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Welcome to my website. You will find all sorts here, from short stories to in-depth articles with reflections in between on a wide variety of topics. Welcome to my life…

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Rock Farm

I visited Rock Farm today. It’s a 6-acre market garden in West Sussex that’s been run as a community project called Roots To Growth, focusing on the therapeutic effects of growing things and working outdoors. It’s recently been taken on by OneChurch, Brighton.IMG_20171019_153122

Ben, who’s leading the project, showed me around. He’s keen to use permaculture principles to reduce the amount of physical workload (“There’s no point coming for something therapeutic and getting stressed by the amount there is to do”) but also to work in harmony with the plants, the people and the land. He’s also keen for this to be a place where people just enjoy being in the countryside.

IMG_20171019_153050This particular bed has been used for beans and courgettes this year, and has an apple tree at one edge. I loved the way Ben talked about putting in plants “that want to be near that tree,” meaning things like comfrey and dandelions that will attract good pollinators for the tree. The idea is to listen to the land and put plants together that not just work together but that like being together. Another principle is to listen to the people who are involved and, rather than presenting them with a long list of jobs, let them do the things around the farm that they find life-giving. It’s a model of land, plants, animals and people flourishing together. I guess that, in the big picture, the jobs that really need doing will be the jobs that, between them, the people want to do, and the work will get done. The farm might even be more productive – and certainly will be in the big picture.

IMG_20171019_152947I’ve been attracted to permaculture for several years and have tried a few practices in my garden. I love this idea of listening to the land, learning from it and working with it. Layer mulching has worked pretty well for me (layers of cardboard, compost and manure), and not disturbing the soil structure by digging works very well for me. I’ve loads to learn, though – e.g. about how different plants work together – but I think it’s a great idea.

It was inspiring to hear Ben’s vision for Rock Farm as a place where the point is not to grow as much stuff as possible, but to let people, plants, animals and the land itself flourish.

Psalm 147 – Bringing everything together

This is just to flag up, for those of you who like such things, that I’ve posted a new Creation Psalm bible reflection.

Psalm 147 brings several things together, including Catholics and Protestants. Impossible, do I hear you say? Well – have a look and see how the psalmist managed to do what the ecumenical movement has so far failed to do, and how they managed to do it hundreds of years before there even were such things as Catholics and Protestants. I make other points as well, about creation and salvation, time and space and… well, why not just click here and read it?

The day I left my auxiliary brain at home

I got to the office this morning and couldn’t find my phone. I phoned home (on the landline), and Mrs M confirmed my suspicion that it was still plugged in to the charger in the kitchen. Aarrgh! I felt naked and adrift.

Now, I am not a great mobile user. I’m not forever checking stuff. I keep notifications for apps permanently off. I use a paper diary. I don’t do emails on the phone. Some of this dates back to my early days with a smart phone, when I did use some of these features and caught myself referring to it as my auxiliary brain. At that point, I thought, “No.”

However, today I was in a mild panic. I had a couple of appointments lined up – people coming to see me – and I didn’t know how they’d get in touch to say they were running late, or whatever. What if one of my children sent me a text and they wouldn’t know I hadn’t received it?

In the staff kitchen, I told two colleagues about it and we agreed that, somehow, in the olden days, we managed fine without mobiles. One said that she had been to see Chrissie Hynde in concert the previous night, and Chrissie had stopped in the middle of a song to tell someone to stop filming and switch their phone off. We agreed that it’s rude, the way some people film concerts, and that the results are rarely worth seeing. We agreed that you get more out of a show by keeping your phone in your pocket and being fully present. One of my colleagues said that she’d read some research showing that people who don’t take photos remember more of their experiences than those who do. It’s as if you delegate some of your thinking to your phone, and lose a little bit of your ability to use that little bit of your brain. Also, you stop being fully present. Instead, you’re partly in the future, thinking about how you’ll share those photos on Facebook and how your friends will react.

I recognise that I am old, well – 52. But I do feel resistant to the idea of delegating thinking to machines. I know it is the future, but I don’t like it. What shocked me today is, even with the limits I place around my dependence on the phone, I realised how dependent on it I am.

In the end, both of my visitors turned up on time. When I got home, there were no texts waiting for me (apart from one from one of my visitors saying he was on time). I got through the day fine, with just the brain that’s in my head, just like we used to.

Garden Update (May 2017)

It’s been a long time since I posted about the garden. This is the last photo of the back garden I showed you, back in January 2015:Braemore garden

This is the same view today (sorry about the blurry photo):IMG_20170529_125244

Some of this is simply the difference between January and May, but most of the difference is down to hard work and planting! Today I did some more planting, and I think I am more or less sorted for the summer. My courgettes are getting on nicely, in the back and along the side of the house.

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Today I planted out broccoli seedlings in the front and in various places out back.

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You’ll see that in the front bed, I’ve also got some beet ‘spinach’ and a couple of tomato plants that are really doing well. I’ve also got strawberries in another raised bed in the front, and some raspberry canes against the fence. Today was the first strawberry harvest of the season. They were delicious.IMG_20170529_123208

On the patio, I planted some flowers in this old sink, to replace the ganzanias I planted a month back which were eaten by molluscs. These are geraniums, petunias and begonias, plus one ganzania (I live in hope) and a tomato – all from Portslade Church’s plant sale. I’m ready with my gloves and head torch to do a slug patrol after dark – I’m very reluctant to use pellets – it’s their garden too. I’m also trying another fuschia, in the hope that this one will survive the winter unlike its predecessor. I love fuschias.IMG_20170529_125258

The wire caging is to keep the fox from digging up the plants. There’s plenty of soil for him (I think he’s a him) to dig up in the wild corner of the garden, near the laurel bush under which he likes to take a nap. IMG_20170529_125629

I enjoy pottering in the garden, but what I really like to do is sit on the swing seat. I extended the roof a couple of years ago, sIMG_20170529_125656o I can sit there even when it’s raining. It has a great view (see below: oak, hawthorn, hazel, rowan, hydrangea, laurel, camelia, budleia, apple, pittosporum and next door’s silver birch, as well as grass I let grow tall, as grass should), and it’s tucked away from sight. I bring a coffee out here early every morning and have a little time thinking, praying and watching the birds on the feeder. It’s my favourite place at other times, too, for reading or just sitting. Because what’s the point of a garden if you don’t sit and do nothing except enjoy it?IMG_20170529_125133

 

By the waters

It being the first day of the month, it was time for Pray In The Sea. Inspired by Ourvoices.net, this was something we did in Brighton in 2014 and 2015, and we have revived it this year – after all, climate change has not gone away and the average sea level continues to rise. We meet just after low tide and stand in or near the sea, edging back as the tide rises. We keep silence for about 20 minutes, which means that it’s open to anyone of any or no religious practice or affiliation, and then there’s the opportunity to share any thoughts with the others, and that’s it.

2015.10.01 Praying for planet. Brighton beach 2This picture shows the time, in October 2015, when we were joined by Maina Taila from Tuvalu and Rev. Maleta Tenten from Kiribati. This was especially poignant, as the Pacific islands had been a particular focus for us, as they are so vulnerable to the rising sea. Also in this picture are a couple who were just walking along the beach, saw our banner and joined in.

Today, even though it was May Day, the sea was grey and wild, with dark threatening clouds scudding across in a cold easterly wind. I was thinking about Maina and Maleta and their island communities, where people are already leaving their ancestral homes for the safety of places like New Zealand. I thought about the people who are still, daily, crossing the Mediterranean to escape famine, drought, war, poverty or whatever other reason is so great as to force someone to leave their home and spend everything and risk everything to seek a different life in a new land. In a new land, their accent and perhaps skin colour will always mark them out as a foreigner. They will have to work hard to learn a new language and learn the unspoken rules of a new culture; they will have to work hard just to survive. As the West becomes increasingly hostile to migrants and refugees, they may never feel welcome and may never feel truly at home again. How does it feel to look out on an angry sea, across which a new but hard life may await, knowing that you can’t go back to an old life that civil war or climate change has destroyed?

Mucking about on my banjo yesterday, I discovered how to play Don McLean’s ‘Babylon‘ (capo at 3rd fret – seems obvious when you know). “By the waters, the waters of Babylon / We laid down and wept, and wept, for thee, Zion / We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee, Zion.” The Jewish exiles in Babylon, as described in Psalm 137, felt very homesick, to the point where they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land and hung up their harps on the willows. There is some linguistic fluidity in the psalm between the words Jerusalem and Zion. In verses 5-6, which perhaps express most deeply how far from home the exiles felt, it is Jerusalem that they vow never to forget. But in verse 1, they remember Zion, and in verse 3, their captors ask for “One of the songs of Zion.” In the bible, Zion is often simply an alternative name for Jerusalem, perhaps referring to the hill on which Solomon built the temple. But sometimes, Zion also takes on a greater symbolism to speak in ideal terms of, say, the messianic kingdom, and this utopian sense gets reflected in later thought, for example in modern Zionism, or in the spirituals of American slaves, or in the songs of Rastafari reggae. Zion becomes a metaphor for an ideal homeland yet to come. So, going back to Psalm 137, there was a challenge to the exiles not to hang up their harps in (understandable) sadness and despair, but to learn how to sing, in a foreign land, the songs of Zion: songs of the world to come when they would be free. For the exile who has hope, home is not where you came from, or where you are, but where you’re going.

As I stood by the waters of Brighton this morning, I thought that a similar challenge presents itself to climate activists and anyone else who feels that the world is not as it should be and longs for a better world. I think it’s to do with acknowledging the sense of dissonance we feel – that sense of being out of step with a narcissistic consumer culture – and making something creative of that sense. It’s about identifying yourself as an exile, a foreigner, a migrant, whilst living in this culture and participating in it for the common good – but always with a foreign accent and always out of step, always finding the cultural norms weird and un-natural, always refusing to assimilate. It’s odd because we are exiles within the culture we have left – it’s an inner migration but with an outward effect. The challenge is about learning to sing the songs of Zion in this foreign land: imagining how a world of justice, peace and life in its fullness might look in its different aspects, and putting that vision into conversation, song, story, poetry, art and a life lived out of step with what is, but in step with what we hope for. And I wonder if standing by (or in) the waters and weeping because of the distance between Babylon and Zion is the beginning of learning the songs of Zion and the journey home.

My feet in the sea

Story-telling Boots

 

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My walking boots are starting to look their age, just like their owner. Some cleaning and some waxing would improve their appearance, but there’s not a lot I can do for the worn out linings. Still, I think they look interesting. They look like they could tell some stories of the places they’ve been with me.

These boots have climbed mountains, like Hellvelyn with my friend Simon, when all we had was an afternoon free while on a course in the Lake District. They have rested on a rock on Lindisfarne for hours and for days when I’ve been there on retreat. They have tramped through snow and ice, like the time when walking was the only travel option to go and see my counsellor when I’d had my breakdown. They have trodden hills and woods, fields and beaches in Devon, Wales, Dorset, Derbyshire, Northumberland and, of course, on the beautiful South Downs. They’ve gone camping and gardening and have even done a bushcraft course. These boots have lived, and I have lived in them and trodden this amazing earth with them and had some incredible experiences while wearing them (or alongside them, having taken them off for a swim in a river or to walk barefoot on dewy grass in the moonlight).

I feel my boots and I could sit down by a campfire and tell nostalgic stories of our adventures together, and even if no one else would be especially interested, my boots and I would understand each other like old friends do. And they do feel like friends, in a way that no other part of my kit does, and it’s a shame that they are wearing out. I think that some cleaning and waxing is the least I could do for them, faithful companions, and perhaps we can share a few more adventures yet.

Noah

For those of you who like bible studies, I’ve written a new one about the end of the story of Noah. Click on the link here – Noah After The Flood – or use the menu. It’s developed from an older study and explores the darker side of the story and its challenges for these days of extinction and rising seas.

For those of you who don’t like bible studies, I’ll be writing something else soon!

 

Edge time

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day in some woods staring at the trees. Always time well spent, I find. img_20170201_111748It being a beech wood, the floor was covered in thick leaf litter – just a uniform sea of brown. After a while, I noticed some green near my feet. And then I noticed more specks of green. The bluebells were just starting to poke living leaves through the dead beech leaves. My point is that I didn’t notice them until I had stopped for a while and slowed down my brain.

I went for another meditative walk in nearby woods yesterday. img_20170215_114135This time, I tried becoming attentive from the start, by identifying the trees at the edge of the wood. Then I deliberately walked slowly so that the point of the walk was to become aware rather than to reach a destination, even though I had one in mind. I found I noticed more things, including some badger snuffle tracks, img_20170215_114055a tree stump where a bird of prey had plucked a wood pigeon and more signs of spring: elder coming into leaf and a clump of snowdrops.

I have commented before that I think trees keep to a different sense of time than do humans. So much of my life is lived by the clock, with deadlines to meet, work to be done, places to get to. Possibly the most frequent response I get when I ask people how they are is, “Busy,” and I find myself saying the same thing, perhaps, if I’m honest, just to keep up. I wonder if any of us really know why.

I think it’s important to create an edge to time. It is unnatural and therefore unhealthy to travel so fast all the time, and keep spinning so fast, and filling every moment with activity. It’s important to go to the edge of this fast time sometimes, and stop. Life becomes grey and dull without contrast. img_20170215_105325There was wisdom in the old idea of a Sabbath day – one day in seven that was different to the other six because you didn’t work in it. I’m trying a few things, like not gardening or doing laundry on Sundays, which means I can sit in the garden and enjoy it without thinking of the jobs I need to do. I try to sit quietly with a coffee in the garden every morning after breakfast. It’s not always possible, but I don’t want that to be simply because I’ve got stuff I want to get on with. The stuff can wait for twenty minutes – it will still be there. On my way in to the office, however late I may be, I stop and look at the sea, if only for a minute. It is such a privilege to live near the beautiful sea, and there is rarely as much need to hurry as I think. And I am trying to get regular time in the woods. These are just some of the ways that I am trying to apply the brakes and create some edge space in my life, some contrast between on and off.

In permaculture thinking, the edges are especially fruitful places, and maybe it is the same in the times of our lives. When we slow down and pay attention, we notice things about the world around us and about ourselves that would otherwise go un-noticed in the normal frantic whirl. Noticing the bluebells made me tread very carefully, as they are easily damaged and it will be lovely to go back in April and see them in flower. I find that attentiveness leads to appreciation and that leads to loving action, although perhaps not as much as it should. There really is little to be gained from the ceaseless high-speed stampede of modern life, but applying the brakes and introducing some contrast, some edge time, could be a big gain for you and for the world.img_20170201_135935

The Lord’s Prayer

Rowan Williams, in his book ‘Being Disciples’, makes an interesting link between the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” and the succeeding lines about forgiveness. I struggle to follow Rowan Williams a lot of the time, probably because I’m not one of your natural mystics. (For all the time I spend staring at trees, I would find it difficult to articulate what’s going on for me in those encounters beyond simply finding it spiritually satisfying). However, what Williams wrote did feel profound and these are the thoughts I’ve been having in the days since reading it.

First of all, I have grown to like the Lord’s Prayer. I started using it more frequently a few years ago when reading about St Francis of Assisi. I like St Francis because he liked animals. I like animals. Apparently Francis told the Friars to say the Lord’s Prayer 24 times when they prayed. I find the prayer says all that needs to be said, and very succinctly and helps keep my rambling prayer-thoughts on track. In particular, I think that the double-sided forgiveness clause is a stroke of genius, connecting my attitude towards those who have wronged me to my hope that God will forgive me, and describing a life lived in grace towards God and towards the world. The perfect tense in Matthew’s gospel challenges me – I ask for forgiveness “as [I] have forgiven.” It’s not a pledge of vague intention, but a statement of completed deeds, which is presented as the model for God’s forgiveness of me. The language of debts and debtors (not sins or trespasses) also seems to root forgiveness in the real, material world. I might forgive you for the way you spoke to me, but I’d still appreciate having the ten pounds you owe me – they’re two quite different things … unless you’re Jesus, in which case they’re not. I think that, for Jesus, spiritual and material were like dimensions of one reality, in the same way that thoughts and actions were dimensions of one real person.

The debt thing leads back to the daily bread. If I am praying for my daily bread, trusting God for my needs, then why would I borrow, either from a neighbour or from the future? Racking up a debt would indicate that I have not been content to live within the gift God has given. God’s provision is enough, but it doesn’t always feel like it. The present moment is enough, but I worry a lot about the future and fret about the past. On the flip side, if I am content with God’s gift of today, why would I lend to you? Who cares about tomorrow, or next year, when in each day, God provides? I should just share today’s bread with you, because it’s “Give us…” So it seems that the radical trust involved in living in the grace of what God has given is wrapped up with not finding ways to get more for myself and not keeping accounts with others, but letting the grace ebb and flow around and everyone will have enough. It seems like a very gentle way of life, and contrasts hugely with the way the world is, where some of us accumulate so much at such great cost to other people, animals, plants and the earth itself.  Jesus’ alternative seems very liberating to me, but a long way from where I am.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew’s gospel (Luke’s version doesn’t count because he’s missed half of it out while his mind wandered – so much for ‘Lord, teach us to pray’). Nigel Wright says that Matthew presents the story of Jesus – including his teaching – as a framework within which we may learn to live as his followers. To me, it’s as if within the grace and truth embodied in Jesus, there’s a broad space where we can live free. Jesus’ teaching can be hard, and his example is near-impossible, but it’s not a test to fail or a stick to beat yourself with. It’s a gift from God, with trust and forgiveness and love at the heart of it – a broad space within which life is given and received, hallowed and enjoyed.

There are parallels in the older covenant. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is not just a collection of commandments against which your life is to measured. It’s five books of stories, including some great stories (and some terrifying stories), about people and the God who made a covenant with them, within which life can be lived as a gift of God’s liberating grace. I think that engaging with the Law in its wholeness teaches how you can live free by God’s grace: not just the commands but letting the larger story live as your story, inhabiting the story just as you might inhabit the land itself as a gift.

I think it might be the same with Jesus. The Christian life may be less about some transaction when a holy man was killed on a cross and more about that episode plus the rest of his story too: not a transaction at all but a gift. It’s about inhabiting that story as our story and I think that the Lord’s Prayer takes us to the heart of doing that. Amongst other things, it looks for God’s will to be done on earth – including the bit of earth that’s me and the bit I inhabit, but applying to all other inhabitants of earth too. As already pointed out, it uses the material language of debt rather than the spiritualized language of sin. It insists on being plural: although Jesus has been advising praying in your room, in secret, it’s still ‘us’ and ‘our’ daily bread. So it’s a prayer prayed with the world, on behalf of all beings on earth who (in the words of Psalm 104.27) look to God to give them their food in due season. And it has at its heart this radical trust in God and a refusal to keep accounts either with God or with anyone else, because today is a gift and the gift of God is always more than enough. So the Lord’s Prayer is not about my spiritual (or mystical) practice. It’s about a world whose basic system moves wealth from the poor to the rich, a world of refugees and war, of pollution and climate change, of exploitation of soil and extinction of species, and it’s about the transformation of this world until it resembles a just and peaceful community in which all flourish. I wonder if it literally was the Lord’s Prayer, i.e. the prayer Jesus prayed, the prayer that kept him grounded in and aligned to his mission, and I wonder why it’s not had the same effect on the church that’s prayed it for 2,000 years or on the dominating culture that’s supposedly rooted in Christianity? Or on me, for that matter.

“Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Such a simple sentence that, if it were ever put into practice, would change the world.