Sunday, 24 September 2017

Adventure!

Adventure seems to be the theme for this week. I have just returned, with Les, from a residential weekend at Rydal Hall, with 36 church members from across our new Grasmoor Mission Community (GMC).  It's been a genuinely exciting time, as we have shared with each other where we are, and where we're hoping to be as a Mission Community (MC). Nobody really knows what an MC will look like in the future; but it is an essential part of a county-wide strategy for mission and growth. This weekend was really about relationship-building, and imagining new realities. Very much only a beginning but at least I think it got us out of our own silos, and helped us to realise that 'church' is about a lot more than keeping the activities of a local congregation going. We have a 'divine commission' to bring the Good News of God's love to a tired, weary, fragmenting world so let's wake up to our responsibilities. It is an adventure - an adventure of faith and trust in the living God who calls us.

The other adventure is more personal, and one I shall never be allowed to forget! Last Wednesday, I went for another of my weekly fell walks, this time to Haystacks (incidentally, the favourite of the Alfred Wainwright, who listed all the Cumbrian fells. His ashes were scattered there.) I left in good time, in order to be home to prepare for an evening meeting. I still don't know if I actually climbed Haystacks, thereby ticking off another Wainwright, but I climbed something in that area! The instructions in my guide book were somewhat unclear.

After that, it all went wrong. Evidently, I followed a wrong path - I should have known, because it felt unsafe, going down beside a fast-running stream over loose rocks and stones. The rain was getting heavier; it was misty and the wind was getting up.  I arrived on a wide plateau, bounded by ravines either side and a sheer drop in front of me. Ironically, looking ahead in the far distance I could see Buttermere, where I was parked, and the very path I had walked up earlier. I just couldn't find my way down.

I tried several ways to get back up the way I'd come, but just couldn't find the path. I even tried climbing up rock to get there. I also made two or three attempts, going down gullies beside fast-flowing water, falling and losing my walking pole in the process, until I arrived at a sheer drop. So back I went.

By now, the rain was getting heavier, the wind blowing, and the light fading. It was also past 6pm: I should have been home 2 hours earlier, and we normally eat at 6. Les would be worried. I was absolutely soaked, and having been out for nearly 5 hours, with only a small bar of chocolate and a bottle of water, was very tired. Time to admit defeat: phone 999 for Mountain Rescue, and also phone home. Of course, no signal: out of range. In the course of my searchings, I came across a cave into which a crawled for shelter. There I rested, dozed a bit, prayed a bit and waited. Surely a helicopter would come soon??!!

I was really worried for Les, and also for the meeting planned for 7.30 - a particularly important 'Gathering' for members of all of our churches, for the opening of a new term. If I didn't get there, since I was leading it, the whole meeting would be distracted, concerned for my well-being, 'lost on the fells'.

Then I thought, 'why not send a text?' No good inside a cave, so go outside. Wind, rain, murk and gloom. And of course the text wouldn't send either. But way down in the valley below, I saw two figures with rucksacks, making their way up beyond the fell I was on. Grab the opportunity, I thought, so I yelled 'Help, help me...' and waved frantically. Wearing a dark green coat and black (not waterproof) pants, it might have been difficult, but they did see me; waved, and headed in my direction. I knew they wouldn't be able to get up, as I couldn't get down, but they shouted back 'go back the way you came; we'll meet you at the top.'

Not what I wanted to hear, as I couldn't go back the way I came. I'd been trying for ages. My legs had gone to jelly, my boots squelching and full of water; feeling cold and shivery. Nevertheless, their arrival gave me a sense of hope, so I set off back again. This time, somehow, though nearly dark (it must have been after 7pm by now) I found the path straightaway, partly aided by sheep (they turned up all over the place!) which led the way. Stumblingly, I found my way up, buffeted by wind, and very wet and arrived at the top. Now I was disorientated, with the dark shapes of several fells around me. I thought I could make out a track ahead of me so set off. The ground was boggy, as I splodged onwards beginning by now to be seriously anxious, as much as anything because I feared there could be 3 casualties, if the other two guys were still looking for me in these poor conditions. Mercifully, it was still quite mild, so by keeping moving, I wasn't that cold.

Then, I heard a voice shouting 'Hello!'  I turned to my left, and to my amazement, there they were. The two guys, with torches, only about 100metres away! I trudged towards them, onto the path on which they were standing. One of them gave me a big hug, and called me a 'silly old duffer!' The two of them then led me on down the path to the bothy where they had arranged to spend the night. One went on ahead to light the coal fire, and get things warm and ready, while the other guided me along the path from which they had come.

It turned out that they were both ex-servicemen. One a paratrooper and the other a marine! They had come well equipped for their own adventure, but my arrival had rather diverted them. As soon as they met me, I was given a handful of salted peanuts - which I love; at the bothy, I had a scotch egg (another favourite) and cheese and biscuits. Pretty much food heaven! And of course, the obligatory flask of hot, sweet tea. Meanwhile, I took off all my soaking clothes, and crawled into a sleeping bag and we waited. I felt somehow immediately among friends, and great conversation followed - as you might guess, some of it to do with faith and answered prayer!

I say we waited. Actually, I was all set for the night. We had all we needed for our comfort, and there was the promise of bacon butties for breakfast. The point was, the weather was so awful that to have risked going down to base would have been to invite injury so, although I knew Les would be really worried, it was better to arrive hours later but safe, than to put ourselves at risk. In any case, we knew the Mountain Rescue (MR) would by now have been called out so it was only a matter of time before they arrived. And, my friends predicted correctly, this bothy would be the first place they looked as it is where walkers head for shelter in emergency.

And so it was. About 9.30 the MR turned up, the first face I saw being that of Laura, a dedicated and influential member of Christ Church, Cockermouth, whom I know quite well. It was a bit embarrassing to meet her in such circumstances, but - hey - that's one of her roles in life!

I then had to make a decision: 'should I go, or should I stay?' I was genuinely torn, as to be honest I was enjoying the adventure! Then I thought, these 20 or so MR people had come for me; and I didn't think Les would be best pleased if, after all the consternation I'd caused, I actually chose to stay out all night! So, changing into clean, dry clothes, I set off with the team to their Land Rovers at the top of Honister Pass. It took about 40 minutes, in the dark and the rain, but felt so different with a confident team of people who were all so kind and friendly. At one stage, we crossed a stream which was ankle deep, with stepping stones. The stones would of course be slippery: 'just walk through', said one of them. 'You're already soaked. And you walk on water don't you?!'

Then it was back to the car park by Land Rover; and Laura drove my car back into Cockermouth, from where I drove myself home. Here, I was met by a reception committee of Les, Sue (our administrator), Adrian and John, my clergy colleagues, and John's wife, Sarah. It was a lovely welcome: I so much appreciated their support for Les, who had been incredibly calm throughout. Together we gave thanks to God for my rescue. It was about 11.15pm, about 10 hours since I had left!

Some reflections on the experience:
  1. In a funny kind of way, the world seems to have changed since last Wednesday. This is partly because this was an unforgettable experience - and believe me, I will not be allowed to forget it, the number of leg-pulls I have already had about it! It has already become part of the story of my life. But much more importantly, I have become, in a totally new way, aware of how much loved I am, not just by family but even by those who do not know me very well. When it was announced at Wednesday's meeting that I was 'lost', apparently the wave of concern and affection for me was palpable. And I have certainly found this since me return, with so many hugs and warm greetings. I have been very moved by this, and am so grateful.
  2. We hear often of 'the kindness of strangers', and this I have experienced in a very big way. Andy & Paul, my two rescuers, were unbelievably kind to me. This was meant to be a night of 'wild camping', which they both enjoy, and I made it rather more 'wild' than they expected. They were honest enough to admit that they had groaned when they heard my cries, and were tempted to ignore me. But they could not, and went out of their way - literally - to help me. Then, having got me to a place of safety, their care continued and I think they would genuinely have been happy for me to have spent the night there. I owe them both a massive debt of gratitude.
  3. Of course, part of the crisis was of my own making for not being properly equipped. I have been told a few times now, never go out without a torch and a whistle even if (as I thought) it's only a daytime hike. You just never know. Then, make sure you wear clothing that is not only waterproof, but also visible in the dark, and stands out against the greens and the browns of the fells. Inside your rucksack, put all your valuables inside 'dry bags' which give them extra protection against the rain (or falls in the rivers!). Andy said he was going to take me shopping and get me properly equipped. I think I'll take him up on that.
  4. The prayer of the righteous has great power in its effects (James 5.16)  I gather there was a perfect storm of prayer that night, as the word went round. Those who had gathered for the meeting abandoned their programme to pray; the word went round via social media and mobile phones. People prayed on their own and with others. Some prayed specifically for 'angels' and 'shelter', and God granted their request; others prayed more generally for my safe return. I believe it was prayer that prompted me to leave my cave when I did, to check mobile signal. Another ten minutes, and my rescuers would have passed by and I would have missed them. I am so grateful for praying friends and family; and I am also glad that I was the cause of people discovering once more that God does indeed answer prayer. Praise to his Name!
  5. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me (Psalm 23.4). I'm sure that my own faith was tested in a new and dramatic way. As the realization grew that I was lost and in need of rescue, I turned constantly to prayer. Several years ago, in deep and dark depression, God asked me if I trusted him. I realised I didn't and hadn't; now was the time to do so, and I have tried to live more trustfully ever since. So, on those darkening fells, I prayed over and over, 'God, I trust you. Please rescue your servant. I know I still have a work to do.' I found myself singing hymns like Be thou my guardian and my guide/and hear me when I call/Let not my slippery footsteps slide/and hold me lest I fall. Naturally, I became anxious as darkness fell, and there was no helicopter (!) (I learned later that it was highly unlikely the helicopter would have come out in such conditions; and in any case, it's very expensive and reserved for life and death situations.) However, I didn't doubt for one minute that I would be rescued. It was just a matter of when and how. Would I spend the whole night in my cave? I didn't know. But somehow God would save me. He did - my Saviour and Mighty Deliverer. With faith strengthened like this, I feel emboldened even more in his service. As I said, the world seems to have changed somehow.
  6. Finally, I have to say, there was something about the experience which I relished. I think it was about the challenge which took me beyond my normal limits, pushed my mind and body to extremes, to a place I have never been before - not just geographically. It has somehow made me more more inclined to take risks. Not stupidly or irresponsibly, lest once again I cause trouble for others; but with the realization that part of our human experience - and indeed part of our faith experience - is to get out of our comfort zone, and in so doing find that one's character is strengthened and new discoveries are made. And, if one fails, or needs picking up once in awhile, remember that it is also human to be vulnerable, to know one's need of God, and to be humble enough to accept the help of others - even, perhaps especially, that of strangers.
So, that is the story of my adventure.

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to my God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40.1-3)



Saturday, 16 September 2017

A Sense of History

I've had a couple of 'historical' experiences this week.  Following last week's heritage weekend, I decided to walk the conservation trail around 'old' Cockermouth last Wednesday. You do get a sense of an industrial past, with buildings that were formally mills or small factories; with houses to match, accommodating the various workers at the time. Much of Cockermouth is Georgian, 18th and early 19th centuries, corresponding roughly with what came to be known as the Industrial Revolution. We are fortunate that so many of our old buildings and streets have been retained.

Last night, Les and I went to see the film 'Dunkirk' at the Kirkgate Centre (one of the aforementioned 'conserved' buildings, though in this case rather later than Georgian.) I came away wondering what it was all about.  It was certainly ingenious, weaving together one week of the soldiers trapped on the beach; one day of a small boat, sailing as part of the flotilla; and one hour, of a Spitfire pilot, trying to protect shipping from enemy bombardment. The special effects were tremendous, making you feel you were really there. At times, making you jump. (Incidentally, the Kirkgate sound system was well up to this!)  But I couldn't help feeling there was something propagandist about the film, very British. So much so that one member of the audience tried to applaud when it was over.

When I spoke at last week's Civic Service, I spoke not just about heritage but also about hope. In preparation for next week's Mission Community weekend at Rydal Hall, I have been thinking about expectations. It seems to me that trying to recreate an image of an 'old England' is doomed to failure - and 'old church' is part of that. We have to think in terms of the work God is doing a creating a new heaven and a new earth. The key, for me, in terms of church, is that we really must expect more people to become Christians, turning to Christ, being changed from the inside out, instead of merely trying to get more people into church in order to perpetuate an institution. After all, in that period I referred to above, not only was there great social and economic change, but there was a spiritual change to go with it - otherwise known as the Evangelical Revival.


Saturday, 9 September 2017

Giving for Life 2

Is there no end to the disasters afflicting the human race at the moment?  The hurricanes in the West Indies, now approaching the US (my mind goes back to the memorable holiday Les and I had in Antigua in 2014); the earthquake in Mexico; the continuing flood catastrophe in SE Asia; the starving and disease-ridden innocents of Yemen; and now the horrific ethnic cleansing in Myanmar of Ruhingya Muslims. I can only wonder why Aung San Suu Kyi has been largely silent on the matter, having admired her tremendously for years. Is she still under the influence of the military, one wonders? Desmond Tutu is surely right to break his silence on this matter.

I am currently reading the earliest writings of Amy Carmichael, missionary to India in the early 1900s, and a local 'saint', having lived in Broughton and been a product of the earliest Keswick conventions. She castigates Christians at home for their cosy missionary prayer meetings, while she and her colleagues are toughing it out 1000s of miles away. Yet what else can we do, so far from the places of such acute need? Give money for sure - and that generously.

Today, All Saints hosted a Civic Service with a difference, at the end of European Heritage weekend. It was different because a New Orleans jazz band led the worship. It was marvellous, completely transforming the worship. Everyone joined in with familiar hymns, some coming out of black slavery e.g. Just a Closer Walk with Thee and Down by the Riverside. I was thrilled to see a number of people, non-churchgoers, joining with such feeling in prayer and worship. It seemed to touch something deep within us all. In my address, I reflected on heritage and culture, and our contribution to it. One day, people will look back on what they have inherited from us!

Saturday, 2 September 2017

'Giving for Life'

This week we have heard and seen the dreadful news of floods in Texas and SE Asia. I must admit, the scale and duration of these catastrophes make the Cockermouth experiences rather less drastic. The contrast between the American and Asian experiences couldn't be more striking. When Americans talk about losing everything, they still have resources, human and material, on which they can draw; when Nepalese or Bangladeshis or Indians talk about losing everything, that is literally the case. Where can they look for help? Christian Aid reckon up to 40 million people have been affected by the floods: that's two thirds of the UK population. Staggering. Let's all give as generously as we can to Christian Aid, or any other aid agency, to provide some kind of rescue.

Giving is our theme for the next month or so here. Time to review, as part of our commitment to discipleship. We are using some C/E materials from a programme called 'Giving for Life' - which I think is a great title. Giving is life-giving for others; and it is also liberating for us, as givers. The timing is deliberate for our Team. Having spent the best part of a year 'conversing' about our vocation as churches, we now consider how much we can each give in order to turn our missionary objectives into a reality. So as well as reflecting Biblically on the imperatives to give, as God has freely given to us, we also think about enabling our churches to grow in faith, in numbers, and in fruitfulness.

Here in Broughton, we are thankful for one particular piece of mission in the past week. A children's Holiday Club/Fun Day. This involved 'messy' crafts, Bible stories and song, games and activities. Great fun. And our first piece of intentional outreach to our villages. There was great support from church members here; and also from each of the other three churches. Joy all round, with an emphasis on the love of God for each child. Tomorrow, we follow up with a church service, hoping that some who came to the Fun Day will join us again.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

God in the End

Another Wainwright ticked on Wednesday: High Rigg, starting at the lovely little church of St John's in the Vale and the diocesan youth centre there . Quite a challenging walk of 4 1/2 miles, though it felt longer - and certainly took longer than I expected, resulting in my failing to get home in time for an appointment!

I have spent some hours this week, with colleagues, on Safeguarding administration. Mainly trying to coordinate everything so we have all the paperwork in one place, and easy reference to see where all our volunteers are at in terms of their DBS checks etc. So grateful to Cath and others for helping with this.

But the big news of the week is the birth of the latest Butland - Jacob Christopher, born to Chris & Debbie yesterday afternoon, just after 4pm.  I love this particular picture, taken within minutes of his birth, which almost looks as if he's praying!

What made this birth stand out from the previous grandchildren is the running commentary we received via WhatsApp from Chris in the delivery room! So we knew exactly what was going on almost minute by minute, with pictures instantaneously. And here is a photo of the family received earlier this morning, when George and Chloe met their new brother.


Tomorrow we reach the end of the road - that is, the book 'We Make the Road by Walking'. It's chapter 52, having begun the book at the start of September last year. We have followed the story of God's salvation from Genesis to Revelation, and discovered that 'In the beginning, God...' (Genesis 1.1) and at the end, God's grace (Revelation 22.21).  Suitably, the Gospel reading is the story of the Two Sons (Luke 15). I'm sure when I was young, it was always 'the Prodigal Son', and the story ended with the feast upon the return of the younger son.  The elder son literally didn't get a look in. Now, however - thanks maybe to the writing of Henri Nouwen (The Return of the Prodigal Son) and the success of the Emmaus course, we realise there is a lot more to it.

Nouwen describes the parable as A Story of Homecoming and writes about his own experience, late in life, of finally knowing the Father's blessing, so that - blessed - he may be a father, able to bless others. For years, he says, he felt like someone on the outside looking in (the older brother) but was able to move inside (coming home), and look out. Pretty much matches what I also have experienced. Someone said to me only recently, he felt I should see myself as a spiritual father to others.

McLaren summarises the journey thus: '...we walk this road, from the known into the unknown, deeper into the mystery, deeper into light, deeper into love, deeper into joy (p320).

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Spirit of Hope

The organ playing seemed to go ok last week. I managed not to make too many obvious mistakes, and people were very complimentary. I enjoyed it: so maybe I could maintain a certain level of competence to retirement.

Last Wednesday, I completed two more 'Wainwrights': Lord's Seat and Barf. Both gave spectacular 360 degree views at the top, and I particularly enjoyed Barf, as it overlooks the A66, which we travel often.  Looking down over it, and Lake Bassenthwaite beyond, was a marvellous experience. On the walk back, through Whinlatter Forest, I spotted a rainbow over the lake, which made my joy complete.


This week has been rather taken over by funerals: 8 in all! Although I only had a hand in 5 of them, they all needed to be organised and logged. The most moving was that of a 32 year old mother of 5, all under 12, whose death from lung cancer affected countless people. She belonged to Kings Church in Cockermouth, and the radiance of her faith had completely transformed her suffering so that her funeral (attended by 100s) was a wonderful witness to the love and mercy of God, with Jesus as her (and our) Good Shepherd.

Tomorrow's theme is Spirit of Hope, this time looking beyond death to the life to come. Our focus is on the book of Revelation, which our author invites us to consider not as a 'roadmap to the future' (i.e. to be taken literally), but rather as 'literature of the oppressed', for it is written for Christians at a time of intense persecution. It is a message of hope, intended to lift them above the fear and terror of their times to a new world which God is creating, where all things are made new. Thus, the key word at the end of the book is not 'wait' or 'not yet' but simply 'come'. For God wants us to be part of the new world which is being made even as we suffer and struggle with this earthly life.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Spirit of LIfe

When we were on holiday last month, I began to think about returning to organ-playing. Something to carry forward into retirement. Might even begin a new 'ministry'!  Coming home, I was met with the discovery that on Sunday, 13th (tomorrow) there was no one available at All Saints to play the organ. And I just happen to be rota'd there for that service. And, as it happens, not preaching - just presiding at Holy Communion. So, sooner rather than later, I find myself playing in public, moving from organ stool to altar table and back again. First time I've played in public for 6 years! I remind myself that this is an offering of worship no less than preaching or presiding at communion; and the time I would have spent preparing a sermon I have been using to practise the organ instead. Just hope the good folks of All Saints aren't distracted by too many uncertain sounds.

The theme in McLaren's book this week is death, and I must say he makes it sound most attractive, from the perspective of Christian faith.  In light of Jesus' death and resurrection, we can expect to experience death as a passage, like birth, the end of one life stage and the beginning of another (p306). On the other side, we can expect to experience as never before the unimaginable light or energy of God's presence. We will enter a goodness so good, a richness so rich, a holiness so holy, a mercy and love so strong and true that all our pride, lust, greed, resentment and fear will instantly be melted out of us (p307). You may imagine that dying will be like diving or falling or stepping into a big wave on the beach. You feel yourself lifted off your feet and taken up into a swirl and curl and spin more powerful than you can imagine. But there will be no fear, because the motion and flow will be the dance of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The rising tide will be life and joy (p308).

Seeing death in this way, we are freed from the fear of it and therefore able to live this life more fully.