Hope rises, like tattered sails…

boat prayer 3

Since I last wrote anything here, the world has shifted a little, and I feel a surge of that most timorous of human emotions; hope…

What has changed?

On the surface at least, not much. Wars are grinding at flesh and bone in the background. Bombs are blowing up children at pop stadiums, fires are taking the lives of the poor under the cocked noses of the super rich.

Oh, and we had an election, which was won by the Conservatives, the same party who have overseen a move towards punishing austerity and made a bonfire out of lots of previous social and ecological priorities.

But… things really do seem to be changing.

Firstly, the political landscape in the UK has changed beyond what seemed possible even a few short weeks ago. Jeremy Corbyn, previously cast by all the mainstream media outlets as a forlorn figure, emerged throughout the election campaign as a man of integrity and humanity whose policies offered a plausible alternative. Rather than being ridiculed, suddenly he has become a man of statesman-like substance in stark contrast to the rather robotic and removed figure of the woman who actually won the election, albeit by a narrow and toothless margin.

Those of us who longed for a leader who could capture the imaginations of people towards a better world have finally got what we asked for in this crumpled and unpolished little man.

Alongside this political shift, something else seems to be happening however. The language of compassion is back. The feeling that inequality and privilege should not remain unchecked. People look at the gulf between the residents of Grenfell tower and their neighbours and wonder how things came to this.

Perhaps above all things, I have a sense that young people are becoming dissatisfied with the world we are making on their behalf. Corbyn has shown them his new/old politics and they have responded.

With hope.

 

The circle of violence, filtered through religion…

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A crowd of folk walk the city street. Some on their way home from work. Others on a trip-of-a-lifetime, taking in the sights, scarcely able to believe that over there is the Tower and beneath them flows the brown Thames, holding all that history in sediment. As targets go, they are hardly strategic, but in the upside-down logic international terror, who they are does not matter for no one is allowed to continue to conceit of innocence. Someone has to die. Blood has to be paid with blood.

So it becomes logical to use a car as a blunt instrument. To plough through bodies like blades of grass. But this is not enough – bright blood has to flow. Slogans must be shouted. God must be glorified by the stabbing of flesh, by the slicing of throats. The instruments of God must themselves be blessed by bullets, shooting them skywards towards glorious reward.

And once is not enough. Violence is born in us like cocaine, like masturbatory completion. It is not always there on the surface, but buried deep in our collective understanding. Violence gives permission for more violence, It becomes possible, understandable, compulsive, unstoppable. It is a circle that can not be broken.

Perhaps religion can help? Perhaps the God we make might be bigger than theirs? Our God might be mightier, more violent. After all, our God has better weapons. Our God can kill remotely, his bombs are smart. His bombs are righteous.

Air Force, Army leaders discuss new UAS concept of operations

 

Lord, forgive me, for what right have I to talk of these things? I have lost no limbs, no loved ones, to flying steel. The streets I walk are endangered only by dog shit.

How dare I talk of peace, when the blood still stains the streets of London and Manchester?

How dare I compare blood with blood? For surely one drop of ours is worth gallons in the gutters of other places? Our God saves. Although he only saves us. Them – they have it coming. There is only room for the chosen in this promised land.

trumpie

Meanwhile, politicians seek power, one sound bight at a time. Nothing legitimises like completing the circle. Nothing convinces us of power like words of violence. Chose an enemy to aim at and watch the polls soar.

“Strong and stable.”

“Enough is enough.”

It seems, according to our Prime Minister, that we have been too tolerant. The problem is that we have not been violent enough on those who are violent. We have been soft on terror and soft on the religion that surely causes terror.

In the face of their extremism, we have not been extreme enough.

Time to take the gloves off. Time to close borders. Time to release the dogs of war. Time to close ranks and silence any opposition.

Time to raise flags in our places of worship.

Military flags, Lichfield Cathedral

But what if all we do is to perpetuate the circle of violence? What if each and every reaction stimulates another counter reaction?

What if the defining narrative tells each new generation that the only solution is to kill, because ‘they’ are killing us? ‘They’ are not like us. ‘They’ are monsters, subhuman. ‘They’ follow a different God, who is not the true God.

Where will it all end? How can a circle ever be broken?

violence, violins

Of course, many of us will read the stories of violence and rightly point out that we need protection. We can be proud of our police and emergency services in London, who seem to have responded with such bravery and professionalism. I am in no way excusing the choices made by the perpetrators, or suggesting that we should do nothing to protect ourselves. If you should leap to this accusation, then I would respectfully caution you to pause and ask some questions;

Can you envisage a society in which such terror events as have happened in London and Manchester can ever have been made impossible? Do you think this really possible?

If so, what would this society be like? How much control and surveillance can you accept? How much targeting of minority ‘at risk’ groups? How intolerant would we have to be?

If it is not possible to fully eradicate the violence, what else should we do? How much should we seek to engage, to talk to one another, to understand? How do you do this?

Think about this; each and every society is a spectrum. There are those on one edge who are moved by compassion and those on the far side who are driven more by conquest. Most of us are in the middle, pulled this way and that.

When we give voice to the violence in the midst of us the whole spectrum shifts. When we prioritise peace, it shifts again. It is not that the violent men are less violent, or the peace makers disappear- rather their dominance is enhanced or decreased.

Jesus knew this. The Kingdom of God he talked about incessantly was one in which a different set of rules applied. This Kingdom did not seek to bring about victory through orgiastic violence, but by prioritising love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self control.

Violence will always be in our midst. There will always be disenfranchised people who are more susceptible to finding their identity and meaning in extremism. But if we are to disrupt the circle, if we are to shift the spectrum toward good, we can not allow intolerance and warmongering to dominate our discourse. Partly because, as should be as plain as the bloody nose on our face it DOES NOT WORK. It is part of the problem.

rumi-meditating

We have to seek understanding. Who are the men and women of peace in the other spectrum? What God do they serve?

There is much hope to be found in the religion of the ‘other’. Here are the words of the ancient Sufi poet Attar;

The Newborn

Muhammed spoke to his friends
about a newborn baby, “This child
may cry out in its helplessness,
but it doesn’t want to go back
to the darkness of the womb

And so it is with your soul
when it finally leaves the nest
and flies out into the sky
over the wide plain of a new life.
Your soul would not trade that freedom
for the warmth of where it was.

Let loving lead your soul.
Make it a place to retire to,
A kind of monastery cave, a retreat
for the deepest core of your being

Then build a road
from there to God

Let every action be in harmony with your soul
and its soul-place, but don’t parade
those doings down the street
on the end of a stick!

Keep quiet and secret with soul-work.
Don’t worry so much about your body.
God sewed that robe. Leave it as it is.

Be more deeply courageous.
Change your soul.”

 

 

Grace must win…

rainbow church, Dunoon

I have been troubled over the last few months as I have watched from afar as a church I attended for over 10 years has been through a particularly difficult time. The cause of this difficulty was the tiresomely totemic topic of homosexual sexuality- the same one that seems to be rattling the windows of religious institutions up and down the land.

Those of us that might have already been forced into a polarised position on this debate (and perhaps I am one of these) would do well to pause at this point and consider something about the story of the church I am describing. Put aside all thoughts of right wing, American style evangelicalism, because that would not describe this collective at all. It is led by someone I would count as a friend, a kind, sensitive lovely man. Many years ago he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He said “If I am going to make a mistake, let me make a mistake on the side of grace.” The church he has led has sought to be a positive impact on the community they are embedded within; holiday clubs for local kids, helping people who are in debt, running all sorts of other activities aimed at giving people a deeper connection with God. Of course it is not perfect, but I look on this place and the people it contains as good. Not in the sense of ‘better than you’, but rather meaning what happens when ordinary people strive together towards a deeper purpose.

It is of course also true that this Church grew out of a particular stream of theological tradition and understanding. It is ‘evangelical’ in a northern British sense of the world- building on traditions that stretch back into Victorian muscular Bible thumping Christianity.

So, what is the crisis I am describing? I have deliberately not involved myself in detail, but I understand that what happened is that a member of the church, via a post on social media, identified themselves as gay. This led to different (polarised) reactions within the wider congregation and suddenly what had been an issue that could be opined from a distance was knocking at the front door.

The leadership of the church then had to tread that familiar line – the one that Richard Rohr calls the creative tension between religion as requirements and religion as transformation. They were pitched into a series of meetings and discussions, in which they strove in different ways to resolve this tension and to come to a final version of what was correct, Biblical and also sensitive to the individuals involved.

Those of us who have rehearsed these discussions over the years will know exactly what will have been discussed. We will know the relevant Bible passages. We will have heard the arguments about the authority of Scripture and the degree to which we as followers can ‘bind and release’ verses. We will have contrasted the treatment of those verses about homosexuality with a range of other apparently red line issues such as marriage after divorce, the role of women, clothing codes, etc.. We will have heard the biology/lifestyle choice discussions and heard from those who claim to have been ‘delivered’ from the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. We will have heard the line over and over about ‘hating the sin but loving the sinner’.

We will almost certainly have heard less from those others in the pews who are being torn apart by the need to reconcile their own sexuality with the apparent requirements of their religion. Most, of course, will leave church and never return. The alternative is too damaging. Who can survive being forever a second class Christian, loved by obligation but never able escape their own innate ‘sinfulness’?

In the instance described above, I have friends on both sides of the argument. I also have friends who still strive above all things to straddle the two sides – to remain true to both the religion of requirement and the religion as transformation. But in the end, it seemed that the former (religion as requirement) had to dominate. In many ways I am not surprised- the theological underpinnings of Evangelicalism (particularly the fixed position in relation to the interpretation and authority of scripture) might be seen as creating brick walls that are insurmountable for gay/bi/trans folk.  In the end, it is my opinion that these theological underpinnings can not fully co-exist with love.

Unless they are challenged theologically the walls remain and grace can never win.

But challenging them theologically requires engagement with some core concepts of faith that people have based their whole world view upon. Never underestimate how difficult this is for good lovely people who feel caught in a trap, in which their instinct towards grace is thwarted by the absolutes they feel have been decreed by scripture.

But back to Richard Rohr. Today I read the piece below. It seemed painfully resonant with the words of my friend about erring on the side of grace. I have not spoken to him yet about all of this- this is almost certainly not the time, but I hope to do at some point in the future, when the rawness has receded…

The relationship between law and grace is a central issue for almost anyone involved in religion. Basically, it is the creative tension between religion as requirements and religion as transformation. Is God’s favour based on a performance principle (Law)? Or does religion work within an entirely different economy and equation? This is a necessary boxing match, but a match in which grace must win. When it doesn’t, religion becomes moralistic, which is merely the ego’s need for order and control. I am sorry to say, but this is most garden-variety religion. We must recover grace-oriented spirituality if we are to rebuild Christianity from the bottom up.

In Romans and Galatians, Paul gives us sophisticated studies of the meaning, purpose, and limitations of law. He says its function is just to get us started, but legalism too often takes over. Yet Paul’s brilliant analysis has had little effect on the continued Christian idealization of law, even though he makes it very clear: Laws can only give us information; they cannot give us transformation (Romans 3:20; 7:7-13). Laws can give us very good boundaries, but boundary-keeping of itself is a long way from love.

Paul describes Israel as looking for a righteousness derived from the law and yet failing to achieve the purposes of the law. Why did they fail? Because they relied on being privately good instead of trusting in God for their goodness! In other words, they stumbled over the stumbling stone (see Romans 9:31-32). Law is a necessary stage, but if we stay there, Paul believes, it actually becomes a major obstacle to transformation into love and mercy. Law often frustrates the process of transformation by becoming an end in itself. It inoculates us from the real thing, which is always relationship. Paul says that God gave us the law to show us that we can’t obey the law! (See Romans 7:7-13 if you don’t believe me.) Paul even says that the written law brings death, and only the Spirit can bring life (Romans 7:5-6; 2 Corinthians 3:6). This man is truly radical, but it did not take churches long to domesticate him. We’ve treated Paul as if he were a moralist instead of the first-rate mystic and teacher that he is.

Ironically, until people have had some level of inner God experience, there is no point in asking them to follow Jesus’ ethical ideals. It is largely a waste of time. Indeed, they will not be able to even understand the law’s meaning and purpose. Religious requirements only become the source of deeper anxiety. Humans quite simply don’t have the power to obey any spiritual law, especially issues like forgiveness of enemies, nonviolence, self-emptying, humble use of power, true justice toward the outsider, and so on, except in and through union with God. Or as Jesus put it, “the branch cut off from the vine is useless” (John 15:5).

In quoting this piece, I know that the problem (or the creative tension) is in no way solved – not in the collective sense at least. I know what sits well with my own soul, but each of us who still try to live in the creative tension must find our own way through, which is always so much easier as an individual than trying to find a position that is acceptable to a congregation.

If we red line matters of private sexuality, whatever our position on the matter, as being pre-eminent in deciding the individual’s acceptability in church (and in church leadership) then we hold to a rather bizarrely skewed theology- one that continues to promote sexual morality over all of those other moral decisions we make every day. It is a theology that throws the first stone at gay people…

…not gluttons (or fat people like me would be excluded from leadership)

….not those who store up possessions (or people with houses full of stuff like would no longer be welcome in churches)

…not those despise the outsider (or people who support  the building of walls and the exclusion of immigrants would not be welcome in churches)

…not those who support war (or people who support invasions of middle eastern countries would not be welcome in churches- even in the face of terrorism)

I could go on but you get my point.

Most of us would still maintain that in the end, grace must win. We will all need it, not just those who happen to have been born with a different sexual make up.

 

 

Small people…

Read this today (here)…

The late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano once expressed his deepest concern that “we are all suffering from amnesia … [that makes us] blind to small things and small people”. Who, I asked him, was responsible for this forgetfulness. “It’s not a person,” he explained. “It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered, and who deserves to be forgotten.”

If you are in any doubt about how our own society, dominated by the twisted logic of ‘Austerity’, views small people, then you really need to watch this film.

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Expect to be devastated. Not by the hard story it tells, as much as by the moments of kindness perpetrated by ordinary people. Small people

It is hard to escape the logic emerging from the Bible narrative- where we see systematic waves of Empire rising up and promoting the accumulation of power and wealth over the worth of small people.

The Jesus-logic of the Beatitudes turns this upside down and inside out.

Blessed are those who are poor in spirit…

Blessed are they in failure
Blessed are they in defeat
And blessed are they in
Every empty success
Blessed are they when plans, laid out-
Are stolen

And dreams are drained by

Middle age

Blessed are the wage slaves
And the mortgage makers
Blessed are those who keep on treading

This treadmill

Blessed are they who have no hope
And for whom life is
Grey and formless

Blessed are the B-list
And the has-been’s

Blessed are they at the end
Of all their coping

For here I am

And here I am building

My Kingdom

1984 and more…

1984

 

The field was full, said Spicer

The NHS is broken

The Holocaust was fake news

The world is not warming

(And I never touched that woman)

Wealth trickles down

Poverty is the direct consequence of indolence

 

Ignore those pinko academics,

for I have alternative facts

from the University of Google

 

Conspiracy is the spice of digital life

This toxicity resists all known antibiotics

It seems that even silicon

Can fester

 

I did not say what you heard me say

And should you contradict

Future truth will land only in the laps

Of some other network

 

Reality is inside the human skull said O’Brian

It has no external dimension

With a dismissive flick of my hand

I remake the laws of nature

1984

And more.

 

Another (cricket) season starts…

 

Campbell facing

I have a small confession. Despite its ephemeral frivolity, few things in life (aside from family) make me as uncomplicatedly happy as…

…cricket.

I know, I know, it is just sport- a way of passing time whilst real life happens all around. In these times it may even be the equivalent of fiddling whilst Rome burns. But if you have ever played the game you will know what I mean.

Yesterday, I dragged myself (despite being near death from man flu) to Bute to play in the first league game of the season against Ardencaple (Helensburgh 2nd IX.) We won. Will scored a fine and sometimes brutal 82, I contributed a much less fine 37 and then took 3 for 17. We managed a total of 217 for 9 from 40 overs, Ardencaple were all out for 144. It feels good to win, but winning is not necessary for joy at our level of cricket. In fact some might say it is a little vulgar, a bit too keen.

My mate Graham played for his team yesterday (Hutton Rudby) and posted this magnificent result on FB- they were all out for 4 off 15 overs. Such a result is to be celebrated. It suggests to me not incompetence, but passion. It is no shame to be outclassed and outplayed on the cricket field- the point of playing cricket really is the simple joy of the game. In fact, the team who overwhelmed Hutton Rudby should feel shame that they did not extend the match beyond 15 overs- there is an art to this- bringing on the weaker bowlers at the right time- giving a little for the sake of the day.

Out

So how am I able to justify this puerile love for a simple game of bat and ball? Of course I could talk about the great events in international cricket- titanic clashes of style and willpower in front of ecstatic crowds. But instead, I offer this;

REASONS TO LOVE LOWER LEAGUE CRICKET

  1. It is a great leveller. Players of all abilities make up one team. Some players are brilliant, others totally inept. All are welcome.
  2. Youth is nurtured by age in the same playing arena. Where else does that still happen?
  3. I get to play with my son Will. He has decided that the cut and thrust of division one is too serious, too much pressure. He wants to have fun. Yesterday I batted with him for 10 overs. It does not get much better than that.
  4. The banter. There is a kind of banter on a cricket field that is like no other. It is allowed to be crude, but not rude. Any abuse should be reserved for team mates.
  5. Passion. It is allowed, but when it erupts into anger (a dropped catch, a ball allowed through the legs for four etc.) then everyone is a bit embarrassed.
  6. Great things can be achieved by mediocrity. The stunning catch taken with a smack between the man boobs. The miraculously improbable six. The terrible bowler who cleans up the oppositions gun batsman, who can’t believe what just happened to him.
  7. Team/Individual. Cricket is an individual game in a team context. This means that we play for ourselves, whilst looking out for each other.
  8. A series of events. We play 40 over matches (the island location of the team has meant the the league has shortened our matches by ten overs to allow for ferry traffic!) This means 240 balls. 240 events. Each one its own mini-drama.
  9. The games within the game. Even in a miss-match, there will be moment where individual bowler-batman confrontations are electrifying.
  10. It allows a kind of very UN-digital friendship and community that has become rare. Where these gatherings develop they should be honoured and nurtured.
  11. The game will go on. There is an almost tangible yearning to ‘hand it on’ to the next generation. It may not be like it was in our day, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

So, to all of you who turn up into the mizzle of a damp day, hope in hand for one more innings – play on.

It will liberate no captives, nor fight any major injustices, but nevertheless, for the simple joy of it – play on.

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Aoradh Wilderness Retreat 2017: Eilean Dubh Mor…

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This year, we went here. 11 of us, old friends and some retreating for the first time.

It was a small island, one which even I had passed by and hardly noticed. But it was lovely. More than lovely, it was beautiful. A tiny jewel of a place, with a pebbled coast line punctuated by deep dry caves (we even slept in one. Or we would have slept, had it not been for the phantom snorer…)

The island is small, but big enough to do that thing that islands do; they expand to become your whole world. After landing (courtesy of Seafari) we explored, searching for shelter from the wind and above all, water. It has been so dry of late that water was in short supply- we found none running, apart from the odd drip from a shaded cliff face, so we had to manage with dark brown water taken from brackish pools. I have drunk far worse however, despite the chlorine tablets.

As usual we divided our time between stillness and laughter. We cooked over fires, making bread in an stone oven and cooking pancakes on hot rocks pulled back from the flames. We roasted lamb and shared a meal of haggis.

As usual, Crawford was in just the right place to whisper in an Otter’s ear. We saw a school of dolphins (we think they were the relatively rare Risso’s dolphins) on the hunt. Golden Eagles flew overhead and all sorts of feathered things flitted in and through the trees that grow in the sheltered places.

I stood on the high place – a volcanic plug on one end of the island – and all around me were old friends, islands where we have been before. The Garvellachs on one side, Scarba and Jura off in the distance, Lunga shouldered close.

But the real friendship was found in the company I kept. Sharing life like this is not just a pleasure, somehow is seems to make me a better person. In giving, I receive so much more. In hearing a mixture of stories, some of real hardship, some of great progress, my life is deeply enriched. Deep thanks to those of you who came this time. May each and every one of you journey well. Apart from the Phantom snorer. Whoever you are.

Thanks to the owner of the island, Mr Cadzow, for sharing it with us.

Some photos;