Faith, hope and little people

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I heard a surprising and original connection drawn between the recent UK General Election and Christmas. We were familiar with the anticipated inconvenience of polling station venues being already booked up for nativity plays. But this radio vicar highlighted a less obvious parallel: between the national vote and a Roman census that Luke tells us took place around the time of Jesus’ birth: ‘everyone went to his own town to register’. Though backwater Judaea presumably didn’t face the same problem of absent students.

It got me thinking about other parallels between the election campaign and Christmas. First up, the appeal to ‘little people’. The single greatest factor identified as propelling the Tories to a landslide victory, was their success in toppling the so called ‘red wall’ of historically Labour-voting northern seats. The Tory messaging machine managed to convince swathes of a normally hostile electorate that Boris Johnson was the strong man who would finally deliver Brexit and improve their lot. Many of these new voters live relatively tough lives – low incomes, poverty, possibly food banks. They felt ignored by the urban political elite – their desire for change thwarted.

Judaea in New Testament times was also full of ‘little people’, under the yoke of an oppressive power. The nativity narratives highlight some of them: Joseph and heavily pregnant Mary, struggling to get a roof over their heads; the shepherds – low status night shift workers. Mary’s song of praise following the birth of Jesus – known as the Magnificat – powerfully expresses God’s concern for such individuals. She exults that in his might and mercy he has scattered the proud, filled the hungry and left the rich empty. It’s a radical, revolutionary, upside down manifesto for change, that not even the boldest political one could match.

Second, there’s the appeal to simple, childlike faith. Boris’s persona is cartoonish, and his party’s campaign slogan ‘Get Brexit done’ is now infamous for its cut through clarity – memorably displayed on the front of a digger that Johnson drove through a brick wall, or in his promise of an ‘oven ready’ deal. A message readymade to appeal to a sizeable portion of the electorate with little time for politics. And, of course, it ‘worked’. But Johnson’s relationship with the truth is contested to say the least, and even with the best will in the world, his ability to live up to shiny campaign promises will be sorely tested.

The nativity narratives present an entirely different scenario. Mary and the shepherds respond with simple faith to a word delivered by an angel, and an angelic host. It stretches credulity for the modern mind, though angels are a popular feature of contemporary spirituality. But this is not gullible trust gleaned by a snake oil salesman. The shepherds are initially terrified, not seduced. It’s reminiscent of Beaver’s perception of Aslan in ‘The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe’ – “of course he’s not safe. But he’s good.”

The prime minister is regarded by many as a dangerous liar. CS Lewis hinted that Jesus isn’t ‘safe’ either, while also famously observing that he could be more readily labelled a ‘liar or lunatic’ than a mere respectable teacher – concluding that neither are as likely as ‘Lord’.

Angels, dreams, magi, myrrh… Strange elements abound in the nativity, but when we check our over-zealous critical, questioning faculties and instead allow the narratives to speak for themselves with a receptive heart and imagination… they have power to transport us beyond our everyday perspectives, and reveal a hidden spiritual kingdom. For these are not the mere guardian angels of popular spirituality, but dramatic agents in a far bigger story. A story that’s not domineering or oppressive, as Christianity is sometimes perceived in our post-religious culture, but radically attractive and invitational, revealing God’s coming as a helpless, vulnerable child.

Finally, the election campaign appealed to people’s hopes – for change and improved lives. Mr Johnson may have at least some sincere desire and intention to “repay people’s trust”. But whatever the results, they will still be decidedly temporal. Contrast the awesome expectations expressed in Luke’s gospel, of what Christ would bring: salvation, forgiveness of sins, light for darkness – and true peace. ‘A new hope’, to quote from Star Wars… and a stronger one, since inner, spiritual transformation can empower each of us to be active, engaged citizens, nor just passive consumers.

The Conservative campaign promised to ‘Unleash Britain’s potential’; while the gospel has been compared to a caged lion, needing to be not defended – but released. Faith and hope… for the little people.

Image by benhoefer from Pixabay

Nature Nativity

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(David Attenborough style commentaries):

1 We’re about to witness one of the best known yet least understood annual rituals of human behaviour: the nativity play. Adorable infants have gathered at the front in their distinctive plumage: a dressing gown here, a tinsel halo there. Parents coo over their little darlings, disguising petty rivalries that simmer just below the surface. It is a spectacle unparalleled in the natural world, to see little Johnny as a sheep – and Chloe with a tea towel on her head. They are here to enact a story unique to the history of their species – the birth of baby Jesus. But when it is finished, many will forget all about it. The transformation that could result, if they allowed its hidden power to impact their lives the rest of the year, is a phenomenon we have yet to fully appreciate.

2 I’m here to witness a extraordinary human spectacle: the candlelit carol service. Deep in this vaulted cavern, young and old congregate in their hundreds. Flickering candles illumine the darkness, creating both beauty, and considerable fire risk. Parents endeavour to keep their young ones quiet, while a white-plumaged alpha male emits mysterious mutterings at the front. What makes this event so fascinating, is the sheer variety of song on display. There’s fierce competition, and occasional doomed efforts to reach the top notes. Humans are drawn here by their love of togetherness and cosy lights in the darkness – pointing to the deeper meaning of the one they call Jesus, ‘light of the world’. How far that light may infuse the rest of their ‘life on earth’, is yet to be fully seen.

3 I’m deep in the heart of one of the human animal’s favourite festive habitats: the ‘nearly a pound shop’. They browse among piles of tat, like magpies homing in on the shiniest, tackiest stuff they can get their claws on. Squabbles occasionally break out, quite without warning. The whole process of excessive present buying has evolved primarily for pleasure, status, and to maintain the delicate equilibrium of friend and family expectations – in short, so Granny Mavis doesn’t get royally cheesed off with yet another cook book. How far they can reconnect to the true source of spiritual contentment, the real gift and meaning of Christmas, remains to be seen.

4 This Christmas finds me deep in the heart of a typical human festive home, fraught with fragile family politics, and disputes over cracker jokes. The precise makeup of this particular group has been carefully negotiated, and simmering tensions remain. Juveniles, in a heightened state of excitement, constantly threaten to push someone over the edge. Meanwhile, ensconced in his armchair is the silverback, jealously guarding the remote. The complex dynamics involve excessive turkey consumption, mountains of wrapping paper, and in extreme cases, charades. The very human hunger for acceptance and belonging, links to a deep desire for spiritual connection at this time of year. The message of Christmas offers that; we can only hope they will find it.

Voice audio with music & sound effects:

Advent audio poem

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It’s the first Sunday of December, that’s Advent you know,
Last dash to Christmas, the calendar – but wait just a mo,
We use this word advent in loads of modern ways,
Advent of tech, social media, whatever it is, latest craze,
But do you ever just wonder what it originally meant,
The one to do with Christmas, yeah that one, where it went?
You might remember that December’s about Jesus as a baby,
The stranger in the manger, kings, shepherds, star – or maybe
It means nothing but the calendar – and each enticing door,
Sweets and treats and funny tweets – but is there something more?
We love a door of mystery, like the wardrobe, Narnia, snow,
A route to an enchanted world… and just before you go,
Think a moment of your own heart, you can open it – like a door,
So why not take the chance to do that – to God, to others, to more?

Voice only audio (radio version has stirring Narnia soundtrack!):

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

Remembrance poem

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Why do we remember, what is it for?
The annual reflection on conflict and war,
Why buy a poppy, drop coins in a tin,
Then struggle to fasten it with fiddly pin,
Two minute silence, think of those who have died,
Not always easy, so here’s an aside:
I find myself thinking, this chill autumn day,
Can I find fresh perspective, maybe another way
To breathe some new meaning into this event
So it resonates right, and I don’t have to vent?
Something to ponder this day in November
Is who we recall, and how we remember.
This year I can’t help my mind being filled
With thoughts of civilians, the innocent killed,
Direct or indirect, through weapons, malnutrition,
How can we accept them being put in this position?
We remember the soldiers who sacrifice and yet
The young, old and vulnerable, we tend to forget.
So this Remembrance day, let’s give some thought
To the frail forgotten ones who in conflict get caught,
In the two minute silence, when your busy thoughts cease,
Give some time to think how we can better fight – for peace.

To be broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds on Sunday at 7am approx.

Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Light beyond the lantern?

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Black cat, pointed hat – silhouetted flat,
Against a yellow moon; all gone too soon,
Door to door mischief, ah yes, trick or treat,
Cherubic children seeking out something sweet,
Adult time too, dressed as goblin or ghoul,
Freddie Kruger perhaps, or something more cool,
We’re drawn to the lantern with jagged mouth glow,
Turnip burns red, candlelight flickers low…
But what do we find at the heart, at the root
Of this season of ducking in barrels for fruit?
What does it say about your plain human being,
That we so love the dark, with mere candles for seeing?
What was it that led my friend to have chosen
To dress as a werewolf, or Elsa from Frozen?
Does Halloween afford us an opportune place
To face dark inner things that we find hard to face?
A day that feels fitting and timely and right
To rediscover in darkness, the power of light?
But to make Halloween really special, a keeper
Why not take time this year to seek truth that is deeper,
A more ancient story – long ago unfurled,
Of one who is known as the Light of the world.

Voice audio:

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Tree huggers unite?

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It’s tricky being the primate – that has power over the climate.
Issue of our time, it occupies a prime place in the TV news
An unfolding crime scene, well it’s a view – one hard not to choose.
Global strikes, a billion likes, on news feed, reflect a need,
To now arise, open our eyes, confront the lies; it’s no surprise
That it’s youth that are leading, when it’s their futures bleeding,
And we really don’t yet know how many mouths will need feeding.
In the Big Apple, UN summit, they tried to halt the plummet…
Not of temperatures, it’s clear they could go through the stratosphere…
No, to stem the fall of political will and hope, that’s all,
To get some concrete plans – that’d win politics some fans,
If we can pull an idea so drastic, out of the realm of the fantastic.
From the point of view of Greta, things ain’t getting noticeably better,
She scowled at the orange clown – then gave them all a dressing down.
A howl of pent up rage, fury belying her age.
But what I really want to ponder, my time here not to squander,
Is our collective sense of care for nature, from ant to anaconda.
I saw a Youtube video you know, with Spooks actress, Nicola Walker,
On climate I can tell you, she’s one compelling talker,
She speaks of how our attitude is fundamentally rotten,
Bit like one of those corpses from her crime show, ‘Unforgotten’.
It imagines her reporting back from the future, twenty fifty,
Which, whatever way you look at it, as a trick is pretty nifty.
She tries to make us understand that now, which’ll then be past,
Bit by bit we shape a future that’ll crumble, or that’ll last,
Yes through our little choices every plain and ordinary day,
We build and make the future now, which is another way to say,
Let’s try to live eyes open, and not be blithe or blind,
To protect this fragile home, the earth, not watch it fast unwind,
Not live in sweet delusion, hiding, shirking, in denial,
But turn on planetary awareness, and turn off Jeremy Kyle.
(if he comes back).

Voice audio:

Day of Peace poem

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September twenty-first’s the International Day of Peace,
Meaning not just keeping calm, or seeking stress release,
It’s about helping folk solve conflict, and live in peace together,
& right now what easily spoils that is the climate (long term weather)
It threatens scant resources, driving folk to flee, or fight,
But you know, the choices we make have an impact on this plight,
Now I know the issue’s massive, makes us passive, it’s far away,
But you might just be surprised to learn what you can do each day,
I’m gonna pick just three things that can really hit the spot,
That can stop this ‘ere ol’ planet getting dangerously hot,
Number one, less meat and dairy, and before you get too wary
You might find fruit and veg really gives your health an edge.
Number two, what we can do is change our use of heat and water,
Turn off the light, you know it’s right; don’t do it yet? – you oughta,
Number three might cause some sighing, but a big one’s much less flying,
Less CO2 above you is what can keep the earth from dying,
There, just three ideas this international day of peace,
A day of hope that one day conflict everywhere can cease.

For the UN International Day of Peace 21st September, theme: climate action.
To be broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds breakfast show 22-9-19.
Voice only audio (broadcast version has music bed):

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

Apollo 11 poem

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Silent she stands. Calibrated colossus of hardware, and human dreams.
Giant javelin, eyeing the heavens. Hungry,
Intestines of unfathomable complexity.
A million sets of eyes scan the horizon,
And await the unfurling of your phoenix wings.

Ignition sequence. Rocket fuel erupts.
Boiling, roiling, churning, burning.
Billowing volcano blasts your base.
Firebird fury, roaring, rumbling,
Wrests your bulk from gravity grip,
Ready to give her the slip.

See earth-bound monster metamorphose within minutes
To vanishing blue arrow, with pearl drop tail.
Tiny capsule, catapulted heavenwards
Slips terra firma’s gas ring blue.
Suddenly weightless, untethered.

Tracing orbital arc at vast, vacuum velocity,
Realm of unfathomable peril, and intoxicating possibility.
Slingshot from earth and burn for the moon,
Seven miles a second – you barely register.
Silent line, unspooling in space. Alone, no rival to race.

Moon – a monstrous void engulfs you, yawning blackness blots out the sun.
Back of neck bristles. It swallows you, nowhere to run.
Then, above lunar grey horizon
Blue white swirl, a painted jewel, slips silent into view,
Like a favourite marble. Planetary bird of paradise.
How can a rock so battered across aeons
Appear so like a gift – the heart to lift?

Inspired by seeing the Apollo 11 film.

Image from Justin Baker

Apollo 11: lift-off for the spirit

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It’s not every day you see a film that provokes awe, deep thoughts and expansive emotions – but ‘Apollo 11’ is certainly one. Immense power, mind-boggling speeds and stunning views of heavenly bodies: this documentary released to accompany the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, portrays and amplifies dimensions of science, technology and the universe that we rarely see and absorb. Could it also possibly point some people to God?

From the opening images of the Saturn 5 being inched into position by an enormous ‘caterpillar’ device (men in hard hats walking like ants beside it), to the furnace roar of launch, the electrifying sight of a fire-spewing rocket shooting heavenwards, all the way to re-entry… this is a film that seizes you by the lapels and strikes you hard in the psychological solar plexus. Especially in IMAX.

Nearly half a million minds were focussed in the course of a decade to planning, calculating, designing and perfecting how to get three men to the moon and back (and two of them onto its surface) – alive. An astonishing collective technical and scientific achievement. In light of the feat this film pulls off in wowing us afresh with its wonder, it was ironic to learn in the BBC4 series ‘Chasing the Moon’ how quickly people became blasé about the Apollo moon programme, which ended just three years later. The thrill of the new soon wore off. But it is the power of art (and IMAX cinema technology!) to imbue the familiar with fresh wonder – which this film does in spades.

The question I’m intrigued by is, what if any role can the awe triggered by such a film play, in inspiring viewers to ponder broader, deeper questions about life, meaning and spirituality?

Power, speed, beauty and new perspectives – especially on a cosmic scale – shake up our usual perceptions, and may even encourage us to jettison jaded ideas, and ponder fresh possibilities and truths. They present, in short, an opportunity for revelation. Take for instance the electrifying images of burning fuel, and the enormous thrust that propelled the Saturn 5 into space. Or the thrilling corner-of-the-screen digital display that revealed the rocketing orbital velocity, touching nearly twenty-five thousand miles per hour (seven miles per second), as it ‘burned for the moon’ and escaped earth’s embrace (it reminded me of a petrol counter when you fill up your motor – which I’ll never look at the same way again).

All achieved through human mastery of resources. But reflect a little deeper. Fossil fuels, and the vacuum of space beyond our wafer-thin atmosphere, that enable such feats and our wonder at them – we didn’t create these. You might say they are ‘gifted’ to us. We radically depend on such laws, forces and features of nature. Feeling – as film enables – the power released by nature when channeled by human ingenuity in this way, sends our spirits soaring. The film also highlights, amplifies and brings into focus aspects of beauty in space, such as the ‘magnificent desolation’ of the moon, and the blue and white brushed ‘marble’ of the ‘earthrise’ image. Such beauties have a latent capacity to act as signs pointing to eternal power. Does that fragile ‘oasis’ impression of the earth not also speak of a sustaining tenderness and care?

Natural wonders communicate an eloquence of their own. The ‘wow’ factor they induce can momentarily disarm, offering the heart a chance to perhaps contemplate a fresh journey of its own. Nature can only take you so far. If the mystery at the heart of all things is to be known more fully to us finite creatures, we need revelation, and an encounter. But the sceptical viewer of ‘Apollo 11’ has a chance to allow awe to burn away the earth-bound mist of prejudice and preconception. It can send the fragile spacecraft of your spirit beyond its habitual orbit to ponder fresh vistas. Those who seek to communicate about God and spiritual things are also challenged to fire up our imaginations, blast off from the constricting atmosphere of trite religious language – and embark on the voyage of finding fresh ways to communicate the power of nature’s signs as pointers to a Creator. Then, reflecting the poetry of the astronaut’s reading of Genesis chapter 1 at earthrise on the earlier Apollo 8 mission, lowered defences may for some permit a revelation from beyond.

Ice & imagination: flight of fancy?

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Softly falling snow in a fir forest; a faun juggling wrapped presents in the warm pool of light cast by an old gas lamp. Or more contemporary and real: TV nature documentary footage of an achingly beautiful Arctic landscape, subtle colours playing across it… while, caught in the low sunlight, steam rises from the nostrils of a magnificent polar bear, shaggy behemoth of the north. While at the south pole, a dinner-suited penguin waddles comically across the ice before diving with torpedo speed into frigid seas…

These might seem strange scenes to picture in summertime, with a heatwave and the hottest UK day on record not yet distant memories. And what have they to do with a campaign to reduce flying? Put simply, for me they encapsulate something of the power that snow and ice exert on our imagination; and consequently underline one of the most tangible tragedies – massive loss of ice – that’s triggered by a warming world exacerbated by excessive flying. It makes me sad to contemplate the shrinkage and emaciation of our ice landscapes: the Arctic, Antarctic, Greenland and Himalayan glaciers to name the most prominent. The accelerating loss of these magical worlds, robs us of one of our richest imaginative resources – and we’ll be inestimably the poorer for it. I may never personally see the aurora borealis or venture north of the Arctic Circle… but I feel glad just to know that such stark, alien landscapes are there in all their (relatively) pristine beauty – and equally saddened to ponder their demise.

I also feel that a certain paucity of imagination is partly what impels us to fly as much as we do. To frame it positively, a revival of this wonderful human gift – imagination – could be a key that inspires us to explore and relish scenes and places closer to home. Perhaps we need to rediscover and rekindle our capacity for wonder – and contentment. What makes us hanker so much to see faraway places, often to the neglect of nearer but equally marvellous environs? I wonder if in the developing world we have not developed a certain greed and rapaciousness of the mind and spirit, and a concomitant loss of sensitivity – and patience.

For it is a marvellous thing to be alert and appreciative to beauties and points of fascination that lie close to home, often just under our noses. I currently live in north Bradford, in the quaintly named district of Idle. I have no car. But I’m blessed to live near some attractive countryside on the edge of this underrated city. On many a Sunday afternoon, without forking out so much as a bus fare, I’ve simply taken a wander, along the River Aire, Leeds Liverpool canal, or to the homely, peaceful, secluded village of Esholt. Had an adventure.

I’ve heard friends talk about catching a flight to a European or other southern destination to catch some rays and top up their vitamin D. The irony is that with rising temperatures partly caused by too much flying, we’re getting more such benefits in Blighty! So maybe it’s time to soak up more rays here instead.

On the theme of contentment, it’s an oft-remarked fact that as a society and culture we’re ‘losing our religion’ – though many are happy to identify as being ‘spiritual’. I won’t be shy of saying that I identify broadly with the Christian path, which I’d add is at its heart more radical than it’s often given credit for. And besides a care for creation (environment) ethic, I’d go so far as to say that the ‘perspective of eternity’ dimension also impacts my attitude to travel. Bucket lists of fifty or a hundred things to do before you die are all well and good, but here’s a question to ponder: how far is your determination to tick off everything, driven by a conviction that this life is it and you’d therefore better pack in as much as possible! With all the flying some of those items may entail? A left field thought I grant you – but hopefully not a totally bizarre one.

Imagination, and the nurture of contentment, patience and perceptivity to the wonder of ordinary places and things. Spiritual qualities you might say. I wouldn’t give them up, even for a world of flying.

Image by Noel Bauza from Pixabay