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Reflection: All shall be well and all shall be well …

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I am, by nature, an optimist. I tend to approach life and spirituality through the lens of hopefulness, which is why I am very fond of these faith-filled words written by someone known to history as Julian of Norwich, probably not her actual name which may have been unknown. These words have the ability to change the atmosphere of faith. They are a reminder of just how important words are in dealing with life’s challenges and circumstances.

 ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

Revelations of Divine Love, recorded by Julian, Anchoress of Norwich.

Revelations of Divine Love - Hodder Faith

The Lady Julian, an English mystic from the 14th Century, was an anchoress, a type of nun, living in East Anglia. An anchoress (or recluse) was someone who had withdrawn from the world into the life of prayer, often spending that time in solitude. Born c. 1343, Julian lived possibly into her 70’s, a good age for that time. She spent much of her life in a timber or stone cell nearby to the church at Conisford near Norwich, and was a source of spiritual counsel and advice for local people. The Lady Julian was clearly an educated woman with a good understanding of languages and theology. From what we read, she was well regarded in the Norfolk area, but little else is known of her life, except from her own writings which have passed down through the years, and which are still read and widely appreciated today.

The turning point in her life came on 13th May 1373. Whilst seriously ill and very possibly dying, she received sixteen ‘shewings’ or visions over two days, which she attributed to God. She recovered and was restored to full health. These showings became the basis of her own contemplative life. Twenty years later she set down her account of the event. Her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ is delightful; full of spiritual truth, hope and thoughtful reflection. There are shades here of Thomas a Kempis and his ‘Imitation of Christ.’

Incredibly, Lady Julian’s book has the distinction of being the earliest surviving book written in English by a woman. The earlier book – or the ‘short text’ – was later expanded by Lady Julian into a much longer volume, consisting of some 86 chapters and known as the ‘Long Text’. The short text exists in only one 15th century manuscript, copied from an original written in 1413 and now held in the British Library. The first printed version of the long text was made in 1670, and this is the volume that most of us have access to in the updated English editions.

In ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, The Lady Julian tells of how God, ‘our courteous Lord’ showed her,

a little thing, and the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand’. God tells her that, ‘it is all that is made’.

From this, Julian realises that, just as this small object exists because God loves it, so each individual is created and loved by God himself.  She was clearly troubled, as we all are at times, by the mystery of how such a loving God could have allowed sin and evil to enter the world. She came to see that sin is known in our lives through the pain that it causes us. God uses this pain to move us towards him for mercy and to receive his love. In this He assures us that,

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

When bad ‘stuff’ happens, it will often (not always, I realise) push us closer to God himself. This is surely the essence of Christianity, as summed up by another writer in the final chapter of the Revelation of St John: at the end of time, God will bring all things together under Christ the son; there will be a new reality. All shall be well …

Lady Julian died c. 1420 and was contemporary with another English mystic and eccentric, Margery Kempe, herself the author of the first known autobiography written in English. This was quite an extraordinary period for English literature and for written spiritual meditation.

Hopefulness or a confident expectation is an empowering quality and a Christian virtue. God loves and God forgives. He knows the end from the beginning. No matter what is happening to us, no matter the magnitude or the origin of the disasters around us, ultimately all shall be well. I sometimes think the great sin of our age is the need to know everything, to be like God himself.

Lady Julian reminds us that some things will only be known to us in heaven. It’s a matter of our trust; it’s also a matter of divine love.

Julian of Norwich again;

We hope that God has forgiven our sins, and that is true. Then our courteous Lord shows himself to the soulmost merrily and with a glad expression’.

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Book Trade: Retailing as we know it – is it finished?

March 16, 2014 2 comments

There has been a slew of bad retail news of late. Legacy retail versus on-line resellers continues to make headlines. As I write this (mid-January), HMV have announced the relocation of their flagship Oxford Street store after 30 years of trading, to a much smaller London pitch. Shop closures persist. Retail – even Christian retailing – can, at times, take on the appearance of a soap opera. This last Christmas was no exception with what had the makings of a good game of snakes and ladders!  Christmas 2013 was far from easy for some on the High street, although December sales overall rose more than 5% year-on-year.

HMV in Birmingham

Clearly major societal changes are gathering speed. I guess we will look back and see that we have lived through quite a revolution; one of those extraordinary times when a significant step change occurs. Newspapers too continue to be caught up in the ‘old media, new media’ debate. This past Christmas saw the annual winners and losers emerging across the wider retail sector. John Lewis, Asos, Next and discounters Aldi and Lidl triumphed, whilst grocer Morrisons and department store Debenhams slipped further, at least in the eyes of the City.  Waterstones, whilst not having a storming Christmas, turned in a credible sales performance ‘slightly down on last year’. This is an unsurprising outcome with Nielsen BookScan reporting that total printed book sales in the UK fell by £98m during 2013.

In the Christian market, Koorong-owned Wesley Owen has now migrated fully on-line. This January, Wesley Owen ceased to exist as a physical brand having made such a notable contribution to Christian retailing over the past two decades. The independent UK Christian Bookshops Blog carried an in-depth piece on the winding up of Wesley Owen.  Birmingham and York were the last two stores to close, completing the demise of the once ubiquitous chain.  A number of high profile Christian bookshops including the Horsham Christian Centre and CLC’s Kingston-on-Thames branch (previously Chapter and Verse) also shut their doors for the final time.

I have long held the view that the failure of IBS-STL in 2009 and its terrible impact on Wesley Owen was entirely preventable; the result of an ill-judged overseas expansion from which it was unable to recover. Without this chain of events, the national chain may well still be trading today. Having been close to the creation of the brand in 1992/93, I obviously lament this outcome, but recognise that the clock cannot be turned back. The SPCK Bookshops chain went through a similar trauma over a comparable period and this too is cause for enormous regret. Many fine, committed retail staff were displaced as a result of these two catastrophic events; a major loss of skills, spirituality and calling to the wider ministry.

And yet – ministry through print and through bookshops continues on a daily basis, often-times unseen and unnoticed. Perhaps that’s how it should be? A verse from the Psalms speaks to this, ‘The Lord will not let you stumble. The One who watches over you will not slumber. The Lord Himself watches over you’ (121:3 NLT). There remain many fine exemplars of Christian bookselling in this country; a good example of which is Faith Mission Glasgow.

Our calling is not primarily to run bookshops or publishing houses but to disseminate the Christian message in such a way as to reach as many people in this country and around the world as possible. As a colleague put it recently,

Lives changed, hearts changed, through the power of God’s word’.

Our ministry is all about distributing gospel content, however that is packaged. Once we understand this, then criticism of those who choose to package truth digitally should cease. Personally, I’m relaxed about digital, as it seems to fit St Paul’s dictum ‘by all means, to save some’. If we keep these aspects of our trade in balance, we will be far less stressed by any seeming unfairness. There has been an irreversible way to how people consume content. No one can change that. Does this reality negate ministry through bricks and mortar? Of course not. In fact in some ways it strengthens it. We are certainly not going to see the complete disappearance of either physical shops or on-street shopping. I remain optimistic. Justin King, the well respected CEO of Sainsbury’s said in a December interview in relation to on-line competition:

On-line is more than a decade old. The truth remains that 96p in every pound is spent by real customers in real shops doing their own shopping’.

Many people and groups remain committed to maintaining a physical High street presence. Don’t believe all you read about digital. Statistics in this area are wildly variable. Independent physical bookshops, run well, with a eye on costs and in partnership with their local community can and do succeed, especially where they are equipped with space in which to provide local services such as debt counselling, childcare etc. New and imaginative ways of providing spiritual care and counselling can be found which, when allied to a good bookshop, can and does make a real difference to that community.

The new Foyles Bookshop at London's Waterloo Station

Together magazine exists to celebrate all that is best about this trade. There is so much that is good. An unbalanced but persistent tidal wave of bad news can knock us off our feet but Scripture exhorts us to ‘stand firm’, ‘to take heart’ and ‘to work whilst it is still night’. These are encouragements to not let circumstances dictate our feelings and deflect us from the joy of serving God through this ministry.

God give me strength’ should be our exclamation, but in a prayerful and positive way!

This article was written in mid January for publication in Together Magazine (March to April 2014).

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