As mentioned in my previous posting, I was recently introduced to Ian Adams’ book Running over Rocks: Spiritual Practices to Transform Tough Times (Canterbury Press, 2013) as potentially good sabbatical reading.  I was intrigued, as a few friends and acqaintances have had some involvement in MayBe, the emergent church community based in Oxford, which Adams led for a while.  The book’s basic contention is that one of the most urgent tasks in the contemporary West is for us to rediscover who we are, and what we are meant to be (‘to be goodness, and to bring goodness, to our fellow human beings, our fellow creatures and our planet’ p. xv).  But this is often hampered by our tendency to focus on the ‘dangerous edges and impossible walls’ of life (the ‘rocks’ of the book title) that we ‘lose our momentum and confidence’.  The 52 practices Adams shares in this book are designed to reconnect us with who we are meant to be, to enable us to ‘run over rocks’ again rather than be stalled by fear of the gaps between them.

The  book is arranged into 52 chapters each containing a poem by the author, a reflection, a link to a Gospel passage about Jesus (or as Adams calls it, ‘the unfolding Jesus tradition’)  and a ‘practice’, some of which will are universal and everyday, others original or more unusual, others drawn directly from a Christian contemplative tradition.   Adams writes largely from within the Christian tradition within which he sits, but to be sufficiently open and invitational to those who may more widely consider themselves spiritual but not Christian.  The  book is also divided into 8 themed sections, Adams’ suggestion being to read a chapter a week or a section per season of the Christian year.  A couple of sections in, and reading one chapter every few days, the ‘one per week’ scheme makes a lot of sense to me in terms of giving oneself time to process and apply each ‘practice’ rather than rushing too quickly onto the next.

So far the section which has struck me most is that dealing with ‘practices of earth and body’ – these invite us to reconnect with the materiality of our existence through the ‘unfolding Jesus tradition’.  Despite a few reservations about the book’s approach (which I may or may not blog about in future – I’m not primarily writing this as a critical book review) I was struck by how strongly the actual practices themselves resonated for me, and how many of them were things I had promised myself I would be and do during my sabbatical.

Practice 1 is ‘coming home to your body’ – reconnecting with the fact that we are corporeal beings (and made as such by God) whereas so often we tend both/either to be dissatisfied with the bodies we have or operate as though they are somehow separate from ‘us’. Indeed, one of the issues I found myself dealing with during a recent retreat (see previous posting) is that I haven’t always felt comfortable in my own skin.  Apart from handing this over to God in prayer, a couple of other things have helped me ‘come home to my body’ during my sabbatical: one has been taking up the summer special offer at the local gym, and the other has been doing a whole lot more physical work than usual (of which see more below).  In normal life my legs get a reasonable amount of exercise as I walk to and from the train station every day but my upper body tends to be still, either through conversation and meetings or being hunched over a computer screen.  However, it’s remarkable how over the past month or so, making more physical use of my upper body has helped me to feel so much more relaxed in myself and about myself. I wonder how to maintain that in some way after the sabbatical ends?  Perhaps where people are able to do so, I should suggest meeting people to talk over a walk, rather than just sitting in a room together…

Over the past few weeks I’ve managed to do at least one thing related to each of the seven ‘practices of earth and body’ in Adams’ book: I have ‘walked the good earth’ in the Yorkshire Dales during my week at Scargill, ‘lived the season’ by eating outside with the family almost every day during the warmer earlier part of the summer, ‘gardened Eden’ by digging out an overgrown veg patch with my youngest one afternoon, baked a few loaves of bread and tried a few new receipes, appreciating the processes that go into the food we eat (‘kitchen jazz’) and ‘loved the manual task’ as part of a team of volunteers collecting and stacking hay whilst the sun shone at the excellent Wyre Community Land Trust.   Doing a relatively cerebral, word-heavy job most of the time, it’s been a breathe of fresh air to use my body in a completely different way to normal, and engage in quite different dimensions of creation too.  A few lessons have been learned or reinforced as well, which certainly ring true for me, but may well make sense to others too:

– Driving deep into the Wyre Forest the other day I suddenly realised that part of the reason I felt so alive was because (and excuse the pun) it reconnected me to my roots.  Although I’ve only ever lived in towns and cities, I spent plenty of time as a teenager messing about in forests, camping in fields, working with wood, and hearing the sounds of the outdoors.  Without claiming any particular knowledge or expertise in countryside matters, nevertheless woods, fields and footpaths make sense to me, and I hadn’t quite realised how much I’d missed them.

– Being outdoors is a huge stress reliever.  We’ve noticed for a couple of years how much happier our children are when they’re outdoors (and particularly beyond the confines of the house and garden), and how much less likely to fight or argue, and how I am also more relaxed as a parent (particularly away from roads).  Helping out with Wyre Community Land Trust these past few weeks, being outdoors and doing physical work, has also had a quite palpably beneficial effect on my stress levels and on the degree to which I can allow my mind to be at rest.  As I tell people this, I realised how many others also feel the same way.  So why is it (apart from the random nature of the British weather) that we have developed a lifestyle which demands or expects that we spend such a big proportion of our time indoors?  Although I have some questions about the somewhat syncretistic nature of some of the  ‘Forest Churches’ which have emerged in recent years, I’ve huge sympathy with the basic principle of getting out of doors and worshipping God there (whether that be a ‘forest church’, a ‘park church’ or whatever).

– Reconnecting with nature has had some spiritual benefits for me.  In general terms I don’t subscribe to the ‘nearer to God in a garden’ philosophy, on the grounds that God is as discoverable (and needs to be as discoverable) in the busyness or urban life as in the rural.  Even so perhaps in simply being different to my normal urban existence it has shown me a different facet of creation and reminds me that there is a lot more to this world than what human ingenuity (even divinely-inspired human ingenuity) can achieve.

– In the normal run of professional work, questions of strategy, of maximising influence and impact, rightly come to the fore.  But volunteering has reminded me of the uncomplicated goodness of simply being a helper, of simply being given a useful task to do and getting on with it.  Not everything needs a loud trumpet fanfare, a publication or a conference.  I’ve been particularly impressed by the quiet work of people who have spent half a lifetime studying a local wood, its flora and fauna, knowing these intimately, recording changes and passing on their knowledge of the habits of plants and creatures.  At times of relative prosperity and security, it’s the kind of knowledge and work that we tend not to rate, but It’s the kind of knowledge that, in the event of a national or global calamity, new civilisations are built upon.

– Finally, being involved in a project to help restore old orchards and farmland has underlined for me once again the daftness of our current national food policy and the need for us (including the churches!) to become more attentive to questions of food security.  You don’t need to drive very far around Worcestershire to see what were once flourishing apple, pear, plum and cherry orchards and which are now overgrown and left to decay.  According to National Trust figures, 60% of traditional (i.e., non-intensive) British fruit orchards have disappeared since the 1950s, and the overall figure may be even higher – yet at the same time we ship fruit which could be grown in Britain from thousands of miles around the world.  There are of course complex questions of economics here, but I do wonder about the wisdom of simply pursuing the bottom line at the expense of the increased food security benefits (and environmental considerations) of neglecting potentially good farmland here at home (not to mention the spiritual, psychological and social benefits of being more connected to the food we actually eat).  I know of a few Christian congregations in the Midlands (several Quaker meetings prominently among them) which have made concerted efforts to develop their grounds to enhance biodiversity and grow food to share (sometimes on a completely free pick-it-off-the-tree-yourself basis).  Yet at the same time denominations strapped for cash are often quick to sell off land without pausing to think of it as an asset  (whilst, paradoxically, other people are buying it up).  But I wonder what it would look like for the church to take seriously again its potential role as ‘sustainer’ of the land and its produce?