Shrove Tide

Between the lighting of
a candle and
the beating of
batter,
at the barren bound time
when the cold iron air
hits the hard flint
earth
a spark
is created
that will light
the spring fire
of the coming year.

This poem I published in  “Everything Looks Green From Here” a collection of prose and poetry from Broomspring Writers in 2010

You May be United Reformed If

  • You think the right colour to paint a church is blue
  • Your Church sells Marmalade to raise money
  • Your Church has a walking group
  • On receiving an important document you first proof read it
  • You regularly make soup in large quantities
  • Psalm 23 is ok but nothing compared with the Scottish Psalters version of Psalm 24 or Isaac Watts version of Psalm 122 it really is just another psalm
  • The right tune to any hymn is that which is sung by your own congregation
  • You put your hymnbook down to sing “When I survey..”
  • Having candles in church is heatedly debated on the grounds of fire risk

I will add as I think of fresh ones

The Positively Attentional Living

I have not written for ages on this blog. I simply have been too full with my thesis but something has started bugging me and I think it is time I put it up. I have been reading quite a few Puritan writers on or off over the last couple of years and I am beginning to unearth a spiritual practice I think has been lost. We know of the Roman Catholic practice of confession, with its effort to note the sins in one lives, confess them to a confessor and then through repentance move on from them. It is also known Puritans quite often went in for a detailed examination of their lives that echoed this. What has not been asked is how the Puritans understood it. The Puritans seem to have turned the emphasis around 180 degrees.

Lets start one step back. There are many sets of techniques for assuring oneself of ones salvation. You may have come across the sinners prayer, or the conversion testimony if you have had contact with Evangelicals. You might equally find people who are concerned that their belief system matches as closely as possibly that of orthodox Christianity. Equally the more sacramental can be concerned about receiving communion and baptism. I am not suggesting one of these is right and others wrong, they are all partial. That is they grasp part of the truth about Salvation but not the whole. What the Puritans had was another such technique. It relied on the classical Reformed doctrine of Sanctification. The idea being that this was the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the believers life. The close examination was therefore not to detect sin and repent of it, but to detect the activity of the Holy Spirit and thus to rejoice at this assurance of salvation and also to help it bear fruit.

Now there is a lot to be said for this as one of the techniques. Firstly it points people towards the positive in their lives rather than the negative. Concentrating on the positive gives people energy. Secondly it changes our perspective of sin. While sin is not to be welcomed, awareness of it and repentance are; as these are signs of the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting us and healing us. I am not sure how to put it into practicebut there does seem something good about watching for where the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and those around us.

Pacifist tendencies but…..

I do not call myself a pacifist, my great grandfather was pacifist, he would rather be beaten and his family’s income stolen than actual defend himself. That takes guts and strength of will. I am not saying I do not have it, but I do not feel that until there you genuinely know your will. So I would say I have pacifist tendencies, but they have never been tested when it counts.

However, when I hear stories such as American Soldiers on Food Stamps  I find myself getting angry. While that anger comes out of my pacifist tendencies, it is not an anger at the soldiers. It is anger at the hypocrisy of a society that can applaud men one minute and yet once they are demobbed will leave them to their plight. The world has not changed much since Rudyard Kipling wrote Tommy. 

So let me say this now. I may think it is wrong for a country to ask young men and women to do the tasks that they ask people in the army, navy and airforce. I may think that war is best avoided because of what it will cost and often than cost is born by the most vulnerable. This is not an argument against nuclear war, the number of children who die in conventional warfare is high. Some of the deeds done are horrendous. The US authorised the bombing on maternity hospitals in Africa twenty years ago, so that the regime could not provide better facilities for women than had happened under British colonialism because it was communist. Do not worry the English invented concentration camps during the Boer War. War leads nations to behave in vile ways.

However, it is one thing that says that war is not something we should plan for. It is another thing altogether to hold the soldiers who serve as responsible for these vile things. In many ways they are as much a victim of war as the children who get killed by a stray bullet. We ask of them what we could not do ourselves, what we would not be prepared to do ourselves. In the process of doing so many come back with injuries both physical and mental that makes integrating into normal civilian life difficulty. Indeed there is a sense in which the military having its own code of behaviour can institutionalise soldiers and make their return to civilian life difficult even without a disability.

Now if we ask of people to do this. I know the government does, not me personally, but the government does on our behalf. Then I see as a basic quid pro quo, that we have a responsibility to look after them. In other words,when a young person signs up to join the services the nation takes responsibility for making sure they are cared for, not just while they serve, but for their life. Often that also includes responsibility for the family as well.

So I may not be their out cheering on the soldiers on parade, I may well campaign against various wars and I may even choose not to wear a red poppy. However, I will not be among those who berate soldiers, I will donate to charities that aim to look after them, and if ever there comes the opportunity to vote for better conditions for ex-service men and women, they can count on my vote.

I would rather they were not asked to serve, but given that they are, it is the least we can do.

God will protect

I am struggling with something and I am well aware that if I were to post my response by the posts that are there people will think it uncaring. However today a second source got me thinking more widely and I think I need to put this down before I forget.

I follow the devotions from Peachtree Presbyterian Church largely because the pastor Mark Crumpler seems to be on a similar wavelength to me and his thoughts are often enough worth hearing. Today he began with

And we know . . . all things work together for good (Romans 8:28)

Now the simple reading of this is nothing bad will happen to Christians, and if you ask for God’s protection he will give it. It is of  course from Chapter 8 a chapter with more than its fair share of Paul’s purple prose (excuse the alliteration). Between that an assuring us that nothing can separate us from the love of God you’d think it was a rosy picture but…

this is also the chapter where Paul says

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (vs 18)

and

As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (vs 36)

 
Even the nice verses sometimes have a sting in them:
and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.(v17)
The bold is mine but I think it is getting to the core thing. I am not really sure how effect praying for protection from life’s ills is going to be when you are dealing with a god who got himself crucified! Somehow I do not think the protection from life’s ills are exactly a high priority with God. So although I will happily pray “Lead us not into the time of trial” I am not at all sure that life is going to work out, or even that “time of trial” means times when bad things happen. I have my strong suspicion he meant something else when he told us to pray that, that the troubles of this life although unpleasant weren’t exactly the trials he thought we should be asking to avoid. I think in some ways God is interested more in the bigger picture and how we fit within that.

Let me be clear the bringing out of wider purpose out of personal ill has been part of my life. Over fifteen years ago I was betrayed by someone I was in an intimate relationship with. I am not going into details, partly because I do not wish to but also because there is a sense in which I can ever only partly tell the story as big chunks are missing and I have to ability to find discover what should be in those chunks and none of the surmises really work. It left me in a state where I felt insecure in my own home and I could count on the fingers of one hand the people I actually trusted. It has left me with scars, most do not appear on the surface but scratch deeper and you will find that nothing is quite as it appears.

However it always resulted in me doing two things: firstly I needed to find a way to be able to cope with a world that I knew was largely socially created and that I could never be certain it was as I assumed it was; secondly I had spare time, did not want to invest in new relationships so went on a church study course instead. The study course eventually led to me taking first a masters and then my doctorate; the need to find new ways of understanding led me to an openness to Postmodernist theorists that I would not have had otherwise. Both of these have shaped my thinking for my thesis in many ways. If the betrayal had not happened I would not be writing the thesis I now am, I might well not even be doing a thesis.

So that I have seen but these are endings which tell of the bigger picture. Let me go back to todays devotion, it centres around Naomi, and her return to Canaan. She returns having lost her husband and both sons with Ruth. This is disaster and yet she is returning to family. Of course the story ends happily with Ruth marrying Boaz and becoming the grandmother of King David but let us not forget almost certainly Naomi never saw David, when she died she only knew of the security Boaz gave her and Ruth. She never experienced the bigger picture, the story God was involved with in all its glory.

So I am not going to be nice and pretend that if we accept God’s will we will personally see the reason for the hurt and suffering. I will say God can and does work through them but how or why I am not sure. Remember Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not just that the cup of suffering would pass him by, but that in the end his father’s will will be done and that meant that it did not pass him by.  Thus the prayer to take up our cross and follow Christ is a prayer to accept the suffering that will come and to still follow God. It is not easy, I suspect in part that is why so many of the psalms are angry with God but it does seem to be God’s way.

Talking About Practical Piety

As part of my Ph D thesis I am having to write about the Reformed tradition, not as a theological tradition but as a social phenomenon. It is a challenge, there is a large quantity of work on Reformed Theology, there are some books on how to be a good church member and some that try to make the Reformed tradition a spiritual tradition in much the same way that Ignatian Spirituality is. None of these address the real question I am asking which is something like; “How does it differ in the day to day living to be a Reformed Christian rather than any other sort of Christian?”

I have chosen to call this ‘Living out the faith’ a piety. Therefore a piety lies somewhere between a morality in the broad sense of how do you make moral decisions in your life and a spirituality that explores how you understand yourself as relating to God. Everyone’s understanding will be different; there is nothing wrong with this; well at least for the Reformed there is nothing wrong with this. This is just my understanding.


I have chosen to call it practical. I think that “practical” is a better term than David Cornick’s choice of “worldly” but I believe we mean similar things. We expect a piety driven by faith to make a difference in the world not just for us as individual but those around and the wider community. In my thesis, I do not use “practical” in the title of the chapter, but I will have to have a section on why I think it is practical or worldly. Maybe the cultural aspect that Max Weber was trying to describe as the “Protestant work ethic” is far more closely allied to this very down to pragmatic approach to faith, than to a Lutheran doctrine but whether either relates to capitalism is anybody’s guess.

However that is for my thesis and I do not think that most of you will want to read my thesis chapter at this stage. Possibly you will wish to see the final version. Rather what I am doing here is to try and write a series of short articles on aspects of practical piety from a Reformed perspective that are aimed at those who are generally  interested rather than academic sociologists.

[Next Blog not until 1st October]

They say that Love is blind

It is a well known saying that “Love is blind” but I say that love is no more blind than I was born in England.

Let me put that in context, I am white British, I have pale skin, blue eyes, and brown hair with a reddish tint. I speak with an educated Northern English accent and I was educated in state school. In other words if you met me, you’d assume that was English born and bred. The fact is you would be wrong although English bred. I was born in East London South Africa. In other words first appearance are misleading.

So why do I think on first acquaintance love appears blind and yet on  closer inspection turns out to be clearer sighted than many more objective standards.

Firstly let me be clear, many things closely associated with love are blind, or blinding. Infatuation blinds one, sexual attraction often leads to one over looking faults and admiration can deceive both the admirer and the person admired, idolisation most definitely does. As far as love is mixed in with these there will always be some blindness.

However to the extent that this blindness is a matter of deliberately or by emotion overlooking something that is part and parcel of the beloved object, then it also fails as love, because there is that in the beloved that is not loved.

Love rather sees clearly. I have a friend, Stephen  who has problems with alcohol. Basically he is capable of not drinking, but once he starts drinking he cannot control it. There are reasons why being this way is difficult for him, he comes from a culture where drinking is part of socialising, it is the way he has always  relaxed and I suspect he does enjoy it to a certain extent. If you add in the idea common in today’s society that if you don’t drink you are a prude, you get a fairly clear picture what sort of a mess he easily gets himself into.

Now Stephen is fussy over his appearance, if there is one thing he is more fond of it is his job. He has a good degree, is affable and a genuine person. In other words for most of the time, he fools most of the people, who don’t think he has a problem. I actually was going out with Stephen when I first realised he had a problem, yes I got him home and safe after that incident. No we did not break up over that, but did a few weeks later at his request. I was becoming a distraction from drinking (he would hate me saying this but I suspect that is the truth).

Do I reject Stephen, no I don’t. Do I pretend he doesn’t have problems with alcohol? no that is not an option either. I do keep some space between us, and probably need to be stronger about that, but that is because we have split up and both of us need that space to get our heads sorted. What is clear is that being close to him, caring about him, far from hiding his problems with alcohol made me have to face up to them.

To some it might appear I am turning a blind eye to those problems. Particularly the weeks when he came around on a Friday night with a bottle of wine to share, and we talked about life, including his drinking patterns. At that stage both me and his doctor were in damage limitation mode. I suspect if I have refused to have a drink with him it would have set me up in a position where he would not have been honest with me about his struggles and as I was supporting him through them, it was a price I paid, and yes I did not enjoy that wine. I knew what I was doing, I knew in many books it was wrong and yet it seemed the only possible way forward.

That is the problem a person from love will often take action which appear to be “blind” when in fact they are very clear sighted. They know the risks and this seems to best path for them and the individual. Their love is not despite the bad things, but including the bad things. I do not like alcoholism, I have lost friends to it, I have seen decent people ruined and that someone I care for is going through it is painful. I will keep trying to help him fight against it, because each small victory is worth it because I care about him.

I struggle equally with being honest, I can’t support him, if he starts to presume our friendship is something other than it is. He can’t substitute me for the alcohol nor expect me to pick up the pieces every time. He has to take responsibility for himself. So there are boundaries on what I can do and in the end if the only way to be fair is to walk away I will but that does not stop me caring.

So at one level I see more clearly than others, on another at times I act in ways that to someone outside would assume I was blind to the reality. At its core love has the acceptance of who someone is for who they are.  It means risking being hurt, when you know there is high chance you will be hurt.

Therefore in some ways I see God’s love shown more in the resurrection than in the crucifixion. In the crucifixion God faces the worst reality of what humanity is; in the resurrection he comes back to stay in relationship with us. No doubt he could have walked away, gone and sat up in heaven away from all the mess that we are making here. He did not, he came back and dwelt once again amongst us.

Rant: Where Roman Catholics and Reformed Christians agree.

So the title is jokey, which actually agree about quite a lot, but the Church of England has given us one more item of common consensus.

Its to do with the way the CofE factions behave.

They quite often pick on another tradition as having something valuable to say. This is not bad, cross pollination  is in my opinion a good thing if only because it can lead to better understandings. The more we explore other traditions and come to some understanding as to how they work the better. If Anglicanism thinks there is something within the Reformed tradition that is worth emulating then by all means emulate it. After all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I am quite sure that Roman Catholicism is also happy for Anglicanism to explore its rich theological and liturgical tradition and to borrow from it. I am even content for these pressure groups to adopt the relevant badges. Nothing is wrong with that

BUT

When they decide that they know what we believe better than we do and will tell us so, I object. Especially when they decide it is a stick to beat us with. A bit of humility would go a long way. Anglicans don’t seem to be happy to learn from the Catholic tradition or the Reformed tradition they want to claim they have the essence of it and are more truly it than those who belong to it.

Well I have news, to be Reformed or to be Catholic is not something that is down to purifying the tradition until you have some deified essense. It is about belonging. To be Reformed or to be Roman Catholic is not just to adopt a set of stances, it is a whole way of being. You are formed by the community which you belong to, often in ways to subtle to notice.

Look Reformed Christians disagree about what constitutes a Reformed Christian. We would not be Reformed if we didn’t. We have several hundred years of falling out and making new alliances. Yes we are a dysfunctional family, but we don’t like Anglicans behaving like social workers and telling us exactly how we should be ourselves. Or to put it another way the one thing we will agree on, is whatever Reformed is, it is not what you tell us it is!

I full expect that many Roman Catholics will agree with me on this one point.

The Discipline of Joy

This is a response to Chapter four in John Ortberg’s book “The Life you have Always Wanted“. He does not say that Christian’s should be happy and smiley all the time. That is bad theology but he does suggest we should practice joy but then does not tell us what joy is.

I am going to suggest that what he means be joy is those practices that lead to celebration and I therefore think that a two fold approach is needed

Stage one is a practice which is very close to Buddhist mindfulness, the only difference being that it tends to seek out pleasant experiences rather than just taking any experience. That is when something good happens you take the time to actually experience it, enjoy it, savour it, appreciate it, there is not a good verb in English. John suggests spending a whole day doing this each week. That I would not think possible in modern life, too many commitments but it is possible to have the occasional spoil yourself day and/or to try and have five minutes when you just let yourself savour what you are experience. It might be the warm blankets over you as you lie down to go to sleep. Just feel their weight and the warmth reflecting back from your body. What I find really good for doing this is to write poems. Most of mine start with me just trying to capture some experience in words. I have to experience it first before I can find the words.

Stage two is complimentary and that is to practice gratitude. No I do not mean the idea of thanking God for the cut knee. I mean when you come aware of something as given, whether from God or from another human being, just acknowledging that. It takes all of two seconds to do. Somebody opens a door for you and you say “thanks”, a person serves you in a shop and you say “thanks” even a driver lets you into a flow of traffic and you wave your hand. It makes you aware of how many things you receive each day. Then there are things that are not due to any other human but are not under your control either: it not raining on a wet day when you leave your brolly at home, the flavour of blackberries picked while out walking, having the health you have or a good family and friends even a nuch needed parking space. To acknowledge that much of life is given and as a Christian I see it as given by God so it is natural to thank him.

The thing is that together the two work together to provide a motor out of which celebration naturally happens. A life savouring the generosity of God, can there really be a better basis for joy.

That is not to say nasty things don’t happen they do and it is totally right to be cross when they do but a discipline like this helps so that nasty things don’t overwhelm us. It provides hope in times when hope otherwise seems far away. Sometimes all we can do is savour the pain and offer that to God but God takes even that.