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Creative Lent #6: Gilded

The astute among you will have noticed that Lent has finished.

In point of fact, not only has Lent passed, but Holy Week and Easter weekend as well!

It’s fair to say, therefore, that this post is a tiny bit late…however, better late than never ūüôā

For those of you who have just joined us, I have been writing a series of posts over the last few weeks, as part of my personal reflection during Lent. I don’t normally write things which are quite so overtly Christian, but hopefully this hasn’t created a barrier for you as the reader.

The themes I was focussing on during this period were: Restoration, Repentance and Rest and I set myself the challenge of creating something new each week, which responded to one of these three themes. This is the final piece and although it’s a couple of weeks late, I hope you’ll still find it interesting and useful.

Having already done two pieces on Restoration and Repentance, I decided to revisit Rest for my final piece, and I must admit it was a tricky one for a while. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, or what God might be saying to me…

During this period of pondering, I happened to be on my way to Portsmouth College for one of my weekly Chaplaincy visits. I’m part of a small project in Portsmouth Deanery, called the Youth Chaplaincy project and I use creative practice to engage staff and students in discussion about all sorts of themes including spirituality, mental health, equality, terrorism, communication, gender…basically anything!

My route takes me through various neighbourhoods in Portsmouth, including Baffins which has a beautiful pond with waterfowl. Normally the swans, geese and ducks stay within the confines of the pond boundary but on the day I was driving through, a pair of swans decided to find somewhere else to have a nap…

It was a very pleasant Spring day, with wonderful sunshine and the swans had wandered away from the pond to find a patch of grass on which to sleep. As you can see from the photo, they were right up alongside the path and people were strolling fairly close by and walking their dogs.

Dog walkers detoured around them and people walking by were respectful of the swans and kept their distance, although a fair number of us did pause to watch them for a while and take photos!

The swans never moved. They didn’t raise their heads to watch us. They were happy resting. They weren’t alarmed, edgy or nervous; they were confident that the place they had chosen was safe and secure and that no harm would come to them.

The swans felt confident and safe enough to rest just where they were.

Something about that really spoke to me: something about them feeling safe, secure and at ease, in a space which could have made them feel vulnerable and in danger. There were no fences, nothing to stop anyone coming right up to them, or a stray ball hitting them. They felt confident and safe.

How often do we feel like that? Can we list the places or people with whom we feel safe? Safe enough to let down our guard? To allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to cry? To shout out the rage and grief which burns within, without fear of rebuke?

This notion of being at peace, of being able to rest in safety and confidence, without feeling vulnerable, rolled around in my head for a few days after that, and it occurred to me that for us as humans, the feeling of safety often coincides with trust and the sense of ‘being known’. With our life partner, very close family or friends, we feel like we can tell them things which really matter¬†because they know us. They are trusted and safe.

I have a habit of falling asleep when riding in someone else’s car. Not always, but fairly often. I apologised to my friend once, having drifted off while he was driving. But he responded by saying it was a real compliment, because I’d obviously felt safe enough to completely let down my guard and fall asleep, trusting him to keep me safe.

Rest means allowing ourselves to become vulnerable.

Which brings us to the sixth and final piece I have created for this Lent reflection. It is called¬†Gilded¬†and it’s a mixed media piece involving embroidery, beadwork and paint.

In the picture you can see five vertical coloured bands, descending the paper, each with their own corresponding embroidery and beads. The bands might represent different people in your life, or perhaps different seasons – childhood, adolescence, adulthood and so on.

Each band of colour has beads sewn into it, and these are the things which I want to give particular attention to because these represent our flaws, mistakes and foibles. These are the hiccups in life; the failures and mistakes. The things we regret or failed to do. And these things can feel like huge lumps, like boulders in our lives; things we carry and can never quite be rid of.

These are the things which mark our lives.

They’re the kind of things which perhaps only a few people ever know about. The kind of thing where you look at the stranger standing in front of you and think ‘Oh, if you only knew what I’m really like…”

But here’s the really amazing part: as ¬†Christian I believe that God sees and knows all these things. Every bead, every knot, every mistake, every mis-spoken word which can’t be taken back. He sees and knows all of them.

Across the whole piece are black splodges -things which marr and spoil the overall affect. These also represent things which we can’t undo.

But instead of punishing us, instead of pushing us away and saying that we’re not worthy, God does something quite remarkable and completely undeserved.

He gilds our sins and makes them beautiful.

By his grace, made possible through the events of Easter and Jesus’ death and resurrection, God makes the ugly things beautiful and the broken things whole. He takes our mistakes and blemishes and paints them with gold.

You are redeemed. You are beautiful. You are loved. You are precious. You are accepted. You are whole. You are mine.

 

 

What this means is that we can rest: we can let down our guard and allow ourselves to become vulnerable, just like the swans did, because we are safe. ¬†We can relax and know that God already knows everything about us – and he still loves us. We can rest, knowing that he sees all our flaws and achievements and he still likes us. No extra effort required. No pretending that it’s all ok, when ¬†it isn’t really.

Rest is allowing yourself to be truly honest and vulnerable, because you truly believe and know that you’re safe.

 

This may feel like a lot to take on board, and in the interests of honesty, I will admit to you that I personally don’t find this concept particularly easy. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s true for you: I have no difficulty believing that God feels this way about each and every person I meet. I just struggle sometimes to believe it for myself.

So maybe rest takes practice. Maybe we don’t have to throw down all our walls at once – maybe we can do it gradually, slowly, bit by bit and piece by piece until eventually we feel the same sense of security which those swans felt.

May you come to know rest in God, as a place of peace and safety. Of being known and accepted. Understood and cherished.¬†May you know the comfort and peace from knowing you’ve been Gilded.

 

 

 

Creative Lent #5: The Water Feature

This week’s Creative Lent has been rather like a school science experiment gone wrong. I have created a rather tranquil water feature. I’d be even happier about this if I’d done it on purpose.

Allow me to explain…

As you might be aware, since the start of Lent I have set myself the goal of creating one new piece each week, themed around Rest, Repentance or Restoration, as these are things which Christians might explore during this season as part of the build-up to Easter. I wanted to use my creative practice as a means to intentionally think about God and what he might be saying to me and others, whilst making.

The last few weeks have featured photography, sculpture, painting and candle-making. This week’s effort didn’t quite go to plan – at least not my plan. We’ll see if the outcome suits the purpose better, by the end!

What started me off this week was a walk with my dog, Cosmo. Being a beagle, he is insatiably curious and drawn into all sorts of mischief. As we were out for our walk, I realised it was high tide – and a very high tide at that, as it’s Spring time and Spring and Autumn tend to see higher tides. (I may have described that slightly ¬†wrongly, but hopefully t’internet will correct any accidental errors!)

Thus Cosmo and I took a detour on our walk, and came along to Whale Island walk, formally known Stamshaw Bay. Here we could see the tide was indeed very high, almost overlapping the steps at the edge, which happens very rarely. Something about this resonated with: about fullness and over-flowing and I decided to let this idea percolate some more.

My Bible readings this week have been about the provision and protection of God. Lots of stuff reminding us that God protects the widows and orphans, feed the hungry and provides shelter for those who are lost. This has been most encouraging against a backdrop of Brexit and Article 50.

I thought about the high tide and the fact that it was almost over-flowing and I decided to try and make a sculpture which would, intentionally overflow. I’d had an idea for something similar in a recent conversation with my friend Peter at the Cathedral: a tall, slim tube where the water would be pumped up from the bottom and then overflow at the top, sliding down the outside of the tube, before pooling in some kind of dish or container at the bottom ready to be pumped again. I thought this idea – of God’s love and provision being a form of constant restoration and refreshing, might be a helpful one, and so I got to work!

I started out using a glue gun to create some swirling lines on the outside of an empty pop bottle, so as to direct the water as it made its journey over the top of the container and down the outside. I unwired the plug from the fish tank pump, and slid the cable in through the neck of of the pop bottle, then turned the whole thing upside down so that the water could be sucked in from the bottom and pushed out the top (which had been cut off). So far so good. I found a container to be the base, some small white pebbles I had lying around from something else, and I dug out the old fish tank pump, which had been used to circulate the water when we had fish. I was on to a winner! I had all the necessary ingredients and I was going to make something marvellous!

I then experienced a rather rapid physics revision lesson in displacement, volume and the effect of gravity on water: namely that gravity makes water want to equalise itself, and you can pour as much water as you like in the top of your container, but as soon as that volume exceeds the available space in the bowl at the bottom you will end up with an unexpected flood. Also, if you accidentally drop some of those lovely small white pebbles into your pump mechanism, it’s not going to work very well.

Badgers.

Having cleared that mess up, I realised I needed to make the central column smaller, so I unwired and re-wired the plug for the fish tank pump, cut up and re-glued my central column and found a bigger bowl.

Alas, gravity was still too powerful for my little pump, and the water couldn’t get any higher up the tube without sufficient force. I tried various permutations with different sized bowls and arrangements of stones, central columns etc, but all to no avail.

So I plonked the pump back into the bottom of the smallest bowl, covered it with the lovely white stones (again) and plugged it in. And this is what I got:

Now, as I like to remind my students, my friends, my family and even myself from time to time:¬†nothing is wasted if you’ve learnt something from it. So here’s what I’ve learnt.

When it comes to restoration, God defies the laws of gravity.

As my little science experiment clearly shows, it takes a lot of effort to make water defy gravity! But we try and do that all the time with our energy levels: we keep trying to push what little we have up the tube and over the top, in order to be everything we think we need to be, for every person we meet. But that’s just not achievable – or sustainable. We can’t keep giving out of an empty well, or even a half-empty one. Only God can defy gravity and only God can successfully fill us up from the inside out.

Sometimes we need to be more than full.

What does that mean? Well, in the example of the water feature, the glass dish is¬†just full. The water doesn’t exceed the space available. It’s contained. Safe. Tidy. But maybe God is calling us to give more than we usually do? To step outside our safe, tidy, comfortable space and engage with people in a way which is messy and uncertain? If you ever needed an example of uncomfortable and uncertain, I think Easter is the right place to look.

(This last paragraph might seem to contradict the previous one, but actually I think they’re aimed at two different types of people.)

Do our expectations limit what God can do for us?

This is the big one for me. The bowl is full. But only just. And yet God’s word speaks of abundance, of over-flowing, of things ‘beyond measure’. Do I think God is capable of that? Of really¬†doing more than I can ask or think? Or do I only expect what I can see, hear or know with my own senses – that life is limited, not limitless? Its a tough one this, and it doesn’t have an easy answer.

But maybe as we look at the water and watch its movement, we might be reminded that this same small pool finds its source in limitless waterfalls, vast oceans and untapped depths. That each drop comes from a place far bigger than we will ever know or fully understand.

That even though we can’t fully see or understand it ourselves, it doesn’t mean that God can’t do even more than we could ever ask of think.¬†

Food for thought and hopefully, water for the soul.

Until next time x

 

Creative Lent #4: The Garland

I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister today.

I write to my MP on a fairly regular basis – ¬†after all, this is a democracy and I can’t moan about things from the sidelines and then refuse to act and blame someone else for the results. But I don’t write to the PM very often at all. I don’t know whether she’ll read it, or whether it will reach her in time, but I’ve sent it none the less. It’s a letter which has burdening me for some time, but which I’ve been struggling to phrase.

Unless you’ve been living in the wilds of Scotland ¬†for the last twelve months (and some people have, for a Channel 4 reality TV show), you can’t have escaped the news that the UK is on the brink of leaving the EU. Not just politically, but also the Single Market, which affects our trade and employment agreements along with a bunch of other things. Various people have been ringing warning bells, but with no effect apparently, as our leadership seems diligently and wilfully committed to throwing the UK off a political and economic cliff.

I could happily work up a head of steam on the subject, but I’m going to steer away from that and instead draw out something from the letter which I wrote: I suggested to the Prime Minister that the only reason for not changing course from our current trajectory was¬†human pride.

“It was human pride that pushed aside a major decision to an ill-equipped public. It was human pride that took the ‚Äėeasy‚Äô way out and opted for a process which will cause more harm than good. And it is human pride which refuses to back down and admit that this may not be the best course of action after all.”

I¬†went on to suggest that “The only way to change the course of history now, would be to admit that this ‚Äėhard Brexit‚Äô is a mistake and that you were wrong.¬†Do you have the courage to do such a thing I wonder? To be a leader like no other in history, before or since?”

Now it’s all very well to be angry at someone from a distance and to accuse them of wrong-doing, but the Bible reminds us that we should not judge, lest we ourselves are judged. And I have been judged – and rightly so. I have made mistakes which have affected those close to me, whom I love, and some of those mistakes, even though I’ve apologised, can’t be undone. Granted, I haven’t made the kind of decisions which affect an entire nation…but each person within that nation, just as each person within my family, is as important to God.

It got me thinking about repentance – the attitude of being sorry, of admitting that we’ve done something wrong. Repentance is one of the three themes I’m reflecting on during Lent this year, as well as Rest and Restoration.

Repentance is the mindset that is willing to admit to mistakes and take responsibility for them. To repair what has been broken and replace what has been lost. But repentance shouldn’t be forced on someone, otherwise it’s not genuine or sincere – that’s the kind of circumstance when a parent forces an errant child to ‘say sorry’ which they then do grudgingly and then as soon as the adult is out of earshot they start being naughty all over again.

A forced repentance can also have disastrous consequences later down the line: consider the ‘Reparations’ which the German nation was forced to pay to the Allies after World War I. None of those involved in the conflict had clean hands, but the penalty Germany had to pay crippled the nation and made the ground fertile for Nazi ideology which might never had taken root, if the Allies had treated Germany differently.

Forced repentance can create brokenness, bitterness and resentment, which yields a bitter fruit later on. But conviction Рthat internal acknowledgement that something is wrong and needs to be put right Рthat creates the space for something different. As we yield our will to God or friends and family, as we acknowledge our mistakes, we can bend rather than break and in so doing, we can learn from our mistakes.

This brings me to this week’s piece: The Garland.

Made from supple twigs and woven in with leaves and flowers, The Garland¬† represents repentance. ¬†Rather than being forced to bend and ultimately snapping in two, the twigs have been gently curved into shape and held in place with florist’s wire.

Sometimes we need help to see our mistakes and be able to learn from them. Discipline offered in love doesn’t always need to be harsh or severe in order to be effective.

Another thing to consider is that repentance affects change – but that requires choice. As soon as the florist’s wire is undone, the twig could whip out and resume its original shape, causing injury in the process. But if it’s bent in that position gently for a period of time, it will keep its new curved shape.

Repentance needs to be a willing act on our part, otherwise we aren’t open to seeing our mistakes and we can’t learn from them.

I have added flowers and leaves to this willowy wreath, which draws out the beauty of the wood – but the spaces where I have inserted them have only been created because the twigs were woven together and able to bend. If the twigs were inflexible and stubborn, if they had stayed straight, the flowers and leaves would have fallen straight off, and no garland would be possible. The twigs’ flexibility creates opportunities which would not otherwise exist.

Repentance can be fruitful.

So this then is my Creative Lent offering for this week: The Garland of Repentance.

May we all be gracious, patient and flexible, because of and in spite of our mistakes, in order that we can learn and love one another more fully.

 

Creative Lent #3: Eternal Rest

This week’s Creative Lent post is themed around ‘rest’. But it’s incomplete. There have been so many different threads that have linked into the theme and whilst they all connect and make sense individually, I’ve found it difficult to focus in on just one of them.

So I decided to stop fighting this whirlwind of thoughts, and just give you a flavour of each. I hope and trust that at least one of them will resonate with you!

So to begin with: let’s start with daily rest. Or rather- the lack of it. I’ve been reading some intriguing and affirming books lately about time, rest and the importance of getting a better balance in our lives. One is called Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Bruggemann which my sister-in-law Sarah sent me. Another was given to me by Steve Frampton, Principal at Portsmouth College, entitled Too Fast To Think by Chris Lewis.¬†Although written from different starting points, they both concur in their conclusions and findings.

Bruggemann is looking from a theologian’s point of view¬†at the traditional Jewish sabbath. He quickly points out the contrast between Yahweh (traditional Jewish word for God) and Pharaoh’s systems. When the Jewish people were in Egypt, they outnumbered the Egyptians considerably, and over time became enslaved to the Egyptians state (this was just before Moses arrived on the scene and the lead-up to the famous plagues of Egypt and parting of the Red Sea). Pharaoh’s system is based on surplus:

“What the slaves are to produce is more bricks that are to be used for the building of more ‘supply cities’ in which Pharoah can store his endless supply of material wealth in the form of grain. Because the system was designed to produce more and more surplus, there is always more need for storage units that in turn generate more need for bricks with which to construct them…in the narrative… Pharaoh¬†is a hard-nosed production manager for whom production schedules are inexhaustible.”

Bruggemann goes on to point out that there is no sabbath rest in this system. “There is no rest for Pharaoh¬†in his supervisory capacity…no rest for his supervisors or taskmasters…no rest for the slaves…We may imagine, moreover that the ‘Egyptian gods’ also never rested…for the glory of Pharaoh¬†surely redounded to the glory of the ‘Egyptian gods’…In that context all levels of social power…are uniformly caught up in and committed to the grind of endless production.”

Spring blossom, taken at St Mary’s cemetery

However, Yahweh comes from a very different starting point and “at the taproot of this divine commitment to *relationship* (covenant) rather than *commodity* (bricks) is the capacity and willingness of this God to¬†rest…That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that Yahweh is not a workaholic, (b) that Yahweh is not anxious about the full-functioning of creation and (c) that the wellbeing of creation does not depend on endless work.”

Take a minute to absorb that idea.

The wellbeing of creation – of our lives even, does not depend on endless work.

And yet how many of us look around our homes, our workplaces and our to-do lists with an exhausted and almost futile sense that we’ll ‘never get it all done’? Here’s an intriguing thought for you: what if it doesn’t all have to get done.

What if some of it could be left knowingly unfinished?

You might need to have a little lie-down at this point.

Enter stage left Chris Lewis, whose starting point on this same journey, originates in the business world. In his book he has spoken with and listened to a number of different people from a range of backgrounds. Lewis observes:

“I see a world moving faster, but somehow making less progress. There is more communication, but less conversation. There is more information, but not more learning.” He comments that¬†“we have created so many ways to interrupt ourselves” and that “every profession has suffered from a decreasing amount of time to really think about problems”.¬†“The rush has forced us to process yesterday as if it were trash, and left us no time to recall, review and learn.”¬†

It is into this context that Brueggemann offers the practice of sabbath as resistance: “Into this arena of restlessness comes the God of rest who offers relief from that anxiety-producing system.” “The celebration of sabbath is an act both of resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

I would argue that this notion of rest, as part of the rhythm of our lives, is something which we have become increasingly detached from, and yet it is so vital to our wellbeing, as to be as essential as food and sleep. Indeed, Lewis devotes an entire chapter to sleep and the consequences and benefits of having not enough or a good and regular amount of sleep.

But if daily rest and having a good rhythm to our lives is one thing, what’s the long-term view? What are we working towards? Why are we pushing ourselves so hard and so long and at such speed?

This is one of the other threads to this week’s theme which I couldn’t quite manage to tie in to the first one, although I sense they are inextricably linked…

I took a walk round St Mary’s cemetery last week. It was a grey day, not too chilly and the estate team were in mowing the grass. When I first arrived it was rather like a cluster of over-sized and grumpy bees buzzing about the place. Gradually the noise fell away as they finished their work and I was able to take some time to walk among the tombstones and memorials.

I was surprised at how many of them had fresh flowers – I don’t know why it surprised me, but it did. Bright, defiant bursts of colour in between the grey, white or black markers. Some were recent, one grave with the earth still a mound where it hadn’t yet settled, others covered with ivy and almost buried by time. There were a noticeable number of Victorian graves for children – infant mortality was high at that time, but I couldn’t help thinking of the grief and loss of those families who had lost their children at such a young age.

Most of the wording was similar; ‘beloved wife’, ‘dear husband’, ‘ in loving memory’. A couple of them had unusual wording which caught my attention: one crypt had the words “Yes! Yes!” after the names of the people interred. I wondered if they felt not fear, but joy about death and a hope for heaven?

Another had the phrase ‘fell asleep’ which struck me particularly, as it related to a four year old boy. I know that as a society we struggle with talking about death and the fear, pain and grief which surrounds it. We shy away from it, avoid it, give it odd and inaccurate terms ‘lost’, ‘fell asleep’, ‘passed away’ because the brutal truth is so hard to bear.

And yet it exists and it will come to all of us at some point. We may not know when, or how or where, but each of us has a story and all stories have to end.

So what then, does that mean for us? Shall we continue to strive and labour, filling all our time with noise and distraction so as to avoid the inevitability of an ending we can’t control? Or shall we ¬†stubbornly, rebelliously choose to stop, to rest, to adjust the rhythm of our lives in order that we really can make the most of each moment – savour the sights, smells, colours and tastes of everything around us so that, when the time comes, we can say with confidence “Yes!” my time has come, but I have lived my life well and I’m ready now for my story to end.

Hmmm.

Perhaps those two strands had more in common than I thought?

As to my making: it is the simplicity of a photograph. Ronald James Towse died, aged four, in 1953. I don’t know his story or the circumstances of his death. But his memorial is a reminder that every life, however small, can and will make its mark upon another, and in so doing, perhaps they can be eternal?

Creative Lent #2: The Rucksack

My second reflection for Lent is around the theme of repentance, and nothing says ‘repentance’ like Yoda and a rucksack.

Not convinced? I’ll explain…

My children have been enjoying some videos on YouTube by a group called ‘Bad Lip Reading’ and I must admit, it is very clever and quite funny (for the first 2-3 times at least…) One of the videos focuses on a conversation between Luke Skywalker and Yoda whilst in training on Dagoba on the subject of Seagulls.¬†¬†During this exchange Luke says “you owe me an apology” and it got me thinking: why?

Why should anyone *owe* anyone else an apology? 

We talk about owing someone money which we’ve borrowed, or owing someone a favour, if they’ve done something for us, but how does that work with an apology? If we don’t admit to something, how can it belong to us?

Whilst this was ruminating in my brain for a few days, my daily Bible readings were taking an interesting turn. For a few days we had Psalm 32, which looks like this:

Psalm 32
Of David. A maskil.[a]

1 Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.


3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.[b]


5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.‚ÄĚ
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

That part in the middle, verses 3 & 4 is very interesting and I wondered for a while what it meant: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away…your hand was heavy on me, my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer…” And then I realised, that heaviness, the weight described, is guilt or conviction.

Guilt or conviction is the internal acknowledgement which we hold when we know something is wrong or out of balance. It fidgets within us, restless and unsettled, all the while that the issue which caused it is unresolved. And the longer we ignore it, the stronger the feeling gets. In fact it becomes so strong that it takes more and more effort to ignore it.

It’s like wearing a heavy rucksack on your back, which you can’t see, but which you feel and carry with you. The rucksack is behind you; it bears down on your neck and shoulders and all the while it’s unresolved it gets heavier and heavier. Sometimes it’s been there so long, we actually get used to it, and we struggle to remember a time when it wasn’t there…

But why do we carry such a weight if we don’t have to?

I wonder if the fear of facing or resolving such an issue is what compels us to avoid it? We’re frightened of admitting the wrong-doing in the first place, and the longer we leave it, the harder it is to face and the weightier the issue becomes. Eventually perhaps, we start behaving differently, walking with a limp as it were, because we’ve become so accustomed to this extra weight, we’ve learnt to compensate for it. Maybe we feel it’s taken so long to resolve the original issue that in fact we ought to be bearing this additional burden, as some kind of punishment or penance for not having resolved the issue originally…

But here’s the thing: until we own the guilt, we can’t be free of it.

Until we can acknowledge to ourselves and God, and maybe our loved ones, whatever it is that has burdened us – until we can own and accept our mistake, we can’t let it go. ¬†We can’t be set free from something which we don’t own. I can’t pay back money I don’t owe, or repay a favour which no-one did for me first. And I can’t be forgiven for something which I haven’t yet confessed.

It’s not until we admit to ourselves the guilt we’ve been carrying – the rucksack on our back – than we can take it off and be free of it.

And that takes courage – to admit to ourselves and others about the guilt which burdens us. But the words in the Psalm remind us about what awaits when we do:
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.‚ÄĚ
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.


6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.
7 You are my hiding place;

you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.

We don’t have to carry that weight around. We are not destined or fated to be burdened in that way. The ‘rising waters’ need not reach us. God doesn’t want to punish us for all eternity, in some cold, hard-hearted way. In fact the opposite is true: he sets himself to be our ‘hiding place and protector’. But until we acknowledge and accept our own wrong-doing and lay it down (admit it to ourselves and others) how can God forgive us and release us from it? We can’t yet be forgiven for something we haven’t admitted to. The equation doesn’t balance out.

And so this is my Creative Lent piece #2: a watercolour illustration of a rucksack, with a name label: “mine”. There is time, there is always time and space for all of us to acknowledge our mistakes and be freed from them. We are not destined to carry that guilt forever, and God who knows and loves you, doesn’t want that for you.

May we all find the courage to admit to our mistakes and take that step of faith which leads us to laying these things down, in the hope and trust that we can be forgiven and set free.

Creative Lent #1: The Candle

This year I have decided to mark Lent by setting myself the challenge of creating something new each week, relating to the themes of repentance, restoration and rest.

As I mentioned in my previous post, for Christians, Lent is intended as a season of preparation as we build up to Easter. Part of that is about taking a serious look at our lives and inviting God to show us where we might need to change things, or how we see things. People often choose to fast something, as a mark of this openness to God and willingness to engage. Others may choose to focus their attention outwardly, on being more generous and charitable.

For me, I’ve decided to combine the discipline of committing to creative practice, along with the openness of listening to God through the process of making…which brings us to my first piece: the candle.

I had an idea about doing something using old candles a while back, but this has been my first chance to try it out. The candle fits the theme of restoration beautifully, and I’ll explain why shortly.

I deliberately chose odd bits of leftover candles, gleaned from different places, melted them all together and then poured them into an old plastic water bottle (which shrank a little from the heat, which is why the base is smaller than the top!)¬†As I was making, I¬†some thoughts which you might also find helpful…

Let’s start with the wax itself: which piece do you most relate to right now? Maybe you’re the white candle, which has burnt evenly and strong throughout its life? There’s enough left still to do something worthwhile, but it won’t be long before the wick is used up, even though there’s plenty of wax. There’s willingness, but maybe not capacity or energy?

Or maybe you relate more to the red candle, which is the leftovers of an Advent candle. There was a time when you had a clear sense of purpose and calling, but now that’s no longer clear and you’re wondering where you fit?

Or maybe you’re the purple candle – there’s so little left now, the flame would expire before it even took hold, or maybe you’re the fragmented wax – broken into a million unrecognisable pieces, with no hope of bringing light to anyone.

One of the first things which has always resonated with me is that candle making – especially when using old wax, is an amazing metaphor for the work God does with us as human beings. No matter where we are in life, and no matter what has happened to us, God can and does find value and worth in us. That wax – even the crumbled pile of leftovers, can be something special in God’s hands. All it needs is to be molded, shaped and re-formed into something new. But what is most important is this:¬†the essential DNA of the candle doesn’t change. The shape may change – it may even come to be blended with, and added to different things, but it still retains its core identity.¬†When God works in your life, he doesn’t drastically alter who you are – he made you in the first place. Instead he shapes you – the real you, into something new.

Candle making takes time and pouring a candle needs to be done in stages. If it’s done too quickly, the wax won’t cool evenly – there might be pockets or bubbles and it won’t burn well. There’s also a risk the wick won’t be straight,¬†creating a possible fire hazard later when the candle is finished. In the same way, God works in us and with us, slowly. We’re not mass produced, we’re crafted.¬†Individually hand-formed and shaped, in order to make the very best of who we are. It takes time for us to learn and understand all there is to know about ourselves and our place in the world – and God knows that.¬†Our life’s work is God’s life work.

As human beings we bear the marks of God – whether we acknowledge him or not. The container I used for my Easter candle was, in hindsight, perhaps not the best choice! (I admit to being an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to most crafts!) I wanted to find a container which might add a texture to the finished candle, but also one I could cut away from the wax, so I could get the candle out without damaging it when it was finished. The finished result might be a little top-heavy, but I did achieve my intended outcome – the candle has texture.

I truly believe that everything which is good and kind, faithful and generous, funny and accepting, beautiful and inspiring, finds its roots in God. Those things which we see in each other, which restore our faith in humanity – those I believe are the marks of God. But wax is a fragile material; it can be easily marked, scratched or even shattered. God knows that.

“He knows what we are made of;¬†¬†he remembers that we are dust.¬†¬†As for us, our life is like grass. We grow and flourish like a wild flower;¬†then the wind blows on it, and it is gone…” Psalm 103

The beauty of this material is that¬†it can be re-made. It can be re-formed and re-shaped – even when it seems as if its life and purpose and potential are all but snuffed out. God sees what we don’t or can’t see: where we see endings, he sees beginnings. Where we see failure, he sees potential. And where we see despair, he helps us to find hope. Wax can be malleable, flexible and re-formed into something purposeful and powerful.

And that is what restoration means. If something is restored, it is brought back to a quality which is ‘better than before’, ‘like new’. In biblical terms it means “to receive back more than has been lost to the point where the final state is greater than the original condition”. Easter is all about how God restored our¬†relationship with him, by getting rid of all the rubbish in our lives which gets in the way.

So the next time you light a candle at home, or see a candle at church, remember the story of the wax, and how a candle is crafted and invite God to talk to you about your story.

 

The discipline of a creative rest

It’s the start of Lent and in our household we’ve been thinking about what we’d like to do to mark the season and the build up to Easter. In the past we’ve either given things up, or tried to do Lent more generously, with various degrees of success! I find, regrettably, that I tend to get very cranky without chocolate, and although fasting anything is clearly a discipline, I’m not sure my family should suffer for my religious inclinations!

We liked the idea of generosity at Lent, and I think we’ll take our cue from Stewardships 40 Acts or maybe Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings¬†as a way to be mindful and thankful of the good things we have and find ways to bless others at the same time.

My son Toby has decided he’s going to give up crackers – which for those of you who know him, is a BIG deal because he’s a savoury boy and crackers are his go-to foodstuff. I admire his willingness to engage with Lent in this way and I hope he finds it beneficial and not frustrating!

So if I’m not giving something up, and I’m trying to do generosity with my family, what about me as an individual?

I’ve been pondering on the last few months about the importance of rhythm of resting, or to put it another way the discipline of the sabbath. Sabbath is an old word we rarely use these days, but it means rest and originates in ancient Jewish tradition.

In the scriptures, it tells the story of creation and explains that on the seventh day God rested. Now, I’m going to bypass the ‘literal versus metaphorical seven days’ debate and move on to what I think is the more important part: God rested.

God.

Rested.

Yahweh – the being who sculpted mountains, scooped out the seabed, fashioned parrots, oak trees, whales and millipedes; he who set the stars in motion and the seasons in swing…he had a rest. And more importantly he set it as an example for his people that they should do the same.

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy [special and set apart]. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work Рnot you, your family, your slaves, your animals or the foreigners who live among you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day and consecrated it [made it special]. Exodus 20:8-11

During the summer of last year we went on a family holiday to the Lake District, and our Italian family came and joined us. We had a lovely time catching up and enjoying the beautiful countryside. It happened that all my daily Bible readings during that week and leading up to it, were all about the sabbath. Two things specifically stuck out to me:

i. how fiercely God guarded and spoke about the sabbath. In the Old Testament God got very cross with people about worshiping idols, but he also got very cross when they neglected the sabbath (by cross, I mean burning and wrath type cross)

ii. the contrast between how Jesus spoke about and engaged with the sabbath, and how lightly he held it, compared to the religious restrictions imposed by the Pharisees

My sister in law (who’s been studying theology) and I debated this whilst on holiday, and we concluded that there’s something about the¬†discipline of the sabbath and the¬†gift of the sabbath.

The discipline is about prioritising and making time to rest, recuperate and recharge. To spend time with God and those we love. To value ourselves and the importance of our own worth as people Рnot merely producers of things or completers of to-do lists. To make sure that we do it, to make sure that we rest even though (and perhaps because) there is still stuff to do.

And then, if we can manage the discipline of sabbath, it can become a gift: a space which values us, not our productivity. An opportunity to pause, reflect, breathe in and out…

There’s a lot more to say on this and I hope to unpack it a bit more over the next few weeks… But how does this tie into Lent?

Well, I’ve decided that my Lent discipline and commitment will be to create something new and original each week, for the next six weeks. I want to try and use a different medium each time, and use the themes of rest, repentance and restoration as the focus for my work. I did think about trying to create something new everyday, but I think¬†I might be setting myself up to fail, and creativity takes time!

So there it is: my Lent challenge! I will endeavour to share the fruits of my labour in due course but now, ironically, I have to go to work!

The gift of swans in flight

On Sunday mornings it’s my turn to get up and take the dog on his early walk. To be honest, it’s not my favourite thing to do – I much prefer being cosy and warm in bed, but as my husband does every other day in the week, I think he’s earnt a morning off!

So I heaved my tired self out of bed this morning, stumbled around getting dressed, ate some breakfast and finally left the house a bit  before 9am. It was cold, may only 2 or 3 degrees above freezing and there were only a few hardy folks braving the cold.

After a while the dog and I made our way to the foreshore by Whale Island. It’s a scrap of beach opposite HMS Excellent, a naval facility which forms part of the Navy base at Portsmouth. The inlet is part of a tidal feature which used to be a lot larger until the construction of the M275 motorway in the 1980s. Stamshaw Bay, as it was then, used to reach right up to end of the roads which now butt up to the motorway. Instead of the bay, there is a now a park created from the small bay which was filled in with the rubble dug out from the foundations of the motorway. The park is nice, and has lots of well established trees, but I do wonder sometimes about Stamshaw Bay and how it might have looked before…

Anyway, there we were, the dog and I, braving the cold along with a lady jogging and two people walking along the path. Low tide was at around 5:30am so much of the seabed was visible, except for a few gradually deepening pools where the seawater was beginning its slow return to the beach.

Amongst this rather bleak winter morning tableaux was a family of swans. Two mature adults and a clutch of cygnets who are probably close to two years old. The young have lost nearly all their brown feathers now and are much closer in appearance to their elegant parents, except for their smaller size.

We watched them, the dog and I, as they flew up and down the length of the inlet. After a while, it appeared as if the older swans were badgering their young to practice flying; gently hassling them until they finally took off and flew, close to the water, up to the other end of the beach, which is about half a mile long.

It takes a lot of effort for a bird that size to defy gravity and take off. The younger birds had to flap hard and they didn’t get too far above the surface of the water – but they still looked beautifully elegant as they did so.

in the quiet of the winter morning I noticed the sound they made as they flew – it wasn’t a vocal call that I could hear, but the sound of the air as it rushed past the ends of their wings. It was a very particular tone, almost like musical notes, as they powered towards the end of the beach.

I quite often pray and sing quietly as I walk with the dog on Sunday mornings, and as I did so this morning, I thought about the sound of the swans as they flew – that particular harmony of air and motion. I think there are moments for all of us, perhaps at work, perhaps at church, maybe when we’re soothing an anxious child or offering kindness to a stranger, when we feel that moment, when we are¬†that harmony of air and motion. Those moments when we are in our element, at our best, doing what we were created to be and do. And it’s not usually a grand moment, not a fanfare or ‘superhero’ moment, but instead a moment of ordinary heroism¬†which makes such a difference to people.

Do you know what those moments or environments are for you? Can you recognise those spaces or places where you are in the harmony of air and motion? Where you are soaring and doing that thing which you are naturally gifted at and which blesses people around you, with hardly any effort? Think about those times, seek them out, invest in them. Because nobody does it quite the way that you do!

We are the stories we weave…

At the end of January 2017 I had the privilege of being invited back to Portsmouth Cathedral for the 22nd Muslim-Christian celebration. This annual gathering sees members of the Wessex Jamaat and Portsmouth Cathedral join together for readings, music, an address from both communities and of course good food and conversation!

Last year I was asked to devise a creative activity which people could engage with and they enjoyed it so much I was asked to come back again!

This is the prototype weaving card which I made. The top strip represents myself, the centre one is for my family and the third one with the sequins represents my community.

After some thought, I came up with a weaving activity, to be shared between two people: each pair was given a square of card approximately 10x10cm, with evenly spaced notches along two of the opposite sides. Embroidery thread was then looped across the card and through the notches to create a very basic warp for weaving.

Guests at the event were invited to choose 3 strips of recycled fabric, from a range which I’d brought with me. Those 3 strips would represent themselves, their faith and their family or community. People could then weave their strips into the card frame, filling approximately half of it, leaving space for someone else to fill the other half.

As always, I was both gratified and encouraged to see people willingly and enthusiastically engaging with the activity. And as they wove, they chatted about themselves and the fabric they had chosen.

What struck me was that people sometimes chose the same type of material, but for each person it represented something different.

It told their story, perhaps the same story, but from a different point of view.

I have noticed lately, that the stories we hear tend to be very much from one side, from one perspective. In the aftermath of the EU referendum and the US elections, the news channels seem to have settled themselves, for the most part, on one side or the other, with a few brave stalwarts holding the middle, fairly neutral ground. The general public then follows suit, drawn inexorably towards either end of a tunnel which offers no light at its end Рonly more vitriol, anger and a deep sense of fear and/or betrayal.

Our social media feeds into this isolating trend: the algorithms behind the screen are designed to filter out news which doesn’t fit your preferences, or articles or retailers which you haven’t ‘liked’ or don’t click on very often. But the danger of this is that we consume news (often unsuccessfully confused with ‘truth’) in the same way we consume our favourite TV shows, or cereal or brand of deodorant.

We hear the story, perhaps the same story, but from only one perspective.

And thus it reinforces that narrower world view and encases us in the arrogance of certainty, instead of challenging ourselves to wade out into the deeper and murkier waters of alternative viewpoints.

Professor Grace Davie of Exeter University in her book ‘Religion in Britain: a persistent paradox’ observes that as a society we have lost the skills for dialogue on religion. To put it another way, we don’t know how to talk to each other about faith, or God or spirituality without being abrasive, hurtful or just plain ignorant (that’s my paraphrase). I would argue that the same is true of politics and social in/justice, which is the outcome of political decision making.

How refreshing then, to be part of an evening where people are openly invited, in a warm and safe space, to share and celebrate that which makes us different – and yet where we have so much in common.

We share the same story, but tell it from a different perspective.

It is true that history books have often been written by the ‘winners’, although in recent years ‘alternative histories’ have been told by those minority voices, bringing a fullness to a story which had only been half-told.

Are we brave enough to hear the story we are part of, from someone else’s point of view? Could we be gracious enough to value their viewpoint, even if it’s not the same as ours?

I suspect that it is only in the murky uncertainty of the middle ground, that any peace or reconciliation can be won. The firmer, more solid ground of ‘opinion’ and ‘alternative facts’ seems to leave us with little option than to raise the ramparts and defend our position. The story then rapidly shrinks to a tale of ‘them and us’ – hardly a very noble way to forge the future.

We are the stories we weave. Are we willing to include other threads and strands in that story, or will we only consider the ‘truth’ we hold most dear?

If that’s the case, our tapestry is likely to be very small indeed.

Some of weaving squares created at the Muslim-Christian evening at Portsmouth Cathedral. These will be mounted into two frames, one of which will be given to the Wessex Jamaat, the other will reside at the Cathedral.1

Just two or three degrees…

Just a quick thought on this frosty January morning.

I’ve been offering mindfulness sessions as part of the Youth Chaplaincy project during January. Each week I’ve gone into local colleges and staff and students have been invited to use natural materials as a part of their mindfulness – focusing on a small thing for a short while, as a means of ‘turning down the volume on life’ for a while…

This morning it was my turn, as I walked along the beach with the dog. It was probably only just two or three degrees above freezing, but I tried to take some time to notice and pay attention to the things around me.

I noticed things with frost on like this black pebble, seaweed and even a feather, which for some reason I’d never considered as being vulnerable to frost – probably because I’m more used to seeing leaves with frost on, than seaweed or feathers.

I noticed the sand beneath the pebbles – which is always there, but I forget because I don’t see it as often (very pebbley beaches around Portsmouth).

But the thing which struck me most on this occasion was the difference between being in the shade and being in the sun. I’d been walking along the beach with the dog with the sun on my back. When we turned round to come home, I climbed back up onto the path which runs alongside the foreshore and I suddenly noticed how much cooler I felt. I realised the path was in the shade, and even though it was probably a difference of only two or three degrees, it was really noticeable!

I purposefully walked back onto the pebbles on the beach and in a few moments felt slightly better as the winter sun, pale though it was, began to warm me up again.

Just two or three degrees different, but somehow it made all the difference in the world.

So here’s my thought: what small change in thought patterns, habits or behaviour could you make, which might make all the difference in the world? Sometimes it’s not the big things, but the small changes, which make the biggest impact…

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