‘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

poppy-2550279_1920

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

kingfisher-1068480_1920 (1)

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.

Hidden in plain sight?

feline-205449_1920Silent, still, with forest foliage blends;
Is God like this? Hints subtle sends
Signs and clues, allowing us to choose:
Threads to pursue with ardent heart
Or let shutters down and barely start
To trace the face of holy love…
Let grace embrace, below, around, above.

I sometimes hear people express the opinion that either God isn’t there, or he’s doing a pretty good job of hiding. As if at some point in their lives they counted to a hundred, hunted around a while, but gave up quick when he didn’t show up in any of the expected places. Either that, or more tangible distractions and amusements acted as an effective ‘tea’s ready!’ call, and they promptly stopped looking and forgot all about him. I’m also intermittently bothered by an objection to Christian faith commonly made by atheists and sceptics: there’s no evidence. ‘Not a shred of evidence’ as one friend rather emphatically puts it.

Now any number of thinking believers do offer up evidence, served in varying depth and detail in no end of publications. Sceptics often find it unconvincing – to the extent that they examine it – and to be fair I sometimes sympathise; I too have read some pretty simplistic, question-begging stuff. But today I want to consider one pertinent reason why a sceptic’s attitude and approach may effectively blind them to the reality of God if he is indeed there. I’m responding to a talk (with accompanying notes) called ‘Not enough evidence?: why God hides’ by Andrew Fellows, which addresses how God both conceals and reveals, and how ‘defective seeking’ can sabotage our search efforts.

It’s sometimes said that ‘God (or the Holy Spirit) is a gentleman’. Not primarily meaning that the divine personage wears a suit, tie and drinks tea at Claridge’s – though no doubt he hangs out there too – but rather that God is neither pushy nor forces himself on us. He’s always been cool with #MeToo.

One of the first things Fellows points out is that God’s hiddenness is necessary, true to his being – God simply doesn’t fit into categories of creation. I get that. Though the astonishing Christian claim is that God did once appear and live in human form in the person of Christ, there was hiddenness even there; no one easily grasped his divine credentials.  It’d be frankly disappointing if God just met our expectations and magically materialised as an old man with a beard in the sky. More seriously, I’m bothered by sceptics’ demands for a particular (and particularly narrow) kind of testable evidence. As if the Creator of the universe should meekly roll over and say “Sure, happy to go along with your experiment, I’ve nothing on today and it sounds fun”. Not gonna happen.

Fellows then outlines the rather more indirect ways that God has been understood to disclose, reveal and make himself known – primarily nature, scripture and as alluded, in the person of Jesus Christ. Take nature: the biblical view that it reflects qualities of its creator – grandeur, beauty and all the rest, are in contemporary western culture widely regarded with a mix of scorn, yawn and incomprehension. People have an awe for nature, but tend to see it merely as an end in itself, missing or ignoring its ‘signposting’ capacity to point beyond. Yes, there are some ‘horrid’ critters and processes too in nature, but they hardly detract from the overall ‘wow’ effect.

The key problem is that, if we think about it at all, we tend to elevate reason in apprehending ultimate reality, neglecting a rounded, fully human, personal response and more oblique lines of revelation. Ironically, in plenty of other areas of life we highly value these. Relationships and romance depend on them – it’s how we naturally get to know someone. They’re also essential to good humour, poetry and drama. Just take current BBC hit ‘Bodyguard’, where oblique rapid lines of thought produce crackling dialogue, and where speech and action (not direct exposition) reveal character.

The signs and images Jesus deploys in John’s gospel in particular – water, bread, shepherd and others – are designed to woo us, revealing dimensions of God’s nature that become personally real as we act in the light of them. Desiring relationship, He honours our freedom; as Blaise Pascale intuited, we’re given enough light to enable trust and action, but not so much as to force belief.

God can only be sought, found and engaged with as he is. To insist on only a narrow, particular brand of evidence, is a bit like turning up on a date not with humility and a listening heart, but with a list of demands. No surprise if the encounter is pretty truncated and you don’t get a second coffee. Or perhaps even a first.

 

Whispers of grace in ‘The Escape’

The Escape 2018

Revelation. A wonderful sense of glimpsing a world beyond the bounds of quotidian reality … this was the effect of seeing ‘The Escape’ film on Sunday night. It’s those recurring, evocative images of orange sunset glow behind black thatch of trees from speeding train window, that remain with me strongest. They remind me of writer CS Lewis’s description of his early and recurring childhood experience of a sweet sense, while gazing at the distant Mourne mountain peaks, of a beckoning mystery always just beyond and out of reach…

Tara, played by Gemma Arterton, is a housewife in suburban London with, from the viewpoint of her immediate social circle, a perfect life – nice house, two kids, husband with good job. But his scope and sympathies are limited, she’s not a ‘natural’ mum, and she becomes aware of an inner restlessness and desire for something her narrow circumstances can’t satisfy. A simple trip into London one afternoon, seeing people, scenes, and in particular some captivating art books, sets her on a quest for an inner freedom she has just begun to taste. When a cluster of domestic stresses conspires one morning to make her ‘snap’, she speeds off in the family car and buys a one way Eurostar ticket to Paris. There, she relishes fresh horizons of beauty and richness, loses herself in an art gallery displaying the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestry that had so enchanted her in the art book – and has a brief passionate tryst with a romantic French photographer.

But the morning after their night together, the revelation that he’s married, with a baby, jolts her back to reality. It’s only after a kind Parisian woman shelters her lost and vulnerable self the following night, that she finds the inner fortitude to face up to her own reality back home, and return to it – but with a hint that she is at least now more inwardly free to choose her path ahead.

I’m intrigued by the story’s wider resonances. Spurred by that inner restlessness, Tara through the prism of art has her eyes opened to a broader, richer reality than she had hitherto perceived. It’s a rich evocation of and parallel with the inner thirst that may lead someone on a spiritual quest, ‘to find God’. In our bustling western culture, a panoply of distractions – media, leisure pursuits, food obsessions, travel and more – combined with culture-bound thought habits, can effectively weave a web of blindness and antipathy toward spiritual truth and possibilities. Like the walls of domesticity and relational torpitude that imprison Tara. But just as a glimpse of a beauty beyond those walls propels Tara along a path of discovery, so a chance insight or encounter may set anyone on a path of spiritual adventure. Perhaps toward something like the ‘life in all its fullness’ that Jesus once spoke of. How we respond – ignore such overtures and allow the walls to contract and harden, or heed the whispers of grace and venture further into the garden of mystery and delight – is a choice we each are moment by moment making – and must make.

Designs on you?

universe-2742113_1920On Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme this morning, there was a short interview with astronaut Tim Peake, whose Soyuz Capsule currently resides at Peterborough Cathedral. A self-confessed agnostic and “not religious”, Peake has expressed openness to the possibility of some kind of ‘intelligent design’ behind the universe. He acknowledged that time spent viewing the unique spectacles of space, inevitably shifted his perspective. He wouldn’t be the first scientist to admit that the marvels of the natural world elicit a suitably natural awe in the human mind. For him, this has led in turn to speculation as to what lies behind such grandeur and intricacy.

I was intrigued – but also struck afresh at hearing yet another public figure expressing what’s perhaps the most common and acceptable worldview in our secular culture right now: agnosticism. Esteemed because on the surface it appears the most open-minded and expansive view, unencumbered by what many see as the straitjacket limitations of a ‘religious’ viewpoint, hemmed in by supposedly unquestioned, naively swallowed doctrines and dogmas.

By way of juxtaposition, in the bible this morning I happened to read Romans 8:31-39, which communicates a blazing confidence and joy that nothing in all creation can separate believers from the love of God in Christ. I was struck by the sharp contrast and aching gulf: between the secular scientific view which claims that the mysterious origin of all that exists, is knowable if at all, only through science; and this warm apprehension of a powerful, secure relationship of love with the Ground of our being, the living personal God.

In approaching ultimate questions of life, it seems that many people in our culture, by leaning so heavily on science and rejecting other kinds of knowledge and pathways to truth, tragically close down the possibilities that beckon. The bible is commonly viewed as an archaic collection of outmoded rules and dusty sayings, when in reality it is a rich and multifaceted record of the human experience of grappling with and embracing the divine. Its global appeal and durability don’t categorically ‘prove’ its truthfulness, but at least merit close attention, far closer and more careful than it typically attracts in secular western society.

When I personally read the bible, I find not that it dragoons me into assenting to a list of blind beliefs my intellect bridles at. Rather, it seems to open up vast mysterious caverns of a kind of truth different to – but not contradictory with – science. Spiritual truth – invisible, unprovable, but resonating powerfully in the receptive heart.

If you enter a dark cave, scientific instruments can help you discern all kinds of data. But to see the intricacies of the interior, and perhaps even glorious ancient paintings daubed on the cave walls… you need a lamp. It is the testimony of countless millions down the ages, that when it comes to apprehending spiritual realities and knowing God, not as remote speculation but in living breathing relationship… the bible is that lamp. I look forward to the day when agnostics like Tim Peake, contemplating the deepest mysteries of life, the universe and everything, try deploying not merely the torch or cigarette lighter of science, but the searching lamplight of faith, which the bible has power to seed and nurture.

A deeper beauty in the beautiful game?

trophy-3472245_1920While Blighty has wilted this past month, happily drought conditions have not extended to the sporting world. The Open golf championship is underway in Carnoustie, Scotland, hot on the heels of Wimbledon. But I personally am still nursing fond memories of the World Cup.

The broad aspects of what make World Cup football captivating are simple: a deep investment of hope and expectation among all the nations for their home team; mounting tension as the tournament moves from group stages to the high stakes knock-out matches; the fans, punditry…and not least, the drama, conflict and episodes of sheer artistry in individual contests. With good reason it is called the beautiful game. And I’m intrigued by the wider ripples and resonances of this beauty.

The top ten goals of the tournament are always a big draw for me. Among my favourites are those where the ball is set up seemingly innocuously, slowly rolls, and then from nowhere is rocketed by a striker into the back of the net. Especially good if it’s from distance. And included this year was Belgium’s glorious last minute goal to “break Japanese hearts” and send the plucky northern European team into the quarter finals. A magnificent and beautiful piece of team work: goalkeeper Courtois’ easy corner catch and smooth roll out of the ball, then shunted up the park in a lightening break, switched to a winger, then back into the box for Nacer Chadli’s deadly strike. Stunning.

What I’m interested in here is, can the pleasure we get from such moments of magic open our imagination to anything of deeper significance? Consider the simple word ‘goal’ – we use it to reference a whole range of aims and purposes in life. Personally, reflection on a moment like the Belgium goal leads me to connect it with wider dimensions of teamwork, purpose, harmony and achievement, not least in the spiritual realm. Christian faith maintains that the church, the body of Christ, is God’s primary channel for accomplishing His mission of reconciling a broken, fallen world to Himself. And indeed whenever people work well together to accomplish a common purpose, they experience a bit of the thrill of that Belgian brilliance.

Of course, you may think I’m talking nonsense, that football is just men running around kicking a pig’s bladder and that’s it. But if it’s true that we have ‘eternity in our hearts’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then football, like so many things in ordinary life, can speak of deeper realities if we allow it to. As England fans experienced again this year (though at least with a sliver of future hope this time), such is the game’s hold on many of us that national defeat can produce crushing disappointment. But opening my eyes to the greater truths it mirrors and points to, helps me live with a greater sense of joy and hope.

To quote Lennon, you may say that I’m a dreamer. But in the spirit of the topic – well, I’m not the only one.

Trump limericks (& script)

trump-2546104_1920I wonder if Blighty doth bore him,
I know some folk might want to floor him,
But with Donald our guest
I wonder if the best
Policy is quite simply: ignore him?

Trump says when he said ‘would’ that he meant ‘wouldn’t’,
I’d believe him if I could, but I couldn’t,
If you somehow feel you must
Still in Donald try to trust,
For some reason feel you should, well you shouldn’t.

President Trump has been under fire this week. At the summit with Putin, he said he couldn’t see why Russia would have meddled in US elections; then when the heat was on at home instead, he said he’d meant not ‘would’ but ‘wouldn’t’. Such an easy mistake to make! Problem is, Trump seems to say whatever pleases who he wants to please at the time. He’s aggressive toward the vulnerable and fawning toward the powerful. The exact opposite of someone who has considerably more than Trump’s fifty-three million followers, even if they’re not on Twitter. Jesus – gentle to the weak, ready to confront the powerful. Had a bit of a thing for truth too. (audio script)