Holy week- darkness…

So, it is almost Easter.

Last night in housegroup we continued to read and discuss the Gospel of Mark, and by some quirk or accident (or design), we came to Mark 14.

The bit that describes how the  Sanhedrin  gathered together anddecided to kill Jesus, even before Pesach if possible.

In the meantime, Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Here he was anointed on the head, probably by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with very expensive ointment of spikenard.

Some of the disciples were furious; the oil could have been sold to support the poor.

In this context, Judas went to the Sanhedrin and offered them his support in exchange for money. From this moment on Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus.


It settled on us as we read. It was tangible.

There is a tradition in the church to mark this darkness by celebrating Tenebrae. A service in which candles are gradually extinguished, and then as the darkness falls, a book is slammed shut. It is the end.

There is this verse in Mark where Jesus predicts the terrible effect the next few says will have on us, his followers- “All of you will have your faith shaken” or as the NIV puts it-

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:
” ‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.” (v 27)

Faith and doubt. Doubt and faith. Mingled.

Light gets swallowed in darkness.

For a while.

Aoradh wilderness trip 2010- update…

Just to confirm where things are up to with the plans for our trip to Jura on May 1st.

In discussion with the boat operator, I have opted for Pig Bay rather than Glengarisdale. This means that we miss out on having a Bothy, which may have come in useful, but there are caves, and I will take a tarp to rig up if we really need some shelter to cook/commune under. Glengarisdale was just too much of a risk in terms of safe landing and (more particularly) pick-up once landed.

In terms of numbers-

6 people signed up through ‘Emerging Scotland’ site.

3 of us from Dunoon

2 from Preston

2 others from Glasgow

Plus Terry coming out for the boat trip on either the send or the return

(And two dogs!)

Plus 3 possibles-

One bloke from Bute, who has said he wants to come.

Simon M?

Nick- does not think he can make it.

Should be a nice mix of people- and this time, there are 3 WOMEN as part of our gathering!

This gives us the nice problem of needing more than one boat trip. At present, I have provisionally booked an outward trip at 7AM and 8AM on the 1st. Have not been able to confirm returns yet for the Monday, but in the past these have been mid morning.

So- can you please confirm whether you are definitely coming.  If you say yes, then I am afraid you are committing to paying your share of the boat costs even if you drop out!

There are also still be a few places left if you know of any others who might want to join us yet… It would be good to fill the second boat as well…

Really looking forward to the weekend!

Mountain eats man…

I took a walk yesterday with a mate. And the mountain ate us.

They do that.

There is this real tendency to see oursleves as significant. We make the things of our small lives into megaliths. We wall ourselves in with worries and concerns that come to tower over us, and the risk is that we become so accostomed to the shadows that we forget that the sun ever shines.

But today, the mountain was bigger than me.


‘Highland Emergency’- I become a fan…

For the last few Friday nights, part of my collapse from work has involved watching this programme

My preocupation might relate to my own recent reason to be thankful for the professionalism of these men and women who provide an emergency rescue service accross the wild hills and waters of Scotland.

In watching this programme, I have been more aware of how dangerous some of the conditions they fly into are. Tonight’s episode saw Rescue 177, the Royal Navy Sea King from HMS Gannett that picked me up, almost crashing into Ben Cruachan in strong down drafts- which left the crew shaking and shocked.

Brave men. People whose actions are worth celebrating.

And (for me at least!) compulsive TV. Often filmed in the landscape that is so familiar- the wildness of Argyll and the west coast.

Here’s an episode from you tube…

Making poetry…

Just back home after leading a poetry workshop with Audrey.

We were a little bit nervous, but it seemed to go well. There were 7-8 people from a local church, and we talked about personification and assonance and the like, and then read some lovely words.

I love it when people start to get turned on by ideas… and this did start to happen.

I hope the folk there get into writing some stuff.

It really is good for the soul.

We had a discussion about words, and I described hoarding them, relishing them ready to plant them and let them grow into a poem. And how sometimes it really is that simple.

But at other times- as with all things worth doing- poetry is hard work.

It requires a lines on your face.

So, a bit of Audrey’s favourite poet- R S Thomas. Lines and all.

Poetry For Supper
Listen, now, verse should be as natural
As the small tuber that feeds on muck
And grows slowly from obtuse soil
To the white flower of immortal beauty.

Natural, hell! What was it Chaucer
Said once about the long toil
That goes like blood to the poem’s making?
Leave it to nature and the verse sprawls,
Limp as bindweed, if it break at all
Life’s iron crust. Man, you must sweat
And rhyme your guts taut, if you’d build
Your verse a ladder.

You speak as though
No sunlight ever surprised the mind

Groping on its cloudy path.

Sunlight’s a thing that needs a window
Before it enters a dark room.
Windows don’t happen.

So two old poets,
Hunched at their beer in the low haze
Of an inn parlour, while the talk ran
Noisily by them, glib with prose.

Working like an ant…

So here we have a picture of a leaf cutter ant, taken on a recent visit to a zoo thingy. I missed the focus point, but you get the gist.

And I am sure that most of you will get the analogy all too readilly too.

These ants work non stop to cut up leaves, carry the bits back to their colony, and so make a big compost in order to allow more ants to hatch, grow and do the same.


Alternative worship, retrospective…

(I love the photo above by the way- it was one of those accidental images, taken in the half light of Gloucester cathedral last year.)

I have been thinking a lot more recently about ‘alternative worship’.

I think for many of us, the precursor to these new form of worship and spirituality was charismatic soft rock worship. In the past our spirituality was expressed almost exclusively through weekly climactic events- ecstatic music and inspirational preaching. This form of worship tailed into boredom and irrelevance for many- at the same time as people began to realise that it was possible to rediscover and re-invent many older spiritual practices- and to encounter these in smaller and less hierarchical communities.

Others found their way into alt worship through a dance/club sub culture- which was extremely influential in the early days. Still others were seeking to discover authenticity in more traditional liturgical environments.

Can I point you towards this podcast which digs into the background and history of the movement.

It features an interview with Jonny Baker– who, for those who might not know of him, is one of the movers and entrepreneurs of all sorts of interesting church and community projects, including the worship community Grace, a co-founder of the outlet for lots of resources that is Proost and part of the CMS team who are encouraging so many good things, particularly in the C of E, but also around the world. Jonny has been very encouraging to me personally- around the writing I have done, but also as part of the wider network of small groups doing different mission/community/worship things. A good bloke- with the experience and intelligence to say things that are worth listening to.

This podcast digs into the where alternative worship came from, in all its messy creativity, but also asks where we are now.

I think we are at  a point where we need to re examine what alternative worship means- this for both personal local reasons, and for wider ones. In terms of the wider issues first-

The clue is in the title- ‘alternative’. What are we an alternative to? And at what point does someone need to find an alternative to the alternative? it is a term that was formed in change- but of course change soon become establishment, and needs further change.

There appear to me to be different strands already developing. There are some small but high profile urban groups, whose efforts are focused on creating high concept art. These groups are great as exemplars and as inspiration, but most of what they do- in terms of resources, skills and the sub cultures they grow out of- are beyond the rest of us. Perhaps for some they are even alienating and confusing.

Other alternative worship forms appear to be being incorporated and embraced by traditional church- as a way of bringing life and renewal to old structures. Of course there is always the danger that this becomes window dressing for the same old same old.

Then there are groups like mine. Fragile collections of disparate people who are perhaps not trendy or well resourced, but are trying to use skills that we have forgotten that we possessed and (far more importantly) trying to learn how to love each other, despite all the usual obstacles. Here the focus rapidly shifts from doing exciting stuff and being involved in a ‘new thing’, to how we can live with each other in the presence of our hurt and brokenness, and how we can lay ourselves down to worship in a way that is authentic and true despite all this baggage. I suppose this is not alternative worship- it is just worship– perhaps using a wider tool bag to assist us along the way.

For me, this is partly about laying down our ‘art’ and embracing community. Not a thing that I find easy at all. It is also about radical involvement and inclusion- and allowing worship to arise from your context. Our group has many people who are talented ‘craft’ people for example, and a few poets. So we tend to have lots of cutting and sticking and some lovely poems. We are less driven by technology. But should others come who have these skills, the trick will be to involve and encourage…

Holy space

Some of these issues feel very real and pressing to me at the moment. This for two reasons.

Firstly, Aoradh is still in the middle of a rather developmental transition at the moment. I think we will survive, but at times I have wondered. It is nothing even faintly surprising to anyone who has ever been part of small pioneer groups- all the familiar issues of ethos, focus, the need for honest open relationships and to challenge certain behaviours in a loving and caring way. Oh, and that old issue that we have avoided- LEADERSHIP.

We have been meeting to talk about these things, but this has taken so much energy that we have had little left to be creative and passionate about worship- which kind of defeats the purpose! However, we now have a few things on the horizon, which brings me to the second point.

We are keen to keep our focus LOCAL- finding spaces and partnerships in our own local community. But along side this, we have been invited to participate in some larger national events- like Greenbelt and the new Solas festival. It is an honour to be invited, and also potentially great as a boost for what we are about, and a chance to discover new ideas and friendships. But it also brings into focus some of the issue above.

For instance Greenbelt alt worship has changed. We are being asked to throw ourselves into a creative soup with some other groups to create a day long session. This involves a whole lot of negotiation and on-line collaboration with groups whose ethos and philosophy may well be very different from ours- whose context and constituent parts demand a very different style and approach. Mark Berry has stepped forward to curate and co-ordinate the day we are involved in, and it is going to be fascinating to see how these things come together.

The early discussions have had an interesting effect on my group. We all have different levels of comfort with uncertainty, and some of the e-mails flying round have led to a kind of general retreat, as they have dealt with concepts and ideas that seem beyond us. We are in a developmental phase, but some of my friends are just stepping backwards.

I found myself wondering whether alternative worship is  in danger of becoming a showcase for the kind of experiential celebrity driven ‘performance’ that I was glad to leave behind when I stopped leading large scale soft rock worship services.

The heart of this thing (I think) is how we encourage one another as we stumble towards Jesus, and of creating deliberate communal spaces to share this journey.

I have found so much life and encouragement around alternative/emerging/missional practices. But they are just words after all…

    Facing fear…

    Michaela is away for the weekend to meet an old school friend in the Lake District. The kids and I needed an little adventure of our own and so I somewhat reluctantly agreed to a trip to an amusement park.

    I am not a fan of these places. They are very expensive, and I usually feel rather depressed by the tacky pre-packaged fear-tainment- each step we take carefully ‘monetized’ (forgive the Americanism.)

    They are all about noise,  smelly fast food and rust-streaked mass manipulation and they offer a quick adrenaline buzz which is over in a flash of neon and a wave of nausea.

    It is a far cry from the trips into empty wild places that I love so much- and try to inculcate into my children’s souls.

    But to be honest, like most parents I am happiest when I have made my kids happy.

    It was touch and go for a while. We arrived in a burst of excited chatter from the kids, and paid out the best part of £70 for tickets then walked around the park as the rides opened deciding what seemed possible and what we would avoid at all costs.

    We all had such different thresholds. Emily would go on most things, me on a few- Will became increasingly quiet, and I knew that his world was getting smaller.

    And so in this rather dreadful modern excuse for living fuller and more present lives, we all began a kind of journey.

    Emily went on almost every ride- daring herself towards the extreme. There was also a reptile house, and she overcame her fear of spiders and held a Tarantula.

    I too was banged and crashed around on roller coasters, and soaked on log flumes and water chutes.

    But the greatest journey was made by William.

    William is at his happiest when with his friends in the forest with a stick and a head full of pokemania. He is comfortable with what is known and understood and has little interest in what lies beyond this. So standing before a huge Ferris wheel, or a plunging water slide, or even a roller coaster aimed at little kids-he was transfixed with fear, and no amount of persuasion or encouragement would force him forward.

    Emily was great, and took him on some little rides. He had a go on trampolines and crazy golf. But he was not happy. When I pushed him a little too hard, he wept into my shoulder.

    So began a long conversation about how life was full of things that will shrink us down into ever smaller boxes- and how the only way to deal with fear was to face it  and take some small steps into the danger zone. And how we often find that when we do the the fear itself retreats and new things become possible.

    And there in that artificial and rather unpleasant space, that is just what happened to Will. After a gulp he decided to go for the big scary Ferris wheel. He was visibly shaking- holding every muscle rigid, but still he climbed into the cage…

    And the old magic happened. As we are exposed to fear, our autonomic nervous systems fire into fight or flight mode- thoughts become hyper focused and instinctive, blood flows to muscles, breathing becomes shallow and quick. We become totally pre-occupied with making the fear go away– and making the symptoms of the fear go away too. But for most of the time (particularly when the risk is measured or even unreasonable) if we stay in the moment- face up to the fear but act anyway- then we find that over a few minutes (around 5-20 mins)  the fear tails away, and the most primitive part of ourselves recalibrates to view this action as ‘safe’.

    In this way, like the ripples made by a stone on still water, we expand.

    Alternatively, if we avoid the fear then not only does this unlearning fail to happen, but actually we are likely to entrench the autonomic response still further. In some cases, the fear then encroaches on other areas of life like a kind of psychological gangrene.

    Fear of falling then may extend to ladders, to tall buildings, to airplanes, to staircases.

    In some cases, mixed with the right amount of vulnerability and damaging childhood experience, these fears make us a prisoner in our own bodies. They stop us coming out of our protective huddles- sometimes they stop people leaving their front doors.

    It is kind of easy to visualise the fears of childhood- but so much more difficult to understand and unlock the fears that hold us as adults. I am reminded of that point where Jesus sends out his followers in twos to declare the New Kingdom in acts of healing and deliverance- and when some demons prove to be beyond them, he says that some only are over come by prayer and fasting. It is almost as if he is saying- there are no magical answers to this kind of freedom- it requires work.

    Yesterday Williams faced up to his fear- and stood on top of his own mountain. And I was so proud of him.

    May we stand on ours.

    Because it is for FREEDOM that we are set free.