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Lifelines

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‘Some days arrive with questions so vast we feel like strangers on earth.  Other times our joy makes us feel entirely at home in ourselves…’

Lifelines is the title of a book I’ve written with my friend Malcolm, a small attempt to translate religion into contemporary English.

Published by Unbound, it’s subtitled ‘Notes on Life & Love, Faith & Doubt’,  and it’s an experiment in drawing on the genius of poets, songwriters and novelists, inside and outside of the stories of faith, to come up with some practical tools for living a good life.

It wonders up to big subjects like forgiveness and kindness, grief and justice, asking where can we find inspiration for living a rewarding life.

The poet Vanessa Kisuule finds it ‘generous, profound and challenging’.  Which is kind of what we were hoping for. Bag a copy here.

 

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WD40 that oils the creaking hinges of our friendships

The F word. It’s one of the most provocative in the English language. We use it sparingly. It takes us by surprise, going against our natural instincts. The F Word is forgiveness.

Some people can practice it. Jill Saward, who has died this week, was among them. She became a household name after being attacked and raped at the Ealing vicarage where her father was the local priest.

From somewhere deep inside Jill found the resources to make light from darkness. Over time she became a champion for the rights of those who’ve faced sexual violence. She made a distinction between the act of aggression and her aggressors.

‘Forgiveness gives you freedom,’ she said. ‘Freedom to move on without being held back by the past.’

In that familiar prayer, Christians say ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Jill Saward found her faith called her to forgiveness… but not everyone shares that faith.

And not everyone who shares it, can make such a clear-cut decision to forgive.

It’s easy to sentimentalise forgiveness… until we ourselves are the victim of some abusive partner, some violent stranger, some political tyrant. Some conniving colleague or friend who breaks trust.

When the journalist Marina Cantacuzino was collecting stories for an exhibition called The F Word, she observed that some people see forgiveness as a noble response to atrocity… and others see it as a ridiculous response.

Taking part in restorative justice courses inside prisons, I’ve often seen prisoners reflect movingly on the impact of their crimes – sometimes, when meeting victims.

Janine – not her real name – stabbed another girl in a drunken argument. I watched her nervously rise to her feet, in a circle of twenty of her fellow inmates, and read a poem she’d written addressed to her victim, explaining her sorrow and regret.

Some people crave forgiveness for what they’ve done, but others don’t. Some victims decide to forgive quickly – others can never do it.

Forgiveness is as mysterious as love or compassion, it won’t be forced and isn’t compulsory.

Even for those who choose forgiveness, it’s not a momentary decision but a resolution to weave this new thread into the ragged fabric of our everyday relationships.  Less of an act and more of an attitude.

Forgiveness can be the WD40 that oils the creaking hinges of our friendships and, sometimes, keeps the doors from falling off altogether.

‘All friendships of any length,’ says the poet David Whyte, ‘Are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.’

But it’s not easy, it’s not about forgetting and it doesn’t always lead to reconciliation – except, perhaps, with ourselves.

For the practicing Christian or practicing Moslem, for the practicing agnostic or practicing atheist, the practice of forgiveness is one way to break free of a past which wants to trap us.

‘Forgiveness,’ as Jill Saward said, ‘can bring freedom.’

(BBC R4 Thought For The Day Jan 7th 2017)

Overlooked

Good Morning. A new section in The New York Times features the novelist Charlotte Bronte, the poet Sylvia Plath, the transgender activist Marsha P Johnson and Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.

The section is called Overlooked and most of its subjects are women or people of colour because – as the paper says – it overlooked them when they died.  Now it is correcting the record.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary next week of the murder of Martin Luther King, another famous title, National Geographic, has gone through its archives and confessed that for decades its coverage was racist.

‘To rise above our past we must acknowledge it,’ writes the editor, who notes that she is the first woman and first Jewish person to edit the magazine since it was founded in 1888.

The phrase ‘rewriting history’ is often used in a pejorative sense but sometimes history was written down wrong in the first place… by the victors as the saying goes.

In our own everyday histories, most of us are guilty of overlooking people who are not like us.

Some people are over heard – literally, we hear too much from them – at the expense of others we can’t hear. Or choose not to hear. We are the poorer for not knowing their stories.

When I worked on newspapers, journalists sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time – only to suddenly reappear with the front page scoop.  They had left the big city, or left the UK, in order to listen to communities whose stories could not be heard from behind a desk.

With the rise and rise of social media and its clanging echo chambers, it’s harder to witness the lives of the overlooked, more difficult to tune in to the under-heard.

But social change often arrives unbidden from the edges and the margins, while all the focus is on the centres of power and influence.

Today is a liminal day for Christians – an in-between day sometimes called Empty Saturday.

It’s the day when the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth were registering the shock of his death. The end of everything they had hoped in.

It looked like the still small voice of history had been shouted down once again.

But at sunrise on the Sunday, it was a group of three unsung women, overlooked people, who visited the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed.

Salome, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, found the stone at the tomb’s entrance rolled away. Over time – decades, then centuries – their story came to rewrite history.

News travels slowly from the edges to the centre.  Sometimes resurrection is a slow dawning. But we may need to still ourselves in order to hear it.

‘Another world is not only possible,’ writes the novelist Arundhati Roy. ‘She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’

(BBC R4 Thought For The Day, Saturday March 31, 2018)

 

How the practice of faith is good for the soul…

Most weeks I play football with a bunch of other middle-aged men defying time’s wear & tear… along with some much younger and faster players.

With no referee and in the heat of the moment, we sometimes get decisions wrong. Was that a foul? A penalty? The action replay comes afterwards, via selective memory, over a pint in the pub. That’s the moment when we’ve calmed down and can get over ourselves.

Now and again tempers flare. When mine does I’m reminded of the smouldering volcano inside, that we all try to keep a lid on.

Anger – at colleagues, friends, loved ones – can erupt within even the most peacable of us. And if some things are worth sleeping on, anger is rarely one.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, during sleep the brain reorganises the way that memories are stored.  Negative memories, it suggests, become harder to reverse.

In other words, go to sleep feeling angry with someone and it will be far harder to resolve that anger. Far more chance the rage becomes resentment, the bad-feeling bitterness.

But didn’t we already know this? After all, the most common advice to couples at weddings is ‘Don’t go to bed on a row.’

It goes back further, to the Apostle Paul, telling the early Christians to ‘not let the sun go down upon your wrath.’ Don’t let your rage get the better of you.

The narratives of our faith traditions often remember practical wisdom that is elsewhere easily forgotten.

There’s a common assumption that the more science reveals about how we’re made and how we tick, the more we’ll realise we don’t need faith. It will be marginalized, deemed irrelevant and finally disappear.

And it’s true that when religion is used to harbour homophobia, misogyny or racism, it looks all too much like a world we’d hoped to say goodbye to.

But another truth also emerges, that the practice of faith is often good for the soul.

Slightly sheepishly, a friend told me the other day that while he doesn’t think of himself as that religious he goes to church regularly. Surprised, I asked him why. ‘I need time to be on my own,’ he said.

While practicing religion brings him the gift of solitude, conversely, for people with too much solitude, it brings the gift of community. When I ask Ivy, 95, why she goes to church, the answer doesn’t focus on her beliefs but on her friends. Sunday morning may be the only time in the week she leaves her flat.

Many of the volunteers at the local church nightshelter would never turn up for a service. But the church is where they go to practice what they believe in… and what they believe in is supporting people down on their luck.

Just as science may reveal evidence to support the wholesome effects of some long-forgotten medical practice or dietary regime, for me the good habits of faith, often overlooked, can be equally beneficial.

Like taking a Sabbath, remembering to be grateful, welcoming the stranger.   Or not letting the sun go down on our anger.

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday December 3rd, 2016)

Giving Flowers To Strangers

I had never heard of Jack Webber until a funeral notice in the Daily Telegraph last week which described him as a ‘charmer, clock-collector, wit and Royal Navy Commander’. He had died at 101 but what struck me, was the simple request in the final line of the notice.

It said, ‘To commemorate Jack, please give a bunch of flowers to a complete stranger and tell them they’re absolutely marvellous.’

Maybe it’s because we’re entering the season of goodwill, but I thought I’d give it a try and this week I did. It’s easier said than done.

Armed with a bunch of carnations, walking home from an early meeting on Tuesday, I hesitated before half a dozen complete strangers… then chickened out altogether. It was too weird. What would they take me for?

Eventually I stopped by an elderly man in motorized chair, smoking a roll up. ‘I’ve a gift for you,’ I said, brandishing my bouquet.

‘You don’t know me, mate’ he said. Reasonably enough.

I know, I said but I’ve decided to tell people they’re marvellous and give them some flowers – it’s a long story. He looked at me curiously. I understood.

‘Can I give them to my young lady?’ he asked. I agreed. ‘Well, Merry Christmas to you mate,’ he said.

This was more challenging than I’d imagined but not wanting to give up I decided to go for people who were not complete strangers – like the local Lollipop Lady offering safe passage to children through morning traffic for longer than I can remember.

Her face lit up as I gave her a bunch of roses. She grabbed me in a hug and gave me a kiss. ‘Oh, bless you,’ she said. ‘I only threw mine out yesterday.’

In a café, queuing for a coffee, an elderly woman was clearly at her wits end with another woman nearby, in a wheelchair. I threw her a look of understanding.

‘That’s my mum,’ she told me. ’She’s 98 and I’m her carer. I love her but she can drive me nuts.’

Later I went back with a bunch of chrysanthemums and said I wanted to thank her for looking after her mum.

There’s a Quaker saying that ‘An enemy is a friend whose story we have not heard.’ The same could be true of any stranger.

My friend Pip, who’s spent his life working with people that others write off as lost causes, says everyone is a BHP – a beautiful human person.

For all our faults and failings, he sees the image of the divine in every face.

Or as the ancient Psalmist puts it, ‘We are fearfully and wonderfully made.’

The approaching season of goodwill could just as easily be called the season of marvellous.

A time to stop, notice and cherish each other. Strangers and friends.

I wouldn’t recommend approaching total strangers with a bunch of flowers but maybe Christmas is just the moment for some unexpected act of generosity – that makes someone else feel special.

That could be marvellous.

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday December 10th, 2016)

‘Welcome To The Age of Uncertainty’

‘Good Morning… and welcome to the age of uncertainty.

I had to look the phrase up after I noticed it on the faces of my children.

The age when all bets are off. When your country has voted to head out of the European Union and both those who are elated about it – and those who are bereft – are not really sure about how or when or what it will mean.

An age when technological innovation transforms working patterns and disrupts career paths – and, for many, money’s too tight to mention.

‘I’m one pay check away from disaster,’ as a twenty-something friend told me this week. If her contract ends, she has no spare cash, and eviction beckons. She’s a member of the JAM – the newly coined class of ‘Just. About. Managing’. That’s the definition of an uncertain life.

Our anxiety can be heightened by social media, that clanging echo chamber of love and hate and cats. In a wistful letter to the Financial Times, a writer sums up his existential political crisis, by concluding, ‘We are reduced to posting on Facebook because we haven’t worked out what to do yet.’

On both sides of the Atlantic, even those who are delighted that change is coming, agree the world is entering unchartered territory.

‘This is not the Apocalypse,’ says President Obama. Ok… that’s good, thanks for that. ‘History zigs and zags,’ he says. ‘Sometimes goes forward, sometimes moves back.’

Asked how he reassures his daughters, Malia and Sacha, about growing up in this uncertain age, he says to them, ‘Your job as a decent human being is to constantly… treat people with kindness and respect and understanding.’

When the international edition of history seems unpredictable, when disruption is the new normal, we’re still responsible for our local edition.

‘They don’t publish the good news,’ says the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hann. ‘The good news is published by us.’

Unavoidable as it is and alarming though it can appear, the 24-hour news cycle, is not the only cycle of time.

In the orbit of the Christian calendar a new year begins tomorrow, with the season of Advent.

It’s a waiting season, reminding people of the hope for a new kind of world. The words of the ancient prophet Isaiah will ring out in churches. ‘A voice cries out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord…’

Make it straight … even when it zig zags.

In a have-it-now culture where everything is on-demand, a season of waiting is a counter-intuitive notion. Waiting is not something technology will speed up. And, like sleep, it cannot be rushed.

The season of Advent tells us that not all waiting times need to be reduced.

But the virtue in waiting may be to discover who we are, to gain a new perspective. In an age of uncertainty… pausing, reflecting, wondering… can show us how to act.

Wait-and-see is what the season of Advent reminds us, and one day, as the poet Seamus Heaney put it, hope and history will rhyme.

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday November 26th, 2016)

‘To practice being people it may take a lifetime to become…’

Good Morning. As the buses trundle by and passing pedestrians look on quizzically, tomorrow morning I’ll join a hundred others in the garden of our parish church.

Slightly self-consciously we’ll wave palm crosses in the air and sing a hymn. Then, with relief, we’ll follow the choir through the old oak doors and into church.

Palm Sunday recalls the crowds waving branches when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, promising another kind of world. If we could ask him, I guess he’d say we’re still waiting.

Holy Week, for Christians culminates in Easter Sunday when Lent is up, and some of us can have a drink again. ‘Hallellujah’, to use the technical term.

But the faithful are no longer guaranteed a free run in owning certain days of certain weeks – everybody wants a piece of the action. The week ahead includes World Poetry Day – Monday – World Water Day – Wednesday – and, even, on Good Friday, International Waffle Day.

Every day is World Something-Or-Other Day, branded by marketing agencies to sell products – by campaigners to boost good causes. The festivals of faith, though, are more joined up and integrated, suggesting another route through a life, a way to practice faith – not just speak it.

A family we know, living in a big city, decided to experiment one Lent without a car. Six weeks on they’d adopted a new mindset, and have never owned a car since.

A journalist friend is spending this Lent, intentionally trying to get on with a colleague – someone who really winds her up. Her Lent isn’t a 40-day detox, but a personal transformation. It might take her as long as a life.

Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter? Can this alternative calendar of faith be an intimation of another kind of living, a way of embedding new habits in search of a good life?
This calendar doesn’t remind you of appointments and deadlines but of the person you want to be, the world you want to live in. It’s not about seven days a week or seventy years of a life but about everyone – in all of time.

Its seasons paint a bigger picture. As big as the one imagined by The Long Now Foundation in the US, the people behind something called ‘The 10,000-Year Clock’.

This clock will tick just once a year. In place of an hour hand, it will have a century hand. Its supporters believe in the long-term, that life is not about faster and cheaper but slower and deeper.

Their notion of ‘the long now’ rings true in the alternative calendar of faith, where people recite an ancient creed which ‘looks for the world to come’.

It asks us to become long-sighted. To practice being people it may take a lifetime to become. To plan for a present we may never experience. To long for a world we may have left… before it has even arrived.’

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday March 19th, 2016)

‘Shakespeare or Scripture?’

Good Morning. Take a listen to these expressions:
‘Wild goose chase’?
‘Wear your heart on your sleeve’?
‘Mum’s the word’?

Are they Shakespeare… or are they Scripture?

What about: ‘By the skin of your teeth’? ‘Fight the good fight’? Or ‘Eat drink and be merry’?

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Only five years ago we marked four centuries of the King James Version of the Bible.

No other literary sources give us more of our everyday phrases and sayings. We may think we know little of either but they speak through us daily.

Language is viral, quietly travelling centuries. Sticky expressions & turns of phrase glue themselves into our conversation. Tripping off our tongue before we’ve even noticed.

‘So…’ is a current example. When did someone decide that the word ‘So’ must preface our response to a question.

And it turns out that everyone has adopted the phrase ‘it turns out’ – a recent verbal tic for explaining a twist in the tale you’re telling.

Yesterday I enquired of a twentysomething in our house about the expression ‘bae’ – spelt BAE – which, it turns out, has nothing to do with British Aerospace – it’s short for babe.

Maybe you’ll notice it, now I’ve mentioned it. Soz – as…we… now say.

As communication migrates online, the acronym flexes its upper case muscles. DIY, RSVP & AWOL are eclipsed by LOL, OMG & GPWM.
That last is Good Point Well Made – BTW – By The Way.

Doubtless, many of these will bite the dust in the twinkling of an eye. They carry all the stickability of the Cockney translation of the Bible where Jesus miraculously feeds ‘five thousand geezers’ with ‘five loaves of Uncle Fred and two Lillian Gish’.

Purists can find the use and abuse of language a thorn in the flesh. They’d prefer that the original – Shakespeare or Scripture – was set in stone.

But language won’t be trapped, that’s how it survives.

And the Bible will always be one of those places we come from – even if we can’t remember being there. Every time we suffer from a broken heart or reluctantly concede that someone we trusted is a leopard who cannot change his spots.

Yes, some phrases no longer mean what they once did… but they stick around because they ring true. Sometimes truth trumps accuracy.

The great Jewish novelist, Elie Wiesel, could have been talking about Shakespeare or about the parables of Jesus when he said, ‘Some stories are true that never happened’.

And some words remain true, even as their meaning evolves. ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls,’ reads the Bible. ‘But the word of the Lord endures.’

And the word of William Shakespeare too.

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday April 9th, 2016)

‘The Wisdom Of The Old…’

Good Morning. Mary and Alf will probably be listening to this, the radio’s usually on over breakfast.

Later there may be a visit to the old folk in town. Sometimes, walking the road back from the care home, a driver will slow down and ask Mary if she needs a lift.

But at 88 she is happy walking. The old people she visits are often quite a bit younger than her.

The morning may involve auditing the remains of a jumble sale – washing, sorting, repairing – before it heads to a local charity shop.
Mary and Alf live in a hidden economy, the grace economy. They do good and it does them good.

Alf, 89, a former army chef, will produce lunch from a larder heaving with past-the-sell-by specials.
Waste not want not. They are connoisseurs of the bargain.

They can remember a time when there wasn’t enough to go around.

You can’t give them a gift which they won’t give away.

They reached ‘peak-stuff’ long before the phrase was coined.

There were lots of very senior citizens in the news this week – celebrating the Queen’s ninetieth birthday.
For a change these octogenarians and nonagenarians were not being cast as a problem to fix, a bill we can’t pay. They were independent, conversational and full of joy. And they are growing in number.

Average life expectancy has jumped by 20 years over the span of the Queen’s life but still we tend to stereotype the old as a burden on society.

Tomorrow Iva Barr will be on the start line of the London Marathon… for the 20th time. Iva is 88.

‘At my age I don’t go fast,’ she says. ‘I never did really. I’ll trot around at my own pace.’

As long as their health allows it, these venerable souls will go at their own pace, they’ll take as long as they like.

‘Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past,’ as the poet-priest R S Thomas writes in The Bright Field.
Instead he says it’s about stopping to cherish these days we have now.

In a culture predicated on production, our ageing relatives and neighbours may seem to produce very little.

In a world of measurements, what they deliver is hard to quantify.

In an age of speed and efficiency… they invariably take the scenic route.

We see their physical frailty or failing memory and fail to notice that while they made their mistakes – they may also have learnt from them. To our information society, they bring wisdom.

Americans call them ‘Seniors’ – an improvement on ‘old people’ or ‘the elderly’.

But like more ancient cultures, perhaps we should recognize these people as our elders. Keepers of the wisdom society.

‘Gray hair is a crown of glory,’ reads the Bible, ‘Wisdom is with the aged.’

‘Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you.’

 

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday April 23rd, 2016)

‘Football Measures Our Days…’

The football season is reaching its climax.
Should Man Utd or Spurs lose this weekend, then 5000/1 outsiders Leicester City will become Premiership Champions.

Can a team bereft of superstars, who narrowly avoided relegation a year ago, really do it?

On Thursday my own team conceded a last-minute equaliser and were held to a draw. Eleven-all.

We’ve been playing now, for twenty years. Fourteen of us, seven a side.
Some people have moved away. Some retired hurt. Knees, ankles, pride.
It’s about fitness, fun, competition – but mainly it’s about community.

Men are different on a football pitch. The mild-mannered academic is the midfield enforcer, channelling his inner Roy Keane.
The gentle, hospice nurse, wiping the lips of the dying by day, reveals a killer instinct in the penalty box.

In our heads we’re 21… though some of us can’t quite recall 51.

Underneath it all is Dylan Thomas’s rage against the dying of the light.
We know how a perfectly weighted pass can postpone the falling dark. We know what’s coming, how the light fades every week.

Recently we wept through the funeral of one of our finest players. Another friend, after a stroke, must now watch us from the sidelines.

Football measures our days. Its thrilling drama captures us, as players or fans.
It dares us to believe that the implausible is not always the impossible.
That Leicester might actually do it…

Like great literature or art or music, sometimes sport says the unsayable – the thing none of us dare put into words.

And it can bind communities close in the darkest days. Witness the dignified fortitude, at this weeks Hillsborough verdict, of those families who lost their loved ones.

And little compares to the quality of deep silence in a packed stadium, on a match day near Remembrance Sunday.

For all our competition and conflict, we notice that in the end it’s about Us, not I. About the team not the player.

If Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester do pull it off, Gary Lineker – as threatened – will present Match of the Day in his boxers.

But more significant will be the witness to the words of a rival manager, Arsene Wenger. ‘The act of playing for the team,’ he said, ‘Makes every individual stronger.’

Paul The Apostle would have agreed. In one of his early team talks he said, ‘In humility, count others more significant than yourselves.’
And in another, ‘The body has many parts – limbs, organs, cells – but no matter how many you can name, you’re still one body.’

When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – when it’s about Us, not I – sport transcends itself. On some days it has a sacred quality.

At the first match following the funeral of our friend recently, we all stood quietly on the centre circle. Heads bowed. Reverent. And then we kicked off …

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday April 30th, 2016)