Keep safe. Be kind. Enjoy
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.
Keep safe. Be kind. Enjoy
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
Psalms 91.1: He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I am writing this at the start of the third week of the COVID19 lockdown here in the UK. For most of us, we are confined to quarters, only allowed out of our homes for essential purposes. And for most of us, we are struggling, finding it hard to socially distance and slow down. I hope this helps:
As I walked out the door, down the path and through the gate, I spoke to the God of the Christian faith, who was yet to become My Great Papa: “What the hell are you doing this time?” Words spoken with more than a hint of pain, of anger and venom. I had just been abandoned, rejected and shut down by somebody I had trusted, because I should have been able to trust them.
The walk home that day was difficult. Emotions were running high, ebbing and flowing faster than usual, my mind spinning so fast I was quickly losing all sense of balance and equilibrium. And words refused to form, my inability to speak protecting me from expressing the poison of my heart and mind.
That day is forever etched, even seared in my memory as one of the key turning points of my life. I withdrew, especially from church which was now no longer safe, but a minefield littered with explosives; but also from friends, people I had trusted before, but now not sure that I could. I started to walk most days, even in the rain. In fact, the autumnal showers, the clouds, the almost naked trees, the cold wind seemed to suit my mood. The same route as I do today, thirteen years on.
These walks became one of my very few safe places. Nothing to prove, nothing to justify or explain; no performance to act out, no right or wrong, no expectations or demands. Just me, floundering around in my own pain and darkness. And in the darkness slowly discovering the hand that was outstretched, not forced but offered. And slowly but surely, over the years and still today, the discovery that the God of the Christian faith, had not instigated the pain, but was certainly creating a work of art, a thing of beauty and grace… Me!
Four months later, I found myself on the hills of Northumbria, still in pain, desperately trying to force my God into taking away the pain and banishing the darkness. And on that bitterly cold, but bright day, stood beside a pile of cow manure, overlooking the rolling hills, I discovered that the God of the Christian faith was actually and simply is, My Great Papa!
Twelve years have passed; I am more healed than I thought possible, and more loved by My Great Papa than I deserved or imagined. I still walk most days in The Secret Place. It is a daily form of discipline, a withdrawal, a seclusion, a kind of retirement, into a place of rest and safety. It is a place forbidden to others, a place of exclusive connection between me and the God I am now obsessed with. He is My Secret Place.
And so to 2020. We have had many other challenges over the years, situations where pain, darkness, fear and doubt attempt to batter down the door into my inner world. As each threat passes, I realise that it has become easier to shed the pain and feel my way through the thick fog, and then to move on, learning the lessons, understanding myself better, and still up for the journey that unveils before me.
When the government announced the rules of lockdown, the introvert within leapt for joy! Now my walk is compulsory – it is my daily dose of exercise, but it is so much more than that. I still wake at 04.00, the legacy of fostering little ones whose ability to sleep was seriously affected by their start in life. I am out of the house at around 05.00. On a bad day I might bump into five other insomniacs, out walking their dog, running, or feeding foxes! Usually it is two or three. My phone is silent. And in those early hours, I go into The Secret Place, isolate myself and rest in the company of My Great Papa. I am learning new depths of silence, solitude, withdrawal, seclusion and rest.
And there I am safe; not just from COVID19 or even the fear of this wretched virus. But safe, sheltering in the shadow of My Great Papa. Sometimes, shadows are good. As I recovered from the pain and darkness, I spent a lot of time in the shadows, protecting myself from further hurt. Now I spend time in The Shadow of My Great Papa. It is a great place to hide, to rest, to restore, to recharge my batteries; ready to emerge into the world in which I now find myself and ready to make a difference by being Papa to The Next One.
This lockdown is strange, something nothing could prepare us for. But it is also an opportunity, whatever your faith or religion, values or belief systems. It is a time to slow down, to withdraw into silence, stillness and rest; it is a time to reflect and meditate – all those things we have all neglected over the years and will, most likely, neglect in the future. Lockdown = The Secret Place. If my story is anything to go by, I promise you it will change you forever, especially if there you discover the ultimate beauty and love of My Great Papa.
I saw the cold, inflexible dryness of correct doctrine… now I see a God who will not be restricted by what I believe. I cannot believe that I settled for cold and dry for so long, when the warm rivers of relentless love have always been there.
I saw the barrenness of religious duty and habits… now I see the idea of intimate relationship breaking out. My daily walk in The Secret Place has brought to life the garden of my heart, a place where my Papa and I can share hearts, dreams and visions. And I see the crazy world that we find ourselves in today as a call for the church to hibernate and rediscover The Secret Place.
I saw the edges of the broken glass of division, intolerance, hatred, bigotry, manifest in the church over centuries… now I see the incredible gentleness, love and joy of the kindness of my God being manifest, not only in his family, but in our nation trapped and imprisoned by the lockdown of Coronavirus.
I have seen over the years, in me and others, a harshness and unkindness that inflicts wounds and leaves scars… in the last few days, I have seen the kindness of a nation, honouring the NHS staff for all they are doing, the quiet “thank you” to nurses, bin men, supermarket staff, and so many other things.
I have seen and felt in the last few days the pain and hurt that we can inflict on each other… Today I see and feel the unbelievable healing of so many, who love and support when others are hurting.
“No one, no one is blinder, than he who will not see.” (U2)
I can see clearly today, where before I would have fumbled around in the dark. And it is not so hard for me to see what my Papa is doing as the world goes into lockdown. I can see a church pushed into The Secret Place, to rediscover what it means to be loved and then to love. I can see an outpouring of kindness, bubbling up to become, a torrent of love and gentleness and compassion… a church and a nation forever changed.