On refusing the fear of doubt… an advent meditation

A

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

A few weeks ago, I had one of those conversations with one of my oldest friends. He had made a comment using Christian language that I no longer hear often, and I rather flippantly challenged it. This led to a two hour skype conversation that ranged far and wide over faith, doubt, the origins of the Bible and the meaning of faith and doubt. Unlike most of these discussions, my friend kept this one respectful and listened carefully to what I said, but I honestly think he was shocked be some of it. Perhaps he should not have been, because I have made no secret of my relationship to the spiritual discipline of doubt.

A few years ago I wrote about it on this blog. In hindsight, I remember it as a clear choice- I had spent so long fearing the loss of faith. There were so many thing about the tenets (both stated and unstated) of the religion I had known that bothered me, but for years I coped with this by NOT asking questions. It was easier to focus on the ritual, the shared practice, after all I was busy making music and facilitating the religious expression of others. When I moved to Scotland, it eventually became harder and harder to live with the contradictions however, and there came a point when I decided no longer to fear doubt, because if my faith was worth anything, it could survive my clumsy questions. Any faith named after the man who turned over tables in temples should have no sacred cows.

For a while it seemed as though my faith would wither and die- but it did not. If anything, it made me determined that ‘Truth’ would not be my theological straight jacket, rather it would set me free.

Not that we should ever pretend that this will be easy…

Truth is hard to come by
Harder than Love

Love is hard to recognise
harder than Need

Need is hard to justify
Harder than Dreams

Dreams are hard to testify
Harder than Hopes

Hopes are hard to simplify
Harder than Choice

Choices are hard to live by
Hardest of all.

Tommy Randell

So where has all this doubting taken me? Ten years ago, I started to read voraciously. I discovered other famous doubters, including many who had been grouped together under the (now curiously dated) label of ’emerging church’. Sacred cows started to wander off into distant pastures. We could list them- all those totemic beliefs that we use to define of theological positions. We could display them as sliders and tick of our position on the spectrum of belief (perhaps we started to do this in that conversation with my friend mentioned above) but it would all be a waste of time, because I simply do not think this is the correct way to measure faith.

If faith has value, it has to transcend religion.

Does that make sense? Let me try again.

Religion codifies belief. Think of it as a magnificent cathedral, built from once-molten rock, carved and shaped and rigid. But even though faith might be helped by the shapes and spaces created, faith is not stone.

I stood before this edifice of faith

And it was magnificent –

The curve of the certain arch

The immovable pillars

The knowing eye in all this carving

The soaring ceiling shaped by countless songs of praise

But there was this penetrating drip of doubt

I could ignore it for a little while

Until the swelling laths shed horse hair plaster

And the stalactites point down from on high

The end of everything

Like any fool under falling stone all I could do was move

Out into the sunlight and the gentle rain

Looking backwards to see what might still be standing

Whether it might be anything more than just a

Magnificent ruin

But a ruin holds age with pride

Through the open vault light falls dappled into shadow

And the song of birds blows in on the wind

Chris Goan

Some will rightly accuse me of descending into just a post-modern, pick and mix, me-first faith, in which I have shaped God to fit in with my needs, wants and prejudices. I say ‘rightly’ because we ALL do this, myself included.

This is why I must also doubt the God I have created. 

This is why I must also set aside the distractions of doctrinal correctness and stop pretending that ‘truth’ is more important than love. I must doubt that kind of truth, particularly when it is mine.

After all, if we read the gospels, is this not the preeminent message of Jesus? 

This is not a surrender to unbelief, it is the promotion of a higher mission. One that is much harder.

A time for the sent ones of God
To follow the rough roads
Into the barren broken places
To look for the marks left by Jesus
On the soft tissue
And brittle bones
Of the Imago Dei
The stinking, wretched
Image bearers of the Living God

Time for the revolutionaries of God
To follow the long hard march
Unyoked and with easy burdens
Looking for the soft places where people are
Where freedom flickers
Where hopes soar
And we seek out the Participatio Christi
With weak but willing hands and sore feet
Learning to partake in the labours of love

Chris Goan

As advent unfolds, may our walk towards faith be not shadowed by unbelief. Rather may the tread of doubt take us closer towards love.

In which I go out to sea…

Well, almost.

In that true West of Scotland tradition, I have a few jobs these days. I love the way that these things come together- a conversation in the pub, a meeting in the street. A few hours work and a few quid in the pocket. One of them involves ships and the sea…

Imagine. A lifetime spent working in offices, then suddenly finding yourself hauling heavy ropes attached to floating steel mountains.

There is a NATO oil depot near where I live. The whole hillside above it is honeycombed with massive tanks and there is a constant ebb and flow of ships collecting and delivering oil. Tankers and Fleet auxiliaries mostly, from all sorts of countries. Docking depends on a small vessel collecting mooring lines and towing them to ‘dolphins’, which are anchor points attached to the sea bed. Someone not very bright (me) then carries the line up a ladder and attaches it to bollards. 

Sounds easy huh? It is- on a fine day. Quite the loveliest job in the world. But it is not always like that. Yesterday, for example, the wind was gusting to 50 mph and Stuart, the skipper, had to use his considerable skill to fight wind and waves to locate the boat whilst we donkeys timed our leap, ropes over our shoulder. Intrepid me…

It really is not that dramatic, but I keep taking photos with my phone so I thought I would share a few.

Who would have thought- from Social Work Manager to clumsy stevedore. 

Dear friends- those of you who still tread the drudgery of work that feels like it is killing you. Another life IS possible, because my work may kill me, but I think I will die happy.

Another bloomin’ book plug…

I know. I always get all “Christmas is too commercial” at this time of year. Then I plug a book. Let me explain myself….

A few years ago, I got a call from my mate Si Smith, who had an idea for an Advent collaboration. He brought together photographer Steve Broadway, meditation-maker Ian Adams and poetry from yours truly to make a book entitled We who still wait. The book offers photographs, a poem and a meditation for each day of advent, and is intended to allow us to reflect on the unfolding season.

These blokes should have a bit more of an introduction;

Steve is based down in Bristol. We have never met, despite collaborating on a couple of different things, via ‘tinternet and through mutual friendship with Si. He is a man of huge talents, with both pen and lens. You can see his prodigious daily output on his blog here.

Ian is poet of national reputation, who works to support people developing their own spiritual practices, via a whole range of lovely creative methods. He writes a daily meditation called ‘Morning Bell’, accessed via social media. You can find out about him via his Beloved Life site.

In the end, Si Smith contented himself with curating the book rather than employing his own considerable talents as an artist, illustrator and graphic novelist. Increasingly he seems to spend a lot of time encouraging other artists, making spaces for them, but you really should check out some of Si’s own work here. I would give special mention to the fantastic How to disappear completely.

Exalted company. Male company too- which is strange in my line of work. Most of the creative people I work with are women. I am not sure how this ‘maleness’ shaped the project, but it seems important to me, not for any exclusive paternalism, but because I found myself in the company of men like me. Men whose lives had meandered but continued to be driven by a creative search for something deeper. 

Anyway, why am I banging on about this now? 

Because Proost have a new edition out. It is now in A4 size, giving much more space for the pictures to come alive. It was a total surprise to me as I only found out about the new edition via twitter, communication not being a Proost strong point. I ordered a copy and it is lovely. 

Of course, as I re read poems I wrote quickly a few years ago, there are things I would change, but still the words I wrote move me. This is as much as I can ask. My poetry is rarely technical, it is emotional. 

So, in a totally non-commercial kind of way, I wondered if you might like to order your own? 

I do so in humility, but at the same time, confident in the company I keep. 

You can order it as a download, or as a physical copy, here. (There are lots of other advent resources available from Proost, including other work by Si and Ian, here.)

May the words, the images and the emotions stay with you as another Christmas approaches.


Baalam’s Ass
Numbers 22:21-38

“Look! It’s there!
Can’t you see it?
Wings like thunderclouds
Eyes like searchlights
Robes spun from the last rays of the summer sun
It is either a fairy pumped up on steroids
Or a feckin’ Angel
Not an allegorical one either.”
 
So it was that the living God
Sent a mighty Angel
To play hide and seek with a Donkey
So that a pagan sorcerer
Could speak out holy words
To confound all Israel.
 
And a whole sky-choir
Of heavenly creatures
Chuckled.
 
 

CHRIS GOAN
FROM ‘wE WHO STILL WAIT’

Refugee…

Roy Bailey died recently- a great man; a sociologist and folk singer, who had a long career, singing songs that revealed the history of working people.

Roy came from the fine tradition of agitators, and we need them more than ever.

Here he is singing a Woody Guthrie song, updated by Terry Andrews.

RIP Roy. Others will sing your songs.

I received this song from Terry Andrews in August 2017. During my concert at Towersey Festival later that month, I decided to sing the song as I knew Terry was in the audience. My anxiety was overcome by the rapturous response of the audience to the song. I and Terry were overcome by the acceptance not only of the song but of the humanity of the message it contains. So many people urged me to put the song on to YouTube. We all agreed to make this possible by filming the performance you see here. I am grateful to Martin Simpson for his beautiful guitar playing which he spontaneously offered without any rehearsal. It is remarkable to me that he can do this. Also to Marc Block who finds appropriate harmonies to this and so many songs I choose to sing, similarly with little or no rehearsal. I am also grateful to Marc, for without him agreeing too play, sing and drive me everywhere around the country I would not be still able to sing wherever I’m invited. As I say, often(!) he has extended my shelf-life as a singer at concerts and Festivals. Finally, my admiration for his technical skills and his love of folk song to Richard (Ich) Mowatt of Sounding Post Studio for arranging the recording and filming of this performance of Terry’s song. My heartfelt thanks to all of you for your support and encouragement of my continuing attempts at singing the stories I choose to perform and to you the audiences who continue to support me wherever I am invited to sing.

The eye of a needle…

Sometimes even a liar inadvertently reveals a deeper truth. In the zeigeist of the age, the only thing that matters is profit.

 

Thinking on it all, I wrote this;

 

Protestant work ethic

 

A story is told of monks who, seeking purity

Eschewed the love of money

Let not your corrupting coin ever touch our skin

For no-one pushes two masters through

The needle’s narrowed eye.

Perhaps inevitably, over time

Piety was overpowered by practicality

So that when conducting commerce

The monks wore gloves.

 

Come the reformation

All gloves were taken off.

 

 

The power behind power…

City of London, construction

I wrote a complaint to the BBC today. I have never done this before, so now can make proper claim to the term ‘grumpy old man’. This was the substance of my complaint;

On several programmes recently in which current affairs spokespersons have been invited to comment, the BBC has invited comment from right wing think tanks, such as the Adam Smith Institute. One example of this was a programme called ‘University Unchallenged’, on radio 4 on Monday the 12th of November, but this is a far from isolated example.

My concern is not that members of these think tanks are invited to comment, but rather that their bias is hidden behind a veil of independent expertise. If this bias is not announced before they comment then listeners/watchers are open to deception.

When we give a platform to someone who has a fixed opinion that is vested in political and ideological bias then this needs to be explained to listeners/viewers. This is particularly the case with right wing think tanks who often operate hand in hand with government and arguably act more like lobbyists than academic researchers.

If the BBC is to guard it’s hard won reputation for fairness, it can not ignore the fact that the Adam Smith Institute, and similar organisations (for example the Centre for Policy Studies) are funded by powerful organisations who have a narrow agenda. Not to make this clear when seeking comment from them is highly problematic.

Of course, this should also apply to left wing think tanks such as the Fabian society, the Centre for Social Justice, or the New Economics Foundation.

Why did I bother? Why does this matter?

Well, I think that we are entering time of profound change. The great disruptors have centre stage (Trump and Brexit). Old stabilities and orders are being destroyed. Into this vacuum will step a number of forces and vested interests, for good or ill. They will get a chance to shape the story of our nation for generations to come.

Think about this for a moment- what defined the story of the UK over the last fifty-sixty years? What makes you proudest? For me, it was our commitment to universal healthcare and a welfare state genuinely aimed at reducing poverty. There were failures and successes, but for the most part, there was political will.

But over the last twenty or thirty years, opposition to the institutions and principles of the welfare state has been hard at work. Money has been poured in to bodies whose sole purpose was to weaponise contrary stories and ideas.The nasty face of this was the right wing press, but beyond this, silky smooth and reeking of soft power, are the Think Tanks.

It worked. Austerity was sold to us as the only rational response to economic decline, and it was sold to us in such a way that we took it like a bitter pill, necessary to treat our own sickness. It was then logical to wind back all of the tools of the welfare state. Shrink public spending. Reduce taxation. Make more and more space in the public sphere for private profit.

The effect in our society are clear to see. The rich richer, the poor ignored. Inequality is back to Edwardian levels.

Meanwhile, we see the UN special report into UK poverty saying things like this (my emphases.)

. British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society…

… As I spoke with local authorities and the voluntary sector about their preparations for the future rollout of Universal Credit, I was struck by how much their mobilization resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic. They have expended significant expense and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system…

According to the National Audit Office, local governments in England have seen a 49% real-terms reduction in Government funding from 2010-11 to 2017-18 alongside a rise in demand for key social services….

…By emphasizing work as a panacea for poverty against all evidence and dismantling the community support, benefits, and public services on which so many rely, the government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences….

To address poverty systematically and effectively it is essential to know its extent and character.Yet the United Kingdom does not have an official measure of poverty. It produces four different measures of people who live on “below average income.” This allows it to pick and choose which numbers to use and to claim that “absolute poverty” is falling. Seen in context, however,other measures show that progress in reducing poverty has flat lined, child poverty is rising, and poverty is projected to rise in the coming years…

The government told me that there are 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010, that so called “absolute poverty” is falling, and that the social support system is working. An elected official added that there is no extreme poverty in the UK and nothing like the levels of destitution seen in other countries. But there is a striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the countryPeople I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children. One person said, “I would rather feed my kids than pay my rent, but that could get us all kicked out.” Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry…

…The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities. The changes to taxes and benefits since 2010 have been highly regressive, and the policies have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it. The government says everyone’s hard work has paid off, but according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, while the bottom 20% of earners will have lost on average 10% of their income by 2021/22 as a result of these changes, top earners have actually come out ahead…
The compassion and mutual concern that has long been part of the British tradition has been outsourced. At the same time many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centers, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined…
.

…The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead…

None of this should surprise us. Austerity allowed the Government to implement policies that had been suggested by right wing Think Tanks decades ago.  Think about that. The rationale for austerity is that we had no choice- the country was ‘living beyond its means’. But the solution chosen was one allied to a political and economic dogma emerging from… Think Tanks like the Adam Smith Institute decade before.

So, whose interests are being served? As the old adage will say- follow the money.

Not that this is easy to do in relation to Think Tanks. They keep their funding secret.

Back in 2011, George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, said this;

There are dozens of groups in the UK which call themselves free-market or conservative thinktanks, but they have a remarkably consistent agenda. They tend to oppose the laws which protect us from banks and corporations; to demand the privatisation of state assets; to argue that the rich should pay less tax; and to pour scorn on global warming. What the thinktanks call free-market economics looks more like a programme for corporate power.

Some of them have a turnover of several million pounds a year, but in most cases that’s about all we know. In the US, groups claiming to be free-market thinktanks have been exposed as sophisticated corporate lobbying outfits, acting in concert to promote the views of the people who fund them. In previous columns, I’ve shown how such groups, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, built and directed the Tea Party movement…

…For the sake of democracy, we should know who funds the organisations that call themselves thinktanks. To this end I contacted 15 groups. Eleven of them could be described as free-market or conservative; four as progressive. I asked them all a simple question: “Could you give me the names of your major donors and the amount they contributed in the last financial year?” I gave their answers a score out of five for transparency and accountability.

Three of the groups I contacted – Right to Know, the International Policy Network, and Nurses for Reform – did not answer my calls or emails. Six others refused to give me any useful information. They are the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Christian Medical Fellowship. They produced similar excuses, mostly concerning the need to protect the privacy of their donors. My view is that if you pay for influence, you should be accountable for it. Nul points.

…I charge that the groups which call themselves free-market thinktanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the corporations and multimillionaires who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term free-market thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by big business.

 

Monbiot updated his analysis in 2018, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the further erosion of welfare and public service by Austerity.

The problem is exemplified, in my view, by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). In the latest reshuffle, two ministers with close links to the institute, Dominic Raab and Matthew Hancock, have been promoted to the frontbench, responsible for issues that obsess the IEA: Brexit and the NHS. Raab credits the IEA with supporting him “in waging the war of ideas”. Hancock, in his former role as cabinet office minister, notoriously ruled that charities receiving public funds should not be allowed to lobby the government. His department credited the IEA with the research that prompted the policy. This rule, in effect, granted a monopoly on lobbying to groups such as the IEA, which receive their money only from private sources. Hancock has received a total of £32,000 in political donations from the IEA’s chairman, Neil Record….

…So what is this organisation, and on whose behalf does it speak? If only we knew. It is rated by the accountability group Transparify as “highly opaque”. All that distinguishes organisations such as the IEA from public relations companies such as Burson-Marsteller is that we don’t know who it is working for. The only hard information we have is that, for many years, it has been funded by British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris International. When this funding was exposed, the IEA claimed that its campaigns against tobacco regulation were unrelated to the money it had received. Recently, it has been repeatedly dissing the NHSwhich it wants to privatisecampaigning against controls on junk foodattacking trade unions; and defending zero-hour contractsunpaid internships and tax havens. Its staff appear on the BBC promoting these positions, often several times a week. But never do interviewers ask the basic democratic questions: who funds you, and do they have a financial interest in these topics?…

…While dark money has been used to influence elections, the role of groups such as the IEA is to reach much deeper into political life. As its current director, Mark Littlewood, explains, “We want to totally reframe the debate about the proper role of the state and civil society in our country … Our true mission is to change the climate of opinion.”

 

Next time you hear ‘experts’ being interviewed on the BBC, or via any other media outlet, ask yourself this; who pays them, and what are they trying to sell?

Post-it poems- the perfect present!

PostItPoetrycover

I love this book.

It is a collection of poems by a friend of mine, which I have watched develop over the last couple of years and I am delighted to see it actually come into print. I first saw them on his Facebook feed- poems written literally on a post it note, photographed, then uploaded. It was a neat idea, but much more than that, the writing is really lovely. Some of the poems will make you laugh out loud, others will bring on the old snuffles.

Here is the thinking;

I tried an experiment to see if I could keep
my writing concise. I took a post-it-note, and
gave myself some rules: one idea, one post-it, no writing small to fit it all on.

It has worked brilliantly in print too- some great design from the Proost folks.

You should get at least two- one to keep and one to give away.

 

Here are a couple of poems from the book (used with Chris’s permission.)

 

Eye of the Beholder
We were walking
across a field.
I said I loved the way
the blue of the sky
faded round the edges,
washing into the horizon.
Yes, he said.
That’ll be to do
with air pollution.

 

Tide Lines
I never hear you
or see you pass,
but I know you do,
because I find
your words
mixed with seaweed
and shells
and shingle.
While I watch
the headlands,
you’ve been
and gone,
with the tide.