World Turned Upside Down event…

world turned upside down

I am really looking forward to this exhibition, which is a collection of art and poetry reflecting on the radical upside down subversive words of The Beatitudes. This will take place at St Edmunds Church, Roundhay, Leeds, from the 21st of October for four weeks.

I have been involved in developing a blog – here – which explores some of the background on the Beatitudes.

There is also a Facebook group, with lots of info, here.

I will also be hoping to meet with some of the Proost Poets to do a poetry reading on the evening of the 3rd of November, in the Church- it would be great to see you there…

powerful_1

Unexpected…

IMGP0341

Michaela and I have been married for 27 years and it feels like we are entering a new phase of our lives. William went away to university this week; to study at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. Emily has now moved into a flat with Paul in Paisley and is in the final year of her degree. Everything is changing.

Meanwhile I am drawing towards the end of my year of writing/making things. We have been so busy so decided to take a couple of days out and become tourists.

We went to the Scottish Sculpture Park, over the other side of the Peninsula- a place we have been meaning to visit for years.

This is what people do, it seems, when their kids have left home. They take flasks of tea and visit places.

Tomorrow we will be busy again. Yesterday, we were not.

Belief beyond reason…

gray areas

We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational beings, who are likely to make decisions mostly on common sense. Yes we might acknowledge a degree of bias arising from deeply held conviction, but this we would discount as a good thing, a thing that defines our distinctive superiority. After all, rational pursuit of absolute truth has rather gone out of fashion these days. We are more likely to value scepticism, incredulity, conspiracy even. The truth is never as simple as it might seem and frankly, it is boring. It is most likely fake news anyway.

Perhaps it has always been like this- after all, our prejudices are only absurd to those outside our narrow social-media driven doughnut. However, there seems to be a particular reason to wonder about fixed, inflexible belief at the moment. Fundamentalism is on the rise at the moment- and I don’t just mean the religious kind.

I have been thinking about IDEAS. I like ideas. I love immersing myself in them, particularly ones that coincide with my own deeply held correct beliefs prejudices. Check out Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast– it is full of lovely ideas. But ideas do not start in a vacuum. They arise in a context. Ideas can be dangerous. Some ideas become the distorting goggles through which every other idea is viewed. Religious ideas are perhaps the most common example of this that will come to our minds, but there are many other quasi-religious ideas that might be seen the same way. Here is my far-from-complete list;

Neo-conservative economics

Fascism

Fundamentalist religion

Nationalism (including independence movements such as that in my own country)

The breeding of dogs

Communism

The playing and watching of the noble game of cricket

Feminism

Environmentalism

Atheism

Gardening

Music making

Economic growth

etc

 

Ideas can become bigger than anything; they can become bigger than compassion; than the rule of law; than family; than the need to save the world from extinction even.

There is the dilemma. We need ideas more than ever. But they might yet be the end of all of us. It is almost as if we need an idea to mitigate and protect against- ideas.

This week, we have had a few examples of this in the media.

The Christians who support Trump because despite his obvious lack of the practice of anything like the Christianity they espouse, he agrees with their ideas in relation to a narrow set of issues.

And then there are the Creationists who think that Trump’s refusal to believe in climate change is an opportunity to use their ‘science’ to prove that we should take Noah’s flood as a literal historical account.

Meanwhile, across the world, ISIS stumbles on from bloody battle to bloody battle. Each obscenity against humanity subjugated to their one great idea- an ‘Islamic’ State.

Closer to home, politicians are meeting in grand rooms to discuss how to progress the ‘will of the people’ known as Brexit. Brexit is required because a narrow majority of UK population were sold an idea of ‘Englishness’ (I use this word rather than ‘Britishness’ deliberately.) The idea of Englishness is nonsensical and amorphous, borrowing power from all sorts of sub-ideas, but ultimately it was more powerful than any idea that the remainers could describe.

flags, horse guards parade, buckingham palace

 

It is almost as if we humans have no ability to see the point at which an idea, or a belief, has gone too far. Our innate tribalism and preference for our own in-group requires ideas that force us to come together against the other. We are only really vitalised by ideas that are weaponised. We are interested only in the ideas that give us power, give us self belief, confidence; temporary control over the shifting sand on which all ideas have their foundation.

Am I right in this? Are their ideas that do not fit this category?

Are there ideas to which all other ideas should be subordinated?

If so, are we sure that there are not other ideas that are bigger, better, purer?

The irony of these questions is that they force us back to the beginning of the circle. The only way that we can measure any idea is by the application of another idea. The end of belief is itself, a belief. Religion can only be replaced by another religion. We are forced by to our own deeply held correct beliefs prejudices.

What occurred to me recently was that Jesus knew all this. He knew that people take ideas, distort them and use them as weapons, particularly religious ideas. In fact, he spent most of his time warning people against the way that religion has become bigger than people. He had this one idea that he said trumped all others (even Trump). He called it love.

I think he knew even then that most of us would never get it. Sure, we would get glimpses of it- we would feel it in the arms of our mothers, and thrill to it between the legs of lovers. Sometimes in old age perhaps, we would look out onto familiar city streets and feel strangely warmed by it. It will be mostly reserved for our children. Because there are so many other ideas that get in the way of it.

A lovely man once told me that he knew he was going to make mistakes with ideas, but when he did, he was going to try to make sure that he would err on the side of grace. He would try to choose love. He would subjugate all other ideas to this simple one.

People will say that to do this is not reasonable. It is not economically/politically practical. It can never work in the real world.

It is just an idea after all.

 

 

When the Racists come to town…

In the light of all that horrible business that is happening in Charlottesville, it might be of interest to consider a rather interesting parallel with something that happened in the UK back in 1977.

Perhaps there are two significant differences however- one, the fact that the army of white supremacists that gathered in Charlottesville were heavily armed with assault weapons. Two, they had been given political legitimacy and confidence by a President who had been happy to ride on the toxic populist wave of which their message was the most extreme.

Back in Lewisham in 1977, things did not go as well for the National Front. The interesting thing is that, by many accounts, the violence that erupted was in no small part caused by the violent response of the Police, aimed at the anti-racist protesters. In the end this supported a message very similar to that of Trump, with his ‘violence on all sides’ cant.

It seems to me that we can draw some important lessons from all of this; firstly, the importance of political leadership motivated by compassion and peace, secondly the need to stand against those who seek to incite hatred.

Here is the story in all its black and white chaos…

Poetry and pottery (of the sea)…

footprints on snady beach

Anyone fancy a day of poetry and clay next Sunday? We have places available- details and booking information here

We hope to weave together a day of quiet reflection and creativity. Exactly what we do will depend on the weather and the preferences of those of you who come along.

Go on… come and make some space for words to breathe.

beach

Sometimes when you stare at the sea
You hear a distant pulse of an engine
But see no ship
It is close
Like a fast heartbeat

And sometimes the hackle of the gulls
Masked as it is by the sigh of the sea
Can sound just like the cry
Of a child
In distress

The roll of a wake
Is a whales back
Which emigrants
Are riding
Back home

Ghosts…

I play cricket when I can in the summer. I play in the third division. The third division of three that is, which should give you some indication of my prowess with leather and willow. This kind of cricket is mercurial- sometime we win easily, at other times we are brushed aside. One good performance is often enough to make the difference.

We played yesterday away to a team in Glasgow- mostly young kids, on a capricious artificial surface and we lost badly, unable to cope with accurate bowling and horribly uneven bounce. I say all this by way of context, because I wanted to write about something else…

The team we played yesterday were all from an Asian background. They were a lovely bunch of folks, and we ended up playing two matches, as our first left time and energy for more. The start of the second match was staggered as half the opposing team were at prayer.

One of the things that is quite unavoidable if you spend any time around the sometimes excessively laddish culture of West of Scotland cricket clubs is something that shocked me the first time I came across it- naked overt, sometimes aggressive racism. The league has clamped down hard on this, but it remains, although I am proud to say that this is something we would not tolerate in the club I play for. But you hear it shadows all the time; “They’ are taking over.” “Tell them to speak English.” “There is not one white person on this team.” “Tell them to get back to where they came from.”

There are lots of reasons why some otherwise decent people see the cricket world through these kind of goggles but it is pretty unpleasant. I usually try to remind people that without the passion and commitment of Asian players, grass roots cricket in Scotland and perhaps the UK would be really struggling. I suggest that of course people like to play in teams with their mates, people who quite literally ‘speak their language’. However, this casual racism has little to do with cricket. The attitudes forced out in to the open by pressure of competition and club rivalry are ones that have been fostered within our wider culture, fed by Facebook memes and Daily Mail headlines.

Us and Them.

What is Mine, taken by them.

They get an easy ride because of Political Correctness. Houses, benefits, the NHS.

They smell different, think differently to us.

They are less than we, and should know their place.

The corrosive nature of this kind of thinking is so hard to shift. I often feel inadequate, as if I am complicit in something that diminishes me- it diminishes us all. I abhor a world in which Trump can build walls, but there are other walls that may be harder to knock down much closer to home.

I was reminded of this by listening to a song by one of my favourite bands- Lau.  The song is one called Ghosts. It reminds us that we are all immigrants. We all came from somewhere. Where we are is a place of meeting, not one of ownership.

Ghosts, playing cricket. There is a thought… Some Ghosts play better than others.

Here is the song.

 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the (broken) earth…

Earth_from_Space

How do you deal with problems that seem too big?

Traditionally, we look for government intervention. But some problems seem bigger than one government even.

So we form international bodies; the EU, the UN, a thousand talking shops and gatherings of important people. Who seem to achieve so little.

The problems are so big, and we so small. And there is the mortgage to pay. And Game of Thrones is on the TV. Perhaps all I can do is look after me and what is mine. And try to be kind to others when I can. Digitally.

I was reading some of the words of Timothy Morton recently. He is perhaps the closest thing we have to rock-star philosopher, an academic professor who collaborates with Bjork. One of the awkward squad.

Morton suggested that some concepts (which he called ‘Hyperobjects’ might represent something very real, but they are no longer useful terms- they are too big to get into our heads; black holes, the internet, global warming. He even suggests scrapping the word ‘nature’ as it is so big that it is meaningless.

Meanwhile, says Morton, we have now firmly entered the Anthopocene age, we have created our own epoch, we have altered the whole planet. There is lots to fear- extreme weather, resource shortages, mass extinctions of species. We KNOW all this, but we are powerless to act on this information. Our relationship to the world has changed- now just living involves moral choices to continue destruction because although individual acts are insignificant, we are one of billions all careering towards the same precipice in what Morton calls a ‘traumatic loss of co-ordinates’. We caused it, but we can not control it.

Morton goes on to make some comments that might seem on the face of things horribly fatalistic.

  • The catastrophe we fear has already occurred. The greenhouse gasses we have released will be there still in 500 years.
  • We thought we could manipulate the planet (farming, engineering). We were wrong.
  • We are not any different from the other (non-human) part of the planet. We do not stand apart.
  • Anything we burn, flush or throw away does not leave.
  • The hunter is hunting himself.

From this mess, Morton somehow manages to conjure hope. He says that there is solidarity in ignorance which must eventually lead to change. We must come to the idea that we can’t transcend our reliance on other humans and the whole world. We can only live with these limitations. He says this should not be a matter for gloom, but rather for liberation.

Do you feel liberated?

What might set us free?

I have been thinking about this in relation to the Beatitudes, because of a project I am working on. You remember the Beatitudes I am sure, but just in case you need a nudge, these were the words spoken by Jesus as part of his incredible change-everything-turn-everything-upside-down Sermon on the Mount. You could say that the words he spoke were a distillation of everything that he wanted to say, everything that mattered;

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew chapter 5, NIV

How are these words relevant to now? How do they engage with a world caught up in Morton’s ‘Traumatic lack of co-ordinates’?

I think the first things the words do is to remind us of the scale and reach of humanity. We are many, but we are one. We are community, but we are alone.

Next they remind us that life is full of challenge. Perfection and comfort were never guaranteed. We have no right to an easy long life, particularly at cost to others.

Then they remind us that the small things matter more, particularly small things done in love. One exchange at a time.

They remind us that people matter most, one at a time.