The Far Horizon…

Sunbeam trinity


Things have been a bit slow here recently- this is mostly because I have been doing a lot of work editing poetry for the up and coming Proost Poetry Collection. I am really excited about this project now- after huge amounts of work it is finally coming together.

One of the things I have been doing is writing chapter introductions. By way of a teaser here is one of them;


Imagine one of those wet-into-wet Chinese landscape paintings in which

a flower holds your gaze to the foreground,

whilst line after line of mountains

climb and bleed into the distance.

It seems like there will always another ridge line,

another high corrie to cross.


I walk into the rain and the mist

Forced to trust that

there will be other flowers

in places beyond.


There was a time when everything felt permanent, or so we are told. Communities were solidly built around stratified social class structures. People began work at the age of 14 and spent their lives in the service of one employer; the chances are that this was where your parents also worked. Whole towns were organised around the shift patterns at mills/shipyards/mines. We worked together, then drank together afterwards. On Sundays we went to church together.

This was no utopia; there were always those for whom this kind of life felt like a kind of prison. They longed for adventure on the high seas, the promise of the New World. They felt thirst for distant spice filled forests, for tropical islands lapped by warm green waters, for feasting on strange beasts around a pioneer fireside and above all for freedom. Freedom from the tired old ways of doing things, freedom from old obligations and paradigms, freedom from the drab dull monochrome lives lived by their parents. Freedom from things that always remained the same and from the kind of religion that insisted that was how things should be.

Should I stay, or should I go? Perhaps we humans always have to make this decision. The going and the staying are not necessarily geographical concepts. Do we stay with what we know, or do we dare to imagine something new?

As well as putting up the stone buildings that anchor us to place, our faith can also be a mode of travel. Our history is littered with people who were convinced that God was telling them to go somewhere, to do something. These people have acheived amazing things.

I heard a story once that really helped me to understand the flowering of faith in different parts of our history. Revivals hit us from time to time, usually associated with people who are inspired to go to new places and dream of better things. These revivals can be like an erupting volcano, spewing out molten rock that flows out into the cracks and crevices of the landscape. Nothing can stand in its way.

After a while, the flow cools on the outside but it remains hot and plastic within, still moving slowly. However, eventually what is hot cools and solidifies. It can no longer move, but becomes solid rock.

It is from this rock that we build our Church, our religion.

The truth is, we need both those who go, and those who stay. The rocks that form the walls of the old cathedrals are beautiful.

But the mountains are calling me again…

cuilin ridge from Sgur nan Gilean

Call for artists to contribute to an Easter exhibition…

Carved stone cross, crucifixion, detail

I received this today from Heather- looks like a really good project so I thought it worth a plug! Anyone out there who is interested, contact details for submissions are below.


Exhibition Title:  “Love.  Loss.  Hope: the Art of Easter, 2014”

Initial Response Deadline  Monday 10th February 2014 at 12:00 noon

Exhibition Dates: Good Friday 18th, Saturday 19th April, daytime and evening (Exhibition may be extended slightly, enquiries are being made)

Location: King’s Factory, Unit 4, Smithton Industrial Estate, Smithton, Inverness, Scotland IV2 7WL  (Home of King’s Fellowship)  The exhibition will be spread in a route throughout this modern commercial unit build – display space dimensions vary considerably.

Works: We greatly encourage submissions across all creative media including screen-based.  Writers, please consider visual text artforms.  Works can be offered for sale.

Background: The exhibition will reflect on a series of incidents in Jesus’ life as he moves towards the cross and his death.  But ultimately the exhibition is about love, loss and hope.

The Bible narrative will be already supplied in printed and audio recordings – leaving you free to interpret or respond to any part of an event.

The exhibition will be grouped into separate areas for each Easter event plus a reception area and a reflective area.  We invite you to exhibit in any of these categories:

  1. Garden of Gethsemane
  2. Jesus is betrayed and arrested
  3. Jesus condemned by Sanhedrin
  4. Jesus denied by Peter
  5. Jesus judged by Pilate
  6. Jesus scourged, crowned with thorns
  7. Jesus takes up his cross
  8. Jesus is helped by Simon to carry cross
  9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  10. Jesus is crucified
  11. Jesus promises kingdom to the thief
  12. Jesus entrusts John and Mary to each other
  13. Jesus dies on the cross
  14. Jesus laid in the tomb

The reception room theme is “love”, showing Christ’s love in his life, and the Last Supper.  The last exhibition room is a reflective space, themed “hope”.

Curated by: Heather Gregg   Tel: 01463 793494   Email:

Aim of Exhibition: “To adore is a Door”.  As these works of adoration are placed together in a sensitive setting, I believe that they will become a spiritual door to the reality of Christ.  My prayer is that exhibition visitors encounter him in this space.

This is a Joint Production of King’s Fellowship and Blue Flame.

Alt worship, old school…



Aoradh met yesterday for our ‘family day’. We have one of these a month at the house of one or other of our members. Everyone brings something to eat and something to contribute to an act of worship- it was lovely.

Yesterday we sang, listened to music, watched a DVD and spoke about starting again, changing things up. Among all the lovely things we did, what stays most in my mind was something that Michaela encouraged us to do using old school technology in the form of acetates.

‘Alternative worship’ (if you have not come across the phrase before) could be understood as a creative democratisation of worship within the Christian tradition. It involves taking old and new rituals and reinventing them, finding renewal and making new community along the way. It might also sometimes veer towards the highly technical- the joke is often made that if the alt. worship scene has a patron saint, then this is likely to be St Jobs of Apple. Contrast this with when the movement started out, when we all dug out our parents slide projectors and borrowed the OHPs from our local schools. Having said all that, our family days have very little in the way of high end technology.

Michaela’s idea was to take a song – an old Vineyard song called Hungry; She took some of the words- the negative ones like hungry, weary, empty, dry, broken and wrote them on a sheet. She then placed an acetate over the original sheet with other words on – satisfy, restore, arms open wide. The words merged, but remained separate.

She then asked us to think of all the things that were weighing us down; all those hard situations, areas of pain and brokenness, and to write them down on a sheet of paper. We then were invited to take a sheet of acetate and write words of hope, with prayers and promises. Then place the acetate over the sheet of paper.

Simple, low tec, but done prayerfully, in the company of friends it was beautiful.

I have my sheers here now. Depression becomes paired with gentleness, with patience, with grace. Awkwardness becomes paired with creativity and love…

Who needs beats and 5 different projections?


Falling crime statistics- what might they mean?


One of the more surprising facts about the UK as we continue to experience our economic recession is the fact that crime rates continue to fall. In fact, the most recent crime survey suggests that last year we recorded the lowest crime rates for 32 years, (since the start of the current survey in fact) and the trend is set to continue.

There are some interesting variations- murder rates and violent crime has reduced significantly, as has burglary and car crime. Shoplifting is up however, as are other survival crimes like pick pocketing.

What can we take from these apparent changes to the way we live together in the UK? Firstly we can be grateful that despite the scare mongering, we live in a such a safe, secure part of the world. Small comfort if you are one of those affected by crime, but you are in a much smaller group than you might have been previously. However, I am not sure that this fact is reflected in public perceptions of their safety. Back in 2011 it was reported that two thirds of the public thought that crime was increasing in their area, despite clear evidence to the contrary. We might conclude from this that our communing is still dominated by fear and suspicion.

We can also be grateful for the skill, commitment and effectiveness of our police forces.The news stories about corruption are noteworthy because they are so rare. The UK police services are simply the envy of most of the world. Perhaps the fall in crime rates is simply because many of our criminals have been caught- they are safely away in prison. Certainly, numbers of people in our prisons are very high; England and Wales has the highest per capita incarceration rate in Western Europe. It should be noted however that crime rates are falling in countries who make much better use of non-custodial and restorative justice measures, which research shows again and again are more effective in rehabilitating prisoners. (Although the research is highly problematic and politically/morally charged- see here for a good discussion comparing UK and US research. Interestingly there is a mention of Evangelist Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, who appear to have achieved staggering turnarounds for many of the hundreds of thousands that attend their meetings. )

Accepting that sometimes prison is required as a last resort, or even a first resort when the offence is serious enough, do we really need to remove so many people from society? Should we not be more concerned with keeping them anchored (or reconnecting them) to the moral/psychological/social societies they are part of? Ideas of punishment and justice for the victims of crime are important, but surely most people would be more concerned to know that prison was an investment in turning around the lives of offenders- giving them a real new start? The opposite seems to be happening however- lower tariff offences seem to be a way into a criminal career that is fast tracked rather than derailed.

The new super prisons in the UK, built and managed by private companies, warehouse offenders in larger numbers than ever before. There are huge concerns about levels of violence, and suicides are on the increase. The argument is that these private prisons can incarcerate a person at a fraction of the cost of state prisons. What happens in terms of investment in rehabilitation is also predictable. It costs money.

So- crime is falling, but our prisons are full to bursting capacity. Our media continues to support a climate of fear and so no one really questions what is happening in our judicial system. Who profits from this, we have to ask? Companies like G4S are certainly making lots of money, despite damning reports into their operations. Call me an old conspiracy theorist, but I also kind of feel that there are other forces here- there is a political investment in being ‘tough on crime’. There is also a political usefulness in keeping a level of fear and anxiety within wider society- it greases the wheels of power and give the powerful a mandate to manipulate.

But back to the crime figures. If we can not explain the figures in terms of judicial effectiveness, what might explain the fall in crime? Could it be that we are simply becoming a more civilised society? That we are more law abiding? It would be nice to think so, but I wonder if the real reason is not about our increased civilisation, but rather our increased isolation.

Quite simply, if we do less with one another, then it follows that we also do less to one another. Increasingly Britons spend their time in front of screens, distracted and dulled. Our collective experiences are arrived at in cars full of empty seats or on trains plugged into devises that keep us in an electronic bubble. We live vacariously through the lives of celebrities or virtually via on line gaming.

It is good that we are safer from crime, even if we do not feel it.

It is scandalous that we do not take a harder look at the failings of the judicial system that imprisons so many Britons on our behalf. (Check out the Prison Reform Trust for more on this.)



The God-hoover is out of the cupboard again…

Check out the trailer for this film;

There have been other attempts to scare people into faith by dodgy theological interpretations of the wild meanderings of the Apocalypse of John. I have written before about my childhood experiences in this regard.

Popular culture reflects the zeitgeist in ways that are often interesting. What emerges on to the entertainment market often reflects all sorts of subliminal fears, preoccupations and prejudices. In the American heartland, still dominated by Conservative Evangelical Christianity, this film will do well. Guns, fundamentalism and fear- surely this has to sell well even if the film making itself is rubbish?

Naomi Klein makes some interesting points about what she describes as ‘Rapture Rescue’. I have posted this before- but it is worth watching again;

Western society, despite our peace, prosperity, security and excess, still seem to define itself in terms of fear of catastrophe– be this some kind of real or imagined terrorist threat, a fear of immigration, of civil unrest. We then imagine some kind of massive redemptive transforming event to solve the problem- a new saviour, a victorious war, a wonder technology.

Add religion into the mix and things can get, well just silly. Except that when so many people are caught up in it all it is not really a laughing matter.

Ideas are important. Naomi Klein said this;

“If we want the transformation, we can’t wait for it to happen in some massive jolt, we have to plan for it and model it…”

“Only a crisis, actual or perceived produces real change, and when that change occurs this depends on the ideas that are lying around. That is our function, to keep ideas alive until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

My concerns about films like the one above are partly theological (there is a discussion of some of the dispensational theology in this post) although correcting esoteric theological ideas is always a bit of a waste of time. Those who hold them do so as if to a branch out from a cliff. They will never let go.

The issue is more relevant when we consider the impact of this kind of theology on our engagement with the world. Christians have some of the best ‘ideas’. We have a story that can change whole cultures- that HAS changed whole cultures. Sadly ideas and stories like this can become the servants of culture, not part of a critical, vitalising commentary.

So if our religion takes us to a place where we believe that this world is doomed, that God is going to suck all the good people (measured according to whether or not they have said the ‘sinners prayer’) up with his great rapture hoover and the rest will get their just deserts- if this is our religion then how might this change the power of our story or the potency of our ideas? How might these ideas set us free to be engaged in works of salvation- not just for a narrow self elected few?

That is why we need to hear other voices of faith- like Tom Wright;

Faced with an apparent crisis in our ability to hope and believe for the future, we people of faith have a choice…

We can proclaim the end of it all, and offer only the hope of a few of us being sucked away from the stinking rotten corpse that is this world, or we can become hopeful critical collaborators in our culture- salting those things that have good flavour, and shining light where there is darkness that requires illumination.

Hebrides, winter…

hebrides, snow storm

A wee poem I have been working on following a trip to Islay. Uncharacteristically optimistic and upbeat by my usual standards I thought… call it an antidote to a really crap day.


The horizon rises rust and golden

There is mild steel in the sky

But the curl of the sea still smiles at me

This light falls kind upon the eye


A cold north wind unfurls these coat-flags

Slapping like a laugh at the side of your face

Peat smoke clouds my watered eye

Our ship lies soft in harbour embrace

The new 3 R’s we are teaching our children…

williams wave

I had a conversation with Will last night about camping. He was wanting to go to a small island, by canoe, in February. I suggested that the canoe was probably not a safe means of transport to get to the islands in question (right out to sea in some fast tidal waters) and also February might be a bit cold. As I said these things, I felt like I was damaging something precious- some kind of freedom, adventure, companionship that might easily be stolen by time, or the internet.

It started a discussion between Will and I about what we would like to do- as well as planning some camping trips ourselves, we revived an old idea of organising a trip for adult/child pairings along the lines of one of our wilderness retreats.

Today I was reading something George Monbiot wrote on a similar theme. He was writing about the way that our relative freedom from oppression, slavery, poverty, war has seemed to lead us towards LESS freedom- we become obsessed with a kind of freedom to consume, to shop. We talk about our consumer rights as if they are laws of the universe, a bit like gravity.

A couple of quotes that rather hit home;

Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest…

…Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores…


Returning to my discussion with Will- how might we start to raise the eyes of our kids above Monbiot’s three R’s? I suppose we might start with the big W. (Wilderness.) Here is Monbiot again;

Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?

If so, it is a habit learnt early and learnt hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors. We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.

I am not sure Will and I are quite ready for ‘fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion’, but there does seem to me a real need to get out of our digital comfort zones.

To leave behind the wide screens and look instead to the wide horizon.

Come with us if you like…

Turning over the tables…




He stood in the door of the temple

And saw red


The beautiful ones

Stressed up like sharks

Creases sharp enough to cut

Hunkered down over their spreadsheet scriptures

Their holy bottom line


These beautiful creatures

Who can never have enough

Who are blind, but for the glint of golden things

Their altars slickened with the substitutionary sacrifice

Of the poor


Tear a rib from me Father

Make them anew

Turn over their chemical tables

Snap the twisted strings of their DNA


My blood boils



Jim Crow- another letter!

Western ferries passing jim crow

Here I go again. I keep thinking that I will stop talking about this rock, and then I get sucked in again. This time I am responding to another letter in the local paper suggesting the rock can not be racist in origin or association for a whole set of reasons that seem to me to be at best questionable.

History is never value free- it tells the story we want it to tell, despite the best efforts of historical research methods. It serves our own world view.This was demonstrated most clearly recently by Michael Gove, our rather dreadful Education Secretary, who had a go at ‘left wing’ historians who described the first world war as an unnecessary slaughter in which lions where led by upper class fools. Gove suggested the first world war was in fact a ‘Just War’ in which Britain and her Allies responded heroically to German imperial expansionism. The reality of course is far more nuanced and complicated than can be painted by narrow dogmatic historical interpretations.

What story am I wanting my history to tell? Am I too captured up in a Marxist approach that sees history a struggle by the weak against the powers of empire?

Perhaps I am- but at the same time, I think that a history skewed towards an appreciation of the poor and disenfranchised is needed more now than ever. We live in a time of recession. We know that in such times there is a tendency to scapegoat, to caricature, to blame. For a brief while it was all the fault of the bankers. Now it is the fault of the benefits scroungers.

So every time I leave my front door and see the rock above, I find myself thinking of these images;



…and I end up composing another letter to the paper. The last one, honest!

Dear Editor


Thanks once again to John A Stirling for his detailed and helpful reply to my previous letter suggesting an information board next to Jim Crow rock. He makes several statements about the rock, which I would like to examine further. I do this with some reluctance as my original suggestion was an attempt to bring together polarised opinion, not engage in more sectarian opinionising.

A lot of our discussion has been about the origin of the name given to the rock, and whether the words ‘Jim Crow’ were understood at that time to represent a racist stereotype. John feels that this cannot be the case as 1) the rock was so named prior to possible American slave connections (as early as 1726) and 2) back in 1726 there were no houses in the area so the rock was unlikely to attract the attention of local residents.  There are some leaps of logic in these statements that you must judge for yourself, but the truth is we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

John also mentions an often repeated local belief that the name of the stone relates to a local builders yard. One of my friends researched this possibility as part of an educational dissertation- spending time digging into records, both locally and in Lochgilphead. He was unable to find any evidence for the existence of such a business. Again, this is not to say it did not exist, more that we are unlikely ever to know for sure.

Next John mentions the possibility of the word ‘Crow’ being derived from ‘Croadh’- Gaelic for cattle and perhaps related to old Drover’s routes. However it seems to me unlikely as the rock is well away from known Drover’s routes (the nearest one being a crossing at Ardentinny.) However, once again, we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

John pointed us also to the apparent change in how the rock has been decorated- which appears to have become ever closer to what we understand as a ‘Golliwog’. Early photographs (1905) do indeed show the rock decorated with something more primitive, and with teeth. Could this have actually been meant to represent a crow? If so, why not with a yellow beak and with no teeth? Interestingly, there are other ‘Blackface’ stereotypes that include exaggerated teeth. However no one reading the words ‘Jim Crow’ in the 19th Century is likely to have missed the association with black people. Therefore it is perfectly possible that an existing local land mark was co-opted to a new racist purpose. Once again however, we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

What we do know however is that this area owes much of its early prosperity to the slave trade- from well before 1726. We know that in the great age of Clyde Steamers people promenaded the sea front and visited a many places of entertainment. We know that one of the most popular forms of entertainment were the Minstrel Shows. We know that racism has done terrible damage to millions of people the world over, and that one of the means by which this was perpetuated within popular culture was through the remarkably persistent Blackface stereotypes.

We can also be pretty sure that in anywhere else in the world, if the words ‘Jim Crow’ were emblazoned on a rock next to a Golliwog painting people would assume (rightly or wrongly) that it was making a racist statement. They might expect some kind of explanation as to why local residents allow such a thing to remain unexamined, unexplained, unchallenged.

So, we have a choice as to how we respond to this. We can accuse/deny, or we can display our uncertainty in a way that shows to others that we understand it, and have learnt something from the last few hundred years of local and international history.

Which brings us back to my suggestion of an information board.

I am getting angrier…

chris goan

You are supposed to get more placid, easy going, calmer as you get older but I think I might be bucking the trend.

People have always described me as a calm, easy going person- particularly, it has to be said, those who do not know me well. Perhaps the reality was that for much of my younger years I was scared of my shadow and far too keen on showing a calm competent exterior to cover over the insecurities within. Simply put, I wanted to please people, not to draw attention.

But at the age of 46, I find myself in a place where life has done most of its becoming, some of its being and may even be looking into its declining. Life, for the most part, has been very kind to me. I am loved (despite it all) and I have learnt how to love in return. I have what I need plus a little bit that I do not. I live in a rich country that has known internal peace and stability for my whole life.

So what makes me angry? I can not pretend towards being totally absent from grumpy old man syndrome so this might well be a factor. However, the anger in me is pushed by a conviction that this world we live in has contained within it some terrible disappointments. Is this really as good as it gets? Is there not more than this, better than this?

Growing up I was told that God would sort everything out- probably soon (a second coming of Jesus) but certainly ultimately. The second coming has been delayed it seems and if we do live in the ‘end times’ then God is taking his own sweet time to get it all over with. And in the meantime there are all those peddling a kind of religion that sees itself as a great big hoover for the righteous and the rest can just go to hell. And it makes me angry.

I grew into a society that despite the looming possibility of nuclear war still thought that all of the world’s problems could be solved by technology. But then came global warming and we seem powerless to change our greedy needy addiction to consumption even though it is killing us. Technology seems to be a means of giving separation from the problems; they look different when viewed through a screen. And it makes me angry.

But what makes me angriest of all at the moment is that despite a thousand years of history, we in the UK seem to becoming ever more feudal. The rich barons gallop by in their Ferrari’s and sneer at the great unwashed. And to convince themselves of their rightful place of election they demonise, denegrate and stereotype. They make poor-porn like the unbelievable shite that is Benefits Street. And whilst the poor lose out in a thousand cuts, the rich get richer. They get more stuff. And it makes me ANGRY.

I heard a story today of someone who had been without benefits for three months. The person had been working previously, but mental health problems had made it increasingly difficult and they lost their job. A shattered self confidence was made worse after a ATOS assessment regarded the person as fit for work. The end result was that they stopped leaving the house. The machinery of unemployment benefit was impossible. It was hard enough to breathe. Hard enough to think. Every day becomes a competition between distraction and overwhelming dread. Death seems a valid option.

Add into this the current nastiness in the media, and in the mouths of government ministers, about scroungers, wasters, smokers, gamblers, and the self esteem of people already near rock bottom falls further. Anyone who has seen this kind of defeat close up, or experienced it for themselves, knows these words to be what they are- pure propaganda used to justify a social policy geared towards wealth creation for those who already have wealth.


And it makes me incandescent.

Lest I give the impression that I am some kind of Jesus, turning over tables of injustice in the white heat of righteous indignation, I also get angry at computers that do not work, at my wife when she does not deserve it and my kids when they do.