All Saints Eve meal…

We had our monthly Aoradh family day meal tonight- which happened to coincide with the dreaded Halloween.

Dreaded in my case, as I find the increasing madness around Halloween difficult to stomach. The ‘traditions’ we are inheriting are very recent ones- which owe more to 1970’s American films than they do to any folk traditions native to these islands. This does not in itself make them bad- but in this case, I struggle to understand the point of the whole thing.

An evening to dress up as ghosts and mass murderers and walk the streets eating sweets and chocolate…

Actually, when you put it like that, it sounds rather fun doesn’t it?

And that is the other struggle. We took a decision years ago that as Christians, we wanted to keep away from it all. It had too much of the darkness, and not enough of the light. It sided with the wrong half of the tradition- preferring the celebration of devils and demons that was supposed to be a precursor to the celebration of All Saints Day– a day which passes unnoticed.

But this means that our kids have always missed out on the fun bit, although we are certainly much less strict than we used to be- William went to the school disco, and Emily is old enough to make up her own mind.

But then I see some of the things going on, and my resolve stiffens again.

In the middle of Dunoon, a local hall has set up a little fake graveyard. And above it, they have strung some stuffed white sheets, hung from the neck and splashed with red paint. Quite creative really. Certainly a lot of time was taken.

Except that when I saw them, it looked like ‘strange fruit‘.

And also reminded me of the people who killed themselves by hanging over the last year. Relatives of whom may well be driving past…

Tonight, we shared a meal with our Aoradh friends, and it was lovely. To mark the evening, we decided to play a game of pass the parcel.

We turned of the lights, and passed the parcel in the dark, and each layer of the parcel had a candle, and some words about light. The candle was lit, and the words read.

And as the game went on, it got lighter, as more and more candles were lit.

Eventually we got to the middle- a large candle, and some indoor sparklers.

Which we lit, and prayed.

It was simple and profound, and once more made me very grateful for my friends.

Scientology, does it scare you a little?

I watched this video today- after a Guardian article revealing how hard the Church of Scientology had tried to suppress it’s general release

I knew next to nothing about Scientology, apart from its association with some Hollywood stars and the controversy about the allegedly abusive way that its leaders behaved towards one another.

Then there was the way that BBC heavy weight correspondent John Sweeney got into conflict with the Scientologists– the famous panorama programme where faced with wierd wind up tactics, he lost it during an interview and shouted and bawled.

Read his account of how he was treated by Scientology thugs during the course of his investigation- it is difficult to imagine any other church being able to justify such behaviour, no matter how much pressure it feels itself to be under. They call it their ‘attack the attacker’ or ‘fair game’ policy, and involves using tactics that would make Peter Mandelson blush.

I do not like knocking other faiths. It is an easy hit- poking fun and finding fault with things you do not believe. The question is whether Scientology is a faith, or a manipulative cult, surviving through the misuse of power, money and legal process.

L Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology was a science fiction writer who decided to start a religion- allegedly boasting that it was the best way to make a million.

He started with a self help book, where he pans psychiatry, and suggested an alternative way of dealing with life via a process of ‘auditing’.  This from Wikipedia-

In the mid-sixties, the Church of Scientology was banned in several Australian states, starting with Victoria in 1965. The ban was based on the Anderson Report, which found that the auditing process involved “command” hypnosis, in which the hypnotist assumes “positive authoritative control” over the patient. On this point the report stated,

It is the firm conclusion of this Board that most scientology and dianetic techniques are those of authoritative hypnosis and as such are dangerous … the scientific evidence which the Board heard from several expert witnesses of the highest repute … leads to the inescapable conclusion that it is only in name that there is any difference between authoritative hypnosis and most of the techniques of scientology. Many scientology techniques are in fact hypnotic techniques, and Hubbard has not changed their nature by changing their names.

What do Scientologists believe? I spent some time trying to understand the basics, but I am afraid, in the end, I just did not care. Feel free to check it out yourself though.

Power, wealth, psychological pressure, manipulation and the American dream of success- all mixed up into a religion.

Renovation and change…

More work on the old house.

The back bedroom/spare room this time- a ceiling that has been hanging on a horse hair thread, because of previous water damage.

Renovation as an analogy of change? Here we go-

  • Renovation is not the same thing as restoration.
  • It always involves a lot of mess at first.
  • It is possible, either through lack of resources, or unwillingness to make the mess, to fiddle around at the surface, and try to ignore the deeper problems. If you do, you will regret it later.
  • Get people to help who know what they are doing.
  • The use we put the house to is very different from the use it was put to in the past- so we need different materials, and to create different kinds of spaces.


Kind of reminds me of an old poem, written in a prayer room a few years ago-



I can hear a creaking

A groaning from the joists

Pipes and drains are leaking

Floor boards are tearing loose


Can you smell the horsehair plaster

Stripping off from lath?

This could bring disaster

Or perhaps could clear a freedom path


There’s a time for all things

The good book says

To reap, to weep, to build, to sing

To mourn then turn the journey on


The marshal yards are empty now

And the cranes stand fixed and rusty

The shipyards moved to other towns

And the churches all lie empty


Lord teach me to move like water

Running from these mountains


Tear out my feet from concrete shoes

And dance me till I flutter

For freedom comes to those who find

Your keys amongst our clutter



Sea tree…

High on the shore line

Above the storm berm

The winter sea gave out a pilgrim trunk


It was thrown up the beach

Like you or I might flick a pebble


The corpse of the old tree

Has been gnarled and shaped

By encounters with deep reefs

Where it rolled and shoaled with the fish

And bore the barnacles and wracks

Of the deep blue sea


Now it lies here

Like bone of leviathan


It has taken on the colours of the deep-

Sea green

Shadow black

Red like the eye of a shark

Grey like the dripping tail of a whale

All faded a little by the blown sand

But jewelled instead by salt crystals

Drawn out in the low sun


Who knows where its roots are

Or what of its seeds

Still remain

Ways of reading the Bible…

Some time ago, I posted some questions about how we understand and encounter the Bible. Someone asked me to post some answers to my questions, so I had a go at this here.

It has been quite a journey for me over the last few years- trying to come to terms with a faith that I no longer had faith in, and then discovering along the way that I was not alone, and that there were different ways to approach an understanding of God, and in particular, different ways to approach our primary source material on the life of faith- the Bible.

This process has been painful, and at times I have wondered whether my faith will survive. But the outcome has been one of renewal. The Spirit of God was once again stirring the waters…

The process of change has involved a period deconstruction- a doubting and shaking loose things that had previously seemed unassailable and absolute. This is the painful bit- when everything seems to go into freefall.

The ’emerging church conversation’- carried out largely through blogs and websites- seemed to me to be comfortable with unanswered questions. In fact after every truth and every tenet, we added a question mark.

But then there comes a time when something new starts to emerge and it is time to construct again. It feels to me that this is where we currently stand. We do not need bombastic pronunciations or new religious structures- rather it feels that our heads have come out of the clouds, and we can see further.

Along the way, I have found Brian McLaren’s writing to be a life giving. I know others have a different experience- for some his style can drag, for others his aim is too low brow, as the are more used to the theological arguments than I am- but he has taken me places that I had not dared to go alone.

(Photo taken in a semi-ruined abandoned croft house on the island of Bernera, off Lewis, Western isles. A family bible left open above an empty fire place…)

In reading his new book (slowly and in small chunks) I came across a study guide he had written, which focussed on different ways of reading scripture, and found it so helpful that I wanted to give it a plug.

You can download it here.

But here are a few highlights-

We have been shaken loose from our previous ways of reading the Bible- the ‘modern’ way- which seemed to be all about using the text as a blueprint so that we can categorise and systematise faith. McLaren compares this to the ways that the Americans use their constitution- where each word is given equal legal weight, and is enforceable in a way divorced from emotion or wider ethical considerations.

But having shaken loose- what other ways of reading the Bible are left?

McLaren lists 14 possible ways of encountering Scripture-

  1. Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.

  2. Converstional reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.

  3. Missional reading- in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending God’s overarching mission of blessing all nations through a called and commissioned community of people.

  4. Political/Economic reading- the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.

  5. Rhetorical reading- in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.

  6. Literal reading- “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” McLaren suggests that people who say they are taking the words literally often are doing the very opposite- approaching the test through a very narrow hermeneutic.

  7. Close reading- better readings of scripture will fit in with the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.

  8. Communal reading- the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.

  9. Recursive reading- understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.

  10. Ethical reading- text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended socialconsequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.

  11. Personal reading- “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”

  12. Mystical reading- we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”


Finally McLaren points to one further reading, and makes clear that he believes this one to be the most controversial of his readings.

It is the one that might make people worry about the undermining of Biblical authority

Christo-focal reading

McLaren proposes that we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.

He suggests we need to leave behind three old ways of reading the Bible that have perhaps dominated-

  1. Flat reading- where we see all Jesus’ life and words pressed down and flattened to the same level as those of Abraham, Moses,David, Isaiah, Paul, and Jude. This results in the raising of the Bible above Christ- which is a kind of idolatry. For example, it might be biblical to commit genocide by quoting Deuteronomy 7, but one could never claim it is Christ-like.
  2. Descending reading- where we start with an ideal state in Genesis, and then it all goes wrong, leading to a time when God is going to destroy everything, and Jesus is but a lifeboat for a few. Or the other decent comes from the fall too- “the problem is sin and the solution is law-keeping, with sacrifice-making as a back-up plan. The rest of the story descends from this high point, so that the life and ministry of Jesus have value to the degree that they solve the problem.”
  3. Ascending reading- “Moses’ teaching was good, David’s perspectives were better, Isaiah rosehigher still, John the Baptist ascended even higher, and Jesus was really wonderful andunique, but the crowning revelation comes with Paul and his writings.”

What McLaren proposes is something more radical- “When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning. If we follow this approach, we’ll speak less about the Bible as the supreme Word of God and more about Jesus as the supreme Word of God. We’ll let the person of Jesus –including and integrating his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, abiding presence, and ongoing mission through the Holy Spirit – become the light in which all interpretations are evaluated, the key in which all interpretations are played, the leader behind which all interpretations arrange themselves as followers, and the meaning in which all interpretations have meaning.”

If we start to apply these ways of reading the Bible, how might our understandings change?

This my friends, is our work-in-progress…

Some music on Monday 2- Insane Clown Posse…

(In total contrast to my previous post!)

Did any of you read this story in the weekend Guardian a couple of weeks ago? Bizarre was the first word to come to mind…

It concerns the recent decision by the Insane Clown Posse to come out as ‘Christians’-

Foul mouthed, misogynist, violent and aggressive Christians perhaps- but apparently this image was really all an act to get on the wavelength of their audience, so they can hit them with the ‘message’.

If you are not familiar with ICP (and I confess they are not on my MP3 player) here is a sample of their new Christian output-

(Warning! Sweary words abound…)

The Guardian article reveals the two members of ICP as somewhat troubled and confused, so I am not going to have a go. I hope they find something of meaning in spite of all the baggage they seem to be carrying with them.

What is interesting is the clash of cultural world views.

On the one hand, you have gangsta rap, celebrating the stabbing of whores, violent threats and the carrying of weapons.

On the other hand you have conservative Christianity, with it’s distrust of science, and it’s desire to find evidence for God in nature.

All wrapped up in a shallow manipulative image- behind which real people have lost themselves.


Some music on Monday 1- memories…

I heard a song on a late night BBC three programme recently, and it was instantly familiar- although I had not associated it with Jackson Brown.

I remembered that I had played and sung it with an old friend Sue around 10-15 years ago. Sue still lives in Lancashire, and recently gave birth to her second child (congratulations Sue!)

The song takes me back to a happy time- friendship, a small house full of laughter and music, and the birth of our own first small dancer.

It also reminds me of my friend Neil, who took his own life.

I discovered that the song that reminded me of this time was written after Jackson Brown’s wife had committed suicide.

So it is a bitter sweet memory.

The power of music to bring us to this is a power indeed…

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know


Sun shining on water…

What a lovely day. It was a time for Sabbath, after a particularly busy few weeks…

Ice in the morning- then a glorious autumn day, with calm waters holding the reflection of the trees and mountains.

We drove to Inveraray to meet some old friends, Mark and Joy who are holidaying in Oban. It was great to see them again. Mark and I used to lead a music team at a church in England, and Joy has the most lovely pure singing voice. We had lunch in the George Inn, and then ate an unseasonal ice cream.

And sat at the waters edge, enjoying Scotland in the sunshine…

Before going home at sunset, deeply grateful…



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I have just watched this programme on the i player. I have been looking forward to it for some time, as our friend Maggie, who is a retreat director at St Beuno’s abbey in North Wales, had mentioned that some of the programme was filmed there.

It did not disappoint.

The format of the programme is simple- take a fairly random assortment of people and soak them in silence, led by Catholic monks who are able to guide them on the journey. It is reality TV that seems very real. Then end is not to make people Christian- rather to allow them to encounter themselves, and in doing so, to encounter God.

Here are a few things that hit me as I watched the programme-

Silence is a gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God.

Yet I find silence hard. For most of us, life is a process of constantly seeking distraction from- life.

It is a lifetimes work to find the silence that allows us to hear the voice of God.

Ah, well perhaps there is hope for me yet. How ever much life I have left…

Both the purpose and the means of the process is- purity of heart.

I know my heart a little- and it is not pure.

My spiritual encounters in the past have tended to revolve around repeatedly saying sorry for things that I know I will do again. As I became older, the pervasive guilt I felt as a young man trying to be Christian has ebbed away- which is good- but perhaps this might also mean that I am more comfortable with my impurity.

If you have not got a pure heart, you can not see God.

Is this true? How pure does it have to be? Or is it just something to do with desiring purity, and genuinely seeking to deal with all the things that get in the way?

The God of Surprises is going to give you some wonderful surprises.

I hope that this is true for these folk in the programme.

And I hope it is true for me, and you.

Because life without the surprise of God is half life, or no life.