Well who would have believed it? Something that would have got me into great bother years ago and may still do in some circles. I’ve been to mass twice recently and been blessed on both occasions. No, I am not becoming a Catholic in the denominational sense, though I’ve always believed in the catholicity of the church.
The first occasion was the funeral mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh to mark the passing of Brother Roland Walls. A remarkable man who founded the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin near Edinburgh and who acted as a guardian, advisor and spiritual director of many. He was a wise and invaluable guide and friend to the Community in its founding years and during our annus horribilis year back in 1998. A remarkable, godly man whose life, prayers, writings and friendship had a profound influence upon the established church and religious communities. Hundreds of people attended his funeral mass and moving homilies were made by his lifelong friend Brother Jonathan (who is Trevor’s spiritual director), a former moderator of the Church of Scotland and a young, German Benedictine monk. Roland spent his final weeks cared for by nuns in an Edinburgh convent and made thorough preparations for his funeral which included his Epitaph:
Keep therefore LOVE to be praised, shewn, and treasured in silence – bring all things, all mankind, all circumstances into the Light of that Love. Keep to the poverty of LOVE which is the secret of joy, and by which you will make many rich. So great is this calling that I leave you that to fail in it is worth more than success in any other. Keep to Love as LOVE keeps you and still keeps my poor soul that in earthly life so often betrayed HIM whom it loved.
May He who transfigured by LOVE, transfigure us all as He brings us to GLORY. AMEN.
It was really good to have over a month when I was not required to pack my overnight cases and it was delightful that my first journey back on the road saw Shirley accompany me. We had been invited to a wedding in Chipping Sodbury where I was asked to give the address. To be honest, I wondered why I’d been asked because we don’t know the couple very well at all. Martin, the groom, I’ve only seen on about half a dozen occasions and Steph, just once. It wasn’t until we heard their story at the reception that we realised how significant their weekend at Nether Springs was in determining their commitment to marriage. It was a lovely day and they are a great couple and it was lovely to see how God has provided a new chapter for their lives and created something beautiful out of the pain and sadness following the breakdown of Martin’s first marriage several years ago. As you’d expect of both them, the day was perfect in every detail, beautifully choreographed and delightful. I do confess, however, as an introvert and a grumpy old man, that weddings are too long for me. Back in the days when the service and the reception together lasted barely four hours, it suited me just grand. I can do short and middle distance weddings but marathon ocassions, however good they are, for an introvert like me, (who can nevertheless be incredibly sociable) give me overload with too much people for too long. It didn’t, however, detract from the joy of the day. The only sadness was the absence of Martin’s father, Bernard, who I do know; a fine man and a lovely father but who through ill health was unable to attend but who nevertheless had bestowed his blessing upon the relationship prior to his deteriorating mental health which now requires residential care and supervision.
Similarly, an equally happy occasion was marked this last weekend at our very good friend’s Jeff and Jill’s as they celebrated their Silver Wedding Anniversary. A lovely gathering of family and friends, from school days up to present days, celebrated at St. Cuthbert’s House, their award winning B&B, (they have just won the Silver Award in the B&B/Guest Accommodation of the Year 2011 category of the National EnjoyEngland Tourism Awards for Excellence 2011. http://www.stcuthbertshouse.com).
I had the privilege 25 years ago to marry them at Portrack and have witnessed and journeyed with them through the years. They have become great friends, trusted Companions and invaluable colleagues. The only tangible sadness on the occasion was the absence of Jill’s father who died several years ago prematurely with cancer, her brother Andrew, who died tragically in his early 50’s last year, and the absence of Jeff’s father, who’s dementia ruled out any prospect of him being there to celebrate the occasion.
Old age can be very cruel. I witnessed and shared in the suffering of my own mother, the latter years of her life and the consequences and caring of my father for his beloved. It’s what the wedding vows remind you of, in sickness and in health, for better, for worse but it’s hard to bear and to watch.
On Sunday morning when preaching at the end of Westgate Road Baptist Church’s Week of Prayer I met a delightful friend from my earlier days working on the local Northern Baptist Association Core Group back in the 1980’s. I hadn’t seen him for some time, he is now in his late 70’s but the pain in his heart and the sadness on his face was very evident as he spoke about his dear wife having spent years in residential care separated from her husband, blighted by severe dementia. All very sad.
But on a more hopeful note, knowing hardly anybody at the wedding the week before, Shirley and I were delighted to see a couple who I first met when they joined us for a sailing adventure in the Hebrides. They have been married for several years and in the autumn of last year, having gone through all the preparations and interrogations, they became the parents of two adoptive children, two young brothers. They live now in a considerably different culture context than they are used to. We learned something of these boys troubled past and the inevitable psychological scars that they do and will carry but three images spoke volumes to me: firstly seeing them sit as a family on the row in front of us and watching the body language throughout the service and the interaction between them was delightful. There was clearly a bond between these two boys and their new mum and dad. The next image was caught on camera when, with a child each in their arms they went and peeked into the classic old wedding car. The expressions on the little boys faces as they turned from peeping into the car and turning back to their parents was fabulous. The abiding memory was as I was leaving, (yes I confess to leaving before the cake was distributed and the evening party began, as Shirley and I had a journey to Oxford ahead of us). As I went to collect our car, I saw out of the corner of my eye, our friend walking with his son across a rain swept courtyard, umbrella sheltering the young boy and holding his hand firmly. It was an image of protection, love, a bond between father and son and one of abiding hope. No-one who knows anything about adopting will be fooled to think that there aren’t many challenges both now and in the future for this little family but with our friends, these boys have been rescued and given the opportunity of a new life and for that I thank God and pray for his blessing, protection, wisdom and joy upon this newly formed family.
Well after a very busy period over Easter, which was followed by a delightful week off with all our children and grandchildren at home, to quote the lyrics of a famous song “I’m on the road again”. It’s ironic that most of my blogs are written whilst I am travelling but in part that’s because when at home I am trying to create space and more towards more regularly writing. For those of you who pray for me, this is one of the biggest priorities for me over the next few years to write and resource both the Community, the church and equally important into the wider public domain.
En route from Gefrees, we passed by a winter ski resort and just had to stop. It was a photo opportunity and the ski jump confirmed how horrific the sport is; standing at the top of a really high jump to come hurtling down a slope to jump into the air and to land hopefully within the allotted zone. It defies common sense makes it an amazing spectacle albeit death defying. We came away revising our thinking about ‘Eddie the Eagle’ – he really was very brave; stupid but very brave!
Arriving at Prague we were met by Lina and over a meal caught up on happenings; personal, community and seminary. It was really good to be back in Prague and the mutual appreciation of the partnership we share was evident from the off. It was to be a demanding sixteen hour day week but one of overwhelming privilege, to serve, share, work with, worship and relax together with staff and students. As with Belgium and Germany there were just some lovely little whispers of God’s affirmation in what we were doing. For example on our first morning at the seminary, I’d been invited to preach and for Ken to be interviewed about his work in Belfast. Lina had emailed through the lectionary readings a few days before we left and as I sat down to read the passage and prepare on Friday in Gefrees, was thrilled to discover that it was John 4 and immediately the passage spoke to me about Jesus crossing boundaries. Ken shared about encountering ‘the other’ in crossing religious and cultural boundaries, Joshua sent me his draft paper that he was delivering at a Peace Conference on how we engage with others different from ourselves and as we shared in prayer from the Community’s Prayer Guide on the Sunday morning, I was thrilled to see that the day’s theme was Crossing Boundaries and Borders! I should have known this because it is me that writes the Prayer Guide and I hadn’t remembered until I came to use the Prayer Guide that day.
It was great to catch up with old friends and make new ones and Sunday lunch was taken at a nearby hotel and it marked the beginning of a whole series of meals and drinks with various members of the Community including a fun filled evening around the dining table with Keith, Denise and Lina over a Raclette supper.
Part of the privilege is meeting and listening to the stories of these young people from Eastern Europe many of whom have so little in comparison to the wealth and resources of the West. Many of them have little or no ability to fund their time at Prague and are reliant upon bursaries, gifts and the support of others. The Seminary, like ourselves, is financially vulnerable and unlike us, there remains a question mark over the financial viability of them staying on their present site. Please pray. Everything within me feels that the site is so appropriate for the community and its work across Europe and the Middle East. They were a great bunch of students, a lovely group of young people who engaged with us and the lectures, seminars and activities that we facilitated. We gelled so well with the community there because of the common experiences of being communities. I am deeply saddened and concerned that very few theological colleges in Britain offer any residential community based training for the ministry. I know from our own experience of being in community, together with the time Shirley and I spent many years ago training in a residential setting at Bible College that living in community is a deeply spiritual formative experience. So, at the seminary in Prague, to gather at the start of each day, to share Morning Office and to say Midday Prayer before lunch and to end the day with Compline helped to provide a framework and a rhythm which in itself is a great community builder and life shaper. We worked mostly this year with what are known as CAT students (Certificate in Applied Theology). I am going to encourage Companions alone and together in some of our Community groups to adopt one of the students which would involve praying for them, corresponding with them and thinking about providing some financial help to either enable them to come to Nether Springs, (which they all want to do but for whom many it will not be possible as our government has tightened up in a ridiculous way on quotas which has ruled out students coming even for a one week stay) or for them to receive a gift that they can use on their return to their homelands or a contribution to IBTS which is enabling them to study and train at the seminary.
Joshua, who taught there for a term in the autumn and Shirley was able to spend a few days there, told me how good a group of students they were, every one of them a gem, e.g. from Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Barundi, Belgium, Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and Holland. One of the students showed us some photos after Compline one evening and the poverty and misery of the images, hit all three of us. We thought at first that she was showing us photos of some homeless shelter or work with people on the streets. She was in fact depicting images of a hospital that she and other Christians visited. She was thrilled to tell us that they had been able to gather and gift to the hospital several rugs and mats, not new by any means, but nevertheless better than the stone floors the patients were having to sleep on. The rickety old chair that had a hole crudely cut with a bucket underneath served as the ward toilet – a stark series of images of the contrast between the affluence of our Western society and the poverty, deprivation and suffering of those in other lands. A brave and courageous young woman living in a context where Christians are persecuted, beaten and suffer for their faith. The most harrowing photo for me was taken secretly when the team brought some bread into a hospital ward of elderly patients. Starving, they clammered for the bread loaf and the disorderly scene that ensued was broken up by the ‘nurse’ who proceeded to beat them with a stick.
It is very humbling to hear these stories, to sit and share, pray and learn from brothers and sisters from such situations. It’s a reminder for us in Community that our calling to Availability and Vulnerability embraces a commitment both to hospitality, to wandering for the love of Christ and to look for the kingdom of God on the streets, all of which much reflect and express God’s heart for the poor and marginalized.
Two other events stand out form our week there; the concert that Andy Lang, our German friend and Celtic harpist performed at the local hotel Jeneralka, the pub/restaurant opposite the seminary. We also recorded a whole series of readings and reflections for Holy Week which will be available to listen to on our website from Palm Sunday. There you will have the opportunity to some of the delightful accents and voices of our friends at the seminary.
Next year, we will return and its our hope to take a bigger group of people so watch the website for further details. The dates will be published in the next few weeks.
From Belgium we travelled to Germany on a beautiful warm spring, summer - like day. Making good time on the fast German autobahns we took the opportunity to spend two hours walking around Limburg. It is a beautiful city with wonderful mediaeval buildings, town squares and delightful shops. It was good to be back here where I had spoken at a conference in October when I was accompanied by Shirley my wife and Joshua our younger son both of whom speak and understand German. My ignorance and inability to communicate in a language other than English is a source of great embarrassment and some regret. Nevertheless the language of compassion and friendship can travel over boundaries limited by any lack of linguistic skills. We walked up to the cathedral and enjoyed the cool and peaceful atmosphere of a beautiful place of worship, built for the glory of God. Seeing a sign for the Chapel for the Holy Sacrament we took the opportunity to share Midday Office together. We prayed there for Jean Wilson, a Community Companion living in Tokyo, Japan; for Michelle and his father Leon in Belgium, for Reiner and Ilona and for all our families, the Community and those whom we would meet later that day. Resuming our journey we once again appreciated the German roads. They are wonderful and motoring in my now relatively old but still brilliant Honda with its 171,000 miles on the clock, we moved swiftly and comfortably at speeds that are illegal in Britain but normal and to be honest, enjoyable, here on the Continent. We travelled through the German countryside and past cities and towns moving through hills and plains, crossing valleys and gradually from Frankfurt climbing into Bavaria and onto our destination in Frankovia.
Arriving in the late afternoon it was good to see Andy Lang. I had first met him at the International Christian Dance Fellowship conference in St Andrews University in Scotland two years ago. We got on very well and when he visited Northumbria last year we went for a walk together in the hills around Wooler. Andy invited me to speak that evening at a ‘Barn Gathering’ at their home in Gefrees. He is a Lutheran pastor and a Celtic harpist. He with others, is seeking to revive the salon culture in Germany, where people would gather in their sitting rooms / salons and in Andy's case, their barn, to discuss and debate issues of life and faith affecting society. The conversion of the barn into an amazing environment and venue is a powerful icon of what church and community should and could be. A warm, welcoming, creative space of hospitality, worship, music, drink, food and conversation. It was an environment filled with imaginative, artistic flair but in essence very simple. Why can't the church replicate this model and create sacred, human space that provides a great context for people to encounter God and one another? Jean looked after Andy and Corinne’s children which enabled them both to come to the evening. Andy served as host and translator. I gave a talk on the wisdom of Celtic spirituality for a changing European culture and after a good break and some excellent Frankovian beer the evening resumed with a question and answer session, with plenty of good debate and discussion. Whilst it was not our purpose to promote or advertise the Community, Ken and I, almost inevitably fielded a while series of questions focused on Northumbria, the Community and how people could connect further. Several of those who we met at the gathering shared how the language and story of the Community and the spirituality that I had advocated gave him a sense of homecoming. If I had a pound or a Euro for every time someone has shared that I would be a rich man! Another lady was moved to tears because it had both inspired her and brought hope to her heart.
God is good. I never take for granted nor underestimate the privilege and honour of serving Christ and being an ambassador of the Community. It is my prayer that I, with other wanderers might be torchbearers, carrying the light of Christ for the kingdom of God wherever the Lord leads.
It feels good to be here in Germany, although I wish Shirley was with me. I sense a significance in the connections being made here and also with Reiner and Ilona. This amazing location here in Gefrees, which is part of one of the many pilgrimage routes to Santiago to Compostelo feels very much like an ancient path, a sacred place.
The gathering finished formally at 10:30 but it was just before midnight that we retired for a bedtime drink. Not whisky but hot water! Ken and Andy have given up alcohol for Lent and it seemed churlish of me to not join them. I climbed into bed just before one o'clock, tired but relaxed and thankful to God for his protection, provision and leading throughout the course of the day and evening. It was good not to be up at the crack of dawn the following day but to enjoy a leisurely breakfast together of cold meats, cheeses, good bread and fine honey.
That night we went out to an evening dinner concert at which Andy was playing. The rest of the day was spent relaxing. We talked, caught up on emails, went for a walk, did some preparatory reading for Prague and reflected on the experience of the last few days. It all feels significant.
The early morning fog that shrouded the South East made for a taxing journey to the port but it was soon dispelled by the morning sun and we sailed across the English Channel to France on a beautiful, crisp and clear morning. Journeying to Seraing in Belgium, we took in a leisurely lunch break in Brugge, a beautiful city where we basked in the midday sun and watched the world go by. Boats shuttled tourists around the intricate, delightful canals and we drank our Belgium beer and played spot the nationality of the tourists. Americans generally loud, French and Italian classic and gorgeous, Chinese affluent and bedecked with the latest hi-tech cameras. As for the Brits; generally lacking in dress sense, bordering on being scruffy and having an unhealthier demeanour than most other nationalities; obesity among the Brits and Americans being noticeable.
Travelling south and onto Seraing, near Liege by mid-afternoon I reunited with my former school-exchange friend who I first met in 1973. We were to stay at his father’s house for the night. Seraing is a very industrial town on the outskirts of Liege and the atmosphere of the place symbolised what I felt is a country searching for its soul. It’s interesting reconnecting with someone who you haven’t seen for many years but the ease with which we shared and picked up where we had left off speaks volumes of the good friendship that we formed back in our youth. It is 14 years since we last saw each other and we leave the following morning having spent a really good 18 hours together with the sense that it will not be long before we meet again. Michel and his sister hope to come to Northumberland in the summer. Belgium is a fragmented country with the divide between the southern French speaking Walloon people and Northern Flemish speaking population. It is a country without an active government, its political system is at an impasse. With a thin overlay of liberal Catholicism, the popular mind-set is a secular existentialism which affords very little hope for its citizens to talk of church is meaningless but the interest that Michel took in asking questions about the Community, I sensed something of a heartcry. Pray God it may be so. Despite Belgium being characterised as a hard place spiritually, it was a significant setting in my own faith journey. In the years following the school exchange, I returned to the Ardennes and it was on one occasion hitchhiking that I was the recipient of an elderly couples hospitality. I had spent the night on the village green in the “bus shelter” and waking early the next morning anticipated receiving a reprimand from the old man who approached me from his house by the green. Instead, I received an invitation to join him and his wife for petit dejeuner where a pleasant hour or so was spent in stilted conversation. My French was poor, (it is now appalling!) but there was nevertheless a sharing of life at the breakfast table and a communing of hearts. The warmth of their welcome and generous hospitality including a glorious hot free standing bath was an act of grace and love which still resides in the memory banks but it was a passing remark from the old man after he insisted on taking me to Namur that was to have a lasting influence on my life. As I bade him farewell and thanked him, even though the ride in his old Renault 4 van was the most hazardous part of the whole episode, he took my hand and said “Young man, God is not far from you”. Those words spoken with compassion were to change the direction of my life. Some months later whilst training to be an Outward Bound Instructor in the Cairngorms of Scotland I came to faith. Then as now I remember those words so it is with some sense of gratitude that I journey through Belgium, thankful for an old couple whose welcome and hospitality and few words were to begin a transformation in my life. I can’t even remember their names and they will have long since died but from a seemingly spiritual wasteland, a word of life was spoken that was to change my life and by the grace of God through me to many others. Reflecting on this experience and the reconnecting with my friend Michel and his father, Leon, perhaps explains something of my love for Europe and my excitement at the prospects of the Community reaching out across this Continent as we walk again the ancient paths and carry the light of Christ on our travels. I am also reflecting on how faith is shared. Going for a walk with Michel in the woods near his house yesterday the same heart and desire to see someone come to faith beats as strong as ever but I can no longer adopt or use the language or methodology of my former evangelistic days. I have an aversion to any form of coercion, selling or manipulating people towards faith. Religious jargon, trite phraseology rings so hollow and I have an abhorrence to such. In contrast, the ‘methodology’ of the old Belgium couple, their minds exuding the love of Christ, their home and hospitality reflecting God’s grace and eight words, prophetic words were what brought life and transformation and created the space without any hint of manipulation or coercion for God to work. A way of sharing faith that carries no hint of judgement or powerplay but which reaches out and appeals to that “light of life in every human heart”. A way of being that respects humanity and shares easily the life and light of Christ. An insight perhaps to what it means to live missionally.