‘Hard Times’ a view from Coketown

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

These are the opening lines spoken by Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dicken’s ‘Hard Times’. I searched in vain for some facts in last night’s news broadcasts about the welfare cap debate. The BBC contented themselves with smug assessments about the politics without making any attempt to dig below the surface. At least Channel 4 News had the temerity to contrast the coalition government’s steely resolve to cap benefits at £26,000 a year with the anodyne proposals of a distinctly uncomfortable looking Vince Cable. To be fair, both broadcasters have made a reasonable effort to fill in some of the detail in their online briefings.

Fortunately Twitter led me to the Child Poverty Action Group’s exposure of some myths behind the official ‘facts’. Proving once again the old adage about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics.’  I suspect that many currently hardworking, taxpaying people are going to find themselves experiencing this welfare cap in the coming year. They may lose their job and home, have move away from family and friends, probably into temporary accommodation where they may be at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords [I speak from experience]. I wonder how many of those mouthing negative and abusive comments, in the slipstream of the Prime Minister’s populist Gradgrindism, about ‘facing up to the facts’ have ever experienced such hardship.

Estimates are that around 67,000 people, rising to 75,000 in 2014 will find themselves in this difficult place; and the number of children who will be affected could be up to 220,000. Yet the estimated welfare budget saving is put at 0.1 per cent and as Eric Pickles’ private secretary helpfully pointed out to the Prime Minister’s PS, this ‘does not take account of the additional costs to local authorities (through homelessness and temporary accommodation). In fact we think it is likely that the policy as it stands will generate a net cost.’ And there are some other unintended consequences.

Meanwhile one of the coalition government’s other welfare claimants (the chief executive of the state owned RBS bank) should have no difficulty getting his annual top-up. And a former employee now running his brand as a company (Tony Blair, since you ask), will pay corporation tax on his net earnings of something over £1 million of just £315,000 (28%). Perhaps there should be a cap on all net earnings of £260,000. As Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation argued in 2003 (sic) a ‘pay ceiling would be good for both business and social cohesion.’  This is not an argument from a position either left or right of the political spectrum, but a plea for a moral economy.

As part of my remit from the diocesan Mission and Ministry Board I shall be looking at economics, ethics and justice in the coming year. The working title of my project is ‘Value and Values’. I hope I shall have something useful to say. In the meantime, following the principled stand by a cohort of bishops south of the border, perhaps our churches’ immediate focus should be on the upcoming Poverty & Homelessness Action Week 2012 (28 January – 5 February), helping to break the barriers that trap people in poverty and homelessness.

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Walking the Lord’s Prayer in the winter sales

Bon Accord Centre

Image by jj_judes via Flickr

I made obeisance at the altar of Mammon by visiting the winter sales in Aberdeen. I slouched my way up one side of Union Street, and down the other in search of a jacket that wouldn’t fit. The jackets at massive discounts were in 44L or 38S and I’m a regular sort of guy. When I pounced on a cool jacket I was politely informed “Oh, this one’s not in the sale, Sir.” Thirsty and hungry, I came in sight of the St Nicholas shopping centre which drew me in.  Eventually I arrived at its sister shopping centre which, as it name says, was ‘happy to meet me.’ I rested my very sorry frame on a seat in the gallery area, to be nourished with coffee and a pastry. Food for thought….

Our Father in heaven – in whose temple am I sitting? The tiled floors and walls, and the moving ladders to where? Two escalators up into shopping heaven and John Lewis, one escalator down, casting the shopper into the outer darkness of George Street. Meanwhile the ever watchful eyes of the CCTV and uniformed ‘vergers’ observed me closely.

Hallowed be your name – “Style and Substance” boasts the centre, Currys, Disney Store, Dorothy Perkins, Ernest Jones, H&M, Laura Ashley, Marks and Spencer, Monsoon, Next, Swarovski, The Body Shop, Tie Rack, Topman, Warehouse, holy names, sacred, consecrated, sanctified, blessed and revered.

Your kingdom come
Your will be done
on earth as in heaven – already present in our midst, though not yet revealed. Is God’s kingdom to be found in this sacred space? Sacred to the cult of consumerism? Who are these high priests serving us with our material needs as we strive to glamorise our lifestyles, in remembrance of the pages of the glossy magazines?

Give us this day our daily bread – all our earthly needs are met. From a quick snack to a leisurely lunch, we are enticed by the trends and the best buys, a ‘fabulous’ frock, lotions and potions for her and the phones and up-to-the-minute technology for him. Even an Aladdin’s cave of radio controlled helicopters, trains, with collectables from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dr. Who and Star Trek.  All for the child within us.

Do not bring us to the time of trial – is this about owning up to our acquisitiveness, our greed, the growing gulf between rich and poor? How much do we need for a sustainable lifestyle? What does living lightly mean? How will we manage our debt burden in 2012?

But deliver us from evil. Is this really an evil place? Bon Accord and St Nicholas and other shopping centres in the city are large employers, major contributors to the local economy, some working with the local community and supporting many local and national charities. Most of Aberdeen’s wealth is from the oil industry, a depleting source of energy supply, but as the oil industry declines opportunities will arise to use its skills, supply chains and technologies to develop alternative forms of sustainable energy and carbon capture, to try to reverse the effect of global warming. In this moral crisis there is yet hope.

Life is not easy. It is a daily battle. Trials can crush our spirits. False values and easy promises endanger our souls. We need to recognise that we need the earth more than it needs us.  Our ‘transcendence’ is a fiction.  More than ever before we need to restore our impaired relationship.  And so we ask God to keep us from failing when we are tested, to help us to know the right thing to do, to avoid the evil which waits to ensnare us.

Back home, I switch on my iMac, search the virtual stores of Aberdeen.  I find the jacket I have been looking for, in a size that will fit and at half-price! I click and collect….Oh dear!  Lord have mercy.

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The voice of one crying out in the wilderness

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light ” John 1:6-8

“The wilderness … had taken him, loved him, embraced him got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.” Joseph ConradHeart of Darkness

These contrasting passages describe two human beings in the wilderness. In the first extract, taken from last Sunday’s Gospel reading, John is ‘the voice crying out in the wilderness’ and calling for repentance; in the second extract, from Joseph Conrad’s book The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz has no spiritual resistance, no internal restraint, and has become corrupted by the forces of darkness.

Who personifies Kurtz today? Is it the shadow banking system in Europe which appears thoroughly unhinged? Like Kurtz the bankers have piled up the contemporary equivalent of  his ‘ ivory’ except that it is leverage upon leverage of assets that in reality have no sound basis; almost nothing lies behind the infinite layers of debt they are creating. I hear the whisper of Kurtz, ‘The horror! The horror’ as he gazes into this ‘heart of darkness.’

When I read Ann Pettifor‘s excellent article in The Guardian (6 December 2011) ‘Standard & Poor’s is right, ‘austerity’ has no economic clothes’ I thought of the other ‘vox clamantis.’ Even if she is not the camel hair wearing, locust and honey eating John the Baptist, she is crying “I am an economist with a plan to get us out of here.”  The ‘new economics’ that Ann Pettifor is advocating rejects the policy of Europe’s deeply flawed politicians who are resolutely refusing to focus on remedies for the crisis – the broken banking system – and are instead obsessed by austerity measures. As Ann Pettifor says,

“austerity has no economic clothes. Austerity is destroying investment and jobs, and therefore income. Without employment, individuals, households, firms and governments are deprived of money. Without employment income, governments cannot collect taxes, and banks cannot collect debt repayments. So banks face bankruptcy and government deficits rise. It’s not complicated.”

Indeed it is not.  Eventually the crowds flocked to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist.  It’s not too late for the bankers and the politicians to repent.

Have a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.

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Reflecting on Remembrance Sunday

I took my first Remembrance Sunday service yesterday at All Saints, Whiterashes. I was very conscious that I was departing from what had become normative in this church. A great deal of work before had gone into sourcing readings, poetry and testimony and they had been carefully chosen. I reflected on this for a long time and decided that I would do things differently. In my research I came across a statement made by an English army chaplain, during the First World War, who said, “War is kinder than a Godless peace.” To me, this paradoxical statement sums up what many Christians feel about war. The war poet Wilfred Owen initially welcomed World War 1, but three years spent on the front line changed his mind. And at the age of 25 he was killed just one week before the Armistice.

The tragic reality of modern war is that human beings have killed more of their own kind in the 20th Century than in all the previous centuries put together. Innocent civilians suffer most. Nine out ten of those who die in war are civilians, and half of them will be children. It is difficult to reconcile this horrendous fact with trying to remember and hold dear memory of the heroes who fell in battle. Heroic resistance does not fit with the mass destruction of civilians from the air, whether by nuclear or conventional means. We cannot airbrush away the slaughter of unarmed civilians by taking a moral stance on unintended consequences.

Yesterday we remembered those men and women who died doing a job we asked them to do. We rightly honoured them for their conduct and bravery and their sacrifice. There has been a great deal of debate recently about the symbolic significance of the poppy. Some would like the red poppy replaced by the white, as a sign of peace. I am confused by this. It seems to be a mistaken idea. Remembrance does not glorify war. And is not blind to the loss of life or the ultimate futility of war and we pray for peace as well as remembering those who served, and died, in conflicts, past and present.

Remembrance is important because in times of peace it is easy to forget the reality of war and continue to make the mistakes of the past. It’s important to tell the story of bravery because this provides dignity for those whose lives have been lost because of war. But those we honour deserve more than simply recalling their glorious moments of courage in battle. We interpret the present, fed by the roots nourished in their history. Through remembrance we learn from the deaths of the fallen and from the lasting injuries, both mental and physical, of the survivors. Remembrance carries with it the hope that we will not remake the mistakes of the past. The church had been beautifully decorated yesterday with a scattering of red poppies. And rightly so.

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Disputed places

I am completely bemused by the ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’ protest.  It seems that the protestors were prevented bearding the lion in its den and chose instead to wound a behemoth, one caged by the rules and regulations of a litigious society, which has behaved rather predictably, as wounded animals do.  Meanwhile the self-styled ‘masters of the universe’ are mooning the crowd from their mirrored towers.

So now we have this encampment, or should one describe it as a pied-à-terre for occasional protest? I don’t have the benefit of infra-red vision but some of the protestors who were interviewed by the media seem to have had pressing engagements which militated against a 24/7 occupation. I try to be optimistic that their willingness to obey the injunction against occupying Paternoster Square may indicate that when the authorities obtain one for St Paul’s Churchyard they will quietly move on.

And this is my dilemma. I want to support them but I do not understand their argument with St Paul’s.  Do they think that Mammon is holed up inside? There is a lack of political coherence. “All emotions and abstractions,’ as Joni Mitchell would say. Yet the 99% are in sympathy with their aims and share their frustration that the malfunctioning global financial system is proving resistant to reform. But, for as long as they continue to berate the institution of St Paul’s and haughtily spurn all attempts at mediation, however ineptly done, the more the media will focus on this squabble.

To the “What would Jesus do?” question, I suggest that he would have checked in for the ‘vibe’ but quickly moved on to the parts of the city that are hurting. Jesus was continually exhorting his followers to move beyond the city and preach the coming of the Kingdom of God to the earth. It is the people, the oikumene who are the place of God not a tented space; and the sacredness of cathedrals lies only in the way they facilitate the union of believer and Jesus Christ the Saviour. There needs to be dialogue not sententious banner waving.

What we seem to have at the moment is dis-place-ment therapy. As Richard Rohr asks in Simplicity: the Freedom of Letting Go, “How is it that we’ve managed so effectively to avoid everything that [Jesus Christ] taught so unequivocally?” We continue with the blame game, blaming institutions and not accepting that our victimhood stems from being seduced by the myths of the modernity project. We will not regain our freedom by trying to catch every trendy breeze.

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Pilgrim at Kinnoull

“I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from no place rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loosen: I walk on my way.”
— Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The scarf presses on my shoulders. The scroll intones my duties and responsibilities. No longer ‘in formation’ but the timetable requires final attendance at summer school with the ordinands and lay readers in training at Kinnoull. We begin the week with a silent retreat except that it has been structured around a pattern of worship, compline on Sunday night, morning prayer, midday prayer followed by Eucharist, evening prayer and then compline. A bit like a stained glass window. Sacred spaces held fast like the jewels of a medieval window. What best to do? How best to spend my time?

I try reading a worthy book on moral philosophy in the context of climate change but my eyes soon become tired and I drop off to sleep. I try listening to sacred music. Then, reflecting on the advice the retreat director has given, opening my eyes to St Benedict in a way I haven’t experienced before, I think about developing up a Rule of Life. In the ‘groves of academe’ I had felt an antipathy toward St Benedict, as a result of a too selective choice of literature, preferring the ecological spirituality of St Francis, a rich vein to be plundered for my dissertation. Oh for shame! Now St Benedict is appealing for more sympathetic attention and, remembering what I have just heard about balance and not getting too ‘prissy’ in the silent retreat, I take my binoculars and decide to go birdwatching.

Birdwatching in July! When the birds are silent, the parent birds exhausted and skulking, the fledglings moulting. Madness! I decide instead to go the usual path up to the viewpoint. As I set off I quickly discover obstacles in my path. Climbing over another dead tree, victim of a recent gale, I find this woodland labyrinth increasingly troublesome and turn back. Just as I am about abandon the project, a faint route signposts a tangential opportunity for quiet reflection. A small mound of smoothed rocks, moss and grass. I sit here and wait for God to reveal herself in her Creation. Like John Muir, nature is often my cathedral.

The usual woodland birds seem reassured that my presence is not a threat. Blackbirds, wood-pigeon, robin, wren, a family of blue tits, and then treecreeper, woodpecker and, circling above, the mewing of a buzzard, probably a juvenile. The dappled shade is infused with a deep sense of peace.

A wind from no place rises. Warm, sensuous, calming. And like Annie Dillard I feel the bonds of my existence fall away. A sense of the real exalts me. Invisible, yet very present. Caught in this precious moment of time, the bonds of unpleasant memories become gossamer threads and I brush them away. But then…a disturbance…I catch the glimpse of an approaching figure. The reverie ends. I am unsettled by I a new sense of purpose. I get to my feet. Something has changed. I have changed. The leaves beneath my feet sound like shibboleths being shredded and I return to the monastery by a different path.

Coming up the stairs I meet our retreat director, and ask if we can discuss how I to go about finding a spiritual director. A spiritual director!! The one thing that in all my meetings with my training ‘minders’ I had resisted doing anything about. We arrange to meet in half an hour. I eat my buttered currant loaf, drink a mug of tea. Ready for a new journey. A new path. Three months later I am now on the train home from Auld Reekie. I’ve got a soul friend and we have agreed to meet again.

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Dogs in the borderlands

In the story of Jesus’ borderlands meeting with the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel (15:21-28) there seems to be a trade in insults with references being made to dogs. We have to accept that Christ is truly present in this text, apparently being very rude towards a Canaanite woman. How do we respond to his words?

When Jesus referred to dogs, the image in the minds of his disciples at least, would have been the dogs that licked the wounds of Lazarus, the semi-wild, stray dogs of Jewish culture. But he is rebuffed by the Canaanite woman who refers to the household dogs of the Gentiles, treated more like household pets; that would gobbled up any titbits falling from the master’s table; or would have been fed leftovers. Jesus is so challenged by her response that he promises that her daughter will be healed. For Matthew this is a story about faith and the power of faith to transcend those things that divide us. To belong to the people of God requires us to be a channel for God’s inclusive love. Are there any parts of our society, or kinds of people who we perceive are beyond the redemptive help of the Gospel of Christ? I thought of this when watching the TV reports of the recent violence in the centres of some of the major cities in England, and have reflected further on the many newspaper reports and commentaries.

The truth of today’s consumerist society, or at any rate a partial representation of it, is being played out here in these violent scenes. Of course we may react that the rioters are behaving like the feral, stray dogs in Jewish culture, engaged in an extreme form of mugging. Or does our compassion suggest that perhaps they are they are more like the Greek ‘puppy dogs’ who should be indulged with leftovers from the rich man’s table. Should we beat them with sticks and cleanse them from our streets with water cannon or should we give them a cuddle like a mischievous puppy dog, ‘hug a hoodie’ as the saying goes? Of course mob violence must always be condemned. But the people terrorising and trashing our major cities are also a symptom of a wider malaise. What kind of demonic has entered our society? There is a very complex narrative being played out here.

We may lay some of the blame at the door of inadequate parenting but blaming a lack of discipline conveniently ignores the causes of the breakdown in family relationships which are rooted in the realities of economic and social injustice. The gap between the richest and poorest has got gradually worse over the last forty years and Britain is now more unequal than almost any other western country. There seems to be a fundamental disconnect at the heart of what has become defined as our consumerist society, where a sense of social worth is measured in terms how successful we are in gathering possessions and personal status.

Our culture is changing rapidly in other ways too. Social media has been used to both fuel and condemn the riots. Rioters have posted messages bragging about their spoils and encouraged their online ‘friends’ to join in on the rampage. Interestingly, they have fearlessly gazed into the cameras recording their actions. Meanwhile others were ‘tweeting’ more positive ways about how to clear up the mess and restore some sort of order. There is a huge shift in society from ‘real world’ to ‘virtual world’ through the medium of social networks and people are utterly open about what they will document about themselves. We are seeing this self-publicity at home and we have witnessed a more noble version of this in the unrest in the countries of the Middle East.

So how should we respond? I suggest that this is not a time for moral outrage.  Those who are guilty of riot and theft will receive the punishment due to them.   Instead we need to reach out to those who choose to be disconnected or are prevented from behaving in a responsible way by ignorance, fear and poverty, because all these factors impede people’s ability to engage fully with civil society. The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman was a pre-Easter story. We are a post-Easter people. Each of us has a role to play in exorcising these demons. Every time we reach out with understanding and compassion to our neighbour, however we define this term, we help to reverse the ways of the world and enable God to build the kingdom.

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Pebbles

A pebble offers a narrative framework when we start to think about its story. Having emerged from deep within the earth, where rocks run fluid in conditions of very high temperature or else formed in sedimentary deposits of ancient rivers, lakes and seas, the pebble will have undergone many processes on its way to the object we turn in our hand.

It is humbling to know that it will have been around for aeons before we were born, and will continue in existence for long after we have turned to dust. We bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it: rocks may be worn away as we walk our earthly pilgrimage but their endurance is immeasurable greater.

Our relationship to stone emerges in multidimensional readings. Habitation, artefact, sculpture, jewellery. And these in turn break out into a network of relationships to people, to things, and to our natural environment. But we have also learned to apply our technology to crush stone for large scale projects, thus separating us from the natural world in which we live. We need a dialogue with modern science and technology, if we are to have a proper faithful response to the potential harm destructive living brings; and to relearn how to understand and to appreciate our surroundings – to enjoy them, and take simple pleasure in them.

A pebble should indicate something to us about its creator. In its shape, colour, texture and hue we may see something of the beauty of God; unselfconsciously in its tactile nature, we should sense the intimacy of God; perceive by its endurance something of the faithfulness of God; and in its longevity a sense of the eternity of God shining through.

In the first of his 2009 Gifford Lectures, Professor Alister E. McGrath considered Newton’s attention to nature and how it signposted something deeper, lying beyond it. Newton said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

He was reflecting that if we just concentrate on the geological features of a pebble or observe the skin of a shell, we may lose sight of the deeper structures and meanings of the world that lie beyond. McGrath said that the pebble and the shell are images of liminality – the awareness of standing on a threshold.

At the Gathering Event, beginning of our Lent Course ‘Driven into the Wilderness, on Sunday 6th March at St Mary’s Carden Place, Aberdeen, we each chose a pebble, which had been gathered with loving care from the River Dee and one of its tributary streams Neil Burn. This will be carried with us as we journey through Lent. It will become a symbol of those important things we discover, or rediscover, about our relationship with all of creation during our Lenten pilgrimage. When we meet again for the Sending Out service at St Ninian’s, Mar Lodge, by Braemar our pebble will be returned to the River Dee as a signal of our intentionality to live more lightly on the earth.

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Green Lent worship events

A Gathering event to launch the Green Lent resources will take place on Sunday 6 March 2011, 4.00pm at St Mary’s, Carden Place, Aberdeen. The Guest Preacher will be Prof John Eldridge, British sociologist known for his writings on industrial society.

All who attend will be invited to come forward and pick up a stone. We will ask you to pay attention to your stone. See how it is unique and special. See how it is related to all things of the earth. As you journey through this penitential season, we will ask you to keep the stone with you. Carry it in your pocket, place it on your prayer table at home: keep it in mind. Let it become for you the symbol of those important things you discover, or rediscover, about your relationship with all of creation during this Lenten pilgrimage together.

When we re-gather for the Sending Out service at St Ninian’s, Mar Lodge, at 4pm on the 8th of May, please bring your stone with you so it can be returned to the River Dee (its source). It is important to give back what we take from God’s creation.

If you cannot come to either of these events, please find some time to go to a favourite beauty spot for reflection, pick up a pebble, and, after completing the course return there to replace it as a sign of your commitment to live more lightly on this earth.

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Green Lent

The wilderness is indifferent to our existence. It is a hostile place, where insects bite, snakes slither, thorn bushes gouge the flesh and wild animals roam. Here life is fragile and the path ahead leads us to the unexpected and the unknown.

Please join the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney this Lent on a wilderness journey where all we shall possess is a trust that life is good, that it is worth being alive, even when the going will be painful and harsh. We will have a number of encounters, be fed by ravens, but a moment of deep significance will usher in a radically different understanding of God’s creation.

Following a new path, we will emerge from the wilderness realising that we are being called to change the way we live our lives. From hereon, our life will take on a new direction, with a new sense of purpose beginning, as we seek a deeper meaning in all that we do.

 

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