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.

Of Straight Lines and Boxes

At the grand old age of sixty, I have been launched into a landscape that I have never seen before, and rather than it being frightening, it is exhilarating. The opportunity for exploration and discovery and adventure has invigorated me in my journey of faith.

I have seen it in my own life, and more recently in the lives of others that straight lines and boxes end up becoming tightropes and cages that squeeze the life and hope out of far too many. As a child, I was brought up to believe certain things without question. My faith (if that is what it was) evolved into something rigid and inflexible, which then expressed itself in ways of relating with others that was just as rigid and inflexible. My faith then became a cage or a prison in which I was trapped. Which is okay, until something goes wrong, until the inevitable pain and darkness of life hits you so hard it floors you.

For the fearful, for those who find themselves without the courage to face their pain and darkness, straight lines and boxes become a comfort and a safe place. The danger is that you then accept the tightrope and the cage as life, as the best it can be; hope soon dissolves before your eyes. And you are left with a God who is also trapped in a cage – the cage of your rigid and inflexible beliefs and doctrines.

And it is only from the straight lines and boxes that the fearful then declare their beliefs as the only right ones. Which makes everybody else wrong. Which is where we get denominations, tribes, within “the church” and if you are not in a certain tribe, then you are wrong. And why so many Christ-followers have abandoned the tribes and find themselves homeless.

Today I find myself walking a path, less travelled than any I have been on before. The scenery is new to me, but I am discovering the presence of my God, in all sorts of places, places I had decided they couldn’t possible be. My tightropes and cages have gone… most of the time. And I am free to explore and live with the mystery that God has to be; free to think the unthinkable, to dare to ask questions, to explore and play. It is a great place to be.

For the record, many of my beliefs look the same. I have not abandoned the historical Christian faith. In fact, I would suggest that I am discovering the depth and riches of this faith in ways that were out of bounds to me before. But look beneath the lid, and peep in my conversations with my PAPA, and with the next one, and you might wonder. Go ahead wonder… Wonder and mystery are incredible things, tools to lead us to love, which is the only thing that remains…

Rubble at my feet

How I got here is a very long story. It includes reading, music, movies, walking, talking with those who came to be so helpful and significant. It includes tears, many tears, and pain in the heart that took so long to fade. It has been a journey not travelled very often in broad daylight, but often in shadows and mist and sometimes in darkness so thick you could touch it. And (don’t panic!) it includes Brexit… just a little.

At my feet is a pile of rubble – bricks, stones, concrete, pieces of wood – that made up what I was led to believe was a rock solid, immovable, non-negotiable, inflexible set of beliefs. Doctrine, rules, regulations, responsibilities and expectations, built on the conviction that the interpretation of the Bible was the only logical one and, therefore, the right one, defended at all costs. As though the God of the Christian faith needs defending and sticking up for!

And there was no room for interpretation, for views, or more importantly, the uniqueness of each one’s story and journey. It is all about straight lines and boxes, cages and prisons. The God of religious inflexibility apparently can’t cope with uniqueness and diversity. Which is where Brexit comes in. I have seen, very sharply, that a refusal to move from some ideological position, in any sphere of life, is both naive and, potentially dangerous. The result, eventually, is chaos.

On reflection I was dying, drifting into a spiritual and emotional coma. Until The Dark Path, that moved into Plants Repotted and now into The Great Adventure. It has taken me into places of thought that I never expected to even consider; ideas and beliefs that once seemed outrageous but now have broken shackles and knocked down walls.

The God I now love so much more than I thought I could is the same God. What has changed is my view of the God I now call, sometimes, Papa and sometimes Mama. They are the God who is Love, who is only interested in relationship and interaction and co-operation and dialogue. They (Father, Son and Spirit) are The Ultimate Family, and all they are and do is for the purpose of growing family. To Love this God, to love myself, and then to love the next one is where this is taking me. I’m not much good at it, but I am learning and I am being changed by the greatest force in all of the universes – the ferocious, outrageous, endless substance of the love of my Papa.

Today I am more free than I was yesterday, and infinitely more free than I was twelve years when I was thrust into this journey into The Great Adventure. I am free to be known and loved, to know and to love; free to be myself without fear or anxiety; free to participate in The Divine Dance and play my part in The Ultimate Family.

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