My Walk in The Secret Place 3

Keep safe. Be kind. Enjoy

Welcome to the Journey

I am a son, a husband, a father, a friend. I am, a recently retired, local authority foster carer, a member of a crazy, creative, frustration and joyous “church” family. I am a pilgrim, a traveller, an explorer, an avid reader and novice writer.

And I am wounded and scarred, broken and damaged. And yet healed and loved beyond recognition. On a good day, I am Papa’s Little Boy and Papa to “the next one.”

On a bad day… I am self-righteous, self-absorbed, religious, judgmental, critical, negative, determined to be right and let you know that I am right, at all costs. On these days, my scars have been prodded and poked enough for them to hurt all over again. And when I hurt… here comes another bad day.

Why am I writing?

I have always dreamed of writing. So, when somebody prays that past dreams be fulfilled, including writing, and then somebody comments on my writing skills, it felt like a nudge, a heavenly elbow in the ribs.

I am certainly not trying to persuade, convince, convict or put right. I have had more than enough of that in my life, both as a giver and a receiver. Neither am I claiming some superior revelation and experience; it is my journey and my story, not yours.

I do want to explore and discover, provoke and stimulate, encourage and support… fellow travellers and storytellers. I am not looking to force our paths together, but if we should bump into each other? Well, let’s walk and explore together for a while and see where it takes us.

My Own Secret Place

Come to The Table

At my age, you start to look back more often, and more reflectively, than you may have done in the past. You notice things you wouldn’t have noticed before, and spotted greater significance to some events that you had previously.

As I write, it is Monday, February 15, 2021. We are almost twelve months into a global pandemic with its accompanying lockdowns. It has affected everyone in all kinds of ways. As I look back, I see that it has changed how I perceive so many things, not least the idea of church. To put that into context, I have been around church for the vast majority of my life. The shape of those churches, inside and out, are a wide variety of flavours, smells, shapes, textures, routines, rituals, rules and regulations, belief systems and paradigms… and all have had an impact on my life.

There have been times when I have stayed away. Deliberately, struggling to deal with the pain that this institution and the people who are part of it, have inflicted. Other times, I have been just plain bored, struggling to see the relevance of it. And there was a time when church leadership appealed to me. Don’t ask me to explain or justify that now – I can’t.

During the last year “church” has been reduced, for the most part, to Zoom meetings. Meeting together, singing together, praying together… I have almost forgotten what that feels like; and taken the opportunity to reflect about the institution and organisation that church has become. And wonder whether it is supposed to become something else in the future. Let me explain:

Two men sat in a pub on a Monday evening. Football is in the background. We talk about our lives, our families, and our personal struggles and those occasional victories. We share stories about God and our different friendships with our God. Often there are tears, as we remember the goodness of our God, My Papa, and wonder where we would be without… I will leave that to your imagination. Always, at some point in the conversation, we would come to the same conclusion, that two great commandments that Jesus talked about are all that really matters – to love God with all that we are and have, to love ourselves as He loves us, and then to love The Next One as we love ourselves. That is more than enough to be going on with! “AT THE TABLE.”

A car parked in a beach car park. It is dark except for the lights of a passing ship. Strangers walk their dogs. In the car, there are tears, sometimes raised voices, lengthy discussions about the challenges and opportunities of life, and whether and how faith interacts with the lives of a father and his daughter. Same time next week? “AT THE TABLE.”

On the cliffs overlooking a seaside town in Cornwall, an evening BBQ for a crowd of teenagers. The food is great. A song sung well, about the God Who Is Love and what that might mean. Teenagers talking to leaders and each other while they eat. “AT THE TABLE.” And on the long walk back. And on those evenings, decisions are made or not made, that will change the direction and destiny of many a young life.

Costa. And coffee with my spiritual dad. We talk for maybe an hour this time, but there were and will be many other occasions. When important questions are asked, and life-changing decisions are made, that shaped and formed the person I was then and am today. “AT THE TABLE.”

A very rare trip to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon, followed by food together. Little one being looked after. As we ate, we talked together. With each other. And with Papa. And concluded that it was time to retire from fostering. “AT THE TABLE.” That was a whole year before the pandemic hit. As I write, it is a year since K, our final little one, left us. No regrets about the decision, but the quiet and emptiness of our home still remains. And the photographs on the walls still smile at us. And remind us.

Now it is Zoom and Coffee. Before it was Lounge and Coffee. Or Garden and Coffee. Once a week, first thing in the morning. We are as different as chalk and cheese, but the friendship that has grown is more valuable than either of us realised. We talk about our families, our lives, and all things pandemic. We talk church, faith, politics, books, films. Sometimes we pray. Not that it matters, because our Papa is part of the conversation anyway. “AT THE TABLE.”

And I could go on – airports and flights. Driving to and from airports. Walks along the beach Eating at our table. Or their table. Phone conversations. Etc, etc. Each one “AT THE TABLE.”

I have listened to countless sermons and talks, attended hundreds of church services, and been to many conferences. There have been times when Papa has ambushed me in those places, and my life has been changed. Again. But those times have been few and far between.

I could talk and write for hours, about those times, “AT THE TABLE,” when my life has been turned upside down, by the conversation, by the prayers said, by the laughter and the tears, by watching somebody else breathing and living their life and doing friendship with their Papa.

AT THE TABLE is about food and friendship, about sharing and being real, about dialogue not monologue, about diversity and difference. It is about relaxing and being yourself, wrestling and grappling with the issues of life faced today. It is about being a shoulder to cry on, or finding a shoulder to cry on. AT THE TABLE is about honour and respect, love and kindness, about humility and grace. About Papa, The God Who Is Love.

And so I wonder… how church would be, if we spent more time, at the table, eating and drinking and talking together? Instead of doing “church” the same old way, because that is the way it has always been done, give or take a bit? And I am sure that as lockdowns are eased and things return to normal, that I will reflect and ponder and wonder… is this really how life and church are supposed to be? Watch this space.

My Walk in The Secret Place 2

Keep Safe. Be Kind. Enjoy.

My Walk in The Secret Place 1

Many of you followed my almost daily post on Facebook, entitled “Walk in The Secret Place.” Now I have wrestled myself free from social media, I thought you might like a weekly post with photographs I have taken during the last week. Enjoy.

Keep safe. Be Kind. Enjoy

Grandma

And yes, the intruder in the photograph is yours truly. I couldn’t resist!

[NOTE: This piece was written by Abi, our daughter, on the first anniversary of her Grandma, my Mum, passed away.] It took me years before I learnt that the beautiful pieces of art around the house were painted by my grandma. She was an artist, an aspect of her I don’t remember much of. And I’ve recently been thinking about my belief in the Great Artist. My grandma could create masterpieces from nothing, in the same way that The Great Artist created everything in existence from nothing…including us. Human beings are art work. My grandma was artwork.

I feel sad today that she could make such incredible art, art that has and will outlive her, art that has a place in my home, art that speaks. Yet she never saw herself as artwork, as a masterpiece. And she never saw others this way either.

Of course human beings are art. How can we not be? Our prayers are spells, our words are poetry, and our smiles are a fresh flick of the paintbrush, and our bodies are the frames we’re in. Our expressions, our frowns, our tears, our exclamations – even our clothing, our mannerisms, and our choices- are all communicating art. Our joy, pain, accomplishments, pain, conflicts, failures, disappointments, hope…do we not use these to create paintings and patchworks and sculptures all the time? We are complex and evolving and abstract. But isn’t that art? The painting in my grandma’s dining room that is vibrant and feels like spring, is just as much art as the broken ships on the shore that now hangs in my living room. The yellows in the first painting are not more ‘art’ than the blacks and greys of the latter. Of course, some people will prefer one painting over another- preference is part of art I suppose. The latter painting speaks to my soul far more than the spring painting.

Even on our darkest days, we are art. Living pieces of art.

I wonder if my grandma would, have lived differently if she knew was a masterpiece, if she knew she was art. I wonder how she would have been if she knew that every single part of her was a work of art and that she was communicating with other living pieces of art. I hope it would have helped her to pray honestly and sincerely, authentically from her heart – not worrying about what or who God wanted her to be and feel, or what others wanted to see; that it would have allowed her to be a masterpiece. Her joy would be understood by her as art, her depression would be understood as art. Instead she saw some things of her masterpiece as needing to be painted into the forefront and shown off, and other pieces as mistakes on the canvas that needed to be painted over or covered.

I wonder if it would have empowered her to be kinder to others – to see the art in others that she encountered, lived with and loved. I can only wish that she would have seen the art in people, regardless of the colours used for their frame, and the accent in which they shared their poetry. I can only wish that she wouldn’t have spent her life advising others on the sort of art that they ‘should’ be, but she would have learnt to appreciate the art they were in those moments, always evolving, always changing, totally abstract, but sometimes with beautiful clarity. When I wander around art galleries, there’s frankly a lot of paintings and sculptures that are wasted on me. I don’t understand them. I’m not sure I understand the language of their spells or the meaning of their poetry. I can look at a painting and wonder why that colour was used or that part thrown into the forefront. My lack of understanding doesn’t diminish the fact that it is art. And so, this goes for people too. Our lack of understanding of others doesn’t make them any less a masterpiece.

The thing that pains me the most when I remember my grandma is that of my first image in her last weeks at the hospital: old and frail, tired, lonely and terrified. I remember her telling me that God wasn’t ready for her yet, and she wasn’t going to die yet, and I kindly smiled and said, “Grandma, God is always ready for you, and you don’t need to worry about that. If it is God’s timing, then it is God’s timing and there’s not much you can do about that.” Gosh Grandma, don’t fight with The Great Artist. Don’t you see, that even in death, He is making art? He is making things new and making things beautiful. I can remember my sister sitting with her reading the Psalms, and others playing her hymns in her last days to bring her peace. And I mostly remember trying my hardest to love her and look after her and alleviate her fears – to see her art, her painful, terrified, exhausted art, and meet it with my own art: kindness and love and peace. When we see people as art, it allows us to stop for a moment and consider how we should reflect and respond to the art being presented to us. I didn’t present some of my other spells and poems and expressions of art for my grandma on those days in the hospital – my own grief and anxiety and pain for her. I shared that art with others, in the carpark outside.

My comfort today, a year on since she died in the hospital and not in her home, is that she is entirely and authentically a masterpiece, existing amongst art and able to see and celebrate art that her eyes wouldn’t allow her to see while she was with us: in a variety of frames, praying a huge host of spells and speaking poetry in accents and languages that will no longer make her feel uncomfortable.

Now and Forever

15.44. It was bitterly cold this morning when I ventured out for a walk. But the sun was out and the wind had dropped. The beach was crowded with runners – crazy people! But I was alone with my thoughts and with My Papa and that is always more than enough for me.

We talked about doing life together, about the importance of friendships, relationships, collaborating together. I honoured The Divine Dance, The Divine Romance, the fact that Papa, Mama and Aslan dance around me and sing over me. I found myself, yet again, drawn into the heart of The Mysterious and Glorious Three-in-One, the reality that is diminished by the stone cold, hard and dead doctrine of The Trinity. It felt like they loved all over me, kissing and licking me to a place where I was undone and wrecked.

And then I saw that which is obvious, that which is probably the most doctrinally correct I have been in ages. The blindingly obvious can only be seen by those who have eyes to see. For whatever reason, the reality of eternity has gone undetected and unnoticed by those that won’t see. And “no one is blinder than he who won’t see!”

I have always lived my life within the very restrictive confines of my life lived here on earth – my seventy-years or however many God deems I am worthy of. In practice, I have lived my life believing that my life ends the day I stop breathing. After that there is nothing, despite my holding to a Christian worldview.

And then I read “Cross Roads” by William P Young! My conversation with Papa, Mama and Aslan this morning, flowed out of that reading. Now I see! As much as I can! My life does not end when I leave this world. In fact, the few years I have lived and will live are just the introduction to eternity. And one thing is powerfully clear to me. Whatever reality is, disrobed of the robes and finery of the Christian theology, it is, intrinsically about LOVE. It is about friendship, relationship, collaboration; the most perfect and sublime intimacy. In the first place, this is an eternal reality, outside of time and space, an intimacy that has existed within the Godhead – Papa, Mama and Aslan and now shared with me. Yes! I am invited, for all of eternity to become a part of this Glorious Three-in-One and share in the love that exists between them. And time cannot contain such a power. It has to be an eternal thing. And this is what I was designed and created for. This is my reason for being, and will always be.

And the passing from this life, into the unspoken glory of eternity, will make this complete rather than partial. I am lost for words, because it is the most sublime thing. “Thank you, Papa.”

Meanwhile, in the here and now, this is designed to be my modus operandi. Life is about friendship, about collaboration, about LOVE. If it is less than this, it is nothing. Work, Church, family, recreation, parenting, spending money, wasting time – without the power of friendship, of loving The Next One, they mean nothing. They are a lot of noise, without substance.

So whatever The Great Adventure holds for me in the future, one element is not up for discussion and debate. LOVE conquers all. It has to. I can make plans, and do “ministry” – whatever that is – but if it is not relational, and if it is not driven and oozing with love, it is a complete and utter waste of time. A salutary lesson. A defining encounter with My Great Papa this morning. “Thank you.”

The Beauty of Winter

Winter as a child was fun! Living on a farm had advantages, we would often get snowed in for days at a time, which meant no school.

Winter as an adult is not quite so much fun. Living on the south coast we hardly get any snow and when we do it is invariably gone within twenty-four hours.

I don’t mind the cold, but I do mind the bare trees, the decomposing leaves, the rain.

Until this year. It is as if the whole year has been winter. A cancer scare, mum passing away, saying goodbye to our last foster placement in difficult circumstances, writing the car off. Depression and now, this week, shingles! And all that in a year when a deadly virus has visited every nation, and wreaked havoc in our communities and our economies. Hours alone, no hugs – not even with our children, rising anxieties about the virus, about the financial fallout, wondering how long it will be. Surely a whole year of winter, the winter of the soul? I wasn’t sure I liked winter at all. Until recently.

Winter – a time of quiet, of hibernation, of bareness. Everything hidden. And therein lies the secret. In nature, everything seems to die, but in reality everything is growing where it can’t be seen, putting roots down deeper, getting ready for the emergence of spring, and the new life that erupts to our senses. In the winter of the soul, the same is true.

Two prolonged lockdowns have been, for me, a time of quiet, of hibernation, of bareness. Everything has been hidden. Much has died – the pain of loss, of failure and disappointment; the legacy of rigid, stiff religious beliefs that were drilled into me as a child. Now gone. The blindness that refuses to see the wonder of the universe and the work of My Great Papa in ALL things. Gone. My stubborn hanging on to forms of lifestyle, relationships, church, etc. Vanishing before my eyes.

And emotional and psychological roots pushing deeper into the richness of My God, who knows me as I am and still loves me, as I am and not as I should be, because I will never be as I should be. When the spring of the soul appears, slowly, imperceptibly, new life will appear, enriched by the soil that my roots have grabbed hold of. And my nakedness will be covered by vibrant leaves and blossom and flowers will brighten the day, and fruit will emerge to satisfy the hungry heart. New life – new lifestyle, new beliefs, new eyes to see the beauty and glory of My Great Papa in all things. And maybe new church – shaped and formed by the relentless, outrageous waters of The Love that ebb and flow through the very fibre of the universe.

The “normal” that follows winter is never the same two years in a row. “Normal” is fresh and vibrant and untouched. Because there is no such thing as normal in this life, not anymore. Especially after 2020, The Year of the Pandemic. That has, hopefully, changed us – people, communities and nations – forever, and for the better.

The Repair Shop

Nestled deep in the British countryside is The Repair Shop, where a team of Britain’s most skilled and caring craftspeople rescue and resurrect items their owners thought were beyond saving. Together they transform priceless pieces of family history and bring loved, but broken treasures, and the memories they hold back to life. [Taken from the show’s website.]

There is a plethora of UK television programmes from a genre that has to do with antiques, usually owned by the public, who have no idea of the value that the pieces hold, except in sentimental value. When it was first launched on BBC1, late afternoon, I sighed. “Not another programme for old people! Really?” I chose to ignore the advancing years of my own life; I may not be old, but I am now sixty-one, and the aches and pain of that age remind me often that I am getting old, although I have no intention of behaving old… except for the frequent nap in the afternoon. It is necessary, combating my insomnia, caused by too many babies who didn’t like sleep. I digress.

I quickly got hooked, until today it is one of my favourite things on TV, even though it leaves me in tears far too often.

The Repair Shop reminds me of My Great Papa, the God of the Christian faith, who is often pictured as a potter, crafting pottery into something beautiful. The intention to detail as the master craftsmen repair items that I would probably have dumped; the joy they clearly get in working with such care to restore items back to something very close to their original glory; the patience it requires – nobody ever gives up, loses their cool or shows an ounce of frustration. And the pleasure shown by the craftsmen when the “customer” returns for their beloved old thing. The blanket is removed and the look on the owners face is always a picture. And the other craftsmen watch from their benches and join in the pleasure and joy, as though they have been part of the restoration – could that be a glimpse into the mystery that we call The Trinity, but have no idea what that means?

But The Repair Shop also shows what “church” should be and should look like. The world is full of broken people – sometimes simply from the wear and tear of life, but sadly often the result of neglect and abuse – people who need to be repaired and restored. If My Great Papa is the Master Craftsman, then surely church, whatever that looks like and is or isn’t, should be, at times, a repair shop? Sadly, for too many, and I am one, the church has become the place where much of the damage that we carry is inflicted, rather than where the damage is repaired.

The programme shows a group of people, all experts in their own field, but novices when it comes to what might be required at any time. They love their work – you can see the sheer pleasure they get doing the repair and the utter joy when the work is completed. Tired church has stopped enjoying those moments, probably we are no longer artisans in the role we play. And for too long, we have been fed the lie that pleasure and joy are emotions that Christians should not feel.

It is not unusual for one of the team to request the help of another to complete a job. The one drops everything to help the other, knowing that the one requesting will be the one who gets the credit. Oh, for church to be a community where there is no competition! And when the joy of unveiling the finished work erupts, the other craftsmen stop work at the bench to enjoy the moment. Church should always enjoy the success and completion of another.

And ultimately, “church” should be a place, a community, a family where the broken lives of both church and world can be repaired and restored, often to a greater glory and beauty than they had before. And while we celebrate their healing, My Great Papa smiles and sometimes chuckles at the great thing that has just been achieved.

I suspect there are conversations around the world, in churches of all shapes and sizes, about what church is going to be and look like, post-COVID19 and the lockdown. I don’t have answers, except to express the hope that church will become family, community – a place and a people where the broken and exhausted and lost can feel safe and loved; a place where somebody will draw alongside another, take their hand, and walk at least part of their journey of faith with them; a place where people, who are healed and restored, but still carry the scars, can administer the healing love of My Great Papa; an environment where the achievements and successes can be celebrated with others rather than competed against. And I could go on, but I suspect you get the drift.

The Repair Shop – a veiled image of heaven on earth? I hope so.

Training My Eyes

One step, two steps… climb higher and higher. Sometimes it is easier to look down at your feet. Sometimes it is easier to focus on each individual step. You can’t see the top or where you’re going. But you know you will get there eventually. Sometimes one foot in front of the other is all we need to get to the place we are heading.

I don’t like to complicate the climb. I also don’t like to diminish what it takes.

I believe courage is always growing in the belly of every human. We don’t always listen to it; we often romanticise it. Courage looks like one step, two steps… it looks like consistency and choice. It looks like breathing in and breathing out. And then it looks like the wind in your face and the vista in the reflection of your eyes. All of a sudden it feels like, I did it and I can do it again. You climb down and start over.

Sit down and recognise where you are in a “climb.” Breathe in the beauty of your courage. Let the delight of the Lord fill your lungs. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you strength and teach you how to breathe deeply and take simple steps.

I think it was the summer of 2010. We had gone to see our friend, Steve, in Norway. And bless him, he endured the drive and the climb of Preikestolen… again – it is kind of compulsory for all visitors!

The first hundred metres left me breathless, and thinking, “I am never going to make it to the top.” And my thoughts were mingled with my fear of heights – even a step ladder raised my anxiety levels.

The climb was quite fun – choosing your path, just a few steps ahead; turning a corner, reaching “the top,” only to discover there was another corner, another climb to conquer.

After a couple of hours, we reached the top. Well, almost. Between me and the ledge, there was a ridge. Wide enough for one foot at a time, with a drop onto a larger ledge of about 5 metres. I froze. I was so close to the top with all of the glory of the views and yet here was an obstacle too frightening to tackle.

I have known Steve for so many years and he knows me and my struggles. His response was brutal. “Okay, you stay here, and Teresa and I will go on.” I wrestled for hours; well, minutes, even seconds, but it felt like hours. “Let’s do it.” I stood for another few hours; well, minutes even seconds, figuring out the best way to do this, what foot to put in front of the other. And went for it. And made it. And then realised that I would have to do it all over again on the way back.

The view was stunning. Teresa leaned right over the edge; that was a step too far for me, but still the vista that attacked my eyes and my senses was stunning.

The climb down seemed quicker, but was increasingly painful. On the way down, we bumped into an elderly couple from Japan. They looked as if they were at least 80 years old, and they were going for it. Just as stunning as the view! The last few hundred metres into the car park were excruciating. Poor Teresa was in tears, so painful were the knees. The drive back to Steve’s was a couple of hours. Getting out of the car was painful; having a shower was painful; sitting down to eat was painful; getting into bed was painful; sleeping was painful. It all hurt like crazy!

I have never forgotten that day. The level of my courage to overcome my fear shocked me. I would like to say that my fear of heights was conquered, once-and-for-all, but that was not the case. It is always a choice, to grab hold of the courage within, and face the fear. I learnt a very valuable lesson that day.

My personal observation would be that anxiety, fear, worry, even panic are quite common in our society today. As I write, in the midst of the Coronavirus Crisis of 2020, fear is everywhere – from the way people avoid getting too close, to the way the media portrays the crisis in the health service, to the threat of Armageddon from some within the church, to the absurdity of conspiracy theories.

At the start of the year, I had a health scare. A stubborn sore throat caused the GP to fast-track me to the hospital to see a consultant. “Just a precaution” mutates into “Cancer!” Before I had even been to the hospital, Teresa and I had one of those “worst case scenario” conversations; in the car, so we didn’t have to look each other in the eye. It was probably the most profound and defining conversations I have been part of. The punch line went something like this:

“If the worst happens and it is cancer and it gets you, I will be okay. I have the family, our church family, and I have God. And for you, you get to go home to be with the one person you love more than anyone or anything else! Your Heavenly Papa!”

I cried that day, and I cry as I write. And Teresa is right. Therefore, what do I have to fear? The worst case scenario is an illusion, an oasis of fear and dread. The apostle Paul said this: “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.” And he is right. In the language of life coaches it is a genuine win-win situation