The Edge of the World…

I have been really busy this week making a bedroom for William out of one of our scruffy box rooms. This always involves far more work than you think- particularly when you want to make the most out of a small space. He is delighted with his new room, and this means that his old room, with amazing views out over the Clyde, can start it’s transformation into a B and B room.

In the middle of all the chaos I sat down with a cup of tea and flicked on the TV, and a film was showing that I had heard about, but never seen- an old Michael Powell  film, made in 1937 called ‘The Edge of the World‘.

The film was Powell’s first feature film and grew out of his fascination with the changes happening out on the edge of the British Isles- the depopulation of St Kilda in 1930 in particular. He wanted to film there but it just was not practical, so he made his film on another wild wonderful island- Foula, 20 miles West of the Shetland Islands. The cast and crew lived there for several months, even having to build their own dwellings.

I think this film, dated as it is, contains fascinating glimpses of a life now gone in our far flung islands. A time before air travel or fast ferries and mobile telephones. A time of the corncrake at the edge of hand harvested fields and hands twisted from hard work.

Anyone who has spent time in any of these isolated wild places will know that they can have the capacity to change you inside. Powell went back to Foula in 1978, thankfully still with a thriving community, and made another film for the BBC. He too had been shaped and changed by the islands.

This is one of the reasons why I take my own pilgrimages out into the Hebrides whenever I can. We will be heading out again in a couple of weeks.

Hmmm- I feel another plug coming on; if anyone wants to join one of our wilderness pilgrimages you may like to check out some of the photo’s and info on our Facebook page.

The religious power invested in objects

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(Sorry I think this video may only play in some regions, and for a limited period of time.)

I watched this film last night- a documentary tracing the journey through one and half millennia of religious objects, saints remains and art made out of body parts.

My personal favourite was a little silver case containing the eyeball of a Catholic priest hung drawn and quartered some time around the reformation in England. Body parts were parboiled and displayed around town- at which point some brave soul popped out an eye ball to save as a keepsake.

What I was less aware of was the fact that for hundreds of years, in order to celebrate mass, the relics of saints were required- contained in mini- altars and often invested with huge power and wealth. It was this trade in body parts and objects- from the thorn crown of Jesus and bits of the ‘true cross’. to fragments of bone and hair purported to be from saints old and new that was one of the targets of the Reformation.

Certainly, growing up in an Evangelical reformed tradition we found all such things ludicrous- idolatrous and heretical even. They were one of the more visible things that seperated us still from any close relationship with the Catholic tradition.

Of course- we had our own objects of sanctification- I remember in one church I belonged to there was a carved communion table, which was moved about three meters- leading to bloody revolt by some members of the congregation.

The power of the symbol, and the anchor that connection to people who have gone before us in faith- these things seem to me to be important still.

As I watched the programme I was amazed at the obvious power that the objects had over the presenter- and also on me. It was difficult to be cynical in the face of such obvious veneration.

Having said all that- like most of our religion- it clearly had the capacity to go badly wrong. All that mad trading, and competition to get the best objects. And the possibility that the objects become more important than the object of the objects.

There is a shorter clip of the opening of a mini altar and examination of some remains (including hair supposed to have belonged to St John) here. In fact- I will add this video as a different post, as it is quite something.

I do not believe that I have any right to doubt the devotion of people who made objects like these, or who worshiped around them. Whilst I might not seek to collect any bits of saints to give meaning to my faith- I do believe that my experience of God is enhanced by symbols- by spaces and by objects within them.

Songs of Praise: carols in a pub…

I know I know, it’s a bit early for all this carol singing, but it is the second Sunday in Advent…

Sorry folks, but I think this video clip will only work in the UK, as it uses the BBC i-player, but I loved this episode tonight. The long running BBC songs of praise programme is a bit of a joke over here- often ultra traditional and a miss-match of the vaguely religious with secular awfulness.

But it often make me cry.

Because in the middle of all the mush, there will often be a story full of grace, or a hymn that takes me back to childhood, or a moment of delicate beauty.

Tonight features Kate Rusby, one of my favourite singers- who could sing the words of a phone book and still be worth listening to. She describes a tradition of singing carols in pubs from the end of November up to Christmas, in the South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire area of the UK- not far from where I grew up.

It is where Michaela learnt music by playing cornet in brass bands that grew out of the mining communities now long gone.

So if you are not moved by choirs and organs, skip this clip forward to around 22 mins into the show (but the hymn before is lovely too…)

It is worth it.

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1st collector for Silence…
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I have just watched this programme on the i player. I have been looking forward to it for some time, as our friend Maggie, who is a retreat director at St Beuno’s abbey in North Wales, had mentioned that some of the programme was filmed there.

It did not disappoint.

The format of the programme is simple- take a fairly random assortment of people and soak them in silence, led by Catholic monks who are able to guide them on the journey. It is reality TV that seems very real. Then end is not to make people Christian- rather to allow them to encounter themselves, and in doing so, to encounter God.

Here are a few things that hit me as I watched the programme-

Silence is a gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God.

Yet I find silence hard. For most of us, life is a process of constantly seeking distraction from- life.

It is a lifetimes work to find the silence that allows us to hear the voice of God.

Ah, well perhaps there is hope for me yet. How ever much life I have left…

Both the purpose and the means of the process is- purity of heart.

I know my heart a little- and it is not pure.

My spiritual encounters in the past have tended to revolve around repeatedly saying sorry for things that I know I will do again. As I became older, the pervasive guilt I felt as a young man trying to be Christian has ebbed away- which is good- but perhaps this might also mean that I am more comfortable with my impurity.

If you have not got a pure heart, you can not see God.

Is this true? How pure does it have to be? Or is it just something to do with desiring purity, and genuinely seeking to deal with all the things that get in the way?

The God of Surprises is going to give you some wonderful surprises.

I hope that this is true for these folk in the programme.

And I hope it is true for me, and you.

Because life without the surprise of God is half life, or no life.



Alzheimers, drugs, and a song of hope…

Sometimes I weep at what we are, and what we become.

The very heart of who we are, and the meaning we bring to our time spent in this fragile human tent- nothing brings this home more to us than becoming old. Facing the certainty of death.

We live in an aging population. I spend a lot of my time now chairing conferences where consideration is being given to the use of the Scottish Adults With Incapacity Act to enable the on going care of people who no longer have the capacity to make decisions for themselves. Most of these conferences relate to people who are older, and have a diagnosis of some form of dementia.

A news article last week brought me up sharp.It concerned a report

The medical care that we provide our oldest and most vulnerable people with at the end of their lives is killing around 1800 people a year.

Psychiatric drug prescribed to moderate behaviour and agitation kills people.

Only around 36,000 of the 180,000 people currently on the drugs in the UK are getting any benefit from them, the report said, leaving 144,000 people taking them unnecessarily.

This story was slipped into the pool of news with barely a ripple. No outcry. No calls for investigation.  No heads on the chopping block. Just move on to another story… more celebrity drivel, or a bit of political scandal about a moat and a dodgy expenses claim.

How we look after our older people with dignity and compassion is one of the greatest challenges facing our generation in this country. Numbers of people  experiencing dementia are set to double in the next 20 years. The percentage of the population of some towns (particularly seaside towns like mine) who have this difficulty will be very difficult for services to provide adequate care for.

At the same time, most health and social care budgets are already overspent, and likely to experience cuts in real terms.

I watched this film today, hence the reference to tears at the beginning of this post.

It is a beautiful film, full of tender care, hope and yearning, along with such sadness and loss.

And running through the middle of it all is music- the art that gives our lives meaning, even when almost all other things have been stripped away…


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BBC Reith Lecture- the free market and morality…

bbc broadcasting house

I managed to catch most of the first of the new series of Reith Lectures on Radio 4 this morning as I drove round to Helensburgh.

For those who have not come across the Reith Lectures before,  they are a British institutuion- or perhaps an English institution- despite their connection with the Scottish John Charles Reith, the force behind the creation of an independant BBC.

This is what the Lectures are tagged with-

a series of annual radio lectures on significant contemporary issues, delivered by leading figures from the relevant fields

The current series features political philosophy Professor Michael Sandel– and digs into some of the primary issues facing our political and economic system.

This first one concerned itself with the nature of the free market, and it’s relationship with moral choices.

It chews on the nonsense of carbon trading, and the potential free market responses to the ‘problem’ of refugees.

It was a great piece of radio- of a non-sound bite kind, a rare commodity.

You can listen again here, or it is repeated on Saturday.

The series will continue…

‘God on Trial’ film

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I am sitting still stunned after watching a riveting piece of drama. The BBC has taken one of the most dreadful parts of human history and made something wonderful out of it.

God on trial‘ tells the story of jews, wrestling with God, like Jacob before them. If you missed it, you can watch again for the next 7days by visiting the BBC i player- here

This programme was a master class of writing and acting. It is centred around a group of Jews in Auchwitz who have just been selected for the gas chamber. And in angry outburst, some of them decide to put God on Trial.

The charge- breach of the contract with his Chosen People, the Jews. And the arguments went backwards and forwards. Some angry and rejecting, others clinging to faith with all of their might. Here are a selection of some of the arguments

Jews had suffered before. The point is to be a good Jew- we are being tested. Punished for sins. sons deserted faith- forgetting the scriptures.
But why punish children and old people, and good Jews because of the sins of the bad ones? Why not punish HITLER?
But this covenant is with the Jewish people- it is not personal.

In time, things become better? God is a purifying surgeon– not a punishment, but a purification? Like the flood, or the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar.  Painful, but beautiful.  A process necessary for the rebirth of Israel? A sacrifice? A Holocaust… you can hate the knife, but love the surgeon. there will be a holy remnant. they can finish the story.
Do not let them take your faith. Hitler will die but the TORAH will live. We must trust in God.

God gave us free will. We have to take responsibility for our own planet.
But there was the man who was forced to choose from one of his children- one to save. Free will? I do not want it.

“But he is here. I know he is here, even though I do not understand him. Snowdrops the first ray of sun. I felt him. That warmth. Maybe GOD is being gassed. He is suffering with us.
But who needs a god who suffers?
Maybe God needs us… maybe he is not strong after all without us
Were does all this evil come from, but where too does all this goodness come from?

The violent history of the Jewish people. God the avenging God. God who kills the first-born Egyptians, and destroyed the people of the promised land- to make room for the Israelites. Moabites, Amelakites- Is this God Just??? What was it like when God turned against these people? It was like THIS. God was not good- he was only on our side! Now he has made a new covenant with someone else!

WE cannot fathom the mind of GOd. THis will end…
BUt no no no no- this will not do- making predictions about the future. The covenant we have NOW- Psalm 81 the throne of david will last for all time and his descendants….

You have something in common with the Nazis! 100 thousand million stars. To count them 2500 years- just one galaxy! Yet all his focus is on ONE planet? One part of the planet- the Jews?? If he loved the jews so much- why did he make anything else?
It’s all about power and control. Each one with their own God.

Don’t let them take your God. He is your god, ‘even if he does not exist’.

And as brilliant minds chased ideas about God like lifelines thrown to drowning men, their appointment with the gas chambers drew closer. And in the end, they found God guilty as charged.

But then, at the end, one man cries ‘Now God is guilty- what do we do now?’

‘Now’ came the answer, ‘we pray’.

So did I.

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