“Easter, we have a problem.”

bruce ponder 4-19It happens every year. On Good Friday evening, we gather silently in church for the most solemn night of the year. We sing songs like ‘There is a green hill’. Sombre passages of scripture are read, concerning Jesus’ suffering and death. In my particular church, Holy Trinity Idle in north Bradford, we have a tradition of individually going up to a large rough cross made from branches, and touching the wood. Not superstitiously, but as a tangible symbolic way of personally connecting afresh with the profound, mysterious ‘truth’ we hold onto, that two millennia ago, this man Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven and we could go free.

Then, on Easter Sunday morning, we gather again and the mood could hardly be more different. “He is risen!” and “Hallelujah!” are loudly declaimed by vicar, worship group and congregation alike. Beaming faces, jubilant songs, and often a children’s activity involving colourful objects, running around and eggs. (I once saw a vicar swallowing a raw one from a pint glass during a sermon – I’m still recovering from the trauma).

I personally grew up with these beliefs and practices, and I continue in them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also sometimes look askance and personally wonder what the heck it’s all about. Or ponder the disturbing reality that for the majority of people in my culture and society, the whole fabric of Christianity makes very little sense at all, and is considered furthermore irrelevant. In wider discourse, from mass ‘Strictly’ viewing to Brexit talk of ‘bringing the country back together’, we plainly value a sense of unity. So the lack of public consensus on the deepest questions about life, the universe and everything bothers me.

As a means of trying to relate a little closer to my unbelieving friends and acquaintances, allow me, then, to sketch out a few of my own very real questions and concerns about the faith, here particularly pertaining to the Easter story.  As I say, sketch. It’s good just to start airing these things; I’d love to return to them.

First up, we pretty much all recognise the realities of human imperfection, failure, sometimes downright wickedness, concomitant guilt and shame – and both our profound need for and the beauty of forgiveness. But why, indeed, did a man have to hang on a cross to deal with it? The wrath of God, sacrifice and the very notion that the divine human intervention happened at such a point of history that it had to assume the barbaric form of crucifixion… I may need to go back to the theology books, but that doesn’t stop part of me wondering, why Lord, why?

Then, resurrection. It sounds great in the context of, say, Doctor Who, the Stone Roses or that Alien film which has it in the title. But again, what is going on here? Whatever happened, happened absolutely ages ago, is utterly shrouded in mystery, and if you’re not a believer appears to have  no bearing on a 21st century world of trains, planes, automobiles, wifi, bitcoin or Miley Cyrus. Yes, even for a hesitant disciple like me with skin in the game, I get that. The seeming remoteness, irrelevance, not to say ‘unicorn’ quality. Hmm.

There, just two things – mere lines of a sketch. In closing, I have a couple of positive angles on it all too. I’m re-reading doorstop tome cum riveting detective story ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’ by awesomely erudite scholar NT Wright, and am struck afresh by his accumulation of evidence and insight suggesting that something extraordinary does indeed lie at the heart of Christian faith and the birth of the early church. Then there’s the conviction that the Spirit of the risen Jesus mysteriously lives, breathes and works today. And finally, the gospel’s power to embrace and respond to our deepest longings, needs and desires, for now and eternity. It’s not for nothing the Aslan death and resurrection narrative in ‘The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe’ wields immense imaginative power. Nor that Passion week is called ‘the greatest story ever told’.

Rumours of Resurrection

good-friday-3243347_1920Easter. It’s here. Are you happy? Do you cheer?
Are you with those who say, he’s risen, rejoice?
Or do you think of such things with less confident voice?
If you think of it at all – it’s a tough one to call,
To have any clue what happened such a long time ago, in a far distant land – is there anything to show?
Scattered stories of angels, a stone, empty tomb,
Scared followers, appearances, is it enough to give room
To seriously consider, inside my head, that someone could actually rise from the dead?

I find, if not blind, upon closer inspection, this world sings with subtle signs of resurrection,
And what if faith is not so much believing against facts, but having sight for the light that glints through the cracks,
Like Lucy mourning Aslan, then lifting her eyes, to see the dead lion gone, a deeper magic arise,
Could Easter then be more than mere memory or story, a bright living channel for rumours of glory?
With the power to embrace every trial and storm, with its radiant hope, every dark thing transform?

Audio: 

Rave On

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In Edinburgh recently I climbed Calton Hill,
To escape from the bleak madding crowd.
And encountered two youths who’d gone up there to chill
And play rave tracks immoderately loud.

Now I tend to consider, though some disagree
I’ve a broad varied musical diet,
But this time I felt it incumbent on me
To confront crimes against peace and quiet.

It’s funny I pondered, it genuinely is,
To think I could speak on others’ behalf,
Talk to these fellas instead of minding my biz,
Expect them not to snort and to laugh.

And it’s odd how I felt that in taking this stand,
I wasn’t thinking of my poor ears only,
But somehow felt I could speak up for Joe Public,
Make their auditory outrage less lonely.

So finding my hutzpah I up to them strode,
Sallied forth to give a piece of my mind,
They stared down like I was a species of toad,
While arguments I struggled to find.

“You’re inflicting it on all of us, it’s not the time or the place!”
I with these callow youths remonstrated,
And they looked on with puzzled and pitying face,
My views clearly not highly rated.

And with folk looking on as this stand-off proceeded,
What felt inescapably bad,
Is I’d tried to take a stand, but now slowly conceded
I felt like an embarrassing dad.

So I slunk away, and at the end of the day
I conclude from these poetic confessings
Another time I think I’d at least try to say
Jesus loves ya, I wish you Gawd’s blessings.

(a recent experience, for World Poetry Day)

Valentine’s Revamped

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It’s Valentines soon. Am I really in tune to the big day of love, or will I give it a shove?
Stick around and embrace it, or just try to chase it far far away? Dunno what to say.
For every one who loves a rosy red heart, there’s someone who struggles even to start
To think they could be liked or loved or admired, cos some folk are weary and some folk are tired;
And how does it feel to be ignored, overlooked – that you’re over the hill, that your goose has been cooked,
Cos a person can be strong, and able and agile, but the heart can be frail, and feelings are fragile;
And sometimes I think and sometimes I wonder, could my own heart one day just get pulled right under?
Yeah could I get wounded and could I get hurt, and put through the mill and dragged through the dirt,
What I want to know really and truly, deep down, is there someone to hold me and not let me drown?
At the heart of the universe, a love that is greater, than fickle human love that says “I’m done, see you later”…?

Valentines is here, it’s with us again, I don’t always know what to make of it, but then,
How much does it matter what I personally think, about the annual ritual of love – and of pink,
I’m not saying it fazes me, but it certainly amazes me, How much people spend! It’s not a fad or a trend,
On meals out and chocolates and nice cards and flowers, and getaways and gazing at your sweetheart for hours,
Far be it from me to be called unromantic, but it seems just a little excessive and frantic,
And what does it say about us, all this huge cost? Could we be in some way just a little bit lost?
Yeah don’t call me weird or pedantic or stupid, but what’s going on with this homage to Cupid?
Could a deeper love possibly lie at the root? Could all this love stuff be, you know, just the fruit?
Just suppose God’s love’s real, then what’ll it take, to get past my defences, the barriers break,
Can I admit that I’m messed up, got issues, am weak, give God just a chance, if he’s there, well – to speak?

As featured on BBC Radio Leeds, Sunday Breakfast.

Holocaust Memorial Day – Reflection

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This Holocaust memorial day, don’t turn the page, don’t look away,
It’s not easy to reflect on the worst we can do,
That in different circumstances, that could’ve been me, could’ve been you,
It’s said if one death’s a tragedy, a thousand is statistics,
But I’ll have no truck with such twisted logistics,
Cos each one’s a person, and each one is cared for,
Cos God is compassionate, cos that’s what he’s there for.
And it’s not just the past, but it’s happening today,
And it shouldn’t make a difference if it’s near, or far away,
It bothers me, each life snuffed out, and every needless death
That a child out there is starving, and struggling for breath,
I’m not happy to do nothing, wring my hands and just stand by,
I want to make a difference, I want at least to try,
To staunch the wound, help stem the flow of misery and pain,
Not watch the record player play the same old disc again,
Ignite the heart, and make a start, right here, right where I am
And not by doing nothing just add to the logjam,
So I’ll message, tweet, and pray, do what I can, today,
Hopeful in the darkest place – that love will find a way.

‘Follow the Star’ reflections

shooting-star-3024333_12801 So here we are, nearly Christmas already – I know, bizarre!
Look, I like a lot of it, but some of it goes too far.
Mad office parties, excess shopping. Some of it needs dropping!
But you know I was thinking about those wise men, ‘three kings from orient are’,
Except they weren’t kings – dunno if there were three of them – and forget about a taxi & a car – though it’s true they followed a star. Quite far.
Is it a fairy tale, or history? Tell you what, it’s a mystery.
Wasn’t a ‘star’ like on Strictly, the X Factor, Twitter,
Not a Kanye or a Kardashian – or someone fitter.
But an actual, nuclear, supernova star. And they followed it! I can’t quite swallow it.
You know, think I could do with a guiding light. Be just right.
How about it God? Could you fix that for me? Think you might?

2 It’s Christmas again, like it or lump it, that time of year,
And one thing I often hear people saying is, “I’m not religious” (as a rule)
Well, hey, that’s cool. Some say “I’m spiritual, I’m on a quest”.
I can relate to that. Quite like the va va voom, the zest.
But here’s the thing, it reminds me of those kings
Who followed a star, which sounds bizarre, but there you are.
I’ve personally never seen a strange light up in the sky – not I.
Would probably need to be high. But these magi were open to being led,
By the heart not just the head.
Following this bright light. And it guided them just right,
To baby Jesus – these Persian geezers!
A saviour, light of the world, gift of God unwrapped, unfurled.
Dunno if they quite understood, it was the epitome of good.
But they were open to something new and out of the blue. So how about, well, me and you?

3 It’s Christmas! Comes round quick don’t you agree? Ok, not everyone’s cuppa tea.
But is it about more than tinsel and glitter, buying the missus something that’ll fit her?
What’s it really all about? Beyond a turkey and a sprout?
Yeah there’s this kid in a manger, that’s fine, a so called saviour,
But I’ve got a two year old to keep in line – and mind his behaviour. So what’s it to me?
Good will to all sounds great, and peace and joy, oh boy!
But wait, they’re hard to find when you’re in a bind.
Is it possible, just maybe, that there’s more to this baby?
Born in a manger – and it gets stranger. Offers salvation. Quite a vocation.
What do I need saving from? I’m not miserable or poor.
Think I’m doing okay. So should I still pray? Knock on heaven’s door?
Well – what have I got to lose? I’ll try it – today.

Three reflections inspired by the Church of England’s ‘Follow the star’ Christmas theme. As broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds 9th, 16th and 23rd December just before 7.30am, listen at 1:28:30 here to hear one as it went out last Sunday. Also on local commercial station Pulse 2.

Advent reflection

advent-1883840_1920It’s the start of December. Advent. Did you remember?
Put up the tree and decorations, entertain expectations – of snow?
With climate change they’re low. In fact it’s probably a ‘no’, but even so…
You might get an Advent calendar, with those pretty little doors.
I’ve got a nice one already. How’s yours? Has it escaped the kids’ mucky paws?
A time of waiting, anticipation. Not just for the cut-price vacation.
A time of preparation. For what? You may say.
And you know what, fair play for asking. I’m not basking
In any special expertise. Oh please!
For some it’s looking forward to Christmas, baby Jesus.
Maybe not what your average geezers down the pub are giving thought to.
And who says they ought to?
But we can all use a moment to be quiet. You should try it. Some hush amidst the rush.
A little chance to be peaceful, and still. Like it? Think you will.

Broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds on Sunday 2 December, Andrew Edwards breakfast show, 1:28:45 in.

Gritty Remembrance

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Poppy.

Out with the mates, pub, Friday night…will I have a good time, or get into a fight?
Walk up to the bar, it catches ma sight.
Nice tray of poppies. Not sure it’s for me.
War stuff. Had enough. Best forgotten, ya see?
Plastic things, need a pin. Nah, don’t count me in.
Makes me think though, ya know, of poppies in a field.
They grew in the trenches – I’m sure that’s for real.
Dunno if I’ll buy. I mean donate. Nice try.
There’s something about them though, seeing them every year.
Symbol of hope. Need some of that. Right now, right here.

Cenotaph.

I put the telly on. That ceremony from the er, Cenotaph, that’s the one.
Politicians, royalty, that posh lot ya see.
Dressed in black. Now don’t give me flack – but it‘s not for me.
So sombre, look at that ‘ombre, with ‘is medals n poker face.
I’d feel right out of place. Something about it though, the quiet,
Two minutes of it – amazing. Might even try it.
Could do with some peace, release. Life’s tough, we all know it,
But be still for that long – and not blow it?
Let down the façade? – look behind? what’ll I find?
Scary stuff? Nothing? Maybe God? Who can say?
I’ll try it. Today.

Conflict.

It’s Remembrance. A special one. End of the War – you know the score.
First world war, the Great war, fourteen to eighteen,
It was brutal. It was bloody. And by all accounts, muddy.
I don’t choose to watch the TV news – I usually refuse,
But seeing those brave lads in their khakis and caps – no rest, no naps.
In their ranks. In their tanks. Their camouflage gear. No fear.
Day in and day out, down the barrel of a gun. Not fun.
I admire; they inspire me to face conflicts of my own – and not alone.
With the boss, the mates, the missus; and not with flattery – or kisses.
Maybe with God’s help? And prayer? I dare to believe – that he’s there.

These poems with music bed were broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds and Pulse 2 in West Yorkshire last weekend. Dry versions (voice only) here:

 

Autumnal nature poems

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Kingfisher

Flash of blue in peripheral view,
Fish snatch, cross bubble-brook dazzling dart,
Quick as insight, swift as thought
Or stab of feeling through human heart.

Fox

Pointy muzzle, points for puzzle-
Solving – king cunning of canine world;
Urban arrival, sleuth of survival,
Night agent, red brush round sharp nose curled.

Grey squirrel

Full of cheek – and bulging cheeks,
Beady eyes, ubiquitous as spies,
Foreign invader, bird table raider,
Of ballsy blatant mischief reeks.

October

Folk talk of mists and fruitfulness that’s mellow
In early September I recall;
When I’m tempted to bellow, the leaves aren’t even yellow –
It’s about now when you properly see fall.squirrel pixabay 10-18

Wholeness or the hamster wheel?

ricky-kharawala-10194-unsplashIf I could offer you a magic pill to make you less stressed, would you take it? I wonder. The frantic pace of modern life in so called ‘advanced’ societies is a time-worn cliche. But I’m bemused by how easily we succumb to a lot of the pressures that make us function this way. We choose it. Not everyone, and I recognise that people face varying degrees of constraint on their capacity to choose. Broadly speaking though. So do we have to? Well, here are some simple (or perhaps not so simple) ways to combat enervating over-activity. I speak from my own experience, limited perhaps and a bit unusual, but still valid, I venture. Examples of how I keep busyness at bay, and help protect the planet too.

First up, scale back on stuff. Let’s start with what for most of us is the biggest item of all – the roof over our heads. How many of us live in homes bigger and pricier than we actually need? Ok, I’m at an extreme end of the spectrum here, living just now singly in a studio flat. More-or-less a glorified bedsit; it’s tiny. But in the developing world, a family of five might occupy the same space. So chances are, for much of the world’s population, your pad is palatial. And to pay for it, we work long hours in stressful jobs. We may enjoy those some of the time. But overall – and in all kinds of ways – couldn’t we live more simply and enjoy the rest of life more?

Produce less. One small example: I read the Saturday Guardian and Radio Times – and I don’t pay for them. My good-hearted colleague passes them on after a week’s elapsed. I don’t mind reading this kind of thing late. Most of its still interesting, and it feeds my own writing. But I don’t get through all of it, or anywhere near. I’ve broad interests, and I like to read slowly and digest it. So I’d be happy with the same paper produced fortnightly, or monthly. Think how much less stressful the writers’ lives could be! And the ease on forests if more papers were shared around like this. I guess there’s an economic objection of some sort somewhere… but viva la change, I say!

Reproduce less. I won’t bang on about this one. Having children is a personal issue and I’ve never really had the desire, so I know it’s easier for me to focus on world population and suggest we have fewer. But we could all at least consider carefully, and maybe some of us weigh the benefits of less time and energy being poured into new little people – not least to free up more of it for the neglected ones already here. It’s just a thought.

The best things in life… Friendships, beautiful countryside, sleep, fresh air… a good number of them are indeed free. Why not spend more time enjoying them rather than the monetarily expensive stuff? It’s heartening to see cultural movements geared at helping us become attuned to activities that are more tortoise than hare: ‘slow radio’, marathon theatre (plays that last all day), forest bathing, that kind of thing.

But now, here’s the rub. We’re largely blind to arguably the greatest antidote of all to excess busyness. Secular remedies are lauded while this marvel is ignored – the irony being that it communicates the ultimate source of these fine but lesser goods.

We work hard and save up to visit remote places and have wondrous new experiences, but neglect the vast virgin wilderness of the inner spiritual life – revealed I believe most fully in the gospel of Jesus. Wander here a while, and I start to see my everyday world in a very different light, as through a re-orienting and re-vivifying pair of spectacles. The book of Ephesians tells me I’m a child of the King, heir to an inheritance, belong to a family, partake in rich promises (chapter 3 v 6). Abundance, belonging, relationship.

Just imagine how such an inner vision could transform my priorities. A sense of inner plenitude shrinks the anxiety that keeps me running on hamster wheels. Frees me to be busy, but with joy and on more worthwhile things – diving spiritually deeper, and making the world a better place instead of a more frantic and polluted one. “Seek first the kingdom of God… and all these things shall be added unto you” said Jesus. It’s that way round. Embrace wholeness, not the hamster wheel.