I had forgotten just how steep the hills are in Yorkshire! On my return to Scargill House after three years, I was excited to be facing some tough climbing and descending to offset the flats of the fens and to seek God’s presence. The first climb was not too painful, mostly thanks to a strong wind from the north east surging me upwards. Perhaps Ruach (a name used to describe the spirit or wind of God) was pushing, leading, forcing me? I’m here on a retreat whose title is ‘elements of faith–water, earth, wind and fire’ and we exploring how those elements are deeply present in the story of God. The third of those was making it’s presence felt. It was best to not stop for too long in that cool wind so after a brief pause at the waters and cliffs of Malham Tarn, I turned back, as at the top of an equilateral triangle and peddled across the desert summit that meandered up and down then up some more. What, however, was of more interest and impact to my legs, was the wind. Ruach was strong in the valleys and mighty on the tops. I reminded myself time and again not to go too deep too early–there was plenty of climbing still to come.
The relentless mountain top desert served to remind me of the ‘dark night of the soul’–of times of barrenness and testing and silence, yes silence. Silence despite the rushing and roaring of the wind. Of when God is silent. And God is silent. Stripped of power by the invisible onslaught I cranked slowly across the narrow tracks to a summit. And then down. But gravity was weakened by the concealed enemy until the descent inevitably became an unstoppable force.
Then rocks. And trees. The track narrowed to a 12 inch boulder fest twisting around gnarled roots and rocky outcrops then boulders and great slabs. Brakes on their limits of power barely able to control my speed as I search for the smoothest line. How I wonder in this blurred moment of speed I know not, but I did…’objects this big should be knocking me off line, unbalancing the bike’. I’m thankful to the great powers of the force; rotational force that is. And I wonder if the spirit of Jesus acts a bit like this too–if we keep moving where he is going, where he is leading us out, will he maintain our momentum and path?
The valley offers a brief sanctuary. But the hills come quickly round here and the next one was more than very steep and was angled straight into ‘the breath’. As if I needed any more resistance. I valiantly tried to stay on the bike on the steepest parts until my legs could push no more or the front wheel rose skyward or to be clean blown up and off the earth!
I was running out of steam. That happens quite a lot, in life. Jesus too was running out of steam in the desert and he got angels. What will I get? Will illumination come for me? When? Will I encounter God? Am I on the edge of hearing God’s word for me?
I battle on. Never defeated. There is noise, but silence. Yet one thing I know in this space: I am not alone. I may not be meeting the cataphatic God (yes I learnt a new word!) but he drives me onward powerfully.
Tomorrow I will be stronger, both in legs and faith.
Mountain top desert,
Ruach breathing strong, I wait
From Mark’s gospel of Jesus
12 At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness
Benedict’s Box Advent Christingle story Christmas School Christingle service in church. A Christmas story that can be read with children anywhere.
This is a slight departure from the usual type of musings on here to something more in line with my everyday job – telling stories to children. Here’s one I wrote myself for the Junior School Christingle service this year. Enjoy!
Betty and Joe lived in the hill country, far from any towns and cities, in a small, poor village. They lived a simple life with their mum and dad who grew oats and apples and made all sorts of things out of wood to sell at markets in the towns far away.
But their village was under threat. A strange darkness had gripped it ever since an old man called Benedict had died. He was a wonderful man, full of love and warmth, who spent his life helping others who were in need of anything; someone to talk to, something to eat, something to wear, wise advice for difficult times. After his death, the villagers had slowly forgotten about Benedict and the strange darkness had grown. It was a darkness in people’s hearts, words, and actions. They spoke angrily and bitterly to each other, they stole what few possessions and little food they had from each other, and they fought over small things too. Even the sun rarely shone.
Betty and Joe felt this darkness too. Yet they fought against it with all their hearts. One day, they were both woken early by a cold wind that seeped through the cracks around the windows of their room. It was still dark as they ate their porridge, but as the light grew they saw that the wind had brought with it snow. And lots of it. Both their faces lit up with excitement and they rushed to put on their thickest jumpers and jackets before waving to mum and dad and running off into the fresh white, powdery snow.
First they played snowballs, aiming at each other, until they both had taken one too many in the face! And then they aimed at any old target they could find in the village– a wall, a lamppost, a sign…until their joy was snuffed out by an angry shout, ‘Oi you two! Get away, we don’t want kids playing round here’. Joe and Betty jumped at the fierce voice, and then ran. Up the hill they ran, past all the houses and out of the village. When they finally ran out of breath they slowed to a walk and trudged through the snow, up an old lane where some houses once stood that led into the hills. Everything looked different with a thick covering of snow and even though it was still quite dark, they enjoyed talking about how pretty things looked with their new white icing–like layer on top.
After a while, they were some way out of the town and into the hills. The lane passed through a wooded area with tall pine trees growing closely together. But then, through the trees, Joe spotted an old building. ‘Come on Betty, let’s explore…’ and they ran off to find a way in. As they pushed branches aside and came closer to the building, they could see that it was an old church. Some of it’s windows were broken and the stone bricks covered in moss and ivy. But it’s large, heavy, wooden front door was ever so slightly open. ‘Hey Joe, shall we go inside’ Betty suggested with a glint in her eye. Cautiously, they opened the door wide enough for them to slip through. It was cold and damp and it all looked shabby and uncared for. But it felt somehow different to their village, somehow not so dark.
Outside, the snow had stopped falling and the clouds were not so thick. Betty and Joe walked slowly into the old church, looking around at the stained glass windows, many of which were broken, and at the bronze candle holders that were dusty and dull. Then as they reached the front of the church, where there was a rail, some cushions and a large table with more dusty candle holders, a gap appeared in clouds outside, and the sun, which was just rising, shone brightly and cast a beautiful orange, red and yellowy glow through the door that they had left open. Joe and Betty turned to see the opposite wall bathed in the warm colours. They stared, almost transfixed as the narrow shaft of light travelled through the church; further in and higher up as the sun rose. Then their gaze was drawn to a box. A plain wooden box, dusty and dirty like everything else but with the same warm light seeping out from the edges of it’s lid and it’s sides where the wooden panels no longer quite fitted. ‘Wow’ they said to each other, ‘What could it be?’, they asked each other as they knelt beside it. ‘I wonder what’s inside?’ said Betty, ’Should we open it?’
What do you think they should do? What do you think is inside?
The two of them, brother and sister, held each other with one hand, and each put the other hand on the lid of the box. Together they opened it and the light shone out with such intensity that they had to close their eyes and they fell backwards. But the light felt so good! And for the first time in years they felt joy in their hearts. They realised that the darkness they had felt had been chased away and they felt lighter and happier and free. Together, they bravely reached inside the box, through the almost blinding light to see if there was anything inside. And sure enough, there was; a hat, a pair of shoes and gloves and a small book, a bible. As Joe flicked through the pages of the bible, a piece of paper fell out and on it was some writing, ‘Remember, my friends, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1. Remember the light. You who read this note must remind the people of the light.’ It was signed, ‘Benedict’
Even though they didn’t fully understand it all, they knew what they had to do. Joe and Betty put the gloves, shoes, hat and Bible back into the box, picked it up and ran. They ran back through the pine trees, and down that long lane, their small feet sinking into the snow with each step but their bodies feeling strong and fast and full of light. Back into the village they ran, shouting with excitement. They put the box down in the middle square of the village and picked up some snow. Snow which they made into snowballs and threw at every house they could. Angry voices shouted back at them but this time they carried on throwing the snow balls until the people came out of their houses and into the square and when the square was full of people shouting at them and at each other they knelt by the box and once again, hand in hand, they lifted the lid. And the light shone out! Radiating off their faces, lighting up the grey buildings, throwing warmth and light onto the faces of the angry and bitter people; melting their cold hearts with it’s love.
The shouting died down, men and women, boys and girls all stopped still. Some sank to the ground. And when it was quiet enough to be heard, the two of them took out their treasure and read the note aloud, ‘Remember, my friends, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Remember the light. You who read this note must remind the people of the light. John 1. It’s from someone called Benedict!’
That name seemed to send shockwaves through many of the villagers as they remembered. As they remembered what it was like to love and to be loved; as they remembered what it felt like to have ‘light’ inside them. The light was chasing away the darkness from within them.
By now, the sun was fully up and there were large blue pieces of sky between the clouds. From somewhere in the crowd, a snowball flew through the air and hit a sign, spraying a fine snow shower. But instead of angry shouts, laughter broke out among them and before long there was a fight, but not a angry fight, a fun–filled, light–hearted snowball fight in the glow of Benedict’s box.
I wonder who this story reminds you of?
I wonder what you think it has to say to us, to you?
(Let’s close our eyes.) The Christmas story is about the light of the world, Jesus, coming to our world to chase away and beat the darkness to bring us peace in our hearts and lives. How can you share peace and love with people around you?
Dear God, thank you for sending Jesus, the true light, to shine in the darkness. Please help us to shine love, peace and light in dark places too. Amen
Each season brings the mountain biker a fresh challenge. Autumn calls time on the leaves who die their beautiful death as the woods and forests are transformed into a vibrant myriad of shades. As those leaves fall they cover up a multitude of obstacles on the trail. Tree roots, damp and slippery now lie in wait to throw the wheels off line. Bumps and holes in the trail have a trap door over them while many of the trails themselves are hidden by the vast orange-yellow-red-brown carpet, making riding anywhere an exciting guessing game. And then there is the mud. Wet and slippery, thick and gloopy, heavy and sticky. Take your pick.
Autumn’s colour show
A falling Kaleidoscope
Leaves’ beautiful death
This morning, we rode a familiar little descent, albeit one we had not ridden since last winter. The trail was covered thickly with a brilliant mottled yellow carpet of leaves which meant we were guessing where the true trail was. It was exciting with potential for wipeouts!
Sometimes, it’s hard to see where you are going.
On the bike, you feel your way, letting your tyres mould to the terrain and making adjustments as they slip and slide off line, never quite sure whether you are on the trail or not. And doesn’t life feel like that sometimes? Often? We try hard to follow the Jesus trail that he has set before us and we have the Spirit-compass to guide us but we get subtly knocked off line. If we are not vigilant, if we let our focus wane, we can quickly find ourselves deep in the mud, far from place Jesus calls us to be. Little lies here and there lead to bigger lies that we then don’t see.
And so, I must come back to the still point and meet with pioneer of the trail:
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (from the life of Jesus, John 14v6)
To the Father I am heading. To Jesus side I want to go. May I ride the Jesus trail.
And so here I come to the end of my time of retreat. I’m just hours away from ‘re-entry’. It’s time to ride down the mountain and to face the day. Am I ready? I think so. I’ve missed being with people, I feel the God-given desire and call to ‘work the land’. I’ve sought out God, I’ve waited and ridden with open arms and lungs to be filled with the spirit of Jesus. I’ve felt the divine presence pumping through me and I’ve trained hard. My legs and lungs are definitely stronger, although you probably can’t tell! My hope is for the same for my spirit. I suspect it won’t be that easy going back and I need to work hard to keep my daily rhythm. I really do want to be ‘all flame’; to be the person God has made me and to live in my deep flow (my calling to bring goodness to the world); ‘I am the gate opener domestique’, helping riders to flow with Jesus.
Yesterday, I went with two friends to a new mountain bike venue. It was somewhere we had been meaning to go for years and only just an hour away. Riding new trails is always exciting but it also takes time riding them to get used to the terrain and their flow. Every part of our beautiful world has its own unique type of soil, tree, water, slope and geographic blend which makes a trail what it is. Then add in humans building the trails and every trail has it’s own special feel. This inevitably led to some less than graceful moments and a little rolling about in the loamy soil when braking too late on a loose bend! In a way, tomorrow feels like a new start. In a way, I want it to be that. I want to step out into the ocean and sail the breeze, ride the waves and find new worlds.
May God inspire me and guide me to ‘the place where your(my) deep gladness meets the world’s deep need’ (Frederick Buechner). My I move from the stillness of time with my Father, and like Jesus, go down the mountain and turn the world upside down and inside out! (Luke 6.12)
The boat that symbolised me being in ‘dry dock’, with my sail down, refuelling. Pass me the oars.
As I come towards the end of this time of retreat and rest, I know what I need to do: to take a deep breath, of the divine, to be still, to be filled. My tendency to action and to produce continues to call my attention but I resist and will not be burdened.
And so I headed out alone on the road bike to keep up my training and to spend some time with God. The wind was strong and from the east and I began with a tail wind, knowing I would be heading home into it. I was slightly agitated having forgotten to take any food with me so while I was still warming up I began to practise terra divina and almost immediately a small hawk appeared in front of me, hovering in the brisk wind, eyes fixed on it’s prize – food for the journey. I knew instantly what God was saying to me through this – keep your eyes fixed on my son. It’s quite easy right now, but when you hit the head wind (of getting back into work, the daily routine, workload rising towards Christmas etc) it won’t be so easy. On I rode, gradually raising the tempo while breathing in the wind and being with the divine. My heart felt warm and a smile spread through me, like blood is pumped around the body, and in that moment I knew I was beloved.
This was a relatively short ride and my aim was to keep my heart rate high and to average over 30km/h so it was time to knuckle down and push on, and yes, I did pray that I would not run out of energy! But my main prayer, as I pushed my body hard, was for strength for the journey ahead – that I will be able to push hard, with the eyes of my heart and mind fixed on the prize, my Lord Jesus, when I face head winds in the days, weeks and months ahead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
and a haiku;
Hunting hawk hovers
Eyes fixed on the prize, soul food
Head-wind, focus, remember
In the mountain bike world we talk about having different bikes for different types of riding and terrain (where the rule n+1 applies where ‘n’ = the number of bikes you own). I have gone down the opposite approach; one bike that can do it all, one bike to rule all trails. This is my appropriately named ‘Lapierre Zesty‘ which has a tangy zest for fun and adventure! It can soak up big bumps with ease, corner like it’s on rails (when the rider is skill-ful enough!), climb like a goat (when the rider is fit enough) and descend with speed, agility and playfulness (when I’m in my flow!). Despite being able to do all this, you can of course, ride it on smooth tarmac and the cleverly designed frame will not waste too much of my incredible power through the suspension bobbing up and and down.
Some years ago, one Pentecost, this bike made it’s first appearance in church for an illustration. We wanted to show how the Spirit of Jesus was given to the disciples, and now to us, and how the message of salvation spread out from Jerusalem, across all types of culture and kingdom. So I rode the bike around the dais (octagonal stage), down the steps, along the nave and then out of the west door (up some steps) and into the world. The bike represents the Spirit, able to go anywhere, do anything and reach to anyone. The rider is the vessel – us, partnering with Jesus in this work, being Jesus to the people around us, sharing his love and good news and that he wants us to have life to the max (John 10.10). As long as we ride with the spirit (stay on the bike!) we can go anywhere Jesus sends us. Taking it a step further, I always ride with a rucksack containing water, food, spares, phone, map and tools. And we have God’s Word written down for us – a fine multi-tool to accompany, repair, lead and guide us on our daily journey of life and faith on the Jesus path.
Psalm 105Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
A haiku, or two:
Spinning to the sun.
Setting it’s work done, divine
breath filled lungs, he’s here
Mountains rise steeply
rocks and roots menacing near
Zesty rides them all
I’ve just returned from an unforgettable five days mountain biking in Scotland. There is so much to reflect on, so many parallels to draw that I am not sure where to start!
The modern mountain bike trail centre is an incredible piece of workmanship and art. It is quite the opposite of a road which is built to go from A to B as quickly as possible. The trails at Innerleithen and Glentress are built to enjoy the mountain and put as a big a grin on your face as possible.
Yes, there is pain in the climbing but we all know that, ‘no pain, no gain’ so often is true. Yet even on the uphills, the trails are crafted in such a way as to make the mountain conquerable. The pain of getting to the top becomes in some way enjoyable in itself as well as a means to the end of the downhill return. But it is in these downhills that there is something very special. They are designed in such a skilful way, to allow the rider to flow down the trail in a choreographed dance of swooping, diving, rising and flying. There are many drop-offs and jumps, some three meters high but each with a sweet landing spot for the rider to find. But the trails also demand trust. I, the rider must trust the bike, trust the trail and trust in my own ability to enjoy this ride to the max. John 10.10This all came together for me in a beautiful and exhilarating four minute moment on the final black downhill run at Innerleithen, finding myself totally at one with the bike, the trail and myself, flowing along, setting the bike up for each turn, dip, rise and jump, absolutely and totally focussed on the moment, using every piece of momentum the trail was designed to provide and every ounce of concentration, strength and skill I possess. And when those three metre drop-offs approached I was ready to take that leap of faith, confident in my ability now that I was practiced, and trusting that the trail would continue and enable me to keep my flow rather than any other less desirable ending! It was simply sublime.
This turned my thoughts to the path that Jesus calls us to follow. It is a challenging path, one with many turns, with difficult, painful climbs, but it is one designed by the master craftsman and in so being, is one in which, with practice, we are able to follow. Those turns which look like slowing us down become opportunities for momentum as you slingshot round, twisting your body and planting your feet through the pedals to cause the tyres to grip hard. And then there is looking ahead…a whole new chapter? I often think about faith as being about the journey more than about the destination (wonderful as that will be) or as Ian Adams puts it;
‘The Jesus path is more about movement than achievement ‘ Ian Adams, Running Over Rocks p.123
There is a lot of practice involved riding these trails well. And it takes determination to learn from mistakes but is so worth sticking with it until you’ve nailed it! On the first day in Scotland I rode terribly. I couldn’t turn corners, I went to fast into them and braked in the wrong places. My weight was poorly balanced, I was tense and rigid. Why? Because I was not familiar with the trail, I had been away from it too long and was out of touch. How often does this happen in my walk with Jesus?
This morning began reading 1 Corinthians and I read 1 Corinthians 1.1-9. The Rt Rev’d Tom Wright pointed out that in v4-9 there is a progression from where the Corinthians are at now from being enriched in king Jesus to what and where he is intending them to go now and then on to the great hope they have for the future. At every stage king Jesus, the master craftsman is to be their focus, their centre, their trail.
Paul, in Romans 8 says, ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’ – Our God is for us, he longs to ride with us on the trail he has given us so that we can live life to the max, abundantly, as he intended us to (John 10.10).