...If I could walk away from me?"
I'm just back from a weekend spent with a community that I'm part of. It's really an extended family, where you don't yet know all your relatives really well. Our political views vary, our religious views vary, and our ages vary considerably, but we're committed to getting on as a community. After a weekend drinking more coffee than I probably should (including with a world-renowned astrophysicist), doing a bit more walking than I'm used to (with a guy who's been to the top of Everest), and sitting down to eat some modest but adequate food with them, I know a few folk a bit better. One part of the weekend which helped was the Angels' Share session, tho sadly this was more metaphorical than actual. (If, as was the case with me, you don't know what the Angels' Share is, you need to a trip to a good Distillery). My respect for some of these people has grown, and I've benefited from spending a bit of time thinking about how I should spend some of my time, money and energies. I've heard some great music - not the throwaway kind, but the stuff that moves you deep down; and challenges you to think, maybe even behave, a little differently.
The weekend unsettled me. I blame Doug. (Or I might blame Steve cos Steve brought Doug). Doug's a big Scotsman - a Scottish Nationalist, actually, but we'll forgive him that. He used to front a band called Candy Says. Now, I like to know where bands get their names from and, when I don't know, I can't resist speculating. I did ask Doug so that I wouldn't have to speculate, but he claimed it's too long ago to remember. Maybe he just wanted me to use my imagination. Candy Says is an old song by the Velvet Underground. It's pretty meditative, melancholic in fact. Stripped back, with exposed, quivering vocals. Vulnerable. Candy Says is kinda the less well known sibling of Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side. However, its vocals aren't provided by Reed but by another Doug, Doug Yule. Candy came from out on the island. And started off life as Jimmy. She was part of the Warhol Factory scene - one of those Andy Warhol made "famous for 15 minutes." Something tells me Holly wasn't the only one who plucked her eyebrows on the way.
Candy was one of the Warhol "Superstars." Of course they were superstars simply because he filmed them and declared them to be. So what was a Scottish Presbyterian minister doing naming his band after a '60s/'70s transgender actress, and whatever she said? I haven't found out (yet). But the song lyrics did provide me with a couple of interesting couplets, which coincidently tied in with some of what Doug had to say.
"Candy says I hate the big decisions
that cause endless revisions in my mind...
...What do you think I'd see
If I could walk away from me?"
What would it look like if we began to step away from our own comfortable same old same old? What would we see when the focus is less on us or our own needs? What if the music in church more accurately reflected how people are feeling when life has ripped out the bottom of their soul? What if it met people in their grief, distress and doubt, rather than trying to brush over that distress with the warm fuzzies? Since we claim to believe in a God who not only understands our distress but volunteered to identify with us by experiencing it, I'd argue that it's vital that we don't try to bluff or kid ourselves, or portray to others, that a life of faith isn't full of gritty reality, pain, doubt, injustice, and, for some, misery. Perhaps that's why Les Miserables has a strong appeal to the spirit. It's certainly why the Blues and Spirituals intersect. They reflect the messiness of real life.
I also blame Philip, who is quite an authority on Irish history. He presented important factual information, illustrated by powerful anecdotes. He covered the Somme, and the Easter Rising and challenged those of us who are middle class to recognise how working class loyalists have been marginalised and left feeling forgotten, robbed of identity. Perhaps we need to walk away from our own comfort zones in order to see the distress felt by others. In my own church we've done that with those of a nationalist aspiration much more than we have with loyalists.
Like many Old Testament books, the book of Jeremiah has plenty of blues within it. Spanning a period in which the Israelites were taken captive into an foreign country, and involving much brutality and loss of life, is it any wonder that many African Americans identify with the notion of Babylon? Doug spent some time demonstrating from that book that we shouldn't rush straight from suffering to hope. First we need to acknowledge the suffering, and feelings of helplessness. We're also supposed to engage with it - one of the reasons faith can't be a private exercise, as some either assume it is or would like to make it. Jeremiah contains some strong stuff - which is often not touched on in church sermons. Difficult passages, which Doug didn't duck [What alliteration :-)], including the role of God when evil pays a visit. The text is designed to be wrestled with, not to be cherry-picked from - whether by evangelical atheists to present God as a monster, or by misguided Christians who wish to skip the tricky stuff and rush to put on the rose-tinted specs. Hope is real but there can be generations of slaughter, genocide even, before it's realised. There are multiple voices in the text of Jeremiah (and elsewhere in the Old Testament). If it was an easy text, it would come with a ladybird symbol on the cover. It's designed for more longevity than that. Noddy's Guide is for Toyland. This ain't Toyland.
Doug pointed us to St James' church in Piccadilly, London, which, until 2nd February, has an art installation entitled "Flight" by Arabella Dorman. This is what the congregation gathered under to sing their traditional carols over the romantic festive period.
What has an upturned inflatable boat with dangling life jackets got to do with the Christmas narrative? If you need me to answer that, you need to go read it again. It's much easier to cosy up in front of the fire and sing "See amid the winter snow" with its dubious, if familiar, imagery, or restrict the force of Christmas to a couple of days in the year (it's over now isn't it?), or absorb distortions of the account popularised up and down the country in school nativity plays, if we're permitted to have them.
Of course, it's not just school nativity plays or some carols which may be dodgy advertisements for Christianity. People are too, all year 'round. We're all work in progress, and we need to be open to (in Candy's terminology) revisions of the mind. As regards how Christians have failed to live up to how we should be, apologies. Be patient with us. One of the songs I was introduced to at the weekend is this haunting number by American alternative rock band the innocence mission.
"Hang my head low, so low.
Don't see me only as I am but
see me how I long to be.
under a gray Pennsylvania sky.
Look for me as you go by.
Hang my head low, so low.
Every burden shall be lifted.
Every stone upon your back slide into the sea.
It's me for you and you for me."
It was played during Communion. It's an acknowledgement that we're not how we should be, and things generally aren't, but that there is real promise. For Christians (and for Jews) that promise is a Big Deal. It's definitive - of relationship, particularly relationship with God. We each have value, independently from our abilities, achievements or failures. This is not a remote God who's waiting for our lives to run their course before beating us with a big stick, nor a God who is blind to the failings of 'organised religion.' Equally he is not a God who is deaf to the cries for justice by those who have been violated, oppressed, or brutalised. Instead, a God who wishes things to be better than they are, and wants to us to partner with him in making it that way... a father who's out for the best interests of his children. However, the timeframes within which he operates may not be the ones we think are best. Yet, ultimately he is for us, and desires us to be for him, because that's how family should be. He could be intervening all the time, but that would be treating us like kindergarten. He has a plan, and he's invited us to implement it, has provided the necessary tools, and even allows us to get creative as to how we use them. No plan B. (He doesn't need one). But we still mess up our bedroom floor in the interim. Trouble is the soldiers aren't green plastic, or pixelated ones in Call of Duty. As I've said, this isn't Toyland.
So here's to better living - less me-orientated, more for the common good; less 'our nation'-orientated and more toward global good. This takes courage. How about nationhood, national identity and economic growth as means to an end rather than the ends themselves? Here's to better listening and, when we speak, let's not finish each other's sentences. Sometimes maybe we shouldn't rush to finish our own. And here's to better music, and art generally, in church - joy and pain acknowledged side by side. As one of the teenagers launched into a song yesterday that had pretty much the same guitar intro as Wild Thing by the Troggs, I thought we were beginning to get a little balance restored, and then I remembered the tag-line "you make everything groovy." Maybe eventually, but definitely not right now. In the meantime maybe we do need to take a walk on the wild side... and stay there a while. Much of the weekend was more about asking questions than providing prescribed answers; about starting sentences and lines of enquiry and letting them sit for a while rather than rushing to finish them. However, thanks to Patricia, I also was given some useful answers in pure maths - specifically on why some infinities are different than others, countably different in fact. Go figure.