Saturday, June 16, 2007


There was a Greenbelt Management Group meeting last Monday night in London Town – great humans pulling together what I think is the mother of all festivals – Cheltenham Race Course every August Bank Holiday, for many, becomes the thinnest of places, and, (he says, with a hope resembling something the size of a mustard seed), this year will be no different.

There will be some 20,000 people drinking deep, many broken, some fixed (ish), quite a few lost, some found (ish), all searching, most wanting to cut loose and sing, and maybe just a few needing a secret and a quiet place, a place where their pilgrim dream can come alive. Whoever and however and for whatever reason we all gather doesn’t matter; what does matter is that we do make the journey, that we stand, sit, lay on the grass (or mud if the weather is crap) to learn, worship, drink, feast, but most of all, to laugh and cry…together.

And this has got me pondering in the light of the three readings from the First Sunday in Trinity. Imagine, for a moment, a faithful bunch of pilgrims hoping to learn more of the truth about God by attending closely to the liturgy of worship (whether in Parish Eucharist or the GB Arts Festival). I mean, imagine, for instance, we are confronted with three miracle stories. One say, about a bottomless flask of oil, another about a resurrection from the dead, and last, but not least, about a spiritual encounter with God.

Now imagine this merry band consists of people who, by virtue of their background and experience, find it (as, if I am brutally honest with myself from time to time, I do) almost impossible to believe in miracles, so they (dare I say we?) cannot help but view these stories as somewhat discomforting. Imagine then, that they give a quiet intellectual ascent to the possibility that God could do such things, but shy away from examining the stories too closely because of the embarrassing possibility that the stories will turn out to be false in some way, and that their quiet intellectual assumption will turn out to be insufficient to sustain their faith in Scripture, or even in God.

I have always been struck by the same question when it comes to this (and I now use myself, not some imagined gang, as the example): How can I discern the truth about God in texts I hear? The problem is not that my doubt gets in the way – the problem is that my fear of doubt gets in the way; that somehow the church has created an atmosphere in which diligent seeking after the truth is a risky project, one that could undermine one’s faith in God. Better, some say, to stick with hymn writer Newman:

And I hold in veneration,
For the love of Christ alone,
Holy church as his creation,
and her teachings as his own.

God only knows where thinking for ourselves might lead!!

I guess there is here a balance to be struck. I am not advocating unfettered flights of fantasy, nor even thinking madly outside the box. What I am suggesting is that, as a community within a tradition, we have a duty to think humbly but courageously about Scripture. And that thinking cannot begin if we deny before we start, our own deepest sneaking suspicions about God within the text.

To do this is I suppose to assume that our not spoken suspicions are somehow unacceptable (sinful even) – to God and the Church. And to do so is to assume that there is something unacceptable bout us – and whilst there is always room for improvement, to do that is to deny grace, the very heart of the Gospel, the Good News that we are loved and accepted by God just as we are…
…though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without;

Just as we are. ‘God wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve’; that is the bedrock of our faith. It’s only after we have sung these words, with all our heart, soul and mind and strength (all that it can muster anyway), that we can say with integrity, O Lamb of God I come; I come to learn from you in Scripture, to meet you in Communion, to be with you in prayer. The rest as my eccentric mad friend Terrance says is balderdash and piffle.

And in the light of this I was wondering what we might find if we come humbly and honestly to Scripture, despite our doubts and fears, or perhaps even because of them? Let me sneak a quiet assumption of my own: if we must talk in human images, then I say that the God who is powerful enough to do miracles is wise enough to recognise that a generation would arise for whom stories of miracles are hard to believe, a generation who would even think them suspicious, is wise enough to leave something in the texts other than evidence of her power. After all, God’s strength is perfected in weakness.

Miracle stories turn things on their head. Well, actually, quite the opposite. My priest has a lovely image of God in Christ turning everything ‘topsy-turvy’. I like to think that sin has tricked us all into walking around on our hands with our bums in the air and our faces to the ground – and into thinking that is normal and right. Miracle stories are then, designed to set us on our feet again. They are perhaps a special revelation, designed to reassert the fact that all things find their true meaning in God, not in what we call normal.

We think of generosity as unusual and often grudging, and let’s be honest, in this world, that’s pretty normal. But God’s generosity – true generosity, the hallmark, the benchmark, is completely different. Oil never ending and free of charge (George would never go for that!)

I guess the whole point is that whilst at times we need guidance we do actually need to own our faith not borrow someone else’s. To do that we need to talk, read, reflect, pray and talk some more – honestly – with each other. Honest opinions, honestly held, honestly expressed, are the seeds. Sown in the soil of honest listening and honest responding, they bring forth (somewhat miraculously) the fruit of the Spirit….


maggi said...


Kathryn said...

Paul, thank you on several fronts...First, for painting an evocative picture of the wonder that is Greenbelt, - an oasis that I badly needed to drop in at this afternoon; next (and consistently) for the beauty of your writing and most of all for the reminder that God is there when we look, even if our searching involves abandoning things we're told we "ought" to hang onto.
Sometimes I suspect I shy away from uncomfortable questions because I'm frightened that the whole thing might unravel if I pull that thread...but if it does, then that was a human construct, and not a route to meeting and loving the God who has already gone before us into ...everywhere.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

is that Yiddish?? I wrote all that at the airport on tuesday - not sure why, but beer and airports bring out the rambler in me

i know it wouldn't be the oasis it is if we had it more, but i too could do with that thin place right now.
I agree about the fear of unravelling...i think we have been conditioned to fear the wrong things....maybe

Ash said...

A fine image!

Kate's Typewriter said...

this is brilliant. Thanks for the comment, I'm still mulling over words that might go with the images. It looks like there is a lot I can learn from you... I'm delighted to begin reading your blog. Cheers!

Christianne said...

I appreciate your post and your continued honesty in the journey. My thoughts align with Kathryn's, that if the thing unravels then it was a human construct and not a route to God. As I read, I continued to think, "If the thing is true, it will bear up under scrutiny." Shame on the church for discouraging the scrutiny throughout her history. God can handle it, can't He? And wouldn't He desire it, since He desires truth in our inmost being? If the truth is that we doubt and do not understand and fear what we may find (either because we fear it will be false or we fear what it will ask of us), then I think He looks at us with great compassion in His eyes and says, "Well, now. THERE'S something to start with. Let's dig in."

Christianne said...

And by the way, I loved your post a few posts back about six people invited to dinner. I loved reading all the voices that piped in with their top votes. I couldn't post an answer myself because I'm rubbish at those kind of "What's your top whatever?" questions, but it has continued to keep me thinking. I was relieved to learn that the "rules" allowed fictional characters to be included. :)

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

hi, tired old railings....loved the way they fell to the ground - i like knackered old things - they're timeless

am sure words will come - I remember feeling the same when visiting Africa. I would love to visit day maybe
ps, not sure about learning, but enjoy my rambles all the same

i guess god can handle anything - we just think otherwise most of the time - i guess we need to see things with more than our eyes sometimes....
ps, it was interesting to see who wanted who to dinner, my list changes by the day

Anna said...

What a great shot Paul....

This post was amazing. You always get me thinking about all the right things! :) Thanks!

I hope that you had a wonderful Father's Day today...I am glad that you liked my image tonight. Have a good week!

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

hi anna
thank you....i did have a good day - me and my boy cooked some mexican dish from the hairy bikers cook book

loved your image - i remember the first time my boy held mine when he was a few hours will always be precious

Awareness said...

we do need to own our faith and to assume an active role in the journey. how much easier this is when there are so many others open and willing to share in the journey, and who also may be afraid to ask the questions.

personally, I didn't want to ask the questions because i wasn't willing to believe in God. Now, I'm asking and asking and asking....though am confused and befuddled most of the time because there doesn't seem to be one story told the same way anywhere....I feel like my life is being nutured and fed with tasty helpings I'm willing to try.
Now, if I could only get my hands on the hairy bikers cookbook, it may have all the answers to my questions.

ps. so what's with the oil?

Anna said...

You know Paul...there is a serious lack of mexican food here in London. I miss it so much. That cookbook sounds great BTW! I am so glad that you had a good Father's Day....there is really nothing as wonderful as a good father, especially one who walks with the Lord.

:) Take care.

Kate's Typewriter said...

in response to your question, just visiting. i am working with an NGO called the Reconciliation Walk... so there have been several Middle East projects lately we've been working on.
i really like your writing style. Where in Africa were you? I would love to go sometime soon.

Kyle said...

The circles add a great perspective on this classic "leading lines" style photograph!