2015 Guest Columns for Southport Visiter
POLITICS, POETRY AND TRUTY
Since my last column appeared, Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Quite a lot of important writers objected (some snobbery involved there I suspect) but I think the Nobel judges got it right. Dylan’s influence on successive generations has been huge and within some of his greatest songs can be found real depth and beauty. The Bible played a significant part in Dylan’s early artistic formation as a singer/songwriter and helped to shape how he approached writing lyrics. There is a tenderness and rage in his songs that conjure up the prophets of the Old Testament and any music fan prepared to listen carefully is amply repaid. A short time after the Nobel announcement, another poet left us. Leonard Cohen died on the 7th November. A good age and he was more than prepared for his passing. His legacy is large: beautiful songs tinged with melancholy, loss and yearning and a passion for truth-telling that seems ever more urgent in a post-truth age where loud, lazy assertions masquerade as facts. Listen to his Story of Isaac and marvel at how he takes the biblical account of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22. vv1-19) and turns it into a judgement on contemporary warmongers, who stand ready to eliminate children in pursuit of political gain. The song could be an anthem for the doomed children of Aleppo. To date, Save the Children estimates that 10,000 have perished in the Syrian conflict.
Poetry and truth were both conspicuously absent in the recent US Election. Memories will fade soon enough but not so soon that we should allow ourselves to forget a campaign that was devoid of eloquence and rich in abuse. Short of a crystal ball with a 100% guarantee attached to its base, none of us has a clue how the continuing story of America will unfold in 2017 and beyond, or how that story will affect our world. What we do know is that the Trump campaign vilified opponents and lied repeatedly in order ‘to make America great again.’ Lying is a bad business, especially on the part of those elected to lead their country. It corrupts the soul and tramples common decency in the gutter. It does not make a nation great – certainly not in terms of trust, honesty or international relations. Following the Election result, France’s ambassador to the US was perhaps exaggerating when he said ‘the world is coming apart before our eyes’ but he was right to be anxious. In its religious beginnings more than three centuries ago, America regarded itself as a nation under the special providence of God, a beacon and blessing to the world, a ‘city on a hill’ ( note the scriptural reference Matthew 5.v14 ) and a land where ‘people might be led into all truth.’ Such sentiments seem dated in the aftermath of the election. In Donald Trump, America has a President Elect who knows how to make a deal but appears to know little about its religious history or its inherited moral character. Alongside his new hardline appointments, there are also influential Evangelical Christians offering him advice and support. We must hope and pray that they will rediscover their religious roots and nudge their leader in a more promising direction. This might be an opportune time for them to dig out their old Dylan albums from the cellar or, in some cases, listen to them properly for the first time. Following Leonard Cohen’s most famous song, some of us might then be able to manage a tentative ‘Hallelujah.’
I slept very little last Friday as news of the EU Referendum filtered through the night. Having voted ‘in’ I felt a deep sadness as it became clear that Britain was to break with Europe. The next morning the earth was still turning and the sun still rose but, overwhelmingly, I felt that everything had changed. The vote revealed some disquieting and long-suspected truths. We are now a United Kingdom in name only and a nation no longer at ease with ourselves. We have demonstrated a growing fear and resentment of migrant workers, despite the fact that they more than pay their way for their use of health and education services and our hospitals and building trade would be lost without them. Worst of all, on the back of a dishonest and nasty election campaign where the Leave side promised a cost-free land of milk and honey outside the EU, their pledges are already being postponed or denied by their leaders. Add to this a growing realisation on all sides that we now face years of protracted negotiations and austerity, the likelihood of Scotland’s second bid for independence and a diminished, more isolated Britain, we may witness an even greater fury on the part of those who have endured public-spending cuts without enjoying any of the fruits of prosperity. What we now have to accept is an electoral victory that increasingly feels like a defeat for considered thought, a concern for the common good and the prospects of the rising generation. We have entered a landscape without maps where we face, as one senior EU officer commented, ‘a million mad questions’ that have no obvious or short-term answers.
As to what we do next, that is after a new Prime Minister and credible Opposition emerge, there will be the necessity of struggle. We are a resilient and resourceful people. We have slain dragons before and we shall still join in the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ at the Proms and mean it. Large parts of the world are in turmoil and we are no exception. We should continue to do what we can to make it better. We should remain pro-Europe, concerned for its welfare as well as our own. Leaving the EU does not entail leaving its citizens on a not-so-distant shore facing a rising tide of political extremism and, in some cases, economic weakness. Where friends, colleagues or neighbours have voted differently on this momentous issue, we need to keep on good terms and learn, if we can, to disagree well and understand the genuine concerns that have shaped it. Only a day or two after the result, I found myself sitting next to a couple of ‘leavers’ at a birthday party. There was no blood on the carpet when I left and I hope to enjoy a glass with them in the future. A nation in crisis sometimes looks to the heavens for a bit of help. Even if we have only a little faith, this is surely a good moment to invest some hope and energy in that abiding force of goodness which the New Testament assures us ‘will supply all your need’. Our greatest need now is to weather the coming storm and care for its casualties. At the local level this will mean being on the side of compassion and social justice and engaging in small but necessary tasks for the poor and excluded. Beyond this it will entail a sustained commitment to a Britain worth believing in with a respected place in the league of nations. Pray God we are up to it.
THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY
It’s 25 years since Dr. Helen Sharman became the first British female astronaut to go into space. In a recent radio interview she was asked if the original journey felt a long time ago. Without hesitation she replied that it was all still wonderfully fresh and real. The enthusiasm in her voice left me in doubt that this was so. In particular she recalled how from space, geographical boundaries quickly melt away. As she gazed upon our blue and fragile planet, her attention was initially and quite understandably directed to our own country. Fairly quickly however, she became absorbed by the continents and then to the Earth itself, bounded only by unending darkness. Countries and states, walls and boundaries, historical separations caused by wars or geological shifts over aeons of time, seemed to dissolve before her eyes. Now there was just the Earth in its splendour and teeming life in all its forms.
I’ve been thinking about the interview and how it has some bearing on how I will vote on Thursday 23 rd June. That’s the day of course when the UK decides if it will remain in leave the European Union (EU). By then we can expect more contradictory facts, opinions and arguments ranging from the plausible to the ludicrous or even offensive. I’m still listening to most of them and it’s not easy separating truth from fiction. My mind is made up however. For me, this important decision does not rest solely on the key economic and political issues that are shaping the current debate. I do want the best outcomes for Britain’s future in terms of jobs, travel, national security and manageable control of our borders but there is something else that compels me. It has do with my sense of European history and the way our shared cultural values have been shaped so profoundly by Greek philosophy, Roman law and the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Put simply, who I am, where I belong, the people and places, values and ideas that have influenced me, extend far beyond these shores. I am proud to be British and can sing ‘Jerusalem’ with a voice worthy of the Last Night of the Proms. I think our inherited values are worth defending and only wish they were more evident in blighted parts of our world. We also invented football and produced George Best. Those last two facts alone should give us pride of place at any international table!
With all this acknowledged however, I still feel a citizen of a larger European world separated only by a meagre strip of the English Channel. We are an island race with our own proud traditions but we are also indebted to wider and no less gracious influences beyond the UK. Difference is life-enhancing and enables us to grow and learn. Good politics like good religion should seek to break down barriers not build new ones and encourage us to do more than focus on purely national interests. Viewed from space, which is another way of looking at the world with the mind of the Creator, we all appear the same with the creative gifts and shared humanity that can enrich our common life in an increasingly precarious world. When the big day comes on 23rd June I’m voting ‘in’ partly because of the question of who I think I am and, furthermore, where we fit as a nation in the bigger scheme of things. It’s a matter of personal and shared identity as well as beneficial trading arrangements and secure borders. You might want to ask yourself the same question if you are still undecided.
People begging on the streets of our towns and cities present a real problem to the conscience. In the first instance, there are quite a lot of them and, in some locations, numbers are increasing. I know Manchester city centre quite well and there are plenty of forlorn figures on the pavement or in doorways. Secondly, it’s difficult, if not impossible to know whether we are faced with genuine need or the suspicion that money given will simply assist destructive habits. We also know that begging can be a business with organisers profiting from people who may have little to give but follow their hearts and do the decent thing in the face of apparent misery. Genuine misgivings are understandable but sometimes taking a chance pays off. Michael Flamant, a baker in the town of Dole, eastern France, is to sell his shop to a homeless man who saved his life after he became unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning. Michael had regularly seen the beggar asking for spare change outside his shop and kept him going with coffee and croissants. Following a faulty oven repair that led to a carbon monoxide leak, Michael became unwell and then passed out. Fortunately, Jerome, the homeless man, had popped into the shop from the cold and pulled the baker out of the shop and rang the emergency services. Without the intervention, Michael would have died within fifteen minutes. After two weeks in hospital he was back in the bakery with Jerome working as his apprentice. He proved an excellent choice and Michael has now handed the shop over to Jerome for the sum of one euro. A baker who values his freedom and peace more than money can now retire and a beggar is given a new start. It’s the kind of story that Jesus might have told to remind hearers that the poor, far from being undeserving can be a source of unexpected blessing, provided we take a chance and trust. Not an easy option when trust is in short supply in sceptical times but without it we may be the losers. And not an easy lesson to take on board, this disquieting notion that a beggar or homeless person might have something to give us that exceeds the easing of our conscience. It’s a matter of expectations, of how we see the less fortunate and the extent to which they can contribute to our own humanity. Pope Francis regularly encourages his clergy to stay close to the poor and not just because they are in need. They also have their story and a worth or dignity that may change our life and outlook. Arvo Part, the Estonian composer of classical and sacred music, was once seen on a street of an affluent English city. Passing a man on the pavement he gave him money and exchanged some words. Part then knelt before the beggar and asked him to bless him. A totally unexpected gesture for sure but no more unlikely than a baker giving his shop away to a beggar for a song. Both stories are worth remembering the next time we are asked for our spare change or see someone that the world seems to have forgotten.
THE WORD ON THE STREET
At most we were fifteen in number. But Lord Street looked inviting in the cool sunshine of Palm Sunday so we made our stand. We had come straight from our morning service at Trinity, armed with palm leaves, Easter cards and chocolate eggs for children.
We carried a wooden cross draped in black material as a reminder to passers-by that the first Good Friday was far from good for the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, who was almost broken by its weight. In age we ranged from eight to ninety. It was our most senior member who offered to hold the cross upright. He had been confirmed in church just a few months previously and this opportunity was special. Not as many people were out shopping as we had imagined but there was a steady flow heading for the supermarket and cafes. Some looked a little surprised at the sight of clergy in long white robes on the high street. Others took pictures of the group, offered us money (politely declined) or simply engaged in brief conversations. A few had already been to church and about the same number declined anything we had to give. No one was offensive. An hour or so later we were out of eggs. It was good to see our own church youngsters connecting so easily with small children who were curious and then ever so eager to accept the offer. Some parents were heard telling their children to say ‘thank you’ for an unexpected treat. More significantly, we were also out of palm crosses. Offered one, even shy or initially reluctant shoppers gladly accepted. In some cases they seemed touched by the simple gesture – one person reaching out to another, offering a religious symbol that retains the power to move and then transform human lives. With Easter so close we decided to add to our modest repertoire of hymns. We sang There is a Green Hill and My Song is Love Unknown but we also pitched in with Morning Has Broken, a pop song that began its life as a nineteenth century poem. A lady in a wheelchair stopped to ask if she could join in. Not a bad voice actually and she was grateful for the chance to shine. Most passed on but their pace slowed and there affirming smiles. We went back to church in a good mood: mission accomplished, no casualties and a degree of friendliness in our encounters that gave us heart.
Four days from now it will be Easter Sunday, a chance for the nation and families to gather and relax and, for the Church, the most glorious of days that speaks of hope and renewal even when the odds seem massively stacked against both. It would be interesting to know the final destination of the crosses we distributed last Sunday. Some could be in a bible or prayer book, perhaps even pinned to a wall or close to a bedside to comfort the sick or dying. It’s entirely possible that some might have been forgotten or discarded in an age when so many, for good and not so good reasons have turned their backs on organised religion. Others could be displayed in a car – a travelling companion for another year and a reminder to those who believe, or would like to believe, that we never travel alone. This is a good thought for Easter Day or any day, especially when life fails. Beyond the sadness, chaos and confusions that are woven into the fabric of things certain truths abide: the sense we have that just occasionally the universe might be on our side, might even be seeking us out. The ridiculous joy we feel as Spring comes again after a sodden winter. And the poignancy that moves us to gratitude as we contemplate the good and holy man Jesus for whom death had no dominion. Put all of this together and the only word that fits is Resurrection.
Not everyone has raved about War and Peace on Sunday night TV: too much like Downton for some with different costumes and dollops of snow. Others are wondering what they will do with themselves now that it’s finished. All those spectacular scenes have brightened our dark and miserable winter. Here are a few suggestions. Enthusiasts could go to the novel on which the series has been based. Tolstoy’s epic book ranks with the greatest stories ever written. There are a lot of names to grapple with but stay with the story and see how Tolstoy is not just writing a saga about families or even war but how Russia, a divided and troubled nation, might begin to exist with dignity and truth. Some of us are still asking the same question. Russia and its melancholy soul remain a mystery to the West. A magnificent book that explores this mystery is Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. The title comes from the famous scene in Tolstoy’s story, beautifully rendered on our screens, where the aristocratic Natasha suddenly begins dancing in a simple wooden cabin as her eccentric uncle sings an old folk song. It stirs unknown feelings in her heart and connects her to a past and a peasant life entirely alien to her own privileged life. Figes’ book explores Russia from the early nineteenth century to reveal what lies behind its music and poetry, its art and literature and the religious ideals that shape its spiritual life.
Another fascinating line of enquiry is Tolstoy himself. A.N. Wilson’s biography remains unsurpassed and presents us with a man of bewildering contradictions and immense passions who turned in mid-life from great novelist to pacifist, prophet and aspiring saint. Disillusioned with his own Church and some of its teachings, Tolstoy became a vegetarian, made his own clothes and shoes, denounced warmongering and championed the poor. When a great famine in 1891-2 killed hundreds of thousands, he set up 246 kitchens feeding 13,000 people every day and raised huge sums (including half a million dollars from America ) to help the afflicted. His aim was to follow the teachings of Jesus set down in the Sermon on the Mount without however diluting its moral standards.. The cost proved too high. He made demands on himself and his family that proved impossible and he stopped seeing the beauty of the world. There were to be no more sunny days and his public voice became more shrill. What he failed to grasp was that Christianity for all its insistence on a holy and good life also teaches forgiveness and is patient with human imperfections. Jesus came to proclaim life in its fullness which includes a love of all things earthly as well as giving the world a code to live by. Sadly, Tolstoy forgot the first half of the deal, a point worth bearing in mind for anyone thinking about how they should keep this season of Lent or what human perfection amounts to in practice.
At the end of his life, the religious authorities kept him at arms length and denied his family a full funeral service. The crowds still turned out in their thousands, many of them falling to their knees as the coffin passed by. They wished to honour his compassionate deeds and the essays, many of which are now largely unread. But his War and Peace, along with the other great novels, endure as testimonies to a genius with a truth-seeking heart. What we have seen these past Sunday nights offers us a way in to the enigma of Tolstoy and his country. By digging more deeply we can discover their buried treasures.
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8.30am Holy Communion
10.15am Parish Communion (First Sundays in month are usually a Family Communion with children taking part)
10.15am Sunday Club
(For 3 year olds upwards - on all except first Sundays and school holidays)
6.30pm Evening Worship
(e.g for Saints Days): as announced
Practising members of other Christian denominations are invited to receive Holy Communion.
If you are not confirmed but would like to receive a blessing please come forward with other communicants and place your hands below the altar rail.
We hope you will join us for refreshments in the Parish Centre after the Service