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Category: Arts (page 1 of 4)

Windows of my Mind

It’s been a few months since my last post, and as usual, it’s a reflection of how busy I’ve been elsewhere! Since the start of 2018 I’ve been doing a lot more work with Portsmouth Cathedral on their annual theme programme, which has grown significantly even compared to the previous year.

I’ve also been doing a lot more making and even responded to a commission opportunity, so this seemed a good time to fill you in on what I’ve been up to, from a making point of view.

I must include a heartfelt note of thanks here to those wonderful chaps at The Maker’s Guild: Sam, Ming and Gav who have supported me enormously and most importantly, practically with moving my ideas from concept to a solid and sturdy reality. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done so far without their help and intervention.

At the end of January this year, the first of my installations went in. It was called A Journey Through Time and involved various site-specific installations throughout Portsmouth Cathedral building. Those visitors who braved and damp and dismal weather and came along ,remarked on how much they enjoyed it and how different elements spoke to them. The installation elements included projections in St Thomas’ Chapel, an array of mostly handmade candles in the Quire, a fountain in the font (it looked amazing!) and further projections onto the ceiling of the Nave. Each of these sections reflected how time travels and how natural objects can reflect the passage of time.

The next piece I created was for Harbour Church as part of their Good Friday event called ‘Renew’. At a planning meeting I had an idea about a piece featuring lots of small pieces of glass with black splodgy paint on one side and white splodgy paint mirrored on the the other. Although that concept was a bit too complex for the time available (we had only a month to action anything!) I was able to revise it to two larger pieces of glass with words on each side: life/death and hope/doubt. Originally I was trying to fit the word ‘despair’ on the other side, but the letters were so different, I was struggling to make it work. Nemo, who’s also based at Maker’s Guild said simply: “Why don’t you pick another word that means the same thing?” Genius! Yet another benefit of accessing MG (Maker’s Guild) is collaboration.

The finished piece Life/Death Hope/Doubt was constructed with the help of the fabulous Sam Asiri, whose carpentry skills far exceed my own! It was exhibited at Harbour Church during the event and for about a week afterwards.

The font was hand painted from a template I sourced online and it’s modelled on an ambigram – that is to say, certain letters are a mirror image of each other. What you see on the glass is a reflection of your perspective: do you see death, or life? Doubt or hope? Good Friday for Christians is very much about balancing on that knife edge and swinging betweenone and the other.

This piece then saw a new lease of life in the next piece of work I created: Windows of my Mind. For various reasons, I like to try and reuse parts of previous works in new pieces, so we decided to use part of the Life/Death frame in the construction of Windows of my Mind.

This piece was originally inspired by a call out for artists from an art festival in Basingstoke. Although I couldn’t attend the festival, the idea was still percolating in my brain, awaiting the proper time. The ‘proper time’ appeared in May 2018 to coincide with the wellbeing and mental health emphasis which we had as part of the annual theme programme at the Cathedral.

The premise behind Windows of my Mind is simple enough: our mental health changes how we see things. We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. And in the same way we can catch a cold, or strain a muscle, we can also get run down, stressed or overloaded mentally and emotionally. How people are affected by poor mental health is manifested in these different windows. For some it’s despair – cloying and sticky, miring us in grief and inaction. For others its a sense of being foggy or directionless. For some nostalgia is what distorts our view: looking back at another time and believing it to be so much better than now. The whole piece contains 14 different elements which reflect aspects of mental health and it can be viewed in Portsmouth Cathedral, on the High Street, Old Portsmouth until May 25th.

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 🙂

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 ‘easy’ 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 ‘hard Brexit’ 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 – that internal acknowledgement that something is wrong and needs to be put right – that 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 #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.”
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.”
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 craftedIndividually 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 – not 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 – not 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!

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 – only 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

Lessons from La La Land – jazz music and the church

Keith (John Legend) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) – scene from the film La La Land

(warning: this article contains mild spoilers relating to the film)

 La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is currently enjoying top reviews as it opens in cinemas across the UK. The story follows the two main characters, Mia and Sebastian as they seek to follow their dreams in the ‘la la land’ that is Hollywood.

The film is a wonderful showcase of music and dance in the style of a 1950s musical but the ending lifts it from being a pastiche of those classic films, to something rather more honest and wistful. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and its unconventional ending, but I was struck unexpectedly by a challenge from one of the supporting cast, which would apply equally well to the Christian church, as it did to Sebastian’s character.

One of the things which Sebastian is struggling with, is his failure to find a niche where he can play ‘true jazz’ to an audience which appreciates it. In the opening scenes we see him in a restaurant at Christmas playing a rather gaudy version of Jingle Bells (which he clearly hates). When he breaks into a different piece, he gets fired because ‘no-one wants to listen to that’.

Later in the story he meets an old friend, Keith, who is also a jazz musician and Sebastian agrees to join his band. At first Sebastian is uncomfortable with the fusion of traditional jazz and modern hip hop rhythms and Keith recognises that.

He points out the uncomfortable truth which Sebastian already knows: that jazz is dying. All the people in the clubs are old people and there are no young people there. Sebastian wants to bring back jazz to a younger and newer audience, but as Keith so eloquently puts it:

“How are you going to be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.”

I was struck on the way home, what a strong analogy this is for many branches of the Christian church.

The church is dying, in a way. Great numbers of churches are investing huge amounts of energy and resources into protecting, defending, preserving and maintaining their traditional ways of doing things. But maintaining what feels familiar and safe for some people, is actually alienating many of the newer and younger audiences which the church has yet to reach. Much of the spiritual wealth and value which the church has to offer isn’t being accessed by those who might need and enjoy it the most, because it’s located and presented in places which younger people can’t or don’t access.

And I’m not talking about teenagers or university students. I would include here young adults in their twenties and those in their thirties, potentially with young families. These generations, who were born into the digital age, who can’t imagine or remember life without the internet; who are living in a time where the globe feels smaller but the threats feel bigger; when debt is higher but income lower – these people are the ones who might find the most comfort and encouragement in knowing a God who loves and accepts them unconditionally. But they’re not hearing this message, because it’s broadcast in a language they’ve never used, in a place they’ve never been to.

How can the church be revolutionary, without compromising on its core values, identity and belief? That’s the real struggle many churches are facing, because many of its oldest members can’t see how to re-shape their practice into something accessible, without feeling that their Christian identity is in danger of being eroded.

And how can the church retain and bring forward the deep and rich vein of historic Christian practice, without getting stuck in the past and thus failing to be relevant to the present and the future?

The film La La Land illustrates the compromises Sebastian has to make in order to be able to realise his dream of opening a jazz club. The lessons he learns on the way are valuable and inform his own development as a musician. I wonder if the church is capable of undertaking the same journey, while it seems to be working so hard to maintain the story of the past?

 

Sharing what we know

I subscribe to a range of arts organisations news sheets, as I like to keep up to date with what others creatives across the world are encountering. I find it helpful because it puts my experience into a wider context, as well as offering new questions and things to consider.

One of those is Createquity which takes a global view of arts policy and practice. In their recent ‘top ten’ list of news stories in 2016, I was struck by the fact that two almost opposing news items were in the same list: #6 was about the actions of the Turkish government to crack down more on artists and intellectuals and yet the very next article, #7 was about the growth of impact investing and crowdfunding for arts projects. It seems access and support of the arts is both widening in some parts of the world and simultaneously narrowing in others.

Another interesting read comes from Fuller Theological Seminary. You might think that a Bible college might not be very interested in the arts, but in fact the opposite is true. Fuller Studio brings together a range of specialisms and reflects on how faith and spirituality might be present in those fields. I like the way they use story to invite reflection, particularly the Story Table.

My final offering into this eclectic mix comes from the Higher Education sector: Creative Academic is an online journal inviting researchers and lecturers and others working in the HE sector, to reflect and share on their use of and experience of creativity in their work. This is an emerging area for academics, and there’s lots of enthusiasm for exploring and explaining how this works.

If you have suggestions for a good source of arts/creativity news, do share!

 

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