I went out early to walk this morning, because there was thin snow on the ground and I felt like an excited child who wanted to make a snowman before it all melted. (Not enough of the right sort for that today, sadly). And also because I hoped to find my little friends, the Redwings, having breakfast in the top field if I made it up there early enough.
I climbed the hillside alone enjoying the white underfoot and soon became aware of the others I share the place with. Size 9 boots, at least, though I couldn’t see the accompanying dog prints in the mush. As I entered Mill wood I kept straight on, up the hill to a clearing on the edge of the wood. More prints.
We Christians tallk a lot about ‘following in the foosteps of Jesus’. I must admit I laughed out loud when I realised I was following in the footsteps of a pheasant. “That’s more my level,” I thought. As I crossed the B road and entered the Redwing’s field, I scoured the ground, and saw a pheasant walking away from me along the field’s edge, perhaps the owner of those very prints. If I really was ‘following Pheasant’, rather than ‘following Jesus’, what could I expect to find? Apart from getting caught in bushes suited to 3-foot pheasant rather than 5-foot person, I guess I’d be going round in circles finding little more than pheasant food, and pheasant company. Who are we following, and why? Where are they going, really? The answer to that makes following Jesus a much more exciting – and challenging – prospect.
So I carried on, scanning the field for my little redwing friends. Well, I don’t think they see me as a friend, it’s not like I’m a St Francis with birds perched all over me. But I love the trills they make when they fly up as a flock and circle before they resettle at a safe distance. It’s like musical water. All I could hear was the old style kettle-boiling whistle of the Kites, now so familiar to me that I often only notice it by silence elsewhere in the country.
Unperturbed, I plod on, clearly the only human to have passed through the field this morning. And then, entering the back lane and looping to the right, I was confronted by a large puddle. One of those mini lakes in the back roads reaching from bank to bank, and you’re left with zero options on how to pass. My current strategy is to stick to the centre of the road hoping it’s shallower there, with the road curving up in the middle. But it’s always a risk. Under the water you have no idea what you’re walking on, or where the potholes are. Just saying… Last week I was ‘caught out’ and the puddle won, in quite a big way. This time I was spared the worst.
And then I passed a ripe orange hanging off a bush in the hedgerow. What?! A fruit tree in the hedgerow? On closer inspection, I found that it was a satsuma, not an orange… a holly bush, not an Orange tree. Since when have holly bushes borne satsumas? All I can conclude is that some human hand must have randomly impaled a spare satsuma on a holly branch, and there it stayed, a curio for all to see. As the saying goes, ‘there’s more to [it] than meets the eye’. Jesus’ words, ‘By their fruits you shall know them’ came to mind, and I wonder at the sight. I’ve been reading a fair bit recently about how various movements of Christian thought and practice have shifted over the past few decades, some clearly and eventually away from solid ground and into slippery extremes. I’m concerned, have been praying both for myself and those who might be losing sight of Jesus on their journey. I find the ‘orange bush’ a telling and sobering sign. What’s it going to take for us to slow down and inspect, weigh, truly discern our faith and life’s orientation? Is our fruit fake, merely ‘stuck on’ and not authentic, alive? ‘Test yourselves, and see if you are in the faith…’ ‘Don’t deceive yourselves…’
Moving on, I turn into a muddy footpath and enter another field, cutting back towards Mill Wood. By the time I reached the middle of the field, at last I hear a trill and I search the sky. Kites, as expected, and then – yes, there – a lone redwing, soon joined by another 15 or so, rising as one from the greener ground here. Maybe that’s why they’re feeding here and not in the other field where I usually find them. Oh, what a reward, to hear the thrill of 15 warbling wonders, flying as one! I don’t think I’ll ever get over the miracle of how birds flock and loop together without knocking each other out of the sky.
My reading has rambled across a few fields recently too. I’ve revisited and re-evaluated various fields of history and Christian thought from Word of Faith, US Evangelical (and related political) thought, along with US politics and Civil war history, Kingdom Faith, the 80s Charismatic movement, the Toronto blessing and subsequent events including Brownsville, Lakeland, Bethel (as it’s evolved), New Frontiers, the Apostolic and Prophetic branches of the ‘INC’ (Independent Network Charismatic 2017 article here), the Reformed movement, Anglican and monastic traditions… and some of the growing online forums such as Be In Christ’s The Meeting House.
I stumbled on TGC’s Brett McCracken’s wisdom pyramid recently, encouraging us to source our information/input mostly from the Bible, mediated by church community, rooted in nature, worship, time-tested books and history, and with the least input from ephemeral and emotive social media. You may be familiar with the food pyramid for healthy eating; this is Brett’s information-intake equivalent, with the Bible being good-for-us ‘meat and veg’, and social media being the junkfood. Seems helpful to me.
Talking of stumbling… as I walked back through Mill wood, I passed another dog walker who sympathetically commented, ‘It’s sloppy underfoot today, isn’t it?’. ‘Yes,’ I replied, slithering across the path, ‘you’ve got to be dressed for it, and I say that in a cream coat… last week I did fall my length, and got mud ALL up my back. I had to do the walk of shame all the way home…’ We laughed together. As I slid onwards I thought how sad I am to see a lot of leaders (both Christian and political) also walking around with ‘mud up their back’, strongly denying or ignoring or ignorant of the fact that their stumbles are clear for everyone else to see. It’s slippery ground… let’s take care, and not – for pride or ignorance’s sake – deny the consequences of our actions/misfortunes.
I’ve certainly needed to read and re-read my American history to have any hope of understanding what’s happening in the US right now. As an ‘outsider’ and non-native, I may be able to see more clearly a conflation of US national identity, religion/Christianity and politics at play. Us Brits have certainly lived through some of that shaking through our Brexit debates since 2016, where our politics and our sense of personal and national identity have been put in the smelter until white hot. Our ‘debate’ descended into shouty assertion, generating only more noise and outrage at the expense of seeing each other as real, feeling, human beings living on the same turf and globe, needing to collaborate somehow for our survival. As citizens of heaven, each of us will experience, as we follow Jesus, these paradigms being put through the fires, shifted, sifted and shaken. He gets to the core of who we are; He challenges our cultural and personal worldviews, removes our blinkers, and helps us to see, truly see, from His perspective. I strongly believe He is not anti-national, anti-political, or anti-church, though there were plenty of times when he proved he wasn’t afraid to challenge the religious leaders of his day, nor was he intimidated or compromised by political power either. We shouldn’t be surprised if following Jesus brings us into conflict with religious institutions, upends our cultural assumptions and personal identity, and confronts secular government power.
I made it home safely, by the way. No falling down spectacularly this time, even as the snow melted quickly away. Another day of lockdown now awaits me – for me, days of space and time to read, bake, knit and reflect. Where I discover what really, intrinsically motivates me and interests or disturbs me. As social demands and cultural scaffolding are stripped away it soon becomes clear how my foundations are really looking, and where the work needs to be done.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”[a]; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 1 Corinthians 3