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For the purposes of this blog, I really wish I could remember who said something along the lines of ‘he who has books has everything’!! 

 But I can’t.  And anyway, I’m not sure I quite agree.  But I often do look at my sagging book shelves and wonder about each of the different worlds that are locked up inside all those covers.  

Books sit there so quietly and innocently but sometimes it’s almost as if, if you attend closely enough, you can just about hear a thousand voices living out their stories and ideas in a corner of the room.  All you have to do to unleash a world is pull a book off the shelf and turn a page.  You might regret it.  You might find you’re not at all interested in that world and decide to lock it all up again with a snap of your hands.  Or you might become someone a little or a lot different, perhaps almost without knowing it.

 

Well, my most recent new world has been that of James Alison, as he takes on and develops the theories of Rene Girard.  I don’t fully understand a lot of what I read, but somehow it’s got right under my skin and I know there’s something important there.  So I keep going back to that world and trying to see a bit further in the presently dim surroundings.  Sometimes I’m treading quietly, trying to be a curious but patient and unobtrusive explorer.  Sometimes it feels like I’m rattling the doors in frustration.  But for now I keep returning and every now and again it’s like I find a street light and I suddenly see for a while.

So I wanted to write down here what I could see before I moved on.

To give a little (very sketchy) background, Rene Girard seems most famous for his theory that human beings desire in imitation of another.  For something to have value or interest to us, someone else has to have given that thing their value or interest in advance.  That might not seem so earth shattering, but this theory of desire means that we end up desiring the same things as our model, until eventually that model becomes a rival for us.  Girard believes that this rivalry builds to such a fever pitch in human communities that eventually a whole community turns on one scapegoat, genuinely believeing that all this conflict is the scapegoat’s fault, and murders that scapegoat.  From here a sense of relief and peace emerges and the community begins to attribute that peace to the murder.  It starts to deify the scapegoat and set up laws and prohibitions, as well as rituals which repeat the original murder or sacrifice.  This is a way of keeping peace amidst communities which are always in rivalry.  In other words, culture begins to emerge.

This may all sound a little far-fetched, but the more I read and understand the outworkings, the more I am convinced.

Girard was not a Christian when he first began developing his ideas, but he did see the pattern of desire described above traced throughout myths, legends and much literature including the work of Shakespeare, whom he still believes was very aware of the pattern.  However, when he turned to the Old and New Testaments, Girard realised that this was the only text which actually worked in the reverse.  In this story, rather than siding with the culture, God was gradually revealing to culture that he sides with the victim, that he has no part in this murder or the sacrifice which seems to us as though it is appeasing God and bringing peace.  The story culminates with the cross, with God as the victim himself.  And not merely any old victim, but one who returns after death with no hint of vengeance or the tit-for-tat game that characterises human imitation (or ‘reciprocity’ as James Alison calls it). 

This really does, I feel, have huge implications for the meaning of the cross, and perhaps more importantly than mere doctrine, for how we live our lives as a result of the meaning of the cross.  Plus, how do we see God as a result of this?

But what struck me today was something a bit different.  I was listening to an interview with James Alison and someone made the comment that humans don’t only ‘sin’ by desiring or coveting what another desires and therefore entering into rivalry and violence with ‘the other’.  We also, for example, sin by omission in not caring enough about another’s needs.  To this James Alison replied that the problem is not so much what we do, but who we are.  We all think we come into this world as an already formed ‘I’, or at least as an ‘I’ who is hidden inside and will slowly emerge as we mature and grow.  There is some truth I think that we have specific genes and personality traits that slowly emerge.  But what’s also true is that our ‘I’ is formed by our total imitation of others.  We only ever learn to speak because we imitate.  We all have to imitate someone, including their desires, in order to even come into being as an ‘I’.  If you like, we basically all have to be disciples of someone in order to come into being.  We are extraordinary imitating machines and so the ‘I’ that we become is a result of, and heavily entwined with, the imitation of others, without us even knowing it. 

James Alison likens a human to one of those glass balls in a fountain sculpture, which appears still although it is supported and held up on a constantly moving jet of water.  The ball would not even exist where it is and as it is without the ‘behind the scenes’ jet of water.  And whilst we tinker around trying to fix things about the ball, what God wants and needs to do is to sort out the jet of water, which represents our imitation and therefore the rivalrous desires that we have.  Another way of looking at it is that we muck about with the software of our behaviour, the symptoms if you like, when God wants to access us at our hardware, our desire and our imitation.  This will automatically alter our software.  And that’s just the start!

Well, if I haven’t baffled you already and you’re at least a little intrigued by this landscape, look out for a few more street lamps to come!               

They don’t smoke, but neither do they breathe

fresh air very deeply

They don’t drink wine, but neither do they

enjoy lemonade; they don’t swear, but neither

do they glory in any magnificent words, neither

poetry nor prayer;

They don’t gamble, but neither do they take

much chance on God;

They don’t look at women and girls with lust in

their hearts, but neither do they roll breathless

with love and laughter, naked under the sun of

high summer.

It’s all rather pale and round-shouldered, the

great Prince lying in prison.

                                                                George Target

God help us breathe fresh air very deeply,

enjoy lemonade,

glory in magnificent words of poetry or prayer.

Take much chance on God,

And roll breathless with love and laughter,

naked under the sun of high summer!

Inspired to Originality

Sometimes I feel like I spend too much time writing about other people’s ideas, their works of art or their beautifully written stories, thoughts and inspirations.  I wonder if I can ever be original myself?  But there are other times when I realise that all our musings and opinions and expressions are combinations of many things we have heard before in all sorts of places, from all sorts of people and at all sorts of angles.  They pour into the melting pot processor that is our brain and from deep out of somewhere we each mould and create our own, individual perspectives.; perspectives which will pour into others’ melting pot processors to be diced up, rolled out, recombined with bits and pieces and re-presented. 

Just this evening I was listening to the radio and heard 2 pieces that really touched me, which I reflected on consciously for a while but which have now sunk down to a chamber somewhere, all ready to start the dicing process!

The first was an interview with Francisco Goldman, the author of ‘Say her Name’.  He chose to call it a novel, even though it is a sort of memoir to his young wife, Aura.  At the beginning of the book, the reader is told that Aura died by jumping into a wave with a body board in the Pacific Ocean in Mexico.  They had been married less than 2 years.  Aura’s mother and uncle blamed Francisco for her death and do not speak to him to this day.  For many months after the accident, Francisco drank heavily until he was told he was killing himself.  He decided he needed to do something with his life that wouldn’t embarrass Aura and the book, described as a beautiful love story and an extraordinary story of loss, became his life for the next few years.

I don’t know what the book itself is like.  In fact, I’ve read a none too flattering review of it!  But it was Goldman’s deeply personal reflections in the interview that set me wondering.  He questioned why, out of all the people in the world, one person should come to fascinate and captivate us so much that they should fill up our whole life?  And when that person dies, where does that personality go?  Sometimes he felt he loved Aura so much that he wanted to be her, to know what it was like to reside in her brain. 

The only way he could comprehend and accept what happened on that beach was to see every moment of Aura’s life leading to, and culminating in, her leap into that wave.  In the same way, all the twists and turns of his own life led to that heart-beat.  In some way, all their moments were bound up in that moment.

Goldman spoke about the importance he felt of conveying Aura’s mother faithfully and well because of the close relationship she had had with her only daughter.  And this despite her grief stricken accusations against him and his own survivor’s guilt, having so recently vowed to protect his young wife in any way possible.            

 

The second radio gem was a preview of Julian Lennon’s new song, ‘Looking for Love’.  It was one of those lovely moments when I turned the radio on on an off chance, not expecting to hear anything special and then something beautiful was just placed in my lap.  There were so many truthful lyrics but one line in particular struck me. 

‘I need to find someone with the purest heart and mind, it’s the hardest thing to find’.    

It was such an unusual, unexpected, simple sentiment.  How often is purity the quality that someone in a popular song is searching for?!  Isn’t it usually the opposite?  The beauty of the phrase was that just for this line, all instruments were stripped away leaving just the simplest piano notes (and I’m a sucker for the piano!).  The music itself was clear and pure for a short moment.

Well, that’s what touched me. 

You’ll probably be touched by a completely different line.  Or a whole other song.  Or maybe a scene in a film.  These things might not be originally ours, but when they touch us, they blend and integrate with all our other inner swirlings.  And sooner or later originality shows itself.

The path of descent becomes our own liberation.

Really?

I’ve had a strong inkling about that for a long time. Ever since wandering home from the gym as a 16 year old and thinking how lovely it would be to live somewhere where I didn’t feel so inadequate in the face of the MTV dancers I’d just been staring at for an hour. Where the gym wasn’t an endless struggle to climb some ladder and then stay near the top of it. What a relief!

The great thing about that phrase, ‘descent is our liberation’, is that it recognises that’s it’s not primarily about going out to the needy and handing them charity. Rich at the top, poor at the bottom but oh so grateful! It recognises that real life might actually be found at the bottom.

When I say things like that, a reaction can be that I’m somehow suggesting poverty is a good thing in itself, somehow holy. Or that it’s a bad thing to try and improve yourself or your situation. But I emphatically don’t think that at all. I just have a real suspicion (and some little experience) that the bottom is more than a place to be helped up from. It’s a place where you can be free enough to live a different way, after all, you’ve got nothing to lose.

I recently had to read ‘Interrupted’ by Jen Hatmaker for an essay I was writing. 

But I’m so glad I had to!  I got that little phrase from her and it slapped me right between the eyes. Well, Jen seems to write in a way that does that. It’s funny, light-hearted, honest, direct, self-effacing and sharp as a needle.  And she’s a woman!  (In fact, I’m a little jealous of her eloquence.  Probably because I’m still trying to ascend to be fair.)  So here are some golden nuggets that are so worth repeating. I’m getting goose bumps just going over them. Let’s hope goose bumps turn into something a bit less pointless (surely goosebumps don’t help to keep us warm really do they?) :

“I’m learning what it means to descend, which is so revolutionary, it often leaves me gasping. I have been trying to ascend my whole life. Up, up, next level, a notch higher, the top is better, top of the food chain, all for God’s work and glory of course. The pursuit of ascension is crippling and has stunted my faith more than any other evil I’ve battled. It has saddled me with so much to defend, and it doesn’t deliver. I need more and more of what doesn’t work. I’m insatiable and ironically, the more I accumulate, the less I enjoy any of it. Instead of satisfaction , it produces toxic fear in me; I’m always one slip away from losing it all.

Consequently my love for others is tainted because they unwittingly become articles for consumption…I am an addict, addicted to the ascent and thus positioning myself above people who can propel my upward momentum, and below those who are also longing for a higher rank and might pull me up with them. It feels desperate and frantic and I’m so done being enslaved to the elusive top rung.

When Jesus told us to take the lowest place (Luke 14:10), it was more than a strategy for social justice. It was even more than wooing us to the bottom for communion, since that is where He is always found. The path of descent becomes our own liberation. We are freed from the exhausting stance of defence. We are no longer compelled to be right and are thus relieved from the burden of maintaining some reputation…With every step lower, the stripping away process was more excruciating. I had no idea how tightly I clung to reputation and approval or how selfishly I behaved to maintain it. Getting to the top requires someone else to be on the bottom; being right means someone else must be wrong. It’s the nature of the beast.”

“It’s as if Jesus knew that the secret of life awaits us at the bottom. Oh wait, that is exactly what He said, all the time, in every possible way, through parable and story, by example and modelling, directly and indirectly, corporately and privately”.

Maybe the last really will be first and the least the greatest….

Once upon a time there was a land called Mercoria.  It was a temperamental land occupied by constantly warring clans.  There were the Jinabites, short, witch like people whose men and women alike grew long and tufted beards.  Then there were the Lillimots, quite the opposite, who were so tall and graceful that they almost gave the impression of giraffes, and the Berubabels who had the advantage of wings and might call to the mind of a human a creature rather like a fairy.  The Cormlins went largely unnoticed among the other clans because they liked to keep to the craggy wastelands that none of the other peoples cared too much about.  But the Niamows, the soft skinned bipeds were always stirring up trouble and brewing up the newest and most cunning means of overpowering their rivals.  Having no natural protective armour of their own, they spent immeasurable time and energy on developing their defences.

 

Each clan felt that the realm of Mercoria rightfully belonged to it, and that their wise men were the only leaders capable of ruling justly.  Sieges, attacks, plots and deception had raged for 5 long years and the only result had been countless losses and a land scorched by violence.  Eventually, the surrounding nations had become so unsettled and enraged by the uproar that they had agreed that King Perdurus, a respected leader amongst them, should set up his own palace in Mercoria and attempt to bring order to the land by governing over all the clans.  And so it was.  From within his courts, King Perdurus quietly began to plan his strategy.

 

Now, King Perdurus had a son, Clemius, who had just celebrated his 13th birthday at the time this tale began.  He loved his son more than anything in the world and could not part with him so Clemius came to live in the royal palace of Mercoria.  He was an adventurous youth and full of courage.  Everyone who met him felt strangely drawn to him because of his childish curiosity and interest in them.

 

And so it was that one day, as Clemius was  flying his kite, a birthday present from his uncle, a gust of wind rudely lifted the play-thing and tore it clean out of his hands.  Clemius yelped, partly with surprise and partly with a rush of excitement at the chase that had now developed.  He ducked under nearby branches, staying low, but glancing constantly upwards through the chinks in the trees to keep his coloured kite within his sights.  He feared it might get caught in the topmost spines of the towering Goldcrest trees but on and on tumbled the kite.  Eventually Clemius found himself in the bright light of an open field where chasing became far easier.  But alas, the kite was climbing ever higher.  Surely it could not go on rising forever?  Clemius stopped for a brief moment to catch his breath, leaning forward and jamming his hands into his knee caps to prop himself, but the thought of surrendering never crossed his mind.  When his throat no longer burned he stumbled on, realising that his kite was gradually descending.  It was definitely far closer to the tops of the mountains than it had been 10 minutes ago.  He was so concentrated on it that he barely noticed the growing difficulty with which he was lifting his feet from the sludgy ground.  It was definitely becoming wetter and every footstep caused the earth beneath to squelch and froth like a compressed sponge.  With a sinking feeling in his gut, Clemius realised that his kite was going to land right in the middle of a muddy little lake straight ahead of him.  He heard it hit the surface with a dull thud and collapse like a dying water bird.  It appeared that the wind was now causing the kite to drift towards the left hand bank and so Clemius headed cautiously in that direction.

 

All of a sudden he heard faint but distinct whispering and a poorly suppressed giggle coming from behind him.  Clemius whipped round in surprise.

 

“Who’s there?” he said, far more curiously than threateningly.  But nothing came back at him.  Clemius strode towards the spot from which he guessed the sound had come.  As he peered into the bushes and his eyes became accustomed to the details, he was able to pick out the whites of 2 little eyes.  He wasn’t afraid of them.  For starters, Clemius had never really known fear, but more than that, these eyes were smiling.  He smiled back.  “Hello” he ventured, holding out one arm to his side, as if to encourage the eyes out into the daylight.  They blinked and glided from side to side and gradually revealed themselves as set in a narrow, heart shaped, pale face.  No wonder Clemius had been so unable to detect this creature, her clothes as they were, reflecting every colour of the surrounding foliage and transforming from dark to light and back again as the wind rippled over them.  Clemius had never seen anything like her.  He’d been told that the clans outside the castle walls were difficult, trouble, even dangerous, but this (this girl?) surely was none of these.

She stepped forward lightly until she stood square on to Clemius.  He realised she was at least as tall as him but her bare feet were tiny.  “Is that your kite?” she asked, nodding towards the lake.  “It’s pretty”.

Clemius had forgotten momentarily all about his kite but now turned and realised it had floated to a completely unreachable spot near the centre of the murky water.

“Yes” he replied, “it was mine.  But I don’t see how I’ll get it back now.  And it was new as well.”

“Can’t you swim?” asked the girl, surprised.

“Swim?  I don’t know.  I suppose I could.  It’s a long way though and the water looks pretty muddy and freezing cold.

“You’re a wuss!” teased the girl.  I don’t feel the cold and I don’t care about a bit of mud.  I’ll get it!”  She broached the side of the lake and, as Clemius called after her that she needn’t bother, it wasn’t that important, she might get hurt, and anyway, he could do it himself, she waded into the reeds and plunged into the lake.  Clemius hurriedly followed, concerned that this fragile looking creature might get into trouble and need his help.  But he stopped at waist height, shivering under the sun, and watched with curious amusement as she glided smoothly over to the drowning kite.  She tied the tale of the kite around her waist and it followed her in graceful meanders as she made her way back to the bank.

“There” she said.  “A couple of hours in the sun and it’ll be fine”.

“Thanks” Clemius replied with slight embarrassment.  “Um, that was really good, thanks, you didn’t have to.”

“It’s ok” she laughed.  “I love swimming, any chance I get I come here.  But I’ve never seen you out here before.”

“That’s cause I’ve never been here before!”  joked Clemius sarcastically, recovering his confidence.  She slapped him on the shoulder with the back of her tiny hand.  “Anyway, I’m Clemius.  And thanks again”

“I’m Erudita” she replied.  “But just call me Dita”.

 

 

After that, Clemius would regularly make his way down to the lake where he and Dita would swim or fly his kite or just climb trees and tell stories about their lives, the lands they had grown up in and their families.  Each was a curiosity to the other and both were in need of a friend.  Their lives were so different.  While Clemius lived in safety and abundance, secure amongst his loved-ones, Dita had only her elder brother left since the death of her parents and younger brother at the hands of the Jinabites some years before.  The two of them struggled to survive and regularly and repeatedly lost all they had worked to build up in the crossfire of bitter rivalries.   At times, as their confidence grew, Clemius would venture further out into Dita’s world than he’d ever gone before, half believing, half doubting the tales Dita recounted.  And Dita in turn followed Clemius closer to his home.  As the winter drew in it became icy and bitter, too harsh to spend long hours out of doors.  Clemius couldn’t bear to leave his friend to face another perilous season and so made up his mind to go to his father and see what could be done.  Knowing his Father so well, Clemius felt sure he would want to do anything he could to help.  What he wasn’t sure of was just how happy the king would be about his adventures beyond the palace grounds.  Nevertheless, one evening, after dinner when the king had retired to his workshop and uncovered the sculpture he was tirelessly chiselling from a solid weight of ochre stone, Clemius broached the subject.  The king said very little about the matter that evening but thought long and hard about it all through the night as he worked.  The next morning he looked at Clemius over his piping breakfast and said simply,

“bring her here next time, let me meet her.”

 

When Dita finally agreed to come into the palace (with fear and trembling it must be said, despite all Clemius’s lovely stories about his father) King Perdurus welcomed her most heartily but also watched her most closely.  He soon came to realise just how fond the 2 young ones were of each other and how much happier even than before Clemius seemed in her company.  She had a fierce defensiveness about her but nothing at all malicious.  She was grateful for every kindness shown her despite clearly having felt the bruises of much unkindness in her young life.  With every visit, the king grew to love Dita more and as he did so, a glimmer of a hopeful idea also dawned on him that perhaps Clemius might come to love her more than he yet realised.  But he kept this firmly to himself.  He also found it harder and harder to watch her venture out to the struggles of her daily life every time she left.  So, one day he came to a decision and called Clemius and Dita to his chamber where he sat, pondering over a large tome and a collection of letters.  That afternoon he invited Dita to come and live with them in the palace as a special guest.  He told her how much he had come to care about her almost as his own daughter and that he wanted to give her a good life.  He knew how much hardship she faced beyond the palace grounds and was afraid that one day she might not make it back to visit them again.  She would be treated like a princess.

Dita didn’t know what to say.  She blinked back the tears.  They were tears of gladness but also mingled with tears of sorrow at the idea of leaving her brother behind, alone.  Her brother however, when Dita at last brought herself to tell him the news some 3 days later, spared no energy in persuading her to go, to make the most of the opportunity for warmth and companionship and wealth and security.  He felt inadequate to offer these things and afraid for his young sister.  So, with this persuasion alongside her own desires, and with the reassurance that her brother could visit whenever he wished, Dita came to live under the protection of the king.

These are really pretty cards that are a great way to recycle old wrapping paper.  I used to make them with my cousins on new year’s eve ready for the next Christmas!  I hope the instructions are clear enough.  I’ve taken photos to help explain but they’re pretty blurry as I don’t have a state of the art camera and I’m not good at keeping a still hand (especially when it’s important that I do, I suddenly get all sorts of weird tremors!)  Also, I’ve not been too concerned with backgrounds and shadows, but at least the images might just help clarify the written instructions!

Tips:

-Wrapping paper is best.  Anything much thicker gets very hard to stick down

-The stickier the glue the better!

-Fold all the squares before you start sticking as you get glue all over your fingers and it ruins the look of the wrapping paper if you get gluey fingerprints on it!  Besides, it’s frustrating!

-It helps to press the layers under a heavy book for a little while.  While you’re waiting you can cut out squares for another card

-Don’t cut the circle into your card too big as this will expose rough edges to the triangles (this will make more sense as you actually make the card.)

Cut out 20 squares from a piece of old wrapping paper and 24 from another.  The squares can be any size within reason really!  Mine here are 3 cm squared I think, but the bigger cards above used squares of 4 and 4.5 cms.

Then fold each square in half.

Fold all the squares in half again.

Unfold this last fold and then, with the remaining fold at the top, fold the corners down and in to the centre crease as shown here (that was a lot of ‘folds’, I know!)

Cut out a piece of plain paper 10cm x 10cm.  Then fold it along both diagonals before unfolding it again.  Next, stick one of the triangles you have just folded above into the centre of this piece of paper as shown.  It should be one of the squares of which you have cut out 24.

Then stick a second triangle into the centre as shown.

And a third and fourth!

Now stick 4 triangles of the other colour at the diagonals as shown.  Try and keep spacing as symetrical as possible.

Stick a fifth triangle of the same colour as shown.

Keep sticking a triangle in each gap……..

Once the green layer is complete with 8 triangles, repeat the process with the first colour again.  Remember to always start with 4 triangles at the diagonals and then stick on 4 more triangles in the gaps inbetween.

Once the card looks like this you start layering the green on top again.  You can repeat this process lots of times, but eventually you’ll notice that the triangles are no longer overlapping so there are gaps and it doesn’t look nice.  Time to stop!

Cut an A4 piece of card in half.  Take one piece and fold it in half.  On one half draw round something circular.  The size needs to be a little bit smaller than the circle you have created with the coloured triangles so as to cover the rough edges.

Cut out the hole.

Stick the decoration created above onto the card on the inside, so that it shows through the hole.

Stick some plain paper over the back of this to hide any rough edges etc.

Et voila!  Completed card.  Your mum will be so pleased!

I hit the big ‘3-0’ next week and so I’m having a bit of a party at the weekend.  Naturally, I’ve been wondering about what to wear and shoes of course play a big part in this.  Trawling through the internet I came across these weird and wonderful creations from ‘Irregular Choice’ (www.irregularchoice.com) that actually really make me smile and feel a little bit brighter!

True, some of them are plain hideous and most of them cost an arm and a leg so my conscience is already kicking in and wondering how it can possibly be justifiable to spend so much on shoes when many people in the world don’t even have clean water.  I’m someone who has a real social conscience about things like this, is prone to thinking it’s a frivolous waste of time and money and rolls their eyes when girls go ga-ga over shoes, as if they’re going to bring them happiness and fulfilment!!  I reckon more people should think seriously about these points of view.

And yet…….!  I wonder whether perhaps it makes more sense to spend a lot of money on fewer pairs of shoes and then really treasure them, rather than buying cheap and easily disposable clothing of lesser quality on a regular basis (The ‘Primark Effect’!).  And besides, beauty and creativity are such necessary things in life to make it worth living that we need to keep hold of them.  Otherwise,  what is the point of everyone having clean water, simply so they can exist, in the first place?!

I have some friends who work for Luton Churches Education Trust and they go round schools doing anger management, self-esteem and self harm prevention groups as well as much more.  However, they always make sure to go away on retreat at least 3 or 4 times a year to refresh.  It’s like they need to remind themselves of goodness and beauty and vibrance so they can go back into the difficult situations and bring those qualities into them.  Similarly, I’ve always thought I wouldn’t want to live somewhere really perfect and beautiful (like Switzerland!!) because there are so many places that are struggling and need input and help.  (Blatantly there are no perfect places, so everywhere has need to some degree, but there are clearly places that are more desperate than others!)  At the same time, I know I need to get away to beautiful, harmonious places every now and again to recharge and remember what it is I am actually aiming to develop in the more broken places.  Plainness and poverty have no inherent value in themselves I think, although their advantage is that they can bring simplicity to an already over-complicated life, and focus our attention on what really matters.  But God’s kind of life is described as abundant or ‘to the full’ and I’m sure beauty and design are included in this, provided they do not become the centre of everything!

So please sit back, relax and enjoy the following creativity and vibrance as much as I did!