Shrove Tide

Between the lighting of
a candle and
the beating of
at the barren bound time
when the cold iron air
hits the hard flint
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

Sacred Compass: The Spiritual Way of Discernment by J Brent Bill

Book Cover

This book is written by an American Evangelical Quaker. So there are a number of things that need tackling before getting into the book. I have learnt that while Quakers are often seen in this country as liminal to Christian orthodoxy in the US they come in two varieties. There are those who are theologically in a similar position to UK Quakers and there are the Evangelical Quakers who clearly are orthodox though pretty liberal with respect to the Christian tradition but hold to elements of the Quaker tradition as well. J Brent Bill comes from this Evangelical stream. As such his theology would be a pretty close fit with that of many URC  congregations particularly those that draw on elements of Separatism. Secondly, through Ship-of-Fools I have become aware that Quakerism has a wholly separate tradition of spiritual discernment and given the way even in this country we overlap I wanted to include some exploration of it within what I looked at.

Firstly this is not a book that places the spiritual accompaniment in a wider context. The metaphor used is deliberately that of a compass and not a road map or a SatNav. He also has the Puritan idea that what is right for one is not necessarily right for another. To illustrate this he uses the Draft in the US and the decisions made by him and two friends. One friend coming from a more Radical Quaker tradition openly resisted, the other friend  a Lutheran who could have been excused sought to go and he himself having no clear guidance sought to delay. Though the responses were very different yet each decision was brought out of who that person was and their journey with God.

Secondly, core to discernment processes are  leadings with certain characteristics that he lists in his chapter on paying attention he suggests testing out leadings against:

  • the Fruits of the Spirit
  • caring
  • a sense of harmony with God
  • generosity
  • persistence
  • rightness
  • surrender of our wills to God’s.

He also suggests that they should come from within and not imposed from outside.

He deals with being lost times and I found myself quoting him while on the Spiritual Direction session simply because he says that in the New Testament

lost is simply lost, not damned or condemned.

I added that I suspect if you sense yourself as lost it is the first step towards being found.

He outlines a process which passes through sensing, waiting and acting. In the discernment process, we are moving continually back and forwards between the stages or completing the circle. He describes spiritual friendship as a

friendship between people committed to each other and to the deepening of their faith lives

He talks of what Quakers call “Weighty Friends” who are people that others instinctively turn to for spiritual guidance. In some ways ironic because having to explain the times my faith intuition seems able to grasp something ahead I used the metaphor of “thin” as in the Celtic Spiritual  term “thin place“. I think because I am so often surprised by it myself. He describes such people as having a “call:
to create a safe place for spiritual investigation
to embrace hope
to hear the Spirit
to encourage faithful obedience”

I think so far this has been the most useful of the books I have read. In that it has cored me back to what I already sensed and yet has given some form to the process without being prescriptive.

Pilgrim Path

past the water channel
that marks the boundary
of the arrow-grass salt marsh
we finally step out onto mudflats
then awkwardly hop about
as we remove clumsy boots
tie  laces together
and hang them from our packs
then roll our trousers above the knee
in preparation for the traverse
cautiously we move
trying to avoid the glasswort
in case it is slippery seaweed
towards where the poles
point heavenwards
in an otherwise horizontal world
the left behind causeway becomes
just a distant murmur of traffic
drowned by the keening of seals
hidden in the light’s vastness.

sanderlings flicker-feed beside us
a heron languidly flaps by
black-backed gulls speed overhead
between blueness of sky
and its browned reflection in the sand
we walk between masts that mark
the safe route across this unveiled
sea-wilderness that stretches
the horizon

broken shells sharp against our feet
seagrassed mud-mires grasp our legs
firm bottom runnels cool our calves
soft sands ooze between our toes
each step a different experience
each step a repeat of all others
a pole in front
one behind
there is no map
or sense of distance covered
only the journey

yet this too is finite
eventually we come
to the point
where marram grass rises
above sand-dune
and we reach landfall

On straying and finding the trail

When I am walking a long distance path I do not aspire to get lost. I am happy to take my time over the journey but actually getting lost at best means it will take longer and at worst is dangerous. To this end I use multiple navigation techniques:

  • Waymarking – that is keeping a watch out for marks made by others that show the correct route of the trail
  • Route Map and Guidebook, used for imaging the trail in advance and for checking I am still going the right way when I have not seen a waymark for a while
  • GPS with the trail on it to check I am still on the route when I start panicking
  • OS maps of the area (1:25,000) and compass for when I know I am off the trail and I want to get back on.

What should be obvious  is that following a trail takes effort. However, for 90% of the time waymarking is sufficient. That is following the directions from one waymark I immediately start looking for the next. If the trail is difficult then the next waymark is visible from the present one, if the trail is easy to follow then it can be quite a while between waymarks. Normally when I get the route map out it is to check I have not missed a waymark because I have been following a well-defined trail. Usually, I am panicking.

Walking St Cuthbert’s Way between Wooler and Beal it crosses Weetwood Moor. About two-thirds of the way across it takes a 90-degree turn. However, a clear path runs straight ahead. When I was crossing Weetwood Moor another couple of people walking St Cuthbert’s Way called Chris and Peter were walking about fifty yards behind me. We had got to know each other over the previous days on the route. I missed the waymark for the turn! I started to get suspicious when I went through a gate which was not waymarked (gates normally are) and half way through the next field I checked my GPS and I was clearly off route. At this point, I shouted back to Chris and Peter who were still following me (I was about 150 metres off route).

We together traced our steps to the turn-off and started out again. This time, I let them lead (I was obviously not doing too well this day). The net result was we promptly got off route again by heading across a field instead of staying by the wall. The ground we travelled on was decided tricky and Peter and Chris did not fancy retracing for the second time in the day. Nor actually did I. For the one and only time in walking the route I got out the OS maps. I was able to place us and also able to point out that across the wall at the other side of the field to the gate we were at was a quarry. Peter did not believe me and went to check finding out that it was indeed the case. I was, however, also able to point out it might be possible to walk around the quarry by crossing the wall further on. This is what we did though we ended up hacking our way through bracken and a steep descent down to the road across a field. We came out back on the path and the view gave a clear indication of where we were to walk. When we were past this we were on territory where I had walked doing the Northumberland Costal Path.

Intriguingly others also walking the way got lost in much the same way at exactly the same point so we were not complete dunces. However, I find getting lost was instructive.

Firstly, being with people when lost is far better than being lost and alone. When making decisions on how to get back, groups tend to balance each other out. However, just because someone is in front of you on the same journey does not mean they are on the right track!

Secondly, both getting lost was because we were not careful enough. I should have been looking out for the turning in the first case and in the second we should have spotted that the path ran next to the wall once we were through the gate. In other words checking waymarks against maps and maps against waymarks is a good idea.

Thirdly there are two ways to get back on the route: retracing or detouring. Usually, preference is for retracing and the bias should always be for that. Detouring frequently takes you across tougher ground and can lead you into danger. However, there can be good reasons to detour such as when the ground already covered is difficult to cover. You are balancing possible future danger against known past danger. Again the ability to consider this with others is important.

I am careful of what I am drawing, but I am aware that I am in uncharted area spiritually. I need to find a way across and the route back is actuall to a dead end. I initially thought that I should look for those who may know something of the territory, maybe I still should but I am now aware they may be heading in the wrong direction and retracing is expensive. I do, however, know that I will value companions who may or may not equally be seeking routes across the terrain. The ability to seek a way forward together seems to me a great blessing.

Solitary Walking – a Reformed Spiritual Practice?

This is initial thinking and it is not simple.

Firstly, one of the big shocks of my thesis was that the Reformed Spirituality is instinctively Green. It is really weird because the people who are most surprised by this are the Reformed.  The idea that getting out into the natural world is good for the soul seems to be deeply embedded and has deeper roots than the idea that we are the driving spirituality of capitalism. The Green nature of Reformed may well stem from John Calvin’s idea of the natural world as the theatre of God’s Glory. Or rather it may well be that John Calvin’s own spirituality connected with the natural world which led to his doctrine of the world as “theatre of God’s Glory”. That is the connection made in  Ravished by Beauty by Belden C Lane. If so we are also called not to turn it into some safe primary school image of itself but to see it in its complexity with the dark and the dangerous included. I am never quite sure whether I like God, God is far too challenging for the word “like”.

Secondly, we are inherently an active tradition. This means that we like to tackle problems and achieve things. The idea of sitting quietly in a room does not fit naturally with who we are, so the idea that we should go out into the natural world and just breathe in the beauty is not going to fit with the Reformed activism. Here walking comes to our aid. We are doing something; it might not be getting us very far, far quickly but we are doing something.

Thirdly, there is a substantial literature on spiritual aspects of walking, quite a bit of it generally secular. However, what is probably more important to the Reformed Christian is there is a strong linkage with radical ideas of society and justice. Walking is not a practice that gives us just space but it also connects to radical views on what society is. People such as Peace Pilgrim, Jarrow Hunger March, and this teenager against climate change have used walking as a means of engaging in wider aspects of society.

Fourthly, Pilgrim sites may be un-Reformed but the journeying is far more ambiguous particularly within the Separatist tradition in England. It is the tradition that both created the Pilgrim Fathers and Pilgrim’s Progress.  The metaphor of the Christian life as a journey runs deep. It is also true that if Geneva is the birthplace of the Reformed tradition then it is also a tradition whose creation was dominated by refugees. There is no accident in the Reformed traditions perpetual return to the stories of Exodus and Exile. We are a travelling people and that goes for the English Reformed as much as anyone due to the Five Mile Act.

So walking in the countryside seems to be a good match with Reformed Spirituality. What do I mean by Solitary Walking? The normal term for hiking alone is Solo Hiking. What I want to get at with Solitary Walking is the deliberate embracing of the spiritual side of walking. Solitaries are another term for hermits so in this respect, I am exploring a spirituality that links with the eremitical tradition rather than the monastic.  So here are the Spiritual connections I see.

Firstly the Bible has lots of people travelling and because of the history of the Bible, a lot of these journeys were on foot. So we assume that Adam and Eve left the garden on foot, a journey from, not a journey towards. Abraham is called to journey (actually it is his father Terah who starts off the journey but there is no account of the call of Terah), the  Exodus,  Ruth and Naomi’s journey, the Exile and Return, Jesus’ peripatetic teaching ministry in Galilee and Paul’s missionary journeys are all stories of travel. There is no lack of travel during God’s revelation. Perhaps it could be argued that God is able to reach people particular when they are moving, it is the stationary periods where things particularly go wrong.

Secondly walking is physical, repetitive and slow. As such it is at odds with much of the modern culture which focuses on the new, the virtual and the quick. We become, myself very much included, stimulation junkies. Walking allows us to lower our desired level of stimulation without us going to the cold turkey of a plain room, silence, and stillness. Let me deal with each term in order. Walking is physical, you need to be at least partly present in the moment or you end up walking into things whether lamposts, other people or dog dirt. There is, however, more as the art of walking is keeping going and that means paying attention to very practical things such as food, what you are wearing and how far it is until you next rest. It thus in a very practical way brings you into the present. It is repetitive in that involves the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, usually several thousand times in a days hike. In this perhaps it fits with a number of other spiritual practices such as bead prayers (e.g. the rosary) and  mantras (e.g. the Jesus prayer). Thirdly it is slow. I walk relatively quickly about 5km per hour on a reasonable terrain. It still takes me two hours to walk ten kilometers something a car cover in about 10 minutes! That means things change more slowly and I begin to notice things simply because I have the time to.

All of the last two paragraphs apply equally well to group walks as well as solitary ones. However, the solitary nature of a walk brings other spiritual aspects. These are silence, vulnerability, and freedom. I will take each of these as I suspect I am applying them in a bit of a different way.

Silence is rarely complete when walking, there is nearly always the crunch of your feet. However, when walking alone and not having a companion to talk with one of the things you do get is consistent big chunks of time when you are not trying to communicate with others. The only conversation you have is that which goes on in your own head.  The big advantage, therefore, is you actually get to listen to yourself  consistent spell of time. There is so much going on in modern life that distraction is everywhere. Although not necessarily physically noisy (though many distractions are) distractions are noisy in the sense used in signal processing. This noisiness means we loose connections with ourselves in much of modern life. The process of walking alone reduces the level of distraction so that we can hear ourselves and possibly in that gain some connection with God. However, unlike a silent retreat, it does not have the effect of a dive in off the high diving board into complete silence.

Vulnerability is not popular these days. We try and make ourselves secure against the need for other people. A single person is often seen as intrinsically vulnerable. I am dependent quite often on the kindness of strangers whether it is the offer of a cup of tea, helping me with directions or advice about local transport, the kindnesses are all welcome. In our seeking of self-sufficiency, we often cut ourselves off from receiving these kindnesses. This gives us the illusion of not needing others. What travelling as a solitary person among other people does is draw our attention back to our interdependence.

I really considered not including freedom in the list. It is perhaps not the usual item included in the spiritual practices and yet for me it is intrinsic to the process. There is on one level a very basic freedom, I have usually a number of miles to walk in a day and provided I cover those miles exactly how I do it and which paths I follow is totally within my control. It can feel quite liberating to take a path that is not that specified in the guidebook when appropriate. It reminds you of your self determination. On another level it gives a different freedom, that is the demands for time and attention most people live with most of the time. I am slightly disconnected from the continually on society that is part of modern life. If an email comes to work that needs urgent attention then it has to wait as I cannot deal with it until I have proper connections. What is more the people I meet do not know me, they are meeting me for the first time and thus have no expectations. I do not feel I am expected to be the canny statistician, dutiful daughter or loyal friend as no-one knows those personas. Personally I seem to attract these projected personas and they are not always compatible with each other.

Finally, having made a case for solitary walking as a spiritual practice largely suited to Reformed Spirituality let me point out why can only ever be part of the experience. I, myself and my shadow with the Bible are never sufficient within the Reformed tradition to be the Church. The Church must always consisted of an attempt to belong to a community. Some of this I believe goes to the heart of the Gospel where we have a God who seeks those who are separated from him. Other parts are very practical, loving people as an abstract idea is a form of wishful thinking, we can only really love people in the concrete physical reality of the present. Finally, my PhD has persuaded me that the discipline of the Church is realised within the life of the local congregational community.

That said I am still working on this and am not sure where it is leading.

Works Cited

Belden C Lane. Ravished by Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Hardback. ISBN:9780199755080

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 a 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 believe 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  believe 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 of 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 all 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 they are ordered to do in our name. 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 are not 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 difficult. 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 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 will not be there out cheering on the soldiers on parade, may well campaign against various wars and 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-servicemen 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)


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.