September, the summer slips to sleep?

For our collective worship this morning, the children came in and then left quietly to the sound of Gundula Janowitz singing (with the Berlin Philharmonic) the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss (words by Hermann Hesse). For most children, this kind of singing, with orchestral accompaniment, is not part of their musical diet, but the song settled upon them in a beautiful way. We listened to the second of the songs, September, and then I read the poem in translation, so we could reflect a little on the quietness of a garden that is adjusting to the end of summer, with the warmest of seasons “slipping into sleep.”

I don’t know where Hesse was when he wrote these beautiful words (maybe in his garden in Ticino), but until we had heavy rains today, September has felt like a season of growth in Milton Keynes, rather than the end of summer. The pictures here are  from the courtyard at Christ the Sower, and there is plenty going on – marrows and beans harvested yesterday, the apple trees laden and the hollyhocks in full bloom. Yet the spirit behind the quieting of the year is welcome to me, and accompanies the move from a period of relative leisure to a period of hard work. Coldness is welcome for such an enterprise.

A new year, again

We had a really helpful day of training last Friday. Tracey, our director of learning, led us through the philosophy and practice of guided reading in a great presentation Attending to Children’s Learning – guided reading that you can read here. We are beginning a concerted effort to get a much more thorough whole-school awareness of the pedagogy around shared writing, maths mastery and guided reading, driven mainly by having new staff on board. All of these feature in our school development planning focuses for the year.

We started the training day with a look at the main objectives for the year. We tend to review the direction for the school and the School Development Plan (SDP) at the end of the previous May, and then for some reason, the SDP takes longer to get completed than it ought – mostly because there are some of us, me included, who get a bit too wordy. This year we are being simpler and more focused, and the attached presentation really says all that we want to achieve this year. The fact that we could bring it to staff for their comment and discussion on 1 September was a new feeling for us! This year we feel confident that our SDP will meet the needs of adults who need to readjust or develop their work to improve both school results but also outcomes for all of the children.

Another area that we will develop strongly this year is the leadership of foundation subjects. The quality of the provision has been secure for a long time, but the assessment of progress in foundation subjects has taken second place to that in the core subjects, including RE and PE. So there is a challenge for each of us in our subjects to know that children can do that which we have planned for them. We will start by looking at planning properly, as I do each term, and then bit by bit, monitor provision and assessment until we are fully confident that all teachers are teaching all subjects to the right age-related expectations. Anecdotally, this is happening already. By Christmas, we will have really good evidence of this.

Once the children came back on Monday, we were in a really good position to make sure that all the focuses we will be attending to were known and informed the teachers’ thinking. Following a really successful SIAMS inspection in June, we are expecting OFSTED at some stage between now and (at the latest) Easter, so taking the national priority of a full curriculum has been really vital.

Governors, leaders and teachers have all been enormously supportive this term, and with Kaajal and Tracey acting as deputy and assistant head respectively for the term, this is a time of confident and expectant progress for everyone.

We began the term with a collective worship where we asked every child and adult, no matter how powerless they might feel, to activate the power of love that God has already given them and look for opportunities to give ourselves as gifts to one another. It is in this sacrificial giving of ourselves to the work and to one another and to God (in reverse order, ideally) that we will find the strength and grace to lead and work at Christ the Sower this year.

Gardening on the cheap

Just around the corner from our house is a secret field – at least I have never met anyone apart from me who has snuck into it. It has bushes and bushes of beautiful mirabelle plums, yellow, red and purple, and on the first time I discovered it, there were sitting, in perfect fellowship (or so it seemed to me) a red fox and a black cat. The cat has reappeared on other occasions when I have been foraging there, as the plums make excellent jams.

This year, behind the field pictured above, the Bancroft russet orchard has been producing wonderful fruit, despite one of the trees having fallen over in the mid-summer winds. The fruit are big and taste excellent. We go there every year but this has been the best for some time – as all foraged fruit has been this year.

The field, as parents with small children will know, is that next to Milton Keynes’ concrete cows. It is a good field in May for elderflower, and in years past (not so much this year) has been good for blackberries. Having bagged the russets, I discovered a damson tree near the Bradwell social club that I thought had been felled along with the adjacent plum trees along the redway between the bowling club and the social club: this was a good find as the parish council has coppiced or cut back nearly all the damson trees in the Bradwell Glebe which have been a good source of fruit for us for the last 5 years.

It is a time of year when we are thinking about school again and yet the exuberance of fruitfulness makes life seem like one long holiday! Foraging is really one of the great things we have enjoyed about life in this city. Those unacquainted with local orchards could do worse than start here for a guide. Parks Trust information is here.

The light of sunrise on a cloudless morning

Of all the beautiful images that the Bible has of skilled and compassionate leadership, this – the light of sunrise on a cloudless morning –  is my favourite and has been for years and years. The writer of Proverbs says that the path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, which shines ever brighter until the full light of day (Proverbs 4:18).

David, king of Israel, on his deathbed, uttered his final prophecy, a reflection on the years that had passed and what he had learnt about leading his people. He said this, in 2 Samuel 23:

‘The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me;
    his word was on my tongue.
The God of Israel spoke,
    the Rock of Israel said to me:
“When one rules over people in righteousness,
    when he rules in the fear of God,
he is like the light of morning at sunrise
    on a cloudless morning,
like the brightness after rain
    that brings grass from the earth.”

This is a quality to be hungered for and sought after with all that is in us, as leaders.

A fascinating interview with Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, appeared in this weekend’s Times magazine, and what really struck me about him, a ruler I have long admired, was the fact that he had created a place of safety and growth for the vast majority of Rwandans, in a way that Trump or Putin, for example, simply cannot even conceive of doing. They create insecurity around them as a matter of policy. Kagame, living in the shadow of a brutal genocide that the “democratic west” simply allowed to take place, measures all his actions by a single yardstick – are they more or less likely to allow a genocide to take place again? This is not nuanced leadership, but it creates stability and safety in a place where for 100 days in 1994 there was absolutely none whatsoever.

But David has in mind the beauty of stable, God-fearing, compassionate leadership that creates safety for people to thrive and the capacity to grow. The metaphor is extraordinary. Elsewhere the bible talks about warriors, shepherds and priests as the metaphors for leadership, here it is just the promise of warmth and sun for growth, and the sunshine reflecting on rain-covered grass. It speaks, as so often the scriptures do, of provision, of capacity for growth, of inspiration, and of freedom.

All of us know this delight of the early morning, even in the most straitened of circumstances, and the hope it brings. I woke up with it this morning, and had the joy of watering a garden where tomatoes and corn and pumpkin and zucchini and aubergines are ripening, after sunrise but before the sun was on the plants.

I am sitting at my desk at school as I write this, alone in the building, thinking of each person who I am charged to give leadership to – what would the light of morning at sunrise mean to them this term? What does it mean for them as leaders as they provide the first light of sunrise for each of their children as they enter the class each day? How do we, as leaders, undermine the deadly cynicism endemic in a profession which is never praised by those who reap the rewards of it? And how often do we simply stop and look and wonder and celebrate over the glory of what is before us? This too is a vital part of leadership – the rich appreciation of what we have and the potential that lies within it and the quality of the person led, or the child taught, or the parent encouraged or comforted. Seeing the intrinsic value of each created being of infinite worth, and then absorbing that into ourselves as leaders is an absolutely essential contribution to the fight to make education a worthwhile occupation, and not, as Nick Baines said in this morning’s Thought for the Day on Radio 4, one that “has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end.”

If we are to fulfil this as leaders, if we are to rule in the fear of God, reflecting his brightness onto those we seek to serve, we will need a better quality of discipleship for ourselves, a richer and more profound prayer life and a willingness to hear and follow the leading and slow wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Gardening with humility

I have just taken off the last 25 plums from a ridiculously fruitful plum tree that has been in our garden for about 4 years. There have been hundreds of plums on it this year, and I am likewise waiting to harvest a very heavily-laden pear tree that we planted at the same time.

It has been the same story with the grubby little brambles that try and invade the top of the garden from some uncared-for local authority land behind us: laden with fruit, as all the blackberry bushes have been this year, everywhere we have looked.

These are a delight to all gardeners and foragers and we make the most of them. But they are not automatic and require certain conditions for growth. Above all of these conditions is humility and dependence upon God who gives the growth. Wendell Berry, in one of my favourite short poems of his, puts it like this:

The seed is in the ground,

Now may we rest in hope,

While darkness does its work.

The apostle Paul puts it differently, talking to the Corinthian church who were struggling to make unity a reality and who apportioned their spiritual success to different leaders to the exclusion of others:

“What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters counts for anything, but God who causes the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, and each will receive his reward according to his work. We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building.” 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 (NET).

Whether we take Paul’s insight of God’s working or Berry’s trust to time and darkness the answer is the same. Growth cannot be hurried. Flourishing cannot be hurried. All we can do is to provide the effective planting and diligent watering and fertilising that is required for good growth. This is a critical insight. OFSTED, rightly it seems to me, are shifting their focus to conversations about the design of the curriculum. This is in direct response to those schools, many of them outstanding, who have acquired that dubious status on the back of a heavy concentration on English and maths. Providing an effective and rich curriculum in all subjects, and backing that up with a well designed provision in after-school extension provision, is a first priority for school leaders, and one that I will enjoy discussing with the lead inspector when we get our visit this term or next.

Teaching and learning in a cultured curriculum are a sowing and fertilising activity. You cannot, as a teacher, make learning happen. You can provide good instruction, clear direction, opportunity for learning in all its forms, and high quality and well-thought-through lessons. You notice when weeds are growing up – and correct misconceptions; you watch for fallow areas, and fertilise and re-plant, as you re-teach an area or provide a different learning experience to lead to the same goal. Learning is not what we are responsible for – but without what we provide, God has little to work with. And when the fruit has ripened and is ready to pluck, then storing that fruit safely and adding to the fertility of the future is also important.

On Monday I was in my favourite walled garden, that at Wimpole Hall north of Royston. It is overwhelmingly productive, this year as in so many others. The size and scale of the garden is staggering and the number of gardeners needed to tend it, both employed and volunteer, is consequently large. However, the wonder at all this florescence is as great among the gardener as it is amongst the (somewhat jealous)  onlooker, and it is a wonder that Kipling summed up in his poem The Glory of the Garden.

In this way we get to be co-workers with God in the garden of our children’s lives and our classes, planning the shape and scope of the garden as we attend to the curriculum, planting carefully as we shape and deepen our skills of teaching, fertilising and tending (and yes, killing molluscs!) as we correct misconceptions, intervene with support, imaginatively consider new ways of helping children acquire learning, and dig over the ground for new learning to take place next week on the basis of what children have acquired today.

This is our task. We are the co-workers and partners in it, and we may justly take credit for the flourishing that emerges, whilst knowing that nothing happens without God doing his full part.

The limits of transformation (2)

A friend of mine, who was one of my early introductions into the life of South Africa in the 1980s, wrote a paper at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein about 12 years ago. With the less than catchy title “Transformation, transformation agents and community transformation in Mangaung local municipality (Bloemfontein, Botshabelo and Thaba Nchu): a biblical perspective applicable to the African continent“, the paper is an attempt to examine the agents that impacted transformation (or sought to) in a modern South African context that included the established city of Bloemfontein, the very large “township” of Botshabelo, where my friend had conducted 20 years’ of human geography fieldwork and research, as well as the ancient African settlement of Thaba Nchu. The authors are Isaac Segale, of Marang Community Development Agency, and Skip Krige, who I knew in Oxford, Stellenbosch and Bloemfontein in the 1980s and who was a geography researcher and lecturer at the University of the Free State.

It was a hugely ambitious project, seeking not only to define the wide range of agents – and these included the Holy Spirit and intercessory prayer, as well as the actions of the church, youth groups, businesses, community groups, schools, government agencies – that impacted a community, but also to determine and measure the impact of those different influences and organisations separately and together.

Segale & Krige (2005) are coming from an explicitly Christian perspective. Such a perspective is possible far more readily in South Africa than it is in Europe or North America because the separation of church and state is not as complete as in the US or France, and a much larger percentage of the population have some form of active Christian faith, which legitimises and expects Christians to be active in a wider range of ministries and roles than in this country for example. Politicians in South Africa may not like what the church says to them, but they expect to hear form them nonetheless! The authors begin with the following definition, from a business perspective applied through other contexts:

Transformation is described as rapid, progressive, comprehensive and fundamental change. Successful transformation needs high levels of leadership and management capacities, as well as extraordinary effort, insight and paradigm shifts. New skills and profiles are required at all levels to ensure successful transformation. In any transformation process, reactionary forces opposing transformation will be evident, which contribute to high levels of conflict and casualties. The rationale of any transformation agenda is to change and develop a better situation as the status quo. (ibid. p9)

The definition of community transformation, on the other hand, departs from a neutral perspective and is defined by the authors as “when churches and Christians exercise their influence and authority in society through holiness, love and compassion, which result in impacting all spheres of society: political, economic, business, social, government, the media, education, health, farming, arts and culture, sport, etc.

What links these two is an explicit approach to transformation of the human heart. Citing Romans 12:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18, in both of which Paul talks about the transformation of our lives by God through the agency of the Holy Spirit working to renew our minds, the authors take the perspective that transformation is only really possible through the agency of those whose heart is transformed. This is so central to the thinking in the paper that it challenges our more societal, “common good” approach to the transformation of our communities. It has certainly challenged me and the reason I write this post is to up the ante for Christians seeking to transform their immediate setting in whatever way God has called them.

Their sections on biblical perspectives on transformation (1.7.2), transformation agents (1.7.3) and community transformation (1.7.4) really challenge (and envision) Christians to see what is possible. We have not tried this since the end of the 19th century in Britain. Segale & Krige quote Eric Swanson (2004) who provides ten paradigm shifts towards community transformation as follows:

  • From building church walls to building bridges
  • From measuring attendance to measuring impact
  • From encouraging the saints to attend services to equipping the saints for works of service
  • From serve us to service
  • From duplication of human services and ministries to partnering with existing services and ministries
  • From fellowship to functional unity
  • From condemning the city to blessing the city and praying for it
  • From being a minister in a congregation to being a minister in a community
  • From anecdote and speculation to valid information
  • From teacher to learner

In the paper, Segale & Krige cite 35 organisations and denominations in the community as representative case studies which are acting for that transformation from a Christian perspective in a predominantly actively or passively Christian population or about 750,000 people. The organisations include local churches, para-church organisations (e.g. the SACC), organisations in the market place, health organisations (including hospices and AIDS clinics), resource centres, schools, social services and orphanages, university theological and bible training institutes, youth organisations, agricultural ministries – the works. There is even a Christian ministry to industry workers in this small part of South Africa. It is a wonderful testimony to the energy of South African Christians that such a wide range of organisations exists and are so influential.

Even given the severe challenges of AIDS, poverty, residual racism and economic disparity in the region, there is a strength of biblical understanding in this culture that enables all those working there as Christians seeking to transform their culture to be very clear about the biblical authority that they have to do so – and that this authority is accepted as, in fact, authoritative! The authors conclude that the scope of the transformation sought can be split into two:

  • Institutions themselves which are being transformed (inwardly) e.g., spiritual awakening, being prophetic, restoration, discipleship, change in behaviour, institutional and leadership development, mentorship, growth, unity, expansion of services, human resource development, empowering members, reconciliation, mobilisation of resources towards community outreach, advocacy within church structures, systems and structures, approaches, etc….
  • Communities which are being transformed, as every sphere of civil society is being penetrated (outwardly) e.g., people accept Jesus as their personal Saviour, spiritual awakening, church planting, caring, feeding, clothing, empowering, educating, training, capacitating, discipling, mentoring, encouraging, counseling, providing professional services and facilities, being a watchdog, being a prophetic voice, advocacy to ensure the restoration of morality and social justice. (p

In developing the model, Segale & Krige obviously are working with a dataset that is wonderfully rich in passion and motivation amongst those involved, that has reaches to all the main societal issues and which in general are taking to each other. Part 3 of the paper (pp 40-66) explores and synthesises the aspects of the transformation agents that are held in common. The discussions are really interesting and worth reading – I just list the summary paragraphs here:

  • Effective delivery: Indicators for effective delivery channels are: good governance, access to resources, effective networking, a developmental and empowering approach, sustainability, community involvement and ownership, relational, Kingdom focused, and sensitivity towards diversity.
  • Motivation and passion: Ministry is all about the passion God has imparted to you and an obedient response to His calling.
  • Leadership: Transformational leadership, characterised by being visionary, prophetic, having spiritual fatherhood and servanthood, by being breakthrough oriented, at the cutting edge, relational, family focused, enterprising, non-racial, informed and operating as a team, is required to lead the process of city and community transformation.
  • Governance (the discussion of this is particularly enlightening): Good governance is a foundational building block of any church or faith-based organisation (FBO) and contributes to the track record of integrity and stewardship.
  • Empowering community: A Christ-centred developmental and community empowering approach rooted in Africa is needed, infused by a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit in transforming individuals and projects from being consumers to being producers.
  • Ownership: Ownership at all levels is required: directors/trustees/board, leadership, management, staff, volunteers, members, end beneficiaries, donors, and the grass roots community.
  • Networking: The presentation of a puzzle with the different pieces represents the power of being connected institutionally and relationally.
  • Advocacy: Prophetic voices should become louder, addressing unbiblical policies and practices within the church, government and civil society.
  • Funding and income generation: Churches and FBOs need to explore more avenues of “printing their own money” for
    community projects and at the same time, attract caring believers who share the vision of community transformation to develop a lifestyle of giving, not only of resources, but also of their time and expertise.

In summary, the authors present a profile of an effective transformation agent. This is what is envisaged:

  • Being at the cutting edge of the work of the Holy Spirit through a lifestyle of prayer, seeking God’s agenda, relationships, revelation knowledge, and acting prophetically
  • Bible based focusing on the absolutes
  • Understanding the Kingdom (bigger picture)
  • Being an integral part of a unique city or regional process
  • Being under spiritual oversight and protection
  • Applying the most appropriate delivery channel, suitable for the specific circumstances
  • Passionate people involved as an obedient response to God’s calling
  • Transformational leadership in people who are visionary, prophetic, spiritual fathers/mothers, servants, relational, family focused, enterprising, non-racial and informed, who operate as a team
  • Effective mentorship and discipleship approaches
  • Good governance is a foundational building block of any church or FBO and contributes to the track record of integrity and stewardship
  • A Christ-centred holistic developmental and community empowering approach, rooted in Africa, infused with a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit in transforming individuals and projects from being consumers to being producers
  • Being family focused
  • Attracting a spirit of volunteerism
  • Involving women as community transformation agents
  • Equipping a new brand of breakthrough youth leaders
  • Being informed by understanding the socio-political, economic and geographical dynamics
  • Ownership at all levels, as they should be vision carriers executing the vision: directors/trustees/board, leadership, management, staff, volunteers, members, end beneficiaries, donors, and the grass roots community
  • Power of being connected institutionally and relationally
  • Prophetic voices becoming more vocal, addressing unbiblical policies and practices within the church, government and civil society
  • Having a learning culture by learning from own mistakes, from others, as well as from Africa
  • More avenues need to be explored for “printing own money” for community projects and at the same time, attracting caring believers who share the vision of community transformation to develop a lifestyle of giving, not only of resources but also of their time and expertise

As I say, really challenging. The summary, in my view, is actually less powerful than the discussions within the paper and I recommend it as a read to anyone who is interested.

This post is supposed to be all about the limits of transformation. One thing that does not come through in this summary, but which is nonetheless present throughout is the commitment to seeking the Holy Spirit’s leading and the commitment to intercessory prayer principally to see God’s kingdom established and for the principalities and powers to be curtailed and made to submit to the victory of the cross. What I think Isaac Segale and Skip Krige show us more than anything is that we have brought these limits on ourselves, by our own unwillingness to engage, to pray, to seek the Holy Spirit’s leading and to take the courage necessary to bring these things to pass.

 

The limits of transformation (1)

Transformation is (I am glad to say) a buzz word, used in commerce and politics, in churches and of course in schools. It is a properly forward-looking word, one that is tempted to reject what has gone before, but also to take what was there and create something new. It inhabits a visionary space between the idea of a newer, better, shinier society/school/church/bottom line and the reality. Sometimes it happens in whole countries, and then the body count gets pretty ugly. I have this week been reading John le Carre’s first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead, and in it one of the characters worries that the new post-war Germany, in its “plump pride,” is looking horribly like the old pre-war horror she endured as a Jew. Transformation is possible, but certain characteristics remain. “Plump pride” doesn’t sound like one of the more attractive ones.

I am starting this blog in the shadow of a new school year, with the reality of Jesus’ parable of the sower, our founding story, in mind. Transformation, it seems to me, to be effective, must begin in the heart and will (actually in my heart and will), and not with the externals that can all too quickly be eroded. For a sobering account of how this is possible, the devastating book Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich about the changes in Russia since the fall of communism is a good place to start, with the withering of homo sovieticus back into the grasping, selfish humanity it was supposed to “transform.” Get tissues before you read, by the way.

However, both the fundamental model of transformation I have tried to promote, rooted around invitation and discipleship, and the parable of the sower, contain within them the limits of that transformational potential. Change is always optional and therefore we will always be disappointed. As leaders we have to provide the impetus for change (mostly, I’m afraid, by modelling it ourselves) and also the space (which usually means time, resources and patience) for people to change.

The basic model I have been banging on about for ever has been that of invitation + discipleship within community. I still think that this is a good model of how an organisation that has God’s transforming power available to it, goes about its business. It works for churches too, by the way. We cannot and must not compel types of behaviour, lifestyles or decisions. Many church leaders have done so and failed disastrously in all spiritual movements. However, what we can do is challenge, support, resource and stand with people as they try and change. As time goes on, and a culture of transformation begins to take root in a church or church school, then a certain “consensual authoritarianism” begins to be seen (I am grateful to John West-Burnham for this phrase). This ethos can be godly or not, depending on how it is encouraged, but it is a powerful tool to help a school or church encourage a communal discipleship.

Nevertheless, we accept that people will not accept the invitation to be part of our loving community. We accept, furthermore, that amongst those who do accept the invitation, there are plenty who do not subscribe to the discipleship we propose. And of course there are enough damaged individuals, families and children to threaten the sense of community that we are constantly refining and deepening. This behoves us to be humble about the outcomes of transformation.

Jesus was. Here is the parable of the sower:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

We know this, don’t we, but I know that I often forget it. I often forget that the choices that people make, or do not make, have a direct impact on the type of life they eventually live, and whether that would be pleasing to the Father. I am excruciatingly aware of how undiscipled I am.

Albrecht-Durer-The-Parable-of-the-SowerThe seed, it sometimes seems to me, must have been thrown in a wind to be that scattered! An accurate and conscientious farmer (not the guy in Durer’s woodcut, clearly) would have ensured that the large majority of his land was good and ready to receive the seed, and that his aim was pretty much geared to the soil he had prepared to receive it, and that some effort would have been made to get the birds away (though after what they did to my two rows of unprotected peas sown this year, I have every sympathy)! What this implies is that we cannot just divvy up the ground into quarters, one for each batch of seed – only a really poor farmer would be that haphazard (or be faced with a a really strong wind!). The parable thus offers us the possibility, I think, that the expectation of the sower was that the large majority of his seed would fall into good soil, and that those batches of seed that went astray to the path, the rocky ground and the thorns must have been the minority. This means that although we will find those in our schools and churches obsessed by wealth and the cares of the world, those whose heart is too hard to receive, and those who do not put down deep roots, the majority of hearts are open to being discipled in a loving community more than we realise.

This then returns to a challenge for leaders. How do we prepare the soil? How do we create a loving community, with legitimately high expectations of one another, of mutual submission and a clear discipleship-oriented teaching as to what is required to please our Father? I have been in plenty of churches that struggle to do this adequately, but surely, unless Jesus’ sower was really a novice, it must be possible. We can’t set low limits – we happy few, we band of brothers – on the number of those who will come with us. We have therefore to accept that the gardening model – of clarity of speech, regular intervention and monitoring, of constant and unremitting support and affirmation – of pottering about with intent amongst our people, loved and discipled – is the right one. Engagement with people, engagement with issues, daily discipleship of ourselves and those around us, humility and resilience in the face of adversity, trust in each other and in the seeds we have sown in each other – these are the good actions of the post-sowing farmer, not the laissez-faire approach of the boy who would not hoe corn.

These questions and the parable point to actions which I will explore in Part 2.

Butterflies on the path

A quote in Gyorgy Konrad’s A Guest in my Own Country: a Hungarian Life – (I am on my second reading of it) goes like this:

Poverty is more than a condition; it is a blow, a disaster, a pit you fall into….Moral philosophy must be built on human frailty and our acceptance of it.

This quote has been one of a number of “butterflies on the path” in this amazing and alarming book (alarming because of its matter-of-fact writing about the violent demise of quite a lot of people), where possibly despite himself, Konrad allows his Jewish moral (and hence biblical) framework to seep through his writing. Here is another:

If a person’s choices and actions count for anything, then this day, from the rising up to the going down of the sun, is his constant pilgrimage. There is no line between everyday and holy acts.

This is just wonderful and deeply encouraging to all of us trying to live under God’s hand rather inadequately.

On Wednesday we were walking through a section of woodland that lies between the villages of San Zeno di Montagna and Sperane, above Lake Garda. For a long time (some 500m, which is good going for a butterfly) we were accompanied by what I later found out was a Queen of Spain fritillary and then later by another, and another.

In fact, it was as though we were accompanied the whole time on our walk by these gracious creatures – not just crossing our path, but “accompanied.”

So I began to think about frailty and beauty, the light and shade that is altered and disseminated by the wings of such animals, and about how the gentlemanly Holy Spirit, sent as advocate and helper, can be like this – increasing our wisdom, gently reminding of Jesus’ presence in and around us, but also being a comfort and a companion on the daily pilgrimage.

The image seemed to link the two quotes from Konrad above very neatly. At a time when my holiday was meant to serve as opportunity for my overwhelming anxieties about school to ebb, the butterfly serves to remind me of what another dear friend wrote to me at the end of last term:

We can do this together with the team we have got. We have God at our side, ahead, and behind and he deeply desires for us to succeed for the good of His kingdom and His children.

This butterfly thing may be a motif we can watch out for over the year to come. How many of these things do we miss because we have not geared our eyes and hearts to see them? If I hadn’t seen the fritillary and if I hadn’t scoured Google to identify it, I would in all probability, two days later, missed the extravagantly large dancing swallowtail that flew before me on the top of the Rocca di Garda the day we left for home.

Gardening at altitude

Years ago I watched a lovely documentary about the life of farmers in Bhutan and the way that rice and sheep were grown to meet the full needs of their small isolated communities, and then about two years ago read Wendell Berry’s account of a visit to the Peruvian Andean subsistence farmers who used a subtle mixture of crop type (How many different potato varieties an you find in Peru? Lots, apparently), soil preservation (mostly small fields with rock fences) and animals to ensure an existence. The account (An agricultural journey in Peru) is found in The Gift of Good Land (1981, repr, 2009).

All of this came into my mind when last Sunday I spent a wonderful afternoon at the sanctuary and place of pilgrimage of Madonna della Corona, high up above the Adige valley in Northern Italy above the village of Brentino. The sanctuary, which has existed since the middle ages, has been done up and rebuilt relatively recently so it is a sturdy though precarious looking structure built into the cliffs of Monte Baldo.

Madonna della Corona is a lot more accessible than either Bhutan or Peru, but there, stuck atop a 100m cliff was this beautiful garden mainly of lettuce varieties and tomatoes. It was just the most wonderful thing to find. The sanctuary itself is a gentle place, with strong written encouragemen silenzio, and where even the ubiquitous cafe-bar was peaceful. A group of older folk were coming down the hill, singing and praying through the stations of the cross that are carved into the hillside, and in the quiet sunshine, the lettuces grew.

More than all the other splendours of this place – the view, the sanctuary, the rich spiritual call on the lives of visitors – this garden spoke of the ordinariness and the everyday discipleship of those who lived here and who loved and cared for this place. It sustained the (vegetarian) needs of the community who live at the sanctuary and in some way added to the seasonal, regular patterns of life at such a place. All the Italian gardens I saw last week had that effect – the flowers and the landscaped beauties of Mantova were amazing (the rooftop Rococo garden at the Palazzo Ducale always worth a visit), but the homegrown, the productive and the agricultural were those that brought the most joy.

Expressive in German

Kandinsky, Wassily; Murnau-Staffelsee I; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/murnau-staffelsee-i-142216

The largest collection of German Expressionist art in the UK is found at the New Walk Museum in Leicester, so on Tuesday I went to go and see. Not only is there a very large collection of paintings, woodcuts, lithographs, etchings and drawings (only a small fraction is on display at any one time), but gallery has done us a great service in providing some proper context to expressionism by including the whole collection as an easily searchable, fully indexed resource on its website and accompanying that with some excellent reports on the collection, the first of which, by Dorothy Price, is as good an introduction to German Expressionist art as I have read. In addition, there are links to books: the chance to browse the Blaue Reiter Almanac from 1912-14, a copy of which is uncelebrated in a corner of the exhibit, is a real treat, as are copies of the Degenerate Art catalogue put on by the Nazis in 1933 to mock the work of modern German art. And lastly there is the chance to look at the small collection of sculptures from the period in a 360 degree viewer. All in all, a highly accessible and interesting site that really complements the museum exhibit.

My interest in German Expressionism began 20 years ago when I saw one of Kandinsky’s landscapes (Murnau Staffelsee 1) at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – before that I had never really “seen” what you could do to a landscape if you thought purely in terms of colour, as Kandinsky did. Since then I have visited the Ludwig Museum in Koln and more recently have begun to explore their woodcut prints, a key aspect of their artistic vision.  Printmaking (chiefly woodcut, but also lithography and etching) was used by both of the two “wings” of German Expressionism, the Erfurt/Dresden/Berlin group, known as Die Brücke, and the group of artists working with Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Munich, known as Der Blaue Reiter. Both groups began their search for a more emotional response within their art, both were influenced by and then reacted to impressionism, and both have a history that began before the Great War, were deeply affected by it and what it did to Germany, and in various forms also survived it. It is a remarkable movement, one of the very first truly modern movements in European art, and in retrospect, almost a necessary one. However, it is very disparate, and in the nature of movements, it is easier to see it as one retrospectively than it was at the time. At the time, it was a necessary reaction. Courtesy of the museum website, here is a small selection of the woodcuts that I really enjoyed looking at, studying and learning from:

I have not included anything here from Lyonel Feininger – a German-American artist who came from the US to study in Germany, becoming for a time the artistic director of the Bauhaus, before leaving again for the US in 1937 after his work was declared degenerate by the Nazis. His woodcut Hansa Fleet (on display) and its pair, Hanseatic Ships (on the website only) demonstrate the most extraordinary technical prowess, with the woodcutting done, as often with Feininger, almost exclusively with a knife, followed by extensive and careful gouging.

The exhibition, housed in a single room, is beautifully laid out in a more-or-less historical pattern, beginning with the work of Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth who began the move away from impressionism to a more emotionally-engaged art form, through a discussion, with an excellent and representative sample of their work, of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, to a section on how the Great War impacted the experience of painters and the content of their work.

Thence, to the Neue Sachlichkeit movement that formed in (partial) reaction to expressionism; and then to the work that dominated the German expressionist art scene during the Weimar republic (though this was at the same time as the Bauhaus, in which Kandinsky, Klee and Feininger inter alia were involved, the Bauhaus movement does not get much of a mention here, and its relationship to expressionism is unexplored). Kollwitz, Meidner and Slevogt all are well-represented, and there are three newly exhibited portraits by the artist Lotte Laserstein.

The exhibition concludes with a personal touch, linking the artists who knew the Hess family, whose huge collection of art was destroyed after they had fled Germany, but of which enough remained to form the start of the Leicester collection first exhibited in 1944, with the collection and its importance.

I have, for whatever reason, never set foot in Leicester before. But I have now a compelling reason to return. It was absorbing to see the lives of these (mostly) courageous and far-sighted artists and cultural leaders reflected in both their artwork but also in the relationships and artistic concerns and debates that raged in and around them at a time of enormous political upheaval for Germany.