Saturday, May 17, 2008

Death, Definace and Delight

""Just one thing," he said. "You're not writing a weepy book full of poems and pictures of rainbows, are you?" "No", I said. I wasn't sure what kind of book he was talking about, but it didn't sound like mine. "It's not that sort of book", I said."
P53 Ways to Live Forever is the debut novel of Sally Nichols. It is written from the perspective of Sam, a child on the bridge between childhood and his teenage years. Unlike many children in that period he looks ahead knowing only one thing, that he is likely to die. Sam has Leukemia. Sam also has a best friend, Felix and a love of lists. He has a helpful teacher and a supportive doctor (Dr Bill). He has a mum and dad and a sister. Sam starts out considering writing a book. He wants to do this because, he finds, people avoid talking about death or dying and so he wants to utilise his love of lists to create a piece of research into death. This covers religious, practical, historical and mythological reactions and thoughts about death. He creates a special list, beside the questions about death, and this provides some central structure to the book. He decides to list 8 things that he wants to do and we follow his attempts at them. This isn’t against a large ticking clock of doom, instead a focused attempt to explore and engage Sam. It enables us, as readers, to take joy in his success and failures as you would with anyone. At times I would forget he had Leukemia, instead just enjoy the wide-eyed exploration of a world through the eyes of a child. The book is almost like a journal or scrapbook. Utilising an abrupt writing style (very similar to 'A curious incident of the dog in the nightime')it manages to convey Sam's emotions combined with medical detail, emotional reflection and great sense of fun! This could be classed as a quick, easy read as a result. Don't let this fool you though. The ease of read isn't completely true. Although the chapters are short, and the events inconsequential, you begin to get a sense of forbodding, that possibly we may not have a 'happily ever after' ending. But, the reader has a guide with the character of Felix. Felix manages to stay remarkably resolute, positive and egging onward until the very end. His presence adds a nice balance. The majority of characters are adult and so his character evens the ages up slightly. For what could appear a dismal set of subjects (death, loss, grief, misunderstanding and pain) the author manages something very different. By approaching it from the perspective of Sam we (the reader) are not bombarded but instead follow this journey of discovery as he discovers more about his disease and we share in that. The subject of a child dying is not one to be taken lightly. It is a desperate time for all involved, no matter how respectful the pastoral care or how good the medical support, and this book manages to cover this so well. Obviously only those who have really experienced, through work or by loosing a child themselves, can truly know what it must feel like. Yet I felt the book managed to convey a deeper truth, that almost brought validity within that. Upon reaching the end of the novel I urge you all to go a few pages further. For, like a film and it's outakes, there is a hidden gem after it. The bibliography and aknowledgements show the real message of the book, the deeper human story. From consulting the fine Children's unit in Bristol, to the range of fiction and non fiction the author was living out what Sam did. Looking at a situation and researching and exploring to try and explain it. Almost that the author approached this with the same wide-eyed fascination so clearly shown through the character of Sam. The constant drip of fact, emotion and joy means each page (almost) turns it'self and leads you onto the next. This book may be Sally's first, but I hope it isn't the last. Take Care Y'All John

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Quaker Counsell

Social responsibility FAITH AND ACTION 23.01 Remember your responsibility as citizens for the government of your town and country, and do not shirk the effort and time this may demand. Do not be content to accept things as they are, but keep an alert and questioning mind. Seek to discover the causes of social unrest, injustice and fear; try to discern the new growing-points in social and economic life. Work for an order of society which will allow men and women to develop their capacities and will foster their desire to serve. Advices, 1964
Taken from Faith and Practice, browsable here

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Oh Bother

Have just opened my private email inbox and suddenly it has no messages.  No messages at all.  Somehow it has managed to loose over four years worth of emails. Alot was junk Some had a large amount of significance Others were notes keeping in touch with friends. Suddenly all gone. B*gg*r John  

Library for the Soul

Every Wednesday is a special day. At 6.15 a group of people gather, in central London, to worship God. This is no 'ordinary' worship. Instead, it's a gathering of friends, a gathering of the Westminster Meeting. That is right, I attend the weekly Quaker Meeting. I have come across Quakerism before. In the heady days leading up-to, and after, the commencement of the war in Iraq the group I was part of utilised the Edinburgh (Quaker) Meeting House for our meetings and it was a welcome event. At Greenbelt I attend the open meeting of the local Quaker Group each year and always enjoyed it. Westminster meeting is one populated by all ages but definatly on the 'young professional' side. The 45 mins has no set structure, bar closing with a handshake, no leaders or set liturgy. Some weeks no one speaks (ministers) and in others many speak. Each ministry can either follow on from a previous or be on a different subject. Whether quiet or noisy it is a great time for personal meditation and reflection. Anyway I shall post more about it at some point in the future. Take Care Y'All John

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ascension Day Sermon (by Revd Giles Fraser)

This year's ascension day service on Radio 4, I noted, was both engaging and invigorating. Mixing medieval music and Revd Giles Fraser was always going to be a heady mix. His sermon was a healthy challenge, on one of the most high profile days of the year. Reproduced beneath, in full, is the sermon he delivered: ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Writing in The Times the other day, the Marxist columnist Mick Hume described public fascination with the Shannon Matthews case – and specifically the prurient media interest in the lifestyles of many on her estate - as a sort of pornography of poverty. There is, he argued, something really rather unpleasant about a society that takes such obvious delight in sneering and leering at the economically disadvantaged. He went on: “Two hundred years ago the respectable classes paid a penny to enjoy the sexual and violent antics of the insane at Bedlam. Today people make do with mocking a Dewsbury estate.” According to this analysis, we have almost come to regard the poor as the moral villains of society rather than its victims. Contrast this, then, with the message of St Luke: ‘Blessed are you who are poor’. Not, I hasten to add the considerably more anaemic ‘Blessed are the poor in heart’ from St Matthew’s Gospel. No, Luke gives it to us straight. So, for example, where Matthew’s version of the Christmas story has the baby Jesus greeted by wise men with expensive presents, Luke has the child met by agricultural labourers. It sets the tone for his entire story: ‘Blessed are the poor’. What he does not mean, of course, is that poverty is any sort of good thing in itself. I know that sounds like an observation from the school of the incredibly obvious, but there have been way too many Christians - and particularly those who have misunderstood monasticism – that have regarded poverty as a training in humility and therefore a moral virtue. No: the poor are not blessed because they lead lives of designer simplicity or moral superiority. It’s not a lifestyle choice. Poverty is about malnutrition, infant mortality, living in a disgusting favela or freezing to death in a cardboard box. These are not the ways of moral edification. ‘Blessed are you who are poor’ does not mean that poverty is virtuous: it means that God is to be found amongst the poor; that God is on their side. And what follows from this is that, for Christians, sneering at the poor, dismissing people as chavs or hoodies, is actually a form of blasphemy. It’s quite remarkable to me that anybody might think this even the slightest bit theologically controversial, given that the Bible contains literally thousands of references to economic injustice. It’s actually the second most prominent theme in the whole of Scripture - the first being idolatry, which is itself often linked with the love of money. The great crescendos of the Biblical narrative insist again and again on the central significance of this theme. Mary speaks of God as bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away with nothing. Jesus continues where his mother left off: “I come to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, sight to the blind.” Whatever happened to the church that preached these values? Back in the mid twentieth century, following the ground breaking Second Vatican council, the buzz in the Roman Catholic Church was all about liberation theology. It was especially prominent in South America, with priests and theologians arguing that the church ought to adopt a preferential option for the poor. Salvation, they said, was as much a practical thing, a liberation from the bondage of slavery and debt, with Jesus as the new Moses leading the oppressed out of the captivity of poverty and into the promised land of freedom and prosperity. But the official church never really warmed to this sort of preaching, suspecting its motives of being too political, more Marx than Moses. John Paul II’s deep hatred of Communism gave him a moral blind spot that led him to overlook the fact that liberation theology was a way of living out a clear Biblical imperative as expressed in St Luke’s very practical Christ. But the Pope was completely right that Communism isn’t the same thing as the Gospel. Moreover, the idea that poverty is simply a left wing issue is dangerously unhelpful. For with the collapse of international socialism those at the bottom of the heap are in desperate need of new ideas, new friends, and new hope. Yet it’s hard to see these new friends emerging, even within the church. In Latin America, liberation theology has been shouldered aside by those who prefer their religion more otherworldly, more churchy or more charismatic. And in this country many Christians have been giving up on the material dimension of God’s purpose for humanity. We are increasingly thinking of religion as though it were some sort of self-help therapy, all about one’s mental and spiritual well being or some strange esoteric knowledge. Thus we end up with an introverted piety that spends its time gazing up into heaven and a practical indifference to the material conditions of those who live next door. This may be why I have a bit of a problem with the way some people understand the Feast Day of the Ascension. There is something faintly comic about a whole bunch of people, gazing up into the clouds, imagining a final fleeting glimpse of the soles of Jesus’ feet. More problematically: the Ascension can represent an over-fascination with the ethereal aspects of faith to the neglect and detriment of the physical. It must be remembered then that Christianity is arguably the most materialistic of the world’s religions faiths. For with Christianity, God is imagined not as a cloud, nor as a book, but as a human being, born in a shed, and at one with the physical reality of human life. With Christianity, God is to be found in the dirt and not in the sky. That’s why the Ascension can be so misleading. But there is, of course, a quite different way of understanding the Ascension that is fully consistent with a more earthy theology. The book of Acts describes two angels present at the scene. “Men of Galilee” they say with more than a hint of mockery, “why do you stand staring into heaven?” It’s a great question. For not only does it puncture that misleading religious cliché that up somehow equals holy, it also invites the disciples to bring their gaze down to earth and confront the measure of the task now before them. A heartbeat after Jesus’ departure comes the terrifying question: what on earth are we to do now? How are we to accomplish what we pray for – to create the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven? This remarkable church of St Martin in the Fields gives us a clue. Under our feet, deep within the earth, wonderful new facilities for London’s poorest people have been dug out in a feat of the most extraordinary engineering. If you want to find God round here, follow the advice of the angels and cease gazing up into the sky. For God lives downstairs, alongside the homeless, the outcast and the refuge. Any church worthy of the name must be built right on top of a concern for the vulnerable, just as this church is quite literally. One more thing. The theological emphasis on practical Christianity has the added advantage of being something uniting within society. In an age where religion is so often the source of division, a preferential option for the poor can bring together atheists and agnostics and fundamentalists and liberals, uniting people of all faiths and of none. This does not make it any less authentically Christian. Jesus himself put it pretty clearly: “in so much as you did it to the least of these my brother and sisters, you did it also to me.” ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- If you like what you read then don't forget you can often find Giles either a) In the Church Times b) In the Guardian Newspaper c) As team rector at the Parish Church of Putney St Mary and All Saints Take Care Y'All John

A meditation for the Jubilee Debt Campaign

"Who will love a little Sparrow? Who's traveled far and cries for rest? "Not I," said the Oak Tree, "I won't share my branches with no sparrow's nest, And my blanket of leaves won't warm her cold breast." Who will love a little Sparrow And who will speak a kindly word? "Not I," said the Swan, "The entire idea is utterly absurd, I'd be laughed at and scorned if the other Swans heard." Who will take pity in his heart, And who will feed a starving sparrow? "Not I," said the Golden Wheat, "I would if I could but I cannot I know, I need all my grain to prosper and grow." Who will love a little Sparrow? Will no one write her eulogy? "I will," said the Earth, "For all I've created returns unto me, From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be."
Sparrow, performed by Simon and Garfunkle.
  • Who is the sparrow in the world today - working hard and needing somewhere to slow down, seek shelter and rest?
  • Who acts like the Oak tree - Selfish with their resources and deciding their resources won't help?
  • Who acts like the Swan - Scoffing, dismissive and thinking more about what other people think than the needs of the person crying out for help?
  • Who acts like the Wheat - Full of excuses and ultimatly acting in a selfish way to only better their own needs?
  • Who opens themselves up and acts like the earth?
For over a decade there has been an international campaign calling for governments to declare a year of Jubilee.  To look at the debts owed by developing countries and release them from their bondage.  Allow them to grow strong, tall and mature.  Instead they are caught in a debt trap, paying more on repayments then on welfare.  Billions of pounds of debt have been cleared.  Yet billions remains tied up.  So often these debts would be considered gained for amoral or illegitimate purposes and yet we allow countries to be tied down trying to pay them back.  Come to Birmingham this Sunday and: Celebrate… 10 years since the Birmingham human chain  Discover… the impact of debt cancellation so far  Demand… a lasting solution to the debt crisis EDIT: Olive Morgan has already blogged about this here David Hallam has already blogged about this here Take Care Y'All John

Sunday, May 11, 2008

It's Folkin Free!

Each month is like Christmas at the moment and the best thing is that it's free!   Karine Polwart, one of Scotland's newest and best folk singer/songwriters is releasing a free MP3 for download each month. Born in Stirlingshire Karine has done it all.  From teaching to advocacy she has been and seen the world, as well as getting a BA and MA under her belt as well.  She burst onto the folk scene in 2003 with her debut album 'Faultlines'.  Since then she has released three more albums (including 'This Earthly Spell' earlier this year) and toured extensively both as solo artist and member of a variety of groups. This month's entry  is called '1,2,3,4,5' and was written at the Burnsong Songhouse 2006.  The Songhouse is an annual gathering of sings and songerwriters who spend some time together writing and creating.   She is back out and touring at the moment and some of the songs from that creative period are included on this tour. So go on, sign up then download.  You know it makes sense. Take Care Y'All John