And Ray Bradbury…..

As diligent readers of this blog will have noticed I love science fiction – although I am grateful for a good science fiction movie (a little like hearing jazz unexpectedly on a non jazz radio station!), I prefer SF in its written form – somehow my vision of Frank Herbert’s wonderful novel ‘Dune’ bears no resemblance at all to David Lynch’s strange interpretation and I have already written about the difference between The Lord of the Rings in print and the (mostly excellent) film versions! I started to read SF at a very early (and therefore very impressionable) age – as a family, our trips to seaside for the annual holiday were inevitably accompanied by the pile of paperbacks I insisted on talking with me. Everything from the sheer poetry of Ray Bradbury to the space operas of Robert Heinlein and the pulpy excesses of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith (who reads the ‘Lensman’ stories now?). On one of those holidays in Wales a volume of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories freaked me out so badly I threw the book away!

I was reminded of these adventures recently when I re – read one of Bradbury’s later Martian stories ‘The Lost City of Mars’, essentially a group of self satisfied and irritating travellers voyage along the last Martian canal (where a “wall – carooming glide of waters” has replaced the dust of centuries)) and discover a lost city where some of them find their just desserts and the others only just escape with their lives. It is, to use a modern expression, ‘a good read’ full of the customary Bradbury touches; “The wind that blew from the frontier town smelled of grease. An aluminium -toothed jukebox banged somewhere. A junkyard rusted beside the rocket port. Old newspapers danced alone on the windy tarmac”. Shortly after reading this story again I came across this remark by Neil Gaiman (another writer I admire immensely); “I do not read Ray Bradbury for moments of genre gratification. I read him for moments of pure Ray Bradbury – the way the words are assembled”. “Pure Ray Bradbury”, it would no doubt take a better writer than me to try to explain what that means; I read Bradbury in my early teens and I am still reading him now in my sixties. He may well have been gathered into eternity but he is still here in his words and those wonderful stories. That sense of wonder, and fear, the stories of the strange and unbelievable, the horror and the darkness, the joy and the glory – it is all there whether you start with ‘Fahrenheit 451’ or ‘The Martian Chronicles’. In a sense it is not a matter of where you start, it is where you let him  take you that matters, and that is why I read science fiction, and some of those paperbacks are still with me, a little yellowed and repaired, yet brimming with a vital light, and where there is light, there is hope.

(Like all of Ray Bradbury’s stories ‘The Lost City of Mars’ has been anthologised many times, I have it in a collection called ‘I Sing The Body Electric’ (a phrase that pleasingly brings together the great poet Walt Whitman and the (equally great) jazz group Weather Report!). Neil Gaiman’s comment comes from his talk ‘The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography’ which is included in his selected non – fiction ‘The View from the Cheap Seats’ published in 2016. I would recommend that book wholeheartedly, and his others, perhaps ‘Stardust’ or ‘Neverwhere’ and, of course ‘American Gods’ – go on –  spoil yourself!).

Consider the ravens – a reflection.

I went to church again recently, it is getting easier to be just a member of a congregation instead of leading one (remembering not to ‘lead’ the Lord’s Prayer, or sing too loud, or sigh when the preacher goes on too long – something I know that I have been guilty of in the past!). The sermon was on the Parable of the Rich Fool from Luke’s gospel (chapter 12), but I found myself looking further on in the chapter (after the sermon had finished!) to the way that in the section in verses 22 to 31 Jesus continues his sermon by inviting his hearers to “consider the ravens”. I have always found the nature imagery that Jesus used fascinating, the ravens, the lilies, the grass of the field, despite being relatively short lived (the grass ends up in the fire!) they all provide an image of divine care and sustenance. I think that it is really surprising when Jesus he points his hearers (his “little flock” which are “gathered by the thousands” (12. 1) to the world around them suggesting that divine care can be read there. I understand that Stoic philosophers appealed to the natural world, particularly animals to show that providence supplies everything necessary for the well being of creation.

The mention of ravens in the bible leads to some fascinating thoughts; in the ancient world they were thought to be lazy and careless birds who hardly ever returned to their nests. The writers of Leviticus and Deuteronomy thought them unclean, yet they come to the aid of the prophet Elijah when God says that the ravens will supply him with food in the desert. This points me to a thought I have returned to particularly at this Harvest time of year; the  great German theologian mystic once said that “every single creature is full of God and is a book about God”. We clearly have no need to ‘Christianise’ the natural world or to go back to out dated ideas about matter being ‘fallen’ and therefore in need of redemption. I have no doubt that the created order is not what it should be and humanity is doing a terrible job of stewarding it (an important human activity according to the Hebrew Scriptures), but this world still carries that beauty and grace that can point back to the will and craft of the creator. Thankfully the idea of Christian ecology is not as ill thought of as in former times, but why not just have respect for this home because it is the only one we have, and if it leads to faith in the creator (which I believe it can) then all to the good.

As I was thinking of a way to conclude this little reflection I came across a poem by the Scottish poet George MacDonald – it is called ‘Consider the Ravens’ and is well worth reading. The last verse neatly ties up reflection on the words of Jesus and the need for personal commitment in faithful living and stewardship;

“It cometh therefore to this, Lord:

I have considered thy word

And henceforth will be thy bird”.

 

 

 

A world in a raindrop.

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I am currently reading a novel by William Boyd called ‘Sweet Caress’. It tells the story of Amory Clay and her career as a photographer from Berlin the 1920’s through Vietnam in the 1960’s and on to a troubled retirement on a Scottish island. In the prologue to the novel she relates the first time she picked up a camera. She goes back to her parents house for her camera in order to capture a shot of the people at a late summer garden party. She describes why she did this in this way; she wanted to “capture (the image) and imprison it forever”. She says that she felt she could “stop time’s relentless motion and hold that scene”, feeling that through the agency of the camera she had the “power to stop time”. This thought brought me to this photograph  which I took in the North East of England after a particularly heavy rain shower. It was William Blake who wrote about “eternity in a grain of sand”, here is my attempt to hold a moment and to mark one of the many everyday miracles that surround me.

A Second Miscellany.

I entitled one of the earlier posts in this iteration ‘A Pick n’ Mix from my Magpie Mind’. It was a polite way of trying to describe either my wide span of interest or my inability to settle on to one thing for any length of time. Either way the post was an attempt to give a flavour of the things that were occupying my attention – these are usually books, records, newspaper articles, even television programmes of films. Then I came across this quote, Laurie Graham is a journalist and her words speak eloquently to my intention here; “I have a magpie mind, by which I mean I see and hear little things – photos, fragments of conversation – and store them away for future use”. Sometimes this frame of mind has led me to collect all sorts of stuff which I thought would be useful, only to have to recycle it all when the drawers or files became too full – but sometimes it pays off handsomely in  the discovery of a phrase that seems to capture a mood or a situation. For example, in a review of a book on spying I came across these words of Winston Churchill; “The further backwards you look, the further forwards you can see” (a phrase that reminds me of the way that John le Carre’s master spy George Smiley uses what he calls ‘backbearings’ to discover what his nemesis Karla has been doing in the Far East in the novel ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’). And this from another book review, this time a volume about the fiction of Stalin’s Gulags; “A human being survives by his ability to forget” – surely a useful sentiment when there are things you simply have to let go of to carry on!

With all that said here are the miscellanies; a lot of interest has been sparked by the decision of the actor Jeff Goldblum to release a jazz album later this year – it is rather grandly titled ‘The Capitol Studio Sessions’ (surely a nod towards the great Nat King Cole album ‘After Midnight’ recorded at the same venue?). On the basis of the two tracks I have heard it is jazzy but in a showbiz/ Jools Holland way – one comment I saw compared Mr. Goldblum to the late Dudley Moore who, in their opinion “could really play jazz piano”. So I dug out a tape I have of two of Moore’s albums ‘The Other Side’ from 1965 and ‘Genuine Dud’ from 1966 – and he really could play – with wit and panache! “Not only” a comedian “but also” a great musician!

Then there is Spike Lee’s movie ‘BlackKKKlansman’, ostensibly a comedy drama with John David Washington (son of Denzel) playing a black policeman who joins the KKK along with a colleague (the excellent Adam Driver) who stands in for him in face to face situations. I found it a funny but exhausting film to watch, full of great craft (apart from Washington and Driver, I thought that Topher Grace was excellent as David Duke) and chilling relevance. The movie ends with footage of the riot in Charlottesville and its awful aftermath, and the Trumpian verdict on those “very fine people” on both sides. Sometime I think we are living in  the Matrix!!

Then music, apart of Dudley Moore, I have been listening to another pianist, Marcin Wasilewski has been leading a trio for over 20 years now – all of their recordings for ECM are worth attention; I have been listening to ‘Spark of Life’ from 2014 on which Wasilewski, bassist Slamowir Kurkewicz and drummer Michal Miskewicz are joined by saxophonist Joakim Milder. It is an excellent recording (it is ECM after all!), and all the styles are there but for me what singles this group out are their energy and the song – like quality of the leader’s playing. Then there is Weather Report and their album ‘Black Market’, supple grace, muscular power and energy – it’s a great record. I saw them several times in the 1970’s and 1980’s (once at The Apollo Theatre in Manchester on the 11th November 1980 for the princely sum of £4. 50 – for a seat in the Front Stalls!) and although there were times I wasn’t sure what I was listening to I knew it was great. Their ‘Night Passage’ album from 1980 reminds me of that concert.

I could go on at length about all this stuff, and I have left out Rowan Williams’ fine article on J.R.R. Tolkien in the New Statesman of 10 -16th August this year and how he describes ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the context of what the magazine describes as “the age of Trump”, and whether Judas Iscariot was the villain he has been painted as, and whether ‘The Big Bang Theory’ nerds were real nerds or just someone’s idea of what a nerd looks like (discuss!). And finally my surprise that my local library has a copy of an SF novel I was looking for – SF being another nerdy territory. And this quote from Caitlin Moran; “Whenever you need to win a situation – talk about jazz, Johanna. It confuses people”. Maybe I need another post……

My Back Pages – a reflection.

Retirement and moving house inevitably involves sifting through mountains of paper; what many call these days ‘life admin’ (bills, bank statements, tax demands). But there are also other things; articles that I thought would be useful and photos that took my attention. There are also the documents that came with church and ministry and which have either been superseded by  technology or rendered useless by organisational changes. Heather and I spent a very wet Saturday recently filling the recycling bin with these back pages. Among them were various reports  commenting on my ministry, from my years as a probationer minister through to ordination and circuit work and into preparation for retirement. As I read through these words I found myself reflecting on the sheer intangibility of much of what I have done as a minister; some people like you and accept  what you offer, some don’t and so your ministry is criticised – often with no real basis, or without any right of reply! Without any tangible way of measuring the effectiveness of ministry the minister is completely at the mercy of such opinions. And as many know to their cost, ministries and lives (and families) can be ruined through such careless judgement!

I once did a job where my job was judged on sales figures and what is called today ‘footfall’ and I went into a job (or a vocation, or calling) where there was no real way of judging the effectiveness of ministry except by hearsay and the judgement of often very partial individuals. I sometimes have to pinch myself and remember that this is not the whole picture; I must continue to remember the gracious people who were kind enough to say that the worship I led glorified God, or that the sermon I preached was the word they needed to hear. I have to remember the woman who said to me that she didn’t mind the fact that I couldn’t visit her regularly but that, in her words “you were there for me when it mattered”. Perhaps it is a function of grace to offer the benefit of never knowing what good has been done through your own efforts – goodness knows there are enough egos at play in the clerical profession!

It would be difficult to write a post like this without mentioning God; it is possible to say that although ministry seems intangible in earthly terms it has an eternal significance (perhaps that sentence should be uttered with one’s head held to one side!). Well, the good news is that I still believe in God and I still believe that what I offered as a minister had some meaning BUT (and it’s a big but!) I no longer believe that God is like some eternal accountant weighing souls and their achievements on some sort of cosmic scale. My faith is about being human and the way that humanity is blessed by God and, specifically, through the mystery of the incarnation; the Christian conviction that God came here and lived and died amongst us means a great deal to me, but as Bruce Cockburn wrote in his song ‘Civilisation and It’s Discontents’; “And even though I know who loves me I’m not that much less lost” (as I quote those words I am thinking of other ‘Cockburnian’ quotes that speak to my condition!).

Any reflection on ministry has to be a work in progress; whether it is done in the midst of the work itself, or in a quiet place at the end of the day or from the perspective of retirement. A gardener can point to a well mown lawn and say “I did that”, similarly a sculptor or a carpenter – ministers (along with others who work with people) often have to simply hope that what has been offered has been of some value. I do not have an eternal perspective, all I can do is look back at all that I have said and done, from sermons preached and worship led to those pastoral encounters where I was sure I touched on something deeper than what curtains to choose for a church hall (or whether those that were really falling apart would do another year!). I can look back but, in God’s grace I can also look forward to whatever ministry I may be able offer in these present days. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote in 1950 in his book ‘The Christian Phenomenon’; “Everyone is prepared to admit the importance of Christianity in the past, but what about the present?, and still more the future” (quoted in ‘Christ in All Things’ by Ursula King (SCM 1997).

Perhaps this is the true religious task in these strange days; bringing the seeming intangibility of faith to bear on the very tangible problems that are woven into the fabric of human life and experience, and always with grace and humour!

A Day in Dublin.

So on a summer’s day at the end of August we found ourselves in Dublin. We were there to attend a performance of the play ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ but the day included an unexpected bonus as we watched Pope Francis crossing one of the bridges across the river Liffey in his Pope mobile. These two events struck me as a fine contrast – a boisterous and powerful play about the repressive and toxic power of religion and the distant, somewhat windswept figure of a reforming pope under tremendous pressure visiting a once overwhelmingly Catholic country.

‘Jimmy’s Hall’ is based on a true story (and a film directed by Ken Loach). The central character is Jimmy Gralton who built a hall so the people in his village could dance , sing and enjoy all types of culture from the blues to the Charleston in direct challenge to the strictures of the deeply traditional Roman Catholic Church. He is exiled from Ireland for his trouble. On his return he reopens the hall and, among other activities, he invites the local priest to become a member of the trustees, and in the most chilling moment of the play the priest agrees on condition that the deeds of the hall are signed over “to Holy Mother Church”! This scene foreshadows what happened as the church built parochial halls so that people could dance, but under firm control! Later, in a powerful sequence that was as unexpected as it was technically accomplished, the hall is brought down by shadowy figures and Jimmy is once again exiled to America without hope of return. It is a powerful and energetic polemic performed by a talented cast that brought a standing ovation from the audience in the Abbey Theatre.

Out of the theatre’s embrace and back onto the crowded streets of Dublin, as we drove back to our bed and breakfast in Duleek in County Meath we had to navigate our way through the thousands of people of all ages who had turned out to see Pope Francis. I thought a lot about the power of the church and about the power of personality. Although the present Pope has the heart of a reformer, if media reports are to be believed, he has his fair share of opponents who would like to see ecclesiastical power remain. If history teaches us anything, this restoration of the power and position of the church could turn the clock back to those repressive days of the early years of the last century.

As I look back on the subversive joy of the play, and balance the stifling influence of the church and the joy that so many of those who saw the Pope obviously felt, I thought of some words I recorded some time ago in my notebook. Norwyn Denny, a Past President of the Methodist Church in England wrote this; “The Church must be always at the point of the cross. It must be engaged in self-giving not in self-preservation”. It is tempting to ask how much different everything would be if the church recovered what the theologian Stanley Hauerwas has called its “cross shattered” heart and gave itself away instead of accruing power and undeserved influence for itself. Reflecting on the need for safe spaces where we can all be ourselves, the author of Jimmy’s Hall Paul Laverty writes in the programme notes; “We all need a version of Jimmy’s Hall in our lives, somewhere, somehow, even in our imaginations; real or virtual”. Although the church has given me a great deal through the years I find myself beguiled and energised by the idea (and the reality) of a place like Jimmy’s Hall!

 

Colour my world…..

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Too long ago my daughter gave me a colouring book, I say ‘too long’ because initially I left this book on my table and did not even open it! However once I opened it and got my pencils out and my eye in I found that colouring is a relaxing and mindful experience. Part of this is to do with concentrating on one thing for a sustained amount of time, and it is also to do with relaxing into a pastime that is creative and, to use a fashionable word, mindful. This wise old owl from the book shows how hard it is to stay within the lines, but it also shows how lovely the result can be.

So if someone gives you a colouring book don’t put it aside, or even think that this is a childish activity, don’t even think that you are a bit behind the curve because the vogue for adult colouring books is now well established, just switch off the tech, sit down and take a deep breath and reach for your coloured pencils and colour your world.

(I have a sneaking suspicion that child like activity may well be kingdom activity, after all, Jesus no less is recorded as saying that “unless you turn around and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18; 3 Revised English Bible)).

Through the maze…