Petitioning the universe

Last night at Fuzzy (I’ll explain what that is one day), we were invited to do something that felt all wrong: to write a prayer for ourselves. We were invited to follow the example of the central character in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love in unashamedly petitioning the universe.

I was in a weird place anyway. I’d just found out that I’d been appointed as the Programme Manager for Greenbelt Festival – an organisation I worked for for five years back in the noughties. I was a little nervous about what people – especially those who knew me in those days – might think about this. And yet I felt a peculiar calm about it all.

Then we got this invitation: ‘take just five minutes to write a stream-of-consciousness petition to the universe, a prayer to God for your hopes for 2011.’ Revulsion about the narcissism of ‘parking-space-praying’ subsided, and the words flooded out. Raw and confessional. But it felt good.

Dear God,

You feel so absent from my life sometimes.
Yet you are the ground on which I stand.
You seem so impossible, so implausible, such a waste of time.
Yet I am utterly comfortable in naming you God, to rest in you.

I want this year to mark a step-change.
I want you to help me step back into the story of my life.
To help me start shaping the narrative, contributing to the script again.
I want this episode to feel just a little more epic, more grand somehow.
Not so domestic. Not that domestic is bad; I have loved my season of domesticity.

But it feels like it’s time to push the boat out again.
To take the path less travelled, to trust just a little bit more.

And what I really need above all else, God, is this:

To sense that Chantal is happy, fulfilled, at peace;
Able to flourish as I am able to flourish.
And for my boys too, as I see them just a little less,
Help me to make my time with them count more,
Without forcing things, recognising it’s time they want, not quality time.
Help my stress at times not to upset their emotional development.
Help them still to depend on me. As I depend on them.

So please step back into my world just a little.
Come out from the shadowy margins.
Let’s do this together, you and I. Absurd as that sounds.

My hope is that this step opens out into a life beyond this year.
That it really is the first step into the next chapter of my life.

Lead me.


(Thanks to Stuart Keegan for the photo. Greenbelt, 2010, Friday early evening.)

A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is. 

John Donne

From pillar to post

Nanny State? Or Big Society? I suspect that, when it comes to schooling, we need a bit of both. (Whatever we mean by those terms.)

I say this because I’ve recently been affected – as a parent of children at school and as a friend to a teacher who looks set to lose his job – by the increasing power of the role of the Head.

The government’s mantra is to let the Head manage the school. To ‘set them free’ to do that. It all seems to make sense. At least it does to them.

But, in practice, what does this look like? Well, it means that the human drive to make a mark, to do things differently, to define oneself over against others, results in schools being thrown from pillar to post. Especially when a new Head arrives.

I blogged a few weeks’ back about my unease at the wielding of the New Broom. At that stage I had an mild, detached concern about the way new rules and regs seemed to accompany the arrival of a new Head. My concerns have only grown less detached and deepened over the term.

But my parochial concerns they are not nearly as troubling as the situation a teacher friend of mine faces. He is a specialist practitioner and community educator in the particular specialism that his secondary school has proudly built up over recent years. A new Head has come in (with his very own business accountant sidekick) and has decided, after a bit of a look around, that the school will no longer pursue this specialism but will switch focus to become a school with a completely different specialism. Overnight. As a result, my friend’s post won’t exist any more.

But this isn’t really about my friend. Frustrated though I am about what he’s had to face. And change is fine, too. And, of course, those in charge of institutions have a responsibility to lead those institutions in the directions they see fit. But why is it so very, very rare to find a manager new in post who is prepared to manage continuity, to develop what’s already happening that is good? Why is it that, in order to feel as if they are managing, lots of managers (Heads included) feel it necessary to take things in a completely new direction? To be so other to that which went before?

It makes me realise (I’m politically a bit slow) that at least with some level of central government involvement and control there is some chance of stability when there is a change in Headship. There is some core of visionary, principled, policy-driven shape to the thing. Rather than the lives and welfare of large swathes of children and teachers being at the mercy of the predilections of the personalities of those ‘in charge’ – capable though they may be.

Estelle Morris accused the government’s hell-bent Head-empowering ideology in an article in the Guardian (30.11.10), writing that: ’they [the government] have become dismantlers rather than devolutionists.’ That’s certainly what it feels like from where I’m standing.


Flickr photosource – thanks.

For more on how the Big Society idea might play out alongside unfettered school leadership, go to the Institute for Government’s website to see a summary of a seminar they hosted to look at this back in the summer – with NESTA and the design Council.


No special defence

Today has seen the first ‘Not Ashamed' day here in the UK. I'm not sure where to begin in trying to outline my unsease with the whole project. But why not with this:

The 1st December has long been established as World Aids Day. So it seems pretty bad manners to launch something you want to garner national press attention on the same day. Either bad manners, or perhaps it indicates an ignorance of the meaning of World Aids day for humanity worldwide.

But mainly, I really object to people of faith, not just my own, who make demands on the democracy in which they live for ‘special defence’. Get over it. 

Did God demand special defence? Or did God mix it up with us in all our mixed up ways, laws and cultures?

Giles Fraser gave a ‘Thought for the Day’ that touched on this issue way back on the 16th of March 2006. (Go to the listing of his ‘Thoughts’ here and scroll down to the entry for 16/03/2006. The transcript is here.)

In summary he argued that the Christian God is not a God who needs protecting from humiliation. The incarnation speaks against that notion through all its messy engagement. Fraser concludes:

No, those grim-faced, placard-waving Christians who get so easily outraged give the impression that they’re trying to transform Christianity into something that it’s not - a wholesome and protected space that affords sanctuary from a rude and nasty world. This, emphatically, is not the earthy religion of the word made flesh. For a religion that finds the almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, beginning human life in a smelly cowshed should never to be so easily offended.

Those who are championing the ‘I’m not Ashamed’ campaign are, I think, attempting to create such a ‘protected space’. They are, in some senses, denying the incarnation.

Get real. Please.

The past will seem like another country

Kester Brewin’s poignant blog post on the imaginable end of arts degrees as we know them brought me up short.

In my local University of Gloucestershire, this is a process that has been happening for some years already. It’s ironic that, after years of battling for hallowed ‘university’ status, the institution now offers far less of the vital ‘waste-of-time’ studies Brewin identifies than it did as a college of HE. There has been an inexorable drift to degrees perceived as having direct vocational ends attached – leisure management, marketing, business studies, and so on.

Like Brewin, I too ‘went up’ to University. I went to ‘read’ English. Sadly, I ‘came down’ all-too soon with a combination of physical, emotional and mental issues I won’t bore you with here. And so the gift of the chance to take time to waste time was in some ways wasted. It’s a chance I still wish I could have made more of.

Lacking the necessary confidence and strength for a good while, I subsequently completed my degree studies in humanities at the College of Higher Education in my home town (the one that is now the University of Gloucestershire). I still made sure I ‘left home’ though – moving in with friends in rented accommodation in another part of town. 

But I did, like Brewin, still study for free and I even got a (reduced) grant to live off, which was supplemented by local authority housing benefit. I, too, remember ‘signing on’ for at least one of my summer breaks.

What is so distasteful – among many things that are sickening about these announcements – is that these recommendations are being made by people who themselves benefitted from waste-of-time degrees in their youth. These are people who were trained to think. Not just to do a particular sort of work.

So why set in train a set of events which will further accelerate the reduction of education to a means-to-an-end, commercial and utilitarian exercise? It demonstrates a seriously low-grade vision of what it means to be human.

And what will I tell my boys when they come of age? The past will seem like another country when I describe it to them. I playfully imagined in a blog post once that they might well follow the noble pursuits of training for trades and staying local because of environmental constrictions. I never imagined that it might be government policy, no less, that would cut them off from the opportunities I enjoyed in my youth.

Thanks to Robbie for the photo.

They’re one. But they’re not the same.

As the dad to identical twins I am fascinated – in a pseudo-scientific way, you understand – to observe their development and interaction and to hatch pet theories as a result.

Identical twins have long been the focus of medical research into issues of nature and nurture. (Ours are part of a nationwide study being done at UCL into childhood obesity – and one of them is doing his level best to break the scales.) As a non-scientific parent, I like to develop theories of my own in parallel.

One pet theory which gains strength in my mind over time is to do with the fact that the pair seem to have been allotted one pool of emotional resources with which to negotiate life. It’s a pool they share out between them in an ever-shifting dance that sees one in the ascendency for a bit and then the other. And so on.

What intrigues me about this is that it is not the case that you can say – having observed their behaviour on a particular day – that one is bullish and the other timid in character. Because in a week’s time you might find they have exactly reversed those roles.

In a culture that presses us to think of the individual as being the locus of all meaning and resource and potential, our twins remind me that emotional and psychological resources and character are as much gifted to groups of people and communities as they are to individuals. Indeed, if you take this view, it can take the pressure off the beleaguered individual (who simply doesn’t have the resources to cope with life in their own strength), fostering instead a sense of the interdependent, complementarity of persons in community in the face of the dominant competitive view that pushes us always to define ourselves over against the other.

For a while now one twin has eaten poorly, spoken little and generally moped about in the shadow of his brother. But over the last few days the dynamic has shifted and his appetite is returning, his speech is becoming more fluent and confident again and he’s starting to move ahead. While the other brother takes his foot off the pedal and seemingly has a rest for a while.

It’s a pet theory. But, like all the pets I’ve ever had, I’m growing increasingly fond of it. It seems to me that this shifting sharing of a single emotional resource pool played out in front of us each day might well speak helpfully into a culture seemingly hell-bent (at precisely and impossibly the same time):

  • 1) to homogenise us – scared of difference 
  • 2) individuate and separate us – exalting our individual identity and pre-eminence above all other calls on our personhood

We’re one. But we’re not the same. We get to carry each other. Carry each other.
U2, One, Achtung Baby

The new broom

Photo – thanks Dave Morris.

There’s a new head teacher at our boys’ school. He seems like a nice bloke. He inherits an institution with a very particular and established ethos: easy-going, bordering on slacker. It’s one of the main reasons we chose the school, to be honest.

What’s interesting to watch is the subtle changes that are being introduced as this new head tries to make his mark. And we’re only just coming to the end week two. They’re not bad changes. They’re not big changes. But they are changes.

What is it with the ‘new broom’ obsession? It’s something I’ve never understood. I’m much more for waiting and listening and watching and supporting – as a first port of call, anyway.

What the new broom approach so often speaks about is not so much who you are and what your intent is, but more what you thought was wrong with stuff before. Call me easily-pleased, but I couldn’t see a lot wrong with how things were.

I’m struggling to wrench a broader, more philosophical point out of my micro-observation here. But it might go something like this: you don’t always need to change things straight away to prove yourself. You don’t even always have to change things in order to develop and improve them. Sometimes it’s more gracious to see where you fit – and so where you can then speak from and who you will be speaking to – first. For quite a while. And then to get sweeping.

Now, here’s the big leap.

I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t do anything of public note until he was 30. Apparently. That’s a long time waiting. I overheard someone saying recently – struggling with the vagaries of the institution called the church that Jesus somehow seems to have bequeathed – that they were a ‘great fan of Jesus’ early works’. They meant, of course, that what’s followed on after Jesus’ life on earth has not grabbed them as much as that initial album’s worth of material.

I guess I’d want to put the church continuation part to one side for a moment and say that I’m a fan of Jesus’ later works. In other words, his wielding the new broom only after a period of waiting and watching. Somehow, because of the wait, his broom seems to have had more effect.

Pope Benedict: silence in class.

Pictured above: Leonardo Boff (thanks)

As the wind gathers strength in the hours before Pope Benedict’s state visit to the UK, I am reminded about the time I came across the man. It was when I indulged myself in a little theological reflection a while back (10 years ago now, in fact) and found myself reading some great liberation theology by one Leonardo Boff.

Among Leonado’s books was one entitled Church: Charism and Power. In 1985, the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, directed at that time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), silenced Leonardo for a year for his writing in this book, accusing him of “religious terrorism” no less.

I’ve always been suspicious of those wanting to quash thought and expression like this. Recently we had Pastor Terry Jones threatening to burn the Qu’ran on the anniversary of 9/11. More auspiciously, we can look back to when the Nazi regime burned books by the thousands.

But the pen is mightier than the sword.

Ironically, Cardinal Ratzinger (described by some as the Vatican Rotweiler back in those days) arrives on our shores, now as Pope Benedict, to find himself visiting a land in which the emerging church – in its practice and thinking – is alive and well. And if there’s one thing which I would argue Leonardo Boff’s ecclesiology encouraged worldwide – and not just in his particular Brazilian geopolitical context – it was the practice of and adventure with new forms of being church.

You just can’t control things the way the present Pope would seem to want to do. You never could. And you never will. Truth will out. The Spirit will find fresh voice and expression. 

So what about Leonardo? Well, he was almost silenced again in 1992 by Rome, this time to prevent him from participating in the Eco-92 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. And this finally led him to leave the Franciscan religious order and the priestly ministry to which he’d devoted his life, writing and teaching. Sad. But true.

I’m not sure where Leonardo is now. Or what he’s doing. But I’ll raise a glass to him during the Pope’s visit here. Good on you Leonardo. It’s your vision and thinking that (without you or our really knowing) informs much of what’s most exciting and vivacious in the life of the church in the UK today. Not the Pope’s.

Blair: which project?

A Banksy in Bethlehem – on the way north out of the little town before the encircled Rachel’s Tomb and the Gilo checkpoint crossing up into Jerusalem.

Dear Tony,

I was dismayed to read your thoughts on the Middle East Peace process here.

As one of the people you cast as wanting to ‘de-legitmatise’ Israel in an insidious and camouflaged manner, I must respond to your partial analysis of the ‘facts on the ground’ in Israel-Palestine with my partial observations.

I do not want to de-legitmise Israel. Israel has the right to exist peacefully for sure. And to its own points of view for sure. After the atrocities of the Holocaust that happened on our very own soil in such recent history that’s the very least we Europeans owe the Jews.

But Tony, the Palestinian cause or case isn’t just bound up with what’s happening in Gaza, horrific though that continues to be. So don’t make out it is.

You say that Israel ‘should always be a staunch and unremitting advocate and actor for peace’. I’d agree. But you also touch on

the idea that Palestinians suffer not injustice alone; but a form of humiliation. Dignity is a very important concept.  Consistent with security, Israel should be constantly looking for ways to compensate for the indignity which inevitably results from the security measures taken and should seek to avoid any unnecessary indignities.

Having spent some days in Bethlehem in 2008, this was my abiding sense: besides all the injustice and the flouting of International Law, it was the systemtic degradation and humilation of the Palestinians that I found so hard to stomach.

You also say that one of the reasons you’re a passionate believer in Israel is that it’s a democracy. OK. But it’s a pretty unusual democracy, isn’t it Tony? One where you only have full rights if you are Jewish. So it’s a qualified democracy; a Jewish democracy.

Try telling the Arab Israelis up in the Galilee that one of the reasons the International Community should support Israel’s claims is that it’s a democracy and I’m not sure they’d be all that enthusiastic – as they endure a systematic and largely hidden form of de-legimisation in the very country which calls them its citizens.

In a democracy, all citizens should enjoy equal rights regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. This is not the case in Israel.

And your argument about where in the region you’d prefer to ‘do time’ is a little spurious too – especially when you consider the case of Mordecai Vanunu, kept in solitary confinement for years just for blowing the whistle on Israel’s secret nuclear programme. (And that’s another thing, Tony. It’s ironic that while all eyes are fixed on Iran – including yours – there’s only one country in the Middle East with a secret nuclear weapons programme, and that’s Israel.)

To hold up the Jewish people’s contribution to culture is great and good. Too true. But not to also acknowledge the Palestinian contribution to the cultural and artistic life of the world. Come on, Tony. That really is clumsy. As if Israel is cultured and Palestine is not. Shame on you.

What you fail to acknowledge in your long and very personal piece is that we naughty people you typecast as wanting to undermine Israel’s right to exist and to hold its own points of view is that the ground on which we stand says: ‘but what about International Law?’ ‘What about human rights?’ ‘What about proportionality?’ ‘What about the illegitmacy of collective punishment?’ What about the Geneva Convention?’ And so on.

When the systematic and well-orchestrated (but illegal, Tony) Israeli settlement programme looks set to re-start apace in the West Bank at the end of this month, how can there ever be peace in the region? If Israel is to be allowed to – so flagrantly and over so many years – flout International Law and UN resolutions, then there seems little hope for a just peace in the region.

My fear is that, as long as we are told to appease Israel – for fear of being labelled anti-semitic – she will continue her relentless landgrab and drive the humiliated and resigned Palestinians out into the desert.

At that point, Israel might well concede to agree to a two-state solution. But it will be too late then. Because the Palestinians will not have a viable parcel of land with which to form a state any more. (They don’t really have this now, truth be told.) They will have been marginalised out of existence. Please Tony, don’t let that happen. If, as you say you are in the article, you are a ‘religious person’ yourself, then please see the side of the oppressed and the powerless in this situation. Before it’s way too late. 

For me it already feels too late. But I’m saying: before it’s way too late.