Psalms of privilege…

Have you read the psalms recently?

An ancient hymn book, full of messages celebrating privilege. Celebrating a relationship with God who is on OUR side. The one who will kick ass on our behalf.

Of course, there is so much more than that in this wonderful ancient poetry – lament, hope, beauty, thankfulness, stillnes – but on one level, they were written as Israel-first propganda.

The danger is that we adopt them as a personal me-first version of the same.

Consider the most famous of them all, psalm 22. We wheel it out when we need it, like some kind of holy comfort blanket. It is beautiful, full of hope and assurance, offering us the hope of God on our side. I read it over and over this week because I am preparing to lead the funeral of a dear friend of ours.

We will desperately need psalm 22.

Beyond this, I found myself wondering what else this psalm had to say to me right now, and wrote this poem.

Psalm 23

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If God is my shepherd, why worry?

Why let anxiety crack the night?

Why let fear of failure pin me

Like a blunt spear?

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If I lie down in green pastures

Why must I mortgage?

Why chase a wage?

Why scratch upwards for success?

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If I am led beside still waters

Why must I stare into inky depth

And wonder when my ship

Will come in?

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If I walk through darkest valleys

And still fear evil

Must I arm myself with

My very own rod and staff?

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If God would load a table for me

In front of hungry enemies, could I eat?

For surely I’d be sick to my stomach

If I failed to share?

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If anointed, what am I anointed for?

What makes me so special?

Is it because I am white, male, British?

What if I fall from favour?

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If goodness and mercy follow after me

Is that like holy magic, or must I make it?

Is it a get-out-of-jail card or an invocation

To become a conduit for love?

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If I am to dwell in the house of the Lord

Will my room have a view and good wifi?

Or will it be like a shelter, for the homeless where

Even people like me are welcome?

The dance of the enslaved…

I found this recent series on the BBC very moving.

It featured Samuel L Jackson, an underwater archaelogy team, and some historians shining light on the international slave trade, both here in the UK and in the wider world.

They visited forts on the coast of Africa where slaves were gathered ready for export, and marvelled at the fact that in the centre of the courtyard was a large church.

One story stuck with me, of how the purpose-designed slave ships, carrying men women and children that had been forcibly torn from their homelands, were brought up on deck to excercise. This was not done for humanitarian reasons, but to reduce the numbers who died en route and to make sure that the price they would fetch in the markets they were heading towards was high because they would be in better condition. It was about stock management.

However, it then takes another dark turn. When they were brought on to deck, they were made to dance.

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Merchandise

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Once upon a time, people were bought and sold like lawnmowers,

Or second-hand Hondas. Enterprising Christian young men sought their

Fortunes in foreign fields, chasing white ivory or black bodies, both of

Which were worth the trouble because (back then) acquisition

Was a moral imperative. After all, elephants and black people were  

Dumb beasts, whose misfortune was to have economic value elsewhere.

It was dirty business, sawing tusks and chaining black children

So small wonder our heroes took carnal comfort between the unwilling

Legs of black women. They were men of science, designing fine ships that ensured

Their valuable assets were always transported efficiently

 Every inch stacked and shackled but because our men were not monsters

They knew good management of stock meant value must be preserved and wastage

Minimised so each day the enslaved were pulled out on deck and made to

Dance.

The choice to forgive…

This poem is nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Apart from the fact that Trump is us. An extreme version of us, perhaps. The Hyper-us. He makes a virtue out of anger and malevolence. In Trump world, forgiveness is weakness and weakness is for losers.

Non of us are immune from this thinking, both in relation to others and even towards ourselves. It is so much easier to feel outrage and anger when faced with opposition and percieved injustice.

Or we could choose to forgive, no matter how hard this may be, and see where this takes us.

I choose to forgive

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To you who find me wanting

I choose to forgive

You who delight in my misfortune

I choose to forgive

Who forensically dissect my weakness

I choose to forgive

When you deliberately misunderstand

I choose to forgive

You who speak harsh words against me

I choose to forgive

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When I fail and when I fall

I choose to forgive

When I hate the man I am

I choose to forgive

When the mirror does not lie

I choose to forgive

When my reach exceeds by grasp

I choose to forgive

Even when I fail to forgive

I choose to forgive

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When we fail to do our best

I choose to forgive

When we polarise

I choose to forgive

When we build up higher walls

I choose to forgive

When we lie and cheat and steal

I choose to forgive

When we win at any cost

I choose to forgive

I choose to forgive

Regrets, we will all have a few…

Grappling with the news of the death of an old friend. A long life, well lived with much love. Rest in peace, and may those left behind hold some of you for ever.

Regrets

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When death comes, it first brings regret

For all those things said or not said

For poor omissions and commissions

For generational gaps it was never

Possible to bridge

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But let time be your kindness

Then pain might become less a pointing finger

And become instead that precious ache inside

Letting you know you were loved

And that you loved too in return

Carcass…

(A juvenile whale has washed up on the Cowal shoreline- thought to be one of a group of three that have been in the upper Clyde estuary for weeks. The animal was emaciated and out of place.)

Carcass

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In the pre-dawn premonition

Before even half-light

A whisper of wings overhead

Felt, not seen (leaving me to wonder

Whether birds-eye views might help

Or hinder) Then a dark shape in the shallows, half

Submerged. Bulk no longer moving

With the waters, A hidden fluke flat to the sand

Like a lost cutlass

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Incarnate no more

Just a carcass

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In case we ever doubt that beasts feel grief

The parents swim in circles in the bay

And whilst we should avoid all anthropomorphic platitudes

I fear they are feeling guilt, as if that sonar shock which

Blew them up, too fast, from the dark depths

Was their fault

Not ours

The woman beneath the hill of the world…

The woman beneath the hill of the world

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They say the earth is a woman

Wrapped in a gossamer layer of

Brown-green skin

Runnelled and pooled by

Salt tears

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They say the woman is barren, for her sterile

Soils are not fed from the falling leaves

Now the trees are long gone, and

The long tresses of her long green hair

Are stored as silage

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They say the woman mourns for her children

Whose bones now brine the ocean, and

Whose dawn songs are no longer sung

Whose savannahs have all

Been stolen

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They say that the woman speaks to mountains

But they no longer listen. That she

Looks for signs in the distant stars but their blink

Is blurred by the smoke from

Burning forests

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They say the woman would write her story

Except that the black ink in her wells

Has all been pumped dry, and

The tail-feather-quills from her favourite flightless bird

Have been plucked

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The woman has not gone away, they say

For she has nowhere else to go

No place beyond these fields for her

Nor grounds she could lay down

So beneath this hill she stays

The coming winter…

(To quote Michaela; “I just love wearing big jumpers.”)

The coming of winter

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It is not the loss of light

It is the revealing

Of a candle’s flame

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It is not the loss of leaves

It is the finest tracery

Fingering a steel-grey sky

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It is not the vice of ice

But the delicious itch of scarf, and

Air stratified by woodsmoke

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It is not incessant soaking rain

But a musical blessing to be found

Behind window panes

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It is not cruelty

It is a jubilee, when rested lands, like

human hands, fall fallow

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It is not cold

It is a well-stoked fire

Drawing both of us closer

Coronavirus: staying human in the long haul…

Back in March, when we were all coming to terms with the first lock down, I wrote some pieces trying to describe some mental health survival techniques that might help us navigate what we termed ‘The Great Silence’. It seemed right to revisit some of these themes and ideas, because in many ways, the world seems different now.

Perhaps for some, it feels even bleaker at present. What started out back in March as a hill we had to climb tgether, or a period we had to survive before we rediscovered normal, has now become something else.

Technology, in the form of healthcare and vaccines, has not yet saved us.

Scientists seem uncertain, or perhaps are just ignored.

Politicians seem unable to break out of the old paradigm into the new, (at least here and in the US.) Populism has failed and is thrashing around for someone else to blame.

Meanwhile, there are enough signs around to suggest that much of what we used to accept as unchanging normality is at a pivot point like a slowing spinning plate. We have no idea which ones will fall, but when they do, almost certainly those who will suffer most will be those who always suffer- those already poor and vulnerable.

Some have even started to talk about the first lockdown with a kind of nostalgia, a bit like the phoney war in 1939, when the sun shone and the looming distaster seemed distant and mostly theoretical. Now, the winter is coming and things seem all the harsher for it…

As I look around, responses to the ongoing virus seem to be fracturing into different camps.

  1. Those who deny and minimise. I don’t mean the conspiracy theorists – those who cry ‘Plandemic’ – rather I mean the large section of the population who are not really following any kind of strict social distancing rules, at least not totally. Perhaps they feel invulnerable due to their youth and disconnection from people who are vulnerable.
  2. Those who live in fear. Many people have very good reason to fear, either for themselves or for others they love. People are worried too for their livelihoods and their jobs/homes. But fear is rarely a healthy place to stay. It has consequences for our mental health and physical health.
  3. Those who are getting on with it. The key workers. Many are working harder than ever. Some feel fortunate to be in work at all, and this too imposes a pressure.
  4. Those fortunate enough to live lives insulated from the press of people and problems.
  5. The rest of us. Wearied by all the mixed messages, and wondering how this all ends. Distracting ourselves and looking for signs of hope.

At the same time, political leadership is also bringing confusion. Our Prime Minister has squandered the trust he had over the Cummins affair, and has been ideologically incapable of building partnerships with either the opposition, or more crucially, local authority politicians and local public health structures. It is hard to escape the feeling that our government is making it up as they go along, lurching from one failed plan to another, pulled apart by its own competing priorities, which have always been skewed towards the protection of economics over people. As a result, there is no political consensus, no coming together over political divides for the sake of the nation. There is no Churchill, just a collection of Chamberlains.

So, how might we navigate this uncertain landscape we are forced to still travel through?

Like I know. Like any of us do.

And that is the point we have to start, right? We have to accept that we can not know. The illusion of certainty and control has been revaled for what it always was- an illusion. That may sound fatalistic, but stay with me for a moment. If this was never really true, then what might this mean? Perhaps we were always more reactive and adaptable than we ever thought we were. Perhaps change, even when enforced, is something we are more than capable of seeing through.

Some of it might be hard.

Some of it might bring good things in to our lives – things we could never expect. I’m really sorry if this lands on you like a trite platitude, but it is one that I think is true, even though I don’t know what you are going through right now.

Perhaps though, your circumstance has become an oppressive dictator. You can’t wish this kind of monster away with platitudes – not on your own, certainly.

There might be something you can do, with the help of people who you trust. to change your posture towards that circumstance though, which is what I am trying to describe here.

Posture is everything, when faced with fear and uncertainty. You know this. Sometimes it is not possible to do anything than just let it overwhelm you for a while, but opportunities will come to reframe, and remember that at the end of everything, goodness counts. Love counts, beauty and truth matter.

In my post back in March, I made a list of things that I thought might be helpful. Most of them still seem to apply, but I would add a few more.

1, Immerse yourselve in wild things when you can. Stand in the autumn trees and remember that the noble oaks and sycamores will remember all this long after we are gone. Stand on beaches and remember that the water molecules before you have been passing through the water cycle since the dawn of time. So this not to feel insignificant but in order to remember your own connection. You are made of the same stuff.

2. Stay connected, but limit social media time. Write letters, make phone calls. When you can, wrap up warm and sit around fires, blinking back smoke with your friends. In contrast, you social media feeds will probably be full of fear and scandal.

3. Focus your day on small, but important things. Find a rhythm to your day around some tasks that are creative and constructive, then once these are progressed, forgive yourself for the periods when you are not productive and seek distraction- we are all the same. Netflix and the iplayer are essential opium for all of us.

4. Read.

6. Winter. Perhaps, like me, this season is always hard, and if so, you will fear this one all the more. Michaela suggests the following; look for beauty in the winter. The loss of light means the visibility of the candle flame. The cold means the lighting of fires. The falling leaves means winter tracery and the rain flurries make us appreciate the window panes.

7. Thankfulness. The Psalmist calls us to enter the presence of God with thanksgiving on our hearts. I think this is not because God needs our gratitude, but because it creates joy in us. Joy is fleeting, but it lights up the love inside us like a firework lights the night sky.

8. Journal. Write something each day, even if just one word. Some of you might prefer to draw or paint. For me, it is poetry. In particular, remember thankfulness.

9. Kindness. Nothing restores the soul like kindness, and that is even more true when we are the giver, not the recipient.

I am not expert in your life, nor do I have my own problems all defeated, but this too will pass.

May you find blessing.

Bi partisan…

It bothers me, but I am neverthess still complicit.

Our political/economic/religious lives are filtered, shaped and dictated by our tribe. Perhaps this was always true, but now our social media algorithms place us in a self perpetuating feed-back loop in which we consume an ever more extreme version of what we already believe to be true.

Our psychology and biology is unwittingly ideally equipped to take in this material like a sponge, allowing it to shore up our fragile egos and fire up the old endorphins in delicious tantalising outrage.

The most recent Nomad podcast features Elizabeth Oldfield talking about this stuff in great detail, and has an interesting theological twist, as she argues that the same religion that has become so polarised in the form of politicised Western (particularly American) religion should in fact be the very thing that brings us to the point of seeking peace and reconcilliation. Of course, for some that may be true, but…

Perhaps you are like me, and love a good Youtube video featuring Trump at his most despotic, or Boris looking like the bufoon he once tried to hide behind. If so, perhaps it is time to step back, let the old fight or flight stuff settle down and then reconsider what this vacarious war mongering is actually doing to us all.

That is not to say that we should not protest and resist, but let us not pretend for one moment that social media arguments ever shift people one inch. That comes through engagement and connections between people who respect one another, not from calling out from distance.

Hence, this poem;

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To the left, to the right

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If they are not wrong

How might it be possible

For me to be right?

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If they are not bad

How will we ever know

That we are good?

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If they have success

How can I destroy it

To substitute my own?

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If I grudgingly turn the other cheek

How many slaps am I entitled

To return?

Small talk…

These strange times, full of enforced separation, have split us into smaller units. We connect only at distance, or digitally. It goes against something profoundly human.

Having said that, I am an introvert. For me, lockdown has often seemed like permission to retreat into a place of comfort. I have been blessed by garden and hillside and someone I love to share my head and my bed with. My grown up kids have been with me through most of lockdown. So many others, including friends and family, have had more difficulty.

Still, the capacity I have for retreating into my own small space has led my family to tease me as being one step away from becoming a grumpy hermit at times, who would never see anyone from week to week if left to my own devices. They will tease me about my hatred of the telephone and how I can become very awkward when having to indulge in small talk. I often feel guilty about this, and worry about neglecting my friends…

But I think my friends will also know that what I love more than almost anything is to talk.

This poem is about my kind of small talk.

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Small talk

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Sit with me and speak of the drowning

Not in sorrow, but in those stories

Through which we swim like otters

Let our words be a current

To carry us to places

Not yet spoken

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Sit with me and speak of the dying

Not our own, but of last year’s light

Dimmed like an untrimmed gas mantle

But not-quite extinguished

Even sepia’d by distance, it

Still splits the dark skies

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Sit with me and speak of god

Or whatever we may call her

Let us feed sacred cows

Until the new sun rising in the east

Calls us to take the knee, then

Let our breath be prayer

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Sit with me and share that dream

You cherish whilst awake

Clenched like an incomplete pregnancy

For I would be your midwife

I would see the life in you (and me)

Set free

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Sit with me make a new belonging

In a space that lies wide open

A place where hearts beat on sleeves

A place where laughter ebbs and flows, and

We know that love is profane

As well as sacred

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Speak to me and

I will listen