Monday, July 30, 2007

Beauty, reflection....oh, and an award

'The nature of love is this, that it attracts to beauty and links the unbeautiful with the beautiful.'
(Marsilio Ficino)

Only when the clamor of the outside world is silenced will you be able to hear the deeper vibration
(Sarah Ban Breathnach)

Paris has kindly honoured me with the Blogger Reflection Award. Thank you, I am seriously chuffed.

Here are my 5 reflective winners (this was not an easy task - there are so many good blogs that provide daily L5 musing:

Jen's word's and pictures feed my soul and nourish my heart like no other blog. What Jen has been through has claimed better souls than mine, but she is a remarkable human whose work always inspires and whose wisdom from struggles has been clean air in a world where most of the air is too angry to breath. She is out there on her own, no-one comes close

Pip is the Godfather of L5, deep, provocative conversations and reflections (like the one today 2 Aug 07 - if this doesn't draw you to the divine with tears, well, you don't have a pulse) that leave you breathless. He is my friend and mentor. I love him.

The Father is a dear dear human who, in truth, doesn't blog enough - but as musicians will tell you - when it comes to greatness, sometimes less is more. He is a sensitive, kind heart whose insight into the road less travelled is a constant inspiration to me.

Dana (aka awareness) is a Canadian fireball with the compassion of a carpenter who spoke love in riddles - she kind of does the same thing - A beautiful soul...

Anna is a remarkable talent - her pictures constantly evoke departures, take me on a journey of belonging and questions of beauty and love....sometime we don't need words

Now it's up to the five of you to nominate five deserving winners. The Blogger Reflection Award rules are: "This award should make an individual reflect upon five bloggers who have been an encouragement, a source of love, impacted you in some way and who have provided a Godly example. In other words, five dear bloggers whom, when you reflect upon them, you are filled with a sense of pride and joy... of knowing them and being blessed by them.”

Once you have chosen five bloggers, write at least a paragraph about each one; link this post, so others can read it and the rules; leave your chosen bloggers a comment, informing them of their award and place the award icon on your website

Inspired by my lovely friend, I re-read a book by Father O'Donohue that I liberated from his house last year.....

here is the wisdom of this remarkable mystic....

"While beauty gladdens our hearts, it makes us lonely too for what cannot be. True beauty is woven through the heart of life and is ever engaged with forces of ignorance, darkness, ugliness and negativity; yet domination and power are not beauty's way. beauty works from within these conflicts of forces and her brightening may or may not appear.

Where beauty seems absent she is often hidden and still at work in the slow industry of transformation. So much of beauty is not immediately apparent and indeed it could take a long time before it becomes visible. it often takes a lot of struggle and committed attention and generosity, even sacrifice, in order to create beauty. This work of beauty is slow and patient; it is the transformation through which the darkness of suffering eventually glimmers with the learned refinement of true radiance.

Ths soul that struggles for the emergence of beauty reaches towards God and labours on that threshold between visible and invisible, time and eternity."

Oh, to have insight like so.....the promise of possibility. I guess Dostoevsky had it right....'Perhaps it is beauty that will save us in the end.'

The boy above is Amos, he was seven when I took this photograph - he was one of the young boys who survived in the village i spoke of in my last post...he is beautiful, and one day may just live up to his names sake - i hope so......

It seems i have been nominated for another award...will be back later to comment and honour 5 others.....see told you i would

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


"Please do not leave us. We do no want to remain cripples, we wish to get up and walk."

Ok am bloody frusrated (what's new) I came across a picture on a disc the other day and remembered the aching words above before leaving West Africa a few years ago....thought I would blog a couple of days of my diary and I wanted to show you this regal woman called Lydia - well, sadly I can't the file is too big and when I downsize the image becomes poor (bugger!) - so instead you get another regal woman. I never knew her name, she sold bannanas on the street, and as we hit a red light in Tamale i bought some from her and quickly then took this shot.....she spoke no english, if only those eyes could speak...

Day 4
There is something remarkably amusing about a journey to a remote African village which gives you more up’s and downs than a day out at Alton Towers. As we drive deeper and deeper into the jungle the small communities we observe begin to resemble the villages from my childhood memories of Tarzan films. A bus supposed to carry 8 people is carrying 15 to the isolated village of Agazo.

The people of Agazo have been driven from the land they have farmed for generations. An American Company bought the land and forced them to leave – the trouble with this is that these dear people have no concept of ‘owning’ land – land is a gift from God, not something that can be bought and sold. I reflect on how many indigenous cultures we have destroyed - have you ever wondered what a fence means to a nomadic people?

When Christian Aid partners Development Action Association arrived in the village the community, who had been threatened with legal action, retreated to a small clearing in the jungle. There the men would not speak to anyone, these are proud people – much more than their land had been taken from them. Huts were built and the villagers hid inside. Soon children became malnourished, and tragically some didn’t survive by the time DAA arrived. We were the first white people to speak in their village.

We are welcomed by the Chief with drumming, dancing and song. Then, as is custom, we settle in a circle under a tree to share food and stories. The Chief of the village tells us that their Cassava crops had been bulldozed half way through the season - they had been left with nothing – no crops, no land. We hear that Christian Aid (through the partnership) secured a plot of land, and helped with the acquisition of a grinding machine for the Cassava, enabling faster and more efficient processing of the crop, so producing a better quality commodity so becoming more marketable. This is both the genius and simplicity of Christian Aid – it is an invisible partner providing funds for local people to work their way out of poverty. The partners know and understand the people and the land, and as a consequence the projects have a very high rate of success. The people of Agazo are testament to this.

Our driver Samuel seems to be all things to all men. Not only is he a cook, he is also a mechanic, which comes in rather handy as our exhaust falls off with the weariness of the return journey. We finally arrive at our ‘hotel’ to find three French men and their landrover about to set off for Brazil via a big ship and the Atlantic. It seems these able fellows have driven from Bordeaux through Spain, Morocco, and the Sahara desert - then on into Senegal, the Gambia, finally arriving in Ghana. They were now having a few days rest before embarking on a trip that would take them around South America. Their enthusiasm is only marred tonight by the fact that they have run out of Claret – all the same they give me a glass – I am so pleased I actually think about kissing them, think I might have if it had been a better vintage!

Day 8
We rise early. A 10 hour drive awaits us over the kind of terrain Chris Rea must have had in mind when he wrote ‘The Road to Hell’. We leave Kumasi for Tamale, heading for the Muslim north. As I gaze out of our window I see a weary, worn people desperate to carve a life out of this shanty jungle. This wilderness is claustrophobic. Every space is littered with steel, wood, tyres, bricks and crates – interspersed amongst this seemingly hopeless jungle are people’s homes. Bits of wood, mud and tin and stone thrown together are the ingredients of that sacred space called community. I’m beginning to understand that real poverty is not about having no home or no food and clothes. Real poverty is where there are no choices. As we drive through Esase, a dust village where children at best walk around in old dirty under pants, I realise that this community has been robbed of the greatest seed planted deep within each of us – choice. I have lost count of how many children I have seen with a lost distant look in their eyes. They look for a tomorrow that may never come, somehow dazed, confused and exhausted by their very existence.

Over breakfast this morning, on a small television with a coat hanger for an ariel, we were subjected to African T.V. evangelists. I fear once more the West is now beginning to bring a curse much greater than the greedy foreign policies and trade laws. It is the curse of pharisaic dogma born of the West’s prosperity gospel. For too long now there have been too many Pharisees and not enough prophets in the church. Few are willing to ‘stand in the gap’. The tragedy is that most of the Pharisees see themselves as prophets.

There is no quick solution here. Greedy foreign policy and corrupt Trade laws make for a bitter cocktail – but drink it the African people must. Trade should be for life; not profit at any expense, and the only way in which these people will find themselves living with choice is if rich multinationals in the West (and the list is long) understand this and the WTO restructure their rules so providing an environment which allows the developing world to shape their own destiny – the West must yield to an economic system where fair trade is the norm.

The last few days have not been about espoused theories, but rather about befriending people and allowing them to cause me to colour outside my lines. Pastor John explains that through the partnership new hope has been born and that ‘we love you because you first loved us…you first loved us in our poverty. Sometimes sacrifice is not measurable. The Saviour has come so that we, the poor, may live before we die.’ As we prepare to leave this painfully beautiful land a dear lady whose life and community have been transformed by the projects supported by the capital raised during Christian Aid Week shares with us a message for those back home. ‘Please do not leave us. We do not want to remain cripples, we wish to get up and walk.'

What was it that fella who worked with wood in Palestine 2000 years ago said? Love your neighbour as yourself? Something like that wasn't it.....

Friday, July 20, 2007

At Death's Window

I know this might be a strange post on the back of me remembering my grandfather - then again I am strange. It's my article for the paper tomorrow, as usual blog land will have it first - helps me gauge the temperature...

It started with a sentence that might last a lifetime and has left me too tired for sleeping and too wounded to hurt. I reached page ninety-eight but can’t go on. Page ninety-nine will be a long time coming, and to top it all I am probably on a hiding to nothing writing this.

The day began like any other, with coffee as I boarded the train bound for Gatwick’s South Terminal, thanks to Apple, Louden Wainwright III, was singing into my ears, and I was enjoying the latest offering from one of my favourite writers, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Annie Lamott. That was until I got to Chapter eight.

The chapter begins with a confessional statement. ‘The man I killed did not want to die, but he no longer felt he had much of a choice.’ See, not your normal opening sentence in a book about faith is it? Annie then goes on to tell the story of a couple she calls Mel and Joanne. How a once articulate, strong, fit, comical man had become deficient, still functioning and resilient, but having to retreat to a place his mind and body had never inhabited before - like a wardrobe long empty of someone, gradually losing shape and purpose – had decided to cut short his stay on this earth.

Now, as I write this in an airport terminal, I have no clue as to whether assisted suicide is legal in California, but to cut a short chapter of her book even shorter – it has to be said, that (as Annie in a painfully beautiful way writes) Mel and Joanne agreed to Annie, through, ‘wily, underground ways’ coming up with a prescription that would cover enough pills (which included barbiturates) for a lethal dose - one evening a meal was prepared, goodbyes said and presents given before Mel called time and took a cocktail that put him to sleep, the kind from which he would never wake.

It seems assisted suicide laws around the world are clear in some nations but unclear – if they exist at all – in others. Just because a country has not defined its criminal code on this specific action does not mean all assisters will go free (am assuming Annie thought this through). It is a complicated state of affairs. A great many people instinctively feel that suicide and assisted suicide are such individual acts of freedom and free will that they assume there are no legal prohibitions. This fallacy has brought many people into trouble with the law. In America there have been - and are - retired doctors who will travel to different places to help dying people who are in great suffering to escape from their pain-wracked bodies.

It seems there is a growing opinion in most of the Western world that not having a choice is an abuse of civil rights. In the coming years I think we will find there will be a more welcome climate for law reform in the area of death and dying. The reason? It is fast becoming (for many) our ultimate civil liberty – the right to die in a manner of one’s own choosing.

Yet why is something deep within still feeling very uncomfortable and awkward about this subject? Well, I guess my theological response to it. For all my opinions, which sit left of centre, I can be pretty orthodox on some issues. I still believe that only God can make an end to human life since God alone is its creator. To live as human beings also means having the will to be healthy; to be man and woman as God has created us to be. The biblical witness does not describe any point at which a human life becomes deprived of sanctity because of disease or disability, nor does it suggest that the value of human life depends on an ability to perform behaviors deemed necessary for human relationships.

I recognize that this is an obscure, maybe disjointed piece of work – confused even; but then again I am if I am honest. I mean, what does it mean to be alive but not living? Is there a point where we keep people alive but deny them life? These are big questions to which I am not sure I have conclusive answers. Maybe the job of an artist is not to bring us to a point of conclusion or black and white answers; but rather a point of departure with questions. Maybe they are the invisible signposts and nourishment for the road ahead, maybe. So will I go back to the book? I think I will, Annie has done her job well – I am out of my comfort zone and I want to know where we go on the next part of the journey.

My final thought? Faced with the existence of human suffering, we are called to pattern ourselves after the ministry of Jesus Christ, to heal and to comfort. And that kind of compassion compels us to bring relief to those who suffer, but I think also believe we should pursue, not merely reject, the reasons they may give to justify a wish to die. Doing this we may uncover fears and witness the power of hope itself.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Sixteen years ago today we lost him.
A presence bigger and more full led him by the hand
to a different world.
‘Bid your troubled hearts be still’ we were told.
Meant well, but the void was too wide, the loss too deep.
His company was gone
My granddad finally could fight no longer and slipped
into a land where the grass, they say, is soft and green,
and the trees are tall and honey-filled.

The tears fell and fell and fell.
They fall now as I remember him with such affection.
His warmth and strength was infectious and so reassuring,
his faith so steadfast that I still reel back, it humbles
me so.
For years he hacked out the coal faces of South Yorkshire,
deep under ground with his bare hands.
Hands that were big and strong,
even in my later years as an adult mine were dwarfed
when he held them.

Then there was the playful mischievous side to Rex Chambers.
My father told me that he once emptied a carriage of a train
bound for Boscombe, convinced that it indeed wasn’t,
only to realise his mistake but to be too embarrassed
to admit to his error of judgement and so leave the majority
of the train bound for Middlesbrough instead!

Long before my time I have been told of occasions
where on holiday with the extended family
he would disappear without explanation for quite some time,
only to return to the beach with a supercilious grin on his face,
armed to the hilt with fish and chips for everyone…

I won’t go into his cooking experiments with ingredients
such as pigs trotters, bulls testicles and sheep’s brain!
I remember the man who worked from the early hours of the morning
until he fell asleep in his chair late at night.
I remember the man who could barely breath when he walked 5 yards
later in years having breathed in so much coal dust from the pit.
I remember the tears of frustration when he knew
his once strong body was beginning to really fail him.
I remember the man who on his deathbed asked his sister to
‘sing with him a while’ – the old rugged cross if my memory serves me well.

I remember a warm and strong man,
A trickster who enjoyed colouring outside the lines
And sixteen years ago today we said ‘see you soon lovely man,
see you soon…

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Middle of the night ponderings

Our answers are only as good as our questions....

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Psychological self-harm and the internal gift of doubt

I have been busy with lots of things of late - hence not much writing - re-read this piece I penned for GB a while back - thought I would put it out there in blog land.....

I had a conversation with God this morning. It went something like this: “Sat at my desk, very low and slightly confused. What am I about, what am I really doing with my life, and God, what am I trying to say with these tears rolling down my face? I don't know really. Maybe it's just that life is in the end ordinary. Maybe that's your gift?”

Maybe I'm just being selfish. Maybe I'm behaving like a spoiled child who expects and expects and expects. All I know is that I need you, and you can't really be there for me - but I guess you know all about that don't you. That's why I feel as though I'm being selfish. I suppose nothing can come between our hearts and minds except me. I seem to be very good at psychological self-harm right now, tormenting myself with images and circumstances that just aren't there. I give birth to the seeds of insecurity in my head and then, stupid fuck that I am, I water those seeds and allow them to germinate and grow, and before I know it they overcome me and I can't cut the weeds back at all. I suppose it's all about how we lose ourselves.

I guess most of the time I run not from others, but from myself. I know the barriers have to come down, but I just can't seem to be able to do it right now. Through it all though, I love you, your not so good friend, Paul”.

Don’t panic, I’m not on the edge of something silly, merely having a rough morning, a time of insecurity and doubt. Year after year my demons come and pay a visit. Sometimes just for the weekend, other times they really do outstay there welcome. My point? Doubt and the psychological self-harm it can do, but more importantly what we do with that wound. There is a place where missing the point becomes the beginning of the journey into the gift of doubt. There is also a place where we internally self-harm ourselves so much that we self-destruct and become so dysfunctional it’s difficult to regain that which has been taken.

Recently I was sat in an airport lounge drinking a beer (or three) and pondering life. This always happens to me when I travel. I think it’s something about standing on the threshold of the unknown, the threshold of challenge and change. I say this because of late I’ve been feeling like I have been in the middle of a voyage of missing the point.

What? Well, I used to have concrete doctrines on most issues of life, but these days I have more doubt than assurance in my life of ‘missing the point’. Confused? Me too. Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel everything so deeply, wish I could be more content, it’s as if my heart is too oversized for my fragile thin skin.

Sometimes I wish my skin were thicker, that I didn’t feel the pain or yearn for compassion of those, who just like me, are confused about what it means to be a human being. A consequence of this confusion is, quite understandably, doubt. Now, I was raised in a tradition that frowned upon doubt; that saw it as a sign of weak (or lack of) faith. These days though I’m not so easily persuaded. I think we may be underestimating its purpose, and dare I say it, missing its point.

I think doubt is the fire that purifies our faith. Tony Campolo even suggests in his book co-written with Brian Mclaren that ‘doubt burns up the hay, wood, and stubble, leaving behind pure gold’. We all experience our own high and low tides of faith and understanding, our dark night of the soul, but I really think that expressions of doubt (where we are blunt with big honest questions, rather than a blind spiritual dishonesty with pap answers) allow unparalleled spiritual nurture and growth.

Pip Wilson wisely observes that, ‘Being with humans who cannot do anything else other than leak fragility is hard hitting. But it is far less hard work than being with humans who have a front of being 'together' and 'stable' - when really they are hurting just like the rest of us – the wonder’ of vulnerability.’ I think that’s why God likes honest questioning, why we should see doubt ultimately as a gift. After all, we all get lost sometimes.

Of late I have been so tired, exhausted, done in, worn out, basically, I’m pooped. Almost to the point where I don’t know where I’m headed for anymore – life seems to be something passing me by. I can see other lives being lived out, but they almost feel as though they are in some kind of parallel world, that I can see them but can’t reach anyone.

Winter is coming, you can feel it, autumn, it seems, has given up her fight for another year. The things of the earth they make the claim, as Bruce Springsteen suggests, so that the things of heaven may do the same.

‘Life is a funny thing’ my Grandma used to say. Now I understand that only years coupled with (and maybe because of) wisdom can birth and give understanding to such a seemingly glib remark. Yet the cradle to the grave is a peculiar journey, and one of the most difficult qualities to be found is something I call hopeaholism. I’m not even sure it’s a real word, but then if Shakespeare could make words up, why can’t I?

You see, of late one particular question has been biting at my heels. How does one shift cultural conscience to allow in the confusion and at times hopelessness of our world? Well, I have come to think that maybe doubt and hope are inextricably linked, maybe even two sides of the same coin. This is also a theological dimension that lurks deep within our souls, a dimension that surely must be explored if we are to see the other side of that coin. What if it is God behind all these doubts and disillusionments? What if this is God’s peculiar way of revealing mystical truths to his peculiar people? It’s as if God uses our disappointments to actually allow us to glimpse hope and so ultimately lead us all to the point of being hopeaholics.

Maybe the reason is that when we doubt. When we have questions, we are humbled – admittedly perhaps even a little pissed off – but moreover we realise that we are small and the mystery of God is much bigger than our finite minds and weak hearts can comprehend. The flip side to this is that when we are sure of things we stop questioning, and actually if truth be told, we become conceited. In my 35 years on this planet I have met very few people who can dovetail ‘knowing it all’ with humility. Ego’s are swelled when we (think) we know it all. Yet we are usually brought to our knees when we recognise and accept our place in the grand scheme of things.

So maybe when we have the kind of conversations much like the one I had this morning, when we feel so lost that we just can’t go on God just might have the space to whisper into our souls. And maybe that whispering goes something like this prayer of Jen Gray: ‘If I could, I would sneak into your head and sweep out all the crap of your past. I would give your mind a clean room, allowing the company of truth. And the truth is, and always has been; that you are not bad, and that you are not going to hell, and you are enough. You can choose today to beat yourself up or you can choose today to value your being and create some magic. I hope you join me on the magical side.’

God intrigues me. And I wonder if Jesus ever missed the point like I do, I mean, is it a sin to miss the point? Isn’t it part of being human - to get things wrong from time to time - isn’t that how we grow? Winter can seem long, dark and shapeless, but its lack of colour does make spring something so much more indescribable, doesn’t it? As an aside I also wonder if it’s possible that God ever feels lonely...or is that just a human thing?

I do though think about how much I have blamed God for my own poor choices, and I’m sorry about that. Yet I do find it ironic that it has been in those moments when I have known humility most. And here is my real point about missing the point, about doubt and failure – it seems God knows this is the most effective way to transform our character to that of his of her own. (Did you know that in the New Testament Greek - God the Father and God the Son are masculine, but God the Holy Spirit is referred to in the feminine, interesting is it not?)

I talk of missing the point not to criticize, but invite us all to consider ways in which we just might be ‘missing the point’ – to share our journey of rediscovering what it is we’re supposed to be about in following Jesus on this road we call life – and more importantly that we don’t beat ourselves up and psychologically damage our soul because of it. As I finish this column I sense a time of quiet and waiting, the air here in Edinburgh (which is where I was traveling to when I began all this) is cold and tender. So, in the words of artist Michael Leunig, ‘Let it go. Let it out. Let it unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to journey’ – the internal gift of doubt.