Coping with the Politics of Despair

The waiting is almost over.
It’s time for change.
We’ve been walking around in the dark for too long.
Our time in the wilderness is almost over.
Our leaders have been proud in their inmost thoughts.
People have gone hungry, with no-one to guide their way.
But the waiting is almost over.
The years of fighting are coming to an end.
A new light has dawned, a clear way out of the wilderness.

These are not words from a Brexit celebration party, but are a pastiche of words from a group of people who felt let down by the politics of their own day, over 2000 years ago. The words hint at where they found hope beyond the politics of despair around them. We too might feel like we really need something like that just now, either because we didn’t get the outcome we voted for or our chosen candidate was not all that we would hope for.

The words come from the Jewish people oppressed and sometimes taken away by foreign powers around them. They are looking for God to intervene: “O that God would rend the heavens and come down”. God did intervene for them by sending his Son, whose birth changed everything and which we will celebrate at Christmas. Like them, we too wait for Christ to come, for his intervention in the world we find ourselves in today. But like the Jewish people then, it involves waiting and the Advent season we are in is a time to reflect on that waiting.

Nativity scene with Jesus and family with angels

It helps to think of the world into which they wanted God to intervene. A Christmas card theology would have us think that Jesus was born into a “Nativity Play” type world. But that’s not true. Instead he was born into a brutal world, as seen in ruthless rulers such as Herod who not only infamously had all under 2-year old boys around Bethlehem killed, but also had executed 2 of his sons when they became too close as rivals and his favourite wife when her political allegiance became questionable.

Yet the message of Jesus made a deep mark in that world, both his words and his life. This is encouraging when we think of situations that bring us our own degree of despair, not only in our own country but around the world today.

Have a blesséd Advent everyone!

A Poem about Ordinary becoming Extraordinary

One day as I was eating my lunch, I started to think a lot about my lunchbox and where it came from. Not about Tesco or Asda or wherever, nothing like that. I was thinking instead of the processes of its plastic coming from oil, and where that oil originated, about pressures of rocks under the earth over millennia, about primeval forests and oceans, about sea creatures milling around them, eventually dying and sinking to the bottom to be crushed, the beginning of a colossal formation process. If that lunchbox could tell its story, I thought, how amazing it would be. Of course, everything plastic is all the rage just now, as we think of where our plastics of today will be in years to come.

Then I started to think about other everyday things around. What stories would they be able to tell? When we recall these stories, ordinary soon becomes extraordinary.

This poem is one such story.

While Seated

 

 

 

 

 

Once mighty oak, from forest green,
I think of what you e’er have been:
How sunlight kissed you, stretched your frame
With nurture shared. What heights you gained!

You proudly held your canopy
O’er forest creatures, wild and free.
You watched it turn to golden brown
And fall with grace upon the ground.

As sunlight made a slow retreat
Came icy wind with glistening sheet.
So came your slumber as night was still
And moon illumined your snowy hill.

This was your tale across time’s span
Until one day there came a man.
I muse while seated, the fate you bear:
Once mighty oak, become this chair.

© 2018 Peter Tate

Why Last Year’s Greenbelt was My Best Ever

Not last year's GB but another great one!
Not last year’s GB but another great one!

I have seen many Greenbelts in my time (the faith-inspired arts and social action festival) but last summer’s was definitely my best ever! It may seem strange to write about it just now but it’s my wee antidote to all the winter weather and I am aware too that it’s when folks start planning for what to do this coming year. Maybe I can even influence that…
Here’s why it was the best:

  1. Wall-to-wall sunshine: For an outdoor festival, past weather has been mixed, but this was my first year of good throughout. Halfway through, I remember thinking “What shoes shall I wear today?” then realising that I had never asked myself that before by then. Normally its sometime showers have softened the way for squelches of mud dotted around the site, and I have resorted to trusty welly boots for the duration. How resplendent it all appeared!
  2. Inclusive communion: the communion service is always a highlight, but this year especially so, with its theme of inclusion and disability. Becky Tyler spoke, a young lady with cerebral palsy, using a voice synthesiser like Stephen Hawkings but “much nicer” she said (very true!) She told of coping with a disability that was due to someone else’s mistake and of reading Daniel 7v9 about God also having wheels, realising God loved her just as much as anyone else. Very moving and deserving of its long ovation.
  3. Charles Handy: the 87-year old former business guru encouraged us all to consider “The Second Curve”, to have courage to make change in our lives. This

    Charles Handy business guru
    Charles Handy business guru

    was pretty much my situation over the past 2 years, coming to a head the day after the festival when I started my new role in interfaith training in Southall. His book was top seller at Greenbelt, no surprise given his great wisdom. I was all ears for it.

  4. Art and the Bible: a new course from St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, covering the

    National Gallery
    National Gallery © Wally Gobetz flickr.com/photos/wallyg/299930740/in/dateposted

    story of the Bible using 22 paintings selected in partnership with their Trafalgar Square London neighbours, the National Gallery. Sometimes church is a very word-based experience, what a relief for us visual learners to think through the stories with pictures for a change. Something I want to try in future somewhere.

  5. Muslim artistry and discussion: a whole area of Greenbelt dedicated to story-telling, music and dance, on offer throughout the weekend. But why were Muslims at Greenbelt? Again this fitted so well with my forthcoming interfaith role: whatever interactions we have with other faiths need to be built on good understanding and respect – after all, early Christians were thought of as cannibals due to misunderstandings around the Eucharist.

I don’t agree with everything I hear at Greenbelt but I like to hear new perspectives and to think things through for myself. Surprises this year won’t be the same as last year (the first one above is highly unlikely!) But it is sure that there will be surprises!

Sutton Hoo and what I learnt about immigration

Sutton Hoo entrance
Sutton Hoo entrance

Earlier this year I visited Sutton Hoo, a series of ancient burial mounds in eastern England, yet somewhere that was as rich in stories as Stonehenge or the famous Somerset Roman baths and that made me think a lot about immigration, a massive issue in the UK recently, as seen by Brexit.

The story of Sutton Hoo is around the arrival to England of Germanic Anglo-Saxon immigrants  post-Roman Empire and how they established kingdoms there to rule the existing inhabitants, assimilating them into Germanic ways. Sutton Hoo, as one place where such rulers were buried, tells that they stayed until they died, subsequently irreversibly changing the language and culture that existed before they came, with effects to this day. In terms of English history (in the strictest sense), it’s pretty close to Year Zero. Yet this ancient tale of Germanic invaders overtaking England had particular resonance at the time it was discovered as a significant site. It was summer 1939, just weeks before outbreak of World War Two!

Burial mound at Sutton Hoo
Burial mound at Sutton Hoo

The original Sutton Hoo had been a series of burial mounds of Anglo-Saxon kings, containing vast treasures to accompany them into afterlife. Most were looted in Tudor times but one remained untouched. The reason why is interesting, but doesn’t set a good example. Looters excavated into the centre of each mound, where they knew the treasure was placed. However with this mound, a former farmer had ploughed through its end, thus reducing its length, giving looters the wrong spot to dig. The treasure was missed by a few feet and is now well worth seeing in the British Museum. I don’t normally encourage cultural vandalism but this time it worked!

Treasures at British Museum
Treasures at British Museum

What did I learn about immigration? There were two principles, one may please the Brexiteers and the other, more so the Remainers. But we need both for balance:

Firstly, for Remainers, the idea that any peoples own a country is only an illusion. Before the Anglo-Saxons, there were Celts and Roman Britons and before them, undoubtedly others. I’m sure each felt aggrieved when one group came in and took over what was theirs, yet in time, it is all forgotten. Thus there is no basis to say that a particular country belongs to “us”. From a faith perspective it reminds me of Psalm 24, that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it…”; ultimately it is God’s and we have no right to any part of it above anyone else. The land we “own” is here for sharing.

But for Brexiteers comes the next part of the Psalm: “…the world and all its people belong to him”. When one people comes and reduces or removes the culture of another, then something of value is lost, a loss to us all of a gift to us all. From a faith perspective, that gift is from God. Immigration can be enriching, as seen in the new foods it introduces, but not if it is at the expense of existing cultures. I like what I hear of the German approach, placing refugees in small towns to build relationships with local people, rather than being in self-contained communities in cities with little contact with locals. Brexiteers may say that this shows that immigration must be controlled. This has not always been so before, which makes it important to connect potentially self-contained communities and older cultures around them, to reduce fear and mistrust in each. This work can benefit us all.

These principles make me feel a bit uncomfortable, that things are not as certain as I would like; neither are they easy to implement. But the rest of this Psalm gives me hope. It describes how any people can have access to God, regardless of nationality, even though written in pretty nationalistic times. For me, it is this that gives me grace to work together with and appreciate cultures that may be very different to my own.

Something Unsaid on the Issue of Sexual Ethics?

Harvey Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein

In recent weeks, sexual ethics has been a hot topic in our media, initially in the movie world but now also in UK politics, with how men behave towards women very much the focus. Perhaps underlying all of this is a subject that our society could be classified as being in the super super lightweight division if we were using boxing parlance. The subject is the area of patience and self-control.

Much in our society doesn’t seem to value these anymore.  People want things now. Easy access to credit encourages us to get the latest gadgets even if unaffordable right away. Digital technology means that we expect to hear of what is happening almost as soon as it happens.  Football managers no longer have time to be managers but are expected instead to be generators of instant results. Perhaps these same attitudes come out in men’s attitudes towards women. Why should our desires wait anyway?

Patience and self-control don’t feel like popular virtues in society today. Patience is learning to wait, with an aspiration that it will come someday. Self-control is reconciling to living without expecting to receive, and learning to rejoice in that. Our society’s patience and self-control muscles seem somewhat underdeveloped at just this time. If that is so, how can we build them up?

Speaking as a man, patience and self-control can be really hard at times, but one practice that has helped for me is that of fasting from food. It’s an ancient spiritual discipline but not one that is very fashionable. I learnt most about it through my contact with the Orthodox Church, but it is not necessarily a Christian thing, practised in other faiths such as by Indian gurus, and by those of no faith such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Fasting teaches me to learn to live without and hopefully builds up a muscle to apply in other areas of life.

The Fast Diet
The Fast Diet

But there are objections. One objection is ‘How will I get my work done if I am fasting?’ I find the opposite, certainly for non-physical work. With a full lunch, I start to sag in my thinking right after, whereas a (light) fasting lunch keeps my mind sharper for longer. Another objection is ‘Will it not damage my health?’ On the contrary, Michael Mosley’s 5:2 Diet suggests long term health benefits of fasting, admittedly not from long term studies. Underlying health issues need to be considered too before embarking on such. Spiritually, it provides more time for prayer. From a Christian perspective, some may say that Jesus objected, but I read this as objecting to using fasting as a badge of spirituality rather than the practice itself.

What does this mean for our society? As a Christian, I am struck by the Lord’s Prayer imploring us to ask God to ‘lead us not into temptation’. Part of this is developing patience and self-control as above, described elsewhere as the fruit of the Spirit. It is also about seeing men and women as equally made in the image of God and therefore sacred and not to be defiled.

The Harvesters (Pieter Bruegel)
The Harvesters (Pieter Bruegel)

But I am also struck that we should say ‘lead us’ rather than ‘lead me’. I try not to read Scripture with my Western individualist mindset. We are also asked to ask to pray ‘give us … our daily bread’, not ‘give me’. It is a prayer for a good harvest for society but also for us to have right values in how that harvest is distributed, something that desperately needs discussing today. But everyone has a partial role in bringing about that harvest. Similarly, individuals are responsible for not succumbing to temptation and I have given ideas above for doing so, but there is also a role for ‘us’. What is the role for men in society who hopefully have better developed self-control muscles? What is the role for women? This also seems a discussion well worth having.

Similarities I see between Saul of Tarsus and Martin McGuinness

Martin_McGuinness_in_Jan_2017
Martin McGuinness, Jan 17

The death of Martin McGuinness so soon after stepping down as Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister was quite a surprise.

Less of a surprise was the spectrum of reaction to his death given his former role as leader in the Provisional IRA. One type of reaction came from Norman Tebbitt, caught up in the Brighton bombing with his wife paralysed by it, who described the world as a “sweeter place” after his death. Another came from Colin Parry who lost his son in the Warrington bombing who said he was unable to forgive but recognised that his attempts to make peace through politics were sincere.

How do we react?

In one sense we can only  listen to such reactions and acknowledge their pain. Most of us have not been through anything like their experiences. I don’t know how they would affect me.

Saint_Paul,_Rembrandt_van_Rijn_(and_Workshop-),_c._1657
Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt van Rijn

However I find it helpful to look at the life of Saul of Tarsus, involved in persecuting the first Christians and active in the death of at least one. His conversion on the road to Damascus was dramatic and I’m sure there were suspicions whether he was sincere when he arrived to stay with the Christians in Damascus at the end of that journey. Politicians have spoken too of early doubts they had about the sincerity of Martin McGuinness when he put his hand to the peace process.

But it is in one of the last letters of Saul (writing now as Paul) to Timothy that I find further similarities. Paul describes himself there as “the chief of sinners” and I realise I have tried several approaches to interpret that. One is to read it through the lens of British self-deprecation, where a Briton says “Oh, I’m not much good at tennis” and then goes on to thrash everyone out of sight in subsequent games. So I thought maybe Paul was a giant in the Christian world but was using some British self-deprecation. Which is highly unlikely.

Another approach I have taken is that he saw himself through the Calvinist lens of “total depravity” of his character. But I think that this is also unlikely since that would put him equal with everyone else rather than being in “the chief” position.

I think now that the clue is in the text around that claim. He writes of his old role as a persecutor and how he was lifted out of that and how that that has driven him on since then. He describes how he became an example to others to show that this could happen even to “the chief of sinners”. I think that what he did in his early life deeply marked him and was at the forefront of his mind even much later in his life.

This is where I most see the similarities. One word I have heard used to describe why Martin McGuinness changed is “atonement”, to atone for his past life. He never used that word himself and he never said sorry for his actions. I don’t know if Paul did either but his subsequent life said it. I also note that when the coffin of Martin McGuinness was being carried back to the Bogside, people interviewed said that he had shown them what could be done. Like Paul, his life was an example that change could happen.

I thought hypothetically: what would happen if Martin McGuinness and Paul were swapped around in their situations? Admittedly one is a theologian and the other is a politician  and with different characters so I need some leeway to do this. Seeing a Martin McGuinness type figure in the 1st century shows just how hard it was for Christians to accept Paul and how much his past must have always been present with him, perhaps through families of victims. Which helps explain why he wrote what he did to Timothy.

It is harder to imagine a Paul type figure in the 21st century. Someone with a bloody past, whose life had been turned around and who left a lasting legacy and was accepted as such. Perhaps it is too soon for many to see Martin McGuinness like that, and some never will.

I hope that this blog has given you new insights into the life of 1st century Christianity.

And maybe also new insights into the life of Martin McGuinness.