one knows quite what we stand for. There are hard questions to face wherever we turn and we do well to articulate them. However there is a confidence in God beyond the particular issues and which is in fact diminished if we make everything all too buttoned up and clear. I believe that Jesus and the apostles brought a simplicity to their message about the kingdom of God, the supremacy of love and the assurance of grace that acts as a foundation for everything else. 

There will be a lot more to say about many things, but they must not obscure the foundation. That’s why within our life here at Launde, we place great value on silence. Silence helps us to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity, to live the essentials, to know God and ourselves before we argue for this way or that. Silence anchors us in the love of God, and from there we are more able to enter the complexities of life more honestly and effectively and with less need to get our own way or have it all sorted. 


Daring to Hope

‘Christ is risen’ we cry each Easter, yet this year with Easter Day being April 1st it was easy to highlight the foolishness of it all just as the first disciples did when told the news by the women. It was T.S.Eliot who began The Wasteland with the line “April is the cruellest month..” in order to show the pain of hope as the natural world comes to life again. We cannot risk hoping too lightly.

Yet if Christ is risen, if Easter is real then we have to start risking new perspectives. We cannot just carry on with the assumption that that situation is always going to be like that, or that this person will never change. If Jesus has risen from the dead then anything becomes possible in this mixed up world we live in. No wonder the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view”.

The late Lesslie Newbigin put it like this: “It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point… It is a boundary event, at the point where (as cosmologists tell us) the laws of physics ceased to apply.  It is the beginning of a new creation – as mysterious to human reason as the creation itself.”

So it challenges us to ask what rules we want to live by. Recently I was thinking and praying about the state of the country. I will freely own that in relation to Europe I voted to remain. Apart from the economic case, it seems to me essential in today’s world to live interdependently and co-operatively with our immediate neighbours, who basically share our values and Christian heritage. However that is water under the bridge, and we are on the way to leaving. So the challenge that came into my mind was ‘Did I want Brexit to be a success?’ In essence it boiled down to whether I wanted the country to prosper and succeed from here on, or to be proved right in my assessment that Brexit was a bad decision.

I will confess that it is not easy to countenance certain politicians triumphantly milking any future prosperity as the vindication of the leave decision. But I knew deep down that wasn’t really the point. The real issue was whether I wanted the world to run on the basis simply of getting things right or wrong, or whether I wanted the resurrection to be the shape of human life and destiny. If it was the latter, then a new and good future was possible whatever the precise merits or failings of our human decisions and actions. Far more important than me or anyone else being proved right was praying for resurrection to be revealed in this and every situation.

To proclaim ‘Christ is risen’ is to live by new rules, by the power of God to make all things new. That means letting go of all merely human assessments and inevitabilities. It means daring to hope.

David Newman

The Ten Blessings of Snow

It is a year since we moved here to Launde Abbey and all I can remember is warm sunshine, carpets of flowers and the anticipation of spring. By contrast this year we have been grappling with snow, blocked roads, and winter hanging on.

While I’m glad that our move didn’t have to contend with such adverse weather and it has been testing to be cut off here around five times this winter, I’ve tried to challenge myself not just to see snow as an inconvenience and disruption to our everyday lives, and look for the blessings. So I offer you the ten blessings of snow….

  1. Everything looks beautiful. There is a transfiguration of the world around us as all things become white and shine with a dazzling brightness.
  2. It is indiscriminate in its transforming power. The ugliest building or mess is touched equally as the most beautiful landscape. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
  3. There is a disarming silence – the busy world is hushed. More than just the absence of traffic, there is a dampening of noise and an arresting stillness that awakes an inner attentiveness.
  4. We are humbled by its abundance and power. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?” the Lord asks Job. It inspires awe at the natural world.
  5. Everyone has to slow down. Driving has to measured and steady, footsteps carefully taken, journeys take their time. We cannot rush.
  6. It makes us prepare. We may not be able to get to the shops, or the delivery van may not get through. Instant availability gives way to anticipation and patient waiting. I’m glad we bought a four wheel drive.
  7. It creates community. We need each other, to look out for the vulnerable, to push the car, to dispel anxiety by companionship and reassurance.
  8. We remember to play. We build the snowman, fetch out the sledge or throw a snowball at the boss.
  9. We are grateful for the little things that we can so easily take for granted – the warming cup of tea, the thoughtful neighbour, the radio or television.
  10. It melts. It doesn’t last for ever, and usually quite soon the colours of things re-emerge, the daily routine is recovered and life returns to normal…. Or at least a normality that has been touched and even changed by the ten blessings of snow.

Post truth world

The lectionary last Sunday took us to the sublime opening of John’s gospel. We only usually read it at Christmas so it was a treat to be able to give it the attention it deserves on a ‘normal’ Sunday outside the razzamatazz of carols and cribs and nativity plays. Its central message seems so pertinent still today – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”.

The phenomenon of Brexit and Trump which still continues to dominate our news day by day has generated a whole lot of new phrases about the nature and reliability of truth. It was back in 1986 when the then cabinet secretary used the memorable euphemism ‘economical with the truth’  but we have gone further now into the so-called  ‘post-truth’ society characterised by ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.

Post-truth was one of the new words entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 with the definition: ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’  The president of Oxford Dictionaries was quoted as saying  “Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source, and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.. I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”

Post-truth seems to be saying that we don’t really care about facts. We’ve seen it in political discourse where huge claims are made with very little factual reality. But then many people it seems have lost faith in established politicians or experts. They don’t trust their so-called facts. Globalisation has not delivered for them so they are ready to throw over the system for the sake of something which just feels better. We enter a post truth society.

I have some sympathy. Facts can be cold and hard. We can be overwhelmed by reality, about the world, about our country, about ourselves. We want something more relational, more understanding, more sympathetic.  That for me is where John’s gospel comes in.  ‘The word became flesh…. full of grace ’.  God comes to us not just with commands or doctrine or philosophical insight. He comes as a human being and he comes full of grace  – accepting, merciful, forgiving, loving.

But it doesn’t stop there. He comes full of grace and truth. He starts where we are – but then wants to lead us into a more honest reality.  So as Christians we look not so much for a post truth society as a pre-truth society. We affirm the importance of truth, but before it we say there is relationship, there is grace, there is the welcoming face of God in Jesus Christ. God comes to us with love, understanding and patience. When we receive and trust Him, then we embark on the adventure of reality and truth and transformation.

We are all disabled

Like many others I watched the Para-Olympics this year and was hugely impressed by the ability, courage and tenacity of the athletes. Despite overwhelming problems caused sometimes by birth defects or by a trauma during their life, the athletes had made something against all odds, sometimes doing better than they would have done had they been able-bodied.  They can never get away from their impairment.  It will always be with them, but in no way was it dictating to them who they were and undermining their ability to live and achieve.

At the same time as I was watching the Games, something happened to remind me of a traumatic childhood incident. I was invited to help at something and my immediate response was one of dread like a great lump of stone in my stomach.  I felt slightly sick and depressed as well.  Suddenly, within this dark reaction, a window of understanding opened up and I saw that when I had experienced this feeling in the past – and in my twenties it was often with me – I had blamed myself for not being strong enough to cope, weak, a failure.  Now I realised that just like a physical disability, this memory of past hurt is part of who I am.  My emotional reaction was a strong and true one, a recognition deep inside me of what happens when life goes wrong or is wrong: a drawing back from the wrongness, which is a sign of health, not dis-ease.  The experience will always be with me, although I barely think of it nowadays.  It does not dictate in any way who I am.  Rather it has helped make me who I am for a lot of good stuff has been born from it.

As if to emphasize that I was on the right track a few days later someone spoke to me of the echoes of their own childhood trauma coming up out of the blue to affect them. Again there was a deep shock felt emotionally and physically, a sense of surprise that this incident long past and seemingly worked through could suddenly take them unawares and propel them into dismay; and then, finally, a working through to a place of steadiness again.  Despite our reaction, in exchanging notes both of could see how far we had come over the years.

So where is God’s healing in all this? I am healed; so is my friend; so are those disabled athletes who so impressed us at the Para-Olympics.  We are not cured, we are healed.  Healing is about wholeness, about being reconciled to God, our friends and families, our histories and ourselves.  It is about forgiving and knowing you are forgiven.  God’s love has helped me come to terms over the years with what happened, but more than that his presence has allowed me to make use of the experience on behalf of others.  Yes, every now and again the old feeling will suddenly wind me, but recognising it and standing back from it, I can now say –No, Alison, you are not weak or a failure.  You are slightly disabled.  All human beings are disabled in one way or another.  Live with it and make something of it.

Trusting tomorrow

It is interesting how we can say the same thing over and over again – as we do in the repetition of The Lord’ Prayer and even read commentaries about it, but not ‘get’ for ourselves what the passage is offering.  It is also interesting to go back and see how a biblical passage gives and gives in different ways according to where you, the receiver, are at any given time.

This week I was reading and praying through Luke’s Lord’s Prayer (11: 1-6) and reading the notes at the bottom of my bible.  Not for the first time I came across the note that goes alongside, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Another way of interpreting this line was, “Give us this day our bread for tomorrow.”  For some reason, known I am sure to scholars, the first interpretation has become the one we all use.

But the second is very powerful and it got me thinking about a book called “Sleeping with Bread.” This book has this title because after the war when orphan children were collected together who had lived wild amongst the bombed out buildings of many major cities, it was found the children could not go to sleep at night unless they had a hunk of bread to clutch in their hands.  They had so often gone hungry, so often been really afraid of starving that despite now being in a safe place, they were unable to trust that they would be looked after when they woke up: that there would be food on the table.  As soon as they were given a hunk of bread they went to sleep, comfortable and confident.

Asking God for the bread we will need tomorrow is not about greed or wanting to rush things. It is about asking Him to give us today the trust that we need to face tomorrow: the trust in Him.  At certain times this need is more powerful as we face life-changing experiences – illness and its treatment, bereavement, redundancy, retirement, the birth of a first baby, the children leaving home – and many other things.

So sometimes I will use, “Give us this day our bread for tomorrow,” because sometimes I need God to give me more trust in the future – the future I am walking with him – than I can find in myself.  I need that bit of bread to clutch in my hand.

The Blazing Bush

The Americans have a phrase that they sometimes use when saying “Goodbye” and it is “Missing you already.” This is a bit how I feel as I slowly watch the seasons change in this beautiful place in which I have been so privileged to work for the last four years, and know that I will never again have the opportunities I now live with daily.

Ever since the late spring when I knew I was retiring, I have been very conscious of the passing of the days; the subtle movements through the seasons. I am aware that I am living through many of the things that give me so much delight at Launde for the last time.  For example, the house martins and swallows who come with such joie de vivre and energy to Launde in the spring have been practicing their breath taking aerial acrobatics for the last few days.  I know that this is a sign that they will soon be gone.  Sky bombing, wheeling and climbing, they give us such delight before leaving for their long pilgrimage south for the winter.  I don’t like it when they go.  The world seems a slightly less joyful place.  It is easy to get maudlin.

About two weeks ago, I realised that a beautiful bush which I can see from my office window and which slowly turns red and gold and then into a dazzling fire; this had already begun its seasonal change. What with this and the swallows, I had to admit that:-

Autumn is coming and I am missing Launde already.

But then, I woke up. As I “turned aside” to look at my burning bush, I realised that of course that turning aside is the moment when we stop what we are doing and in the present moment see what is in front of us.  The phrase, turning aside, means just that.  We stand aside from out busyness, from our routine, from our driven-ness and hurry; we pause and wait and see now.  My melancholic wrapping everything around with a future sense of loss means that I am not able to be very simply here in the present.  The invitation, to paraphrase the words of poet, Mary Oliver, is mostly to stand still, learning to be astonished.  So I need to learn to stand still.  I need to learn astonishment at all the beauty I see because, at present, I take it all so much for granted.  I need to stop thinking about what I have to say goodbye to and trust that God has other wonders to show me and other experiences I need to learn for, in the words of another poet, Robert Frost there are “miles to go before I sleep.”

Keep knocking

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Luke 11: 9,10

These words were part of our gospel reading a couple of weeks ago and as I first read them I had the usual feeling of comfort, security and hope. But this was not a casual reading, so I asked myself the spiritual director’s question, “What do you really want deep down; what do you want to ask for?”  If asked what are you really searching for what would be your response?  What door are you knocking at?  Who is to open it?

At first glance these three questions can be taken as saying much the same thing but all ask subtly different questions. If we take the last one, for example, believing that God is a loving father who made us for relationship with Him, then the question arises, “Why is the door not open?  Is it me who is actually keeping the door closed against God?”  There are visual memories here of Holman Hunt’s painting, “The light of the world,” in which Jesus is shown as being on the outside of a door (supposedly of the human heart and soul) on which there is no handle (so he cannot force an entry) and knocking on the door to be let in.

The other two statements of invitations of Jesus feed into this last question of the door. Suppose what I ask for, is to have a heart full of love and gratitude for God and my neighbour?  Suppose I am seeking simply for God – although I know that I have found Him or He me, there is still so much hunger and desire for a closer relationship.  If these two desires are explored I come up against my own habitual response of selfishness and meanness of heart, my own lukewarm commitment to my discipleship, my own lack of care for others.  So I realise that it my door that remains closed to God and the qualities of compassion, gratitude and the desire for justice that at one level I so dearly want.

C.S. Lewis was once asked why he prayed because he could change God’s mind. His response was that he didn’t pray to change God but to change himself.

So the invitation is to keep on knocking, like the woman claiming justice from the unjust judge or the friend at midnight asking for the loan of bread from his neighbour; but to realise I am the unjust judge and the woman who wants justice.  I am the friend who wakes his neighbour because he needs bread and the neighbour who wants to ignore him.  When I realise this I know that what Jesus is inviting me to do is to go on knocking against my own hardness of heart.  I ask, seek, knock – in other words I pray, not to change God’s mind but to change mine; to be more in line with what God wants for me.  God is already there for me one hundred percent.  He doesn’t have to change.

Christ-like hospitality

Two of the readings today (the eighth Sunday after Trinity) are about hospitality. The Old Testament reading is the story of Abraham welcoming the three strangers who come to him when he is encamped at the oaks of Mamre, and who tell him that Sarah, his wife, will bear a son.  The New Testament lesson is the famous one of Jesus being welcomed into the home of Mary and Martha and then Martha getting very cross because she is doing all the work whilst her younger sister sits at Jesus’ feet.

Hospitality was very important in the world of the Middle East, not just for Jews and later, in the Christian tradition, but for all cultures. It might have had something to do with the distances people had to travel or, if you were someone like a Bedouin, how seldom you actually saw people other than your family.

In the story of Abraham and the three visitors, the feeling we receive from Abraham is almost one of entreaty. As soon as Abraham sees the men he runs to them (it was not dignified for an old man to run – and Abraham is old at this stage.)  Abraham bows to the ground, which I presume means he gets on his knees and bends his forehead to touch the earth in front of them.  He offers food and water modestly and humbly but the actual meal, which is produced with as much speed and care as possible, is as good and as generous a feast as could be created in the circumstances.  And then Abraham stands by waiting on his guests whilst they eat.  In all this Abraham is only doing what would have been expected in the culture of the time.

Fast forward to Mary and Martha and Martha’s frustration with Mary for not helping prepare the meal for Jesus. When the men came to Abraham it took Abraham, Sarah and a servant to produce the repast.  Martha is not then being unfair when she wants one other person, her own sister, to help her and complains to Jesus.  But very gently and compassionately (this is the meaning of Martha’s name being repeated twice by Jesus) Jesus tells Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”  Jesus is not telling Martha off.  He is not trying to make her feel small.  He is trying to open her eyes to a new way of looking that is a break with her cultural norms.  In this case, Jesus is saying, in this one unique and particular case, Mary has chosen to do the right thing and that is to sit at the feet of Jesus, like a disciple, and lap up the food of everlasting life, the Word of God, the presence of the Christ.

This story reminds us that our actions need to flow from our interior relationship with God. It is extraordinarily important that we should practice hospitality but if we want to grow truly hospitable hearts they will need to be nourished beforehand by the hospitality God first showed us, in his gift of Jesus Christ.  We need to feed on and be refreshed by his presence deep in our hearts.  Then we will learn to look on all people, of all faiths and none, as precious, honoured and loved by God, and we will be able to welcome them in our hearts.