Sunday, 26 May 2013

Bread & Roses

I watched a pretty good film the other day called, surprise surprise, ‘Bread & Roses’ and it is about mostly poor Hispanic cleaners in Los Angeles USA fighting for their rights, better pay and health care against employers who couldn’t care less, and also the story is about how other people are exploiting them too, and they even squeeze in a love story as well.  I enjoyed it to be honest.  It made me think of the menial jobs both my parents did when I was younger; my dad worked at various times as a navvy, basically an unskilled labourer, fixed street lighting, worked as a chef, a bus conductor and even did national service, what Americans call ‘the draft’, and served his time in Cyprus when there was trouble there in the 50’s and also a stint in Jordan around the same time.  Not all bad jobs by any means but mostly Working class.  My mum worked in a big department store at one time and then cleaned pub toilets at another.  I suppose for one reason I have had chunks of unemployment in my life, partially due to bouts of severe depression in my life, even though I did get educated.  I have come to the understanding that no one wants, or deserves, to be ruthlessly exploited by other people, especially if those doing the exploiting are making lots of money at the expense of those who they are exploiting, and usually for low wages in dead end jobs with no security or real benefits of any kind.  It is not about politics, it about fairness and social justice; it is also a moral issue too.  If someone claims to be a Christian, and then happily accepts that someone can work for a criminally low wage whilst they themselves are making a fortune, how then is that manifesting a love for your neighbour?  It isn’t quite frankly, it is just hypocrisy of the worst kind.

I’ve struggled all my life with low self-worth, for one reason or another.  Always felt for this reason or that I was somehow less than other people, no confidence at all in who I was, whoever I was.  Why, I can’t really say; not fully anyway.  If I have a calling on my life, and how can anyone really understand that or explain that to someone else, then surely that should mean something.  Coming from a Working class background could account for some of it, but certainly not all.  Many people have Working class and Blue Collar backgrounds, it’s not an uncommon experience at all.  We were poor, but not in any way really deprived; no it’s more than that.  The house we lived in was a slum, no more or less; no bathroom, no electric sockets, one bedroom for the whole family, one crappy living room doubling as a kitchen, no fridge, TV run off the light socket, a roof that leaked in about eight places when it rained, a loft that had pigeons living in it and to top it all an outside toilet; don’t ask what we had to do if we needed to ‘spend a penny’ in the middle of the night!  But even that wasn’t so bad, because for the most part I feel I had an idyllic childhood.  You don’t think about such things as a kid, everything that happens or the way you live is just normal to you; only when you meet other people you see that you were ‘deprived’ somewhat or even ‘privileged’ or whatever.  So then what can it all mean, we’re all different anyway, all often very different experiences, different ancestors, different stories to tell, not one of us is a stereotype, we are all different people; and yet at the same time, we are all only human.  So, back to the story.  Perhaps it’s then that I suffered with bouts of at times severe depression from my late teens till I was about thirty.  That didn’t help matters to be honest and the subsequent unemployment.  But is it something more than all this?  If I can’t answer this it’s unlikely anyone else can.  But something within me tells me that when I started to be aware of other kids’ affluence that I started to feel deprived in some way, and in another way I was a quiet kid too; sometimes.  At other times I was a cheeky, funny, trusting kid who tended, and still do at times, to take people at face value and had a tendency to believe what anyone said; I soon found out that even the nicest people can lie, even if just to amuse themselves.  So, is my low self-worth something deeper, is it something that is because of my poor background, or my ‘lower’ class background, or my depression, or what?     


If I was transported back to America in the 50’s when Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was playing in a nightclub in some glamorous or even down at heel downtown big city club, and drinking some great tequila, I’d wonder if I was in a dream, and if I was, just don’t wake me up!  American culture represents two contradictory realities; one, a hard-assed, hard-nosed, totally profit oriented reality, and often always combined with the other, an artistic, completely free pursuit of the artistic muse for its own sake that can’t be faked.  So we see that with Jazz for example, something which was an underground, sometimes underclass African-American musical expression of their lifestyle, a lifestyle that was different from the mainstream Middle class white experience, becomes an accepted American art form that transforms American society and then a global art form that helps change the world. 

What does a calling from God really mean?  'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I appointed you as prophet to the nations.'  (Jeremiah 1:5 NJB)  It is obvious that when we start to understand God’s calling on our lives, however that comes about and however we become aware of it, it is something that goes beyond our understanding.  But, it must have bearing on our lives, perhaps slowly at first, but eventually completely.  I have learnt this the hard way.  Does it mean that we are better than other people or that somehow we are more holy than other people?  Well I’m not anyway, and I am certainly not particularly holy or religious for that matter either.  Read this: ‘Then since the gifts that we have differ according to the grace that was given to each of us: if it is a gift of prophecy, we should prophesy as much as our faith tells us; if it is a gift of practical service, let us devote ourselves to serving; if it is teaching, to teaching; if it is encouraging, to encouraging. When you give, you should give generously from the heart; if you are put in charge, you must be conscientious; if you do works of mercy, let it be because you enjoy doing them.  (Romans 12:6-8 NJB)  It is then that God picks us because He gives us spiritual gifts to use wisely and as part of that calling, especially for the benefit of other people.  For the Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  (Mark 10:45 NJB)  Our calling then is not a selfish one, or to make us look good or feel that we are better than anyone else, because we are not quite simply, but to serve others and to serve God.  

What does ordinary mean?  What does special mean?  I am a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, and although he came from a very fractured and poor background where his dad was often out of work and when he did work it was low paid, and because he was black the employment laws in Seattle meant that black people were kept out of all kinds of jobs, and only the most menial and low paying jobs were open to them, Jimi was one of the most talented musicians and performers and one of the most creative composers in rock and pop, in spite of the fact he grew up in poverty and reduced circumstances.  He was ordinary, his background was similar to many poor black people and poor white people of that time, in fact it was when things were slowly beginning to change for poor black and white people, but he was extraordinary at the same time, his talent and genius lifting him out of poverty and obscurity to then becoming, and still now, one of the most famous people on the planet.  Then we could look at someone like an aristocrat of some kind, who more often than not may not be very accomplished, not particularly bright, not overly talented but still somehow be seen as special.  But, are they?  And who says so?  In some ways, regardless of talents or accomplishments or lack of them, I feel all people are special and certainly unique, and in other ways we are all ordinary, we do mundane things, we all for the most live mundane lives and have to do normal things whoever we are.  We are all extraordinarily ordinary.  

Does anything we do, anything we eat, anything we say, anything at all we experience really matter?  As long as something happens we all seem happy enough.  Was it fish and chips you ate, or the most expensive chateaubriand steak with everything else just right and the finest wine you could afford?  Does it matter anyway?  Your belly is full whatever you ate.  Does any of it really matter after all?  Saint Paul said this about the subject, or thereabouts: ‘I know how to live modestly, and I know how to live luxuriously too: in every way now I have mastered the secret of all conditions: full stomach and empty stomach, plenty and poverty.  There is nothing I cannot do in the One who strengthens me.  (Philippians 4:12-13 NJB)

Sunday, 19 May 2013

City Boy

City boys have more fun, but do we miss out on things that those in little villages and those off-the-beaten-track places you might find in rural Wales or Scotland or Ireland do?  I wonder.  Also, although many city people are Working class economically or because of the job they do or the accent they have, we are classless in some ways the same as Americans are classless, because we are more or less the same in some ways at least and have the same problems people living in big cities often have to deal with.  Living in a city is a great leveller; we all go to the same colleges, travel on the same buses, visit the same supermarkets and we have to put up with all the things that big city people have to deal with; bad councils, rubbish everywhere, run down parks, gangs hanging around street corners, unemployment, drug problems, higher rates of crime and many other issues that anyone living in a big city will be only too aware of.

I am a person from a fairly big city, a city boy, someone who has at various times been used to living cheek-by-jowl with many thousands of other people and seen the best and worst of people all having to live together for one reason or another.  Cities create good people and bad people, although I will always say that we all have bad experiences now and again and it’s not the experience that defines us so much as our reaction to it.  I was bullied in school, and although for the most part not serious systematic bullying, I still have anger towards it to this day and I generally despise bullies, who are always usually cowards who pick their targets, and so have a bit of an attitude myself; I admit it, I still feel a residue of anger towards one or two who bullied me to this day.  However, by the grace of God, I don’t feel the need to dominate or belittle others to make myself feel better, or feel the need for revenge either; what would be the point anyway?  And, wouldn’t God have a problem with me if I sought even the merest notion of revenge?  Never try to get revenge: leave that, my dear friends, to the Retribution. As scripture says: Vengeance is mine -- I will pay them back, the Lord promises.  (Romans 12:19 NJB)  And if I am honest, most of the bullying was verbal with the occasional punch and one or two other slightly worse things; but it was generally sporadic.  I also tend to dream regularly about one of my bullies and in the dream I am scared too, which is strange to be honest.  Anyway, I generally look like a city boy and sometimes wear hoodies and tracksuit bottoms, but I can also dress ‘urban smart’ too, and can fit in most everywhere to be honest.  We are all very different people too even though all living the same largely urban life.


Last night I felt so stressed that I thought I needed a few glasses of wine to chill out.  So, eat your bread in joy, drink your wine with a glad heart, since God has already approved your actions.  (Ecclesiastes 9:7 NJB)  I know people can take scripture out of context and perhaps do so all the time, but as I very rarely drink alcohol to excess, and didn’t on this occasion I thought that I would have a drink in moderation.  Incidentally, I notice when I get seriously stressed or have a minor passing bout of depression, both usually infrequent, I can get headaches, stomach problems, shoulder aches and back aches and generally I feel out of sorts.  I’m totally fed up with suffering; but who isn’t?  Is it true that people in big cities are more prone to stress than people living in small villages in the country somewhere or people who live way out far from the madding crowd and right off the beaten track?  I do wonder.  How much of our stress is down to wanting things we don’t really need and how much is down to not trusting God with our lives?  Do any of us really let go and just let God do whatever He wants to do 100%, or is there some little bit of us that wants to be in charge?  Anyway, I had a few glasses of wine, a few double Bacardi and Cokes, drank them slowly and watched a few films, and think I enjoyed myself too.  And today I seem a little less stressed to be honest.  You should give up drinking only water and have a little wine for the sake of your digestion and the frequent bouts of illness that you have.  (1 Timothy 5:23 NJB)

In the 1500’s or 1600’s when most people’s lives were hard one way or the other, did people enjoy the feel of the sun on their faces, or the sight of a beautiful sunset at the end of the day, or a particularly beautiful cloud formation or a seagull crying on the wind?  All these things can in their own way bring joy and happiness, they cost nothing and yet can mean more than many material possessions can.  Who in the UK when going on a holiday or day out as a kid to the seaside didn’t feel something akin to joy when they heard a seagull cry, knowing that it meant the beach and simple pleasures were not that far away?  And yet…and yet, all those things seem so far away when we reach adulthood, fripperies that we aren’t meant to be bothered with any more as we make our weary way in the world and wonder what the magic of childhood actually meant, if anything.  Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.  (1 Corinthians 13:12 NJB)

How should a Christian live in the city?  Are we judged by different rules to those in more hidden places, or are God’s laws applicable to us as well?  Well, I have found that having respect for others in a city is also having respect for self; there are a lot of sometimes very tough hard-bitten people in big cities and being aggressive and angry to others may very well result in someone taking a slight to you, and this could result in unforeseen but perhaps obviously inevitable outcomes, at the very least someone abusing you verbally to getting beat up, or worse even.  Respect for others is respect for self.  And no one said that Christians anywhere had to be wussy or prissy in any way, I am hardly that myself, we can still be blokes who dress and look ‘street’ and yet as Jesus has a calling on our lives, we must learn to be gentle in a hard world, and what better grounding for that than living in a big tough city?

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Heaven Can Wait

I remember my childhood; poor but generally happy.  But as I entered my mid-teens nothing seemed certain anymore.  Most of the friends I had all went on their separate ways, mostly never to be seen again.  I wonder if any of them really remember me as I remember them.


I still haven’t made a success of my life, and still wonder what my future holds and what great plan God has in store for me.  In thinking such philosophical things, I either come to some conclusions or I just end by asking myself even more questions, which equally lie unanswered.  And it’s a general curse of humanity that we all have so many questions but rarely ever any satisfying answers.  Evolution?  Creation?  From apes?  Or specially created?  6000 years old?  Or unfeasible billions of years?  A reason to it all, or just empty meaninglessness?  I wonder if God cast out Adam and Eve out of Paradise because they wanted knowledge that was beyond them, or they just asked too many questions? 


It has sometimes felt that I have journeyed strange voyages alone and my consciousness and certainly my imagination has gone to places strange and wonderful.  And I’m not talking about going the supermarket!  No, I mean that sometimes I feel that I am the only one asking questions; of course we all have questions but it seems that no one wants to hear them, seemingly no one even believes you should be asking them and few if anyone can really answer them.  And sometimes the people we expect to be trying to answer them, are the ones who seem the most reluctant to do so.  As someone said about organised Christianity ‘we have all the answers, but don’t ask any questions!’, and because some, but certainly not all, Christians are cowed into accepting and swallowing what those in power in the churches say without question, the only people who are asking genuine and meaningful questions about Christianity and belief in general, even if for the wrong reasons and intent, are atheists.


We need to take back the debate and Christians and those at every level of organised Christianity need to accept that we want to talk about contentious issues, we have questions and we should talk about them in an open, honest and meaningful way.  We need more democracy in the organised denominations too, less hierarchy, less of an obsession with social status and more genuine grassroots participation.  It shouldn’t just be about particular denominations so much even, but perhaps meeting in houses or pubs or cafes, places where other people already go; well, it’s just a thought.  What I’m saying is that a reappraisal of organised Christianity can’t hurt, and rather than something from top as usual, it should be about all Christians.  The age of the Internet proves that many people have a voice and are increasingly being heard.  What church do we want?  Should Christianity reflect the Internet age?  Are we preaching to the converted?  Is Christianity fuddy-duddy and frankly too Middle class in England?  I don’t have all the answers but I truly wish these and many more questions would be asked.  And we may ask the most important question: is Christianity religion?


Is there a fear amongst those who believe in a particularly organised Christianity that if we strip away the religion, the ritual, the hierarchy that there will be nothing left?  What would be left would be at least relationship; at the very least this would be an interesting proposition.  I sometimes think that some people are religious because they want to keep God at a distance: ‘I’m holy enough God, I do all these religious things, so back off!’ or words to that effect.  What I mean is that sometimes the adherence to religious rituals and dogma may actually be because deep down a person has doubts, or they fear a deep meaningful relationship with God, so settle for something less, which is where religion comes in perhaps.  But to me religion at best is like telling a hungry person to sit at a table full of food, and then being told not to eat.  Do people fear the sheer simplicity of relationship, that something so profound yet essentially simply is just too good to be true?  I wonder.

We are all destined for Heaven as Christians; aren’t we?  I have been thinking about this for a long time now, and admit that sometimes I feel a little confused about it all.  What is Heaven?  Where is Heaven?  I don’t worry too much about the details but I want to live my life fully on earth before worrying about anything else that I don’t really have any control over.  Don’t we all worry about things now and then, and some of us find we are worrying all the time; that can be exhausting can’t it, just worrying because even if you try to stop, then you are worrying about worrying!  Oh brother!  Yes it’s a pain, but what can you do?!  For me, Heaven can wait.  I haven’t even lived my life yet.  As John Lennon once said ‘Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans’ and it’s the truth, we can’t live in a constant state of worry or even anticipation, we have to do mundane things sometimes, go the supermarket, watch a bit of telly, feed the cat, iron our clothes and so on.  Life in all its glory and mundanity; we can’t escape either so why bother worrying?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Fall of Man, the Loss of Our Innocence

Why were we so carefree as kids, why were the holidays we took so joyful and happy, and we often had no cares at all in the world?  Why when we grow up do we often end up with the weight of the world on our shoulders?


We are trapped by our circumstances, feel trapped by our past, feel trapped by what our future might hold, trapped by our surroundings, feel hemmed in by every bad thing that happens to us; oh God what will set us free?


If you ask God to make you a multi-millionaire or even a billionaire, I believe one of the first questions God might ask you is ‘why?’  Are you in fact worshipping money, and being a slave to it, rather than worshipping and revering God?  They say money makes the world go round, they even wrote a song about it, and it’s certain that without money in modern countries we couldn’t exist today; we have to pay bills, pay rent, buy food and essentials and all kinds of things, but it should always be only a means to an end, and not an end in itself.  No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.  That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and what you are to wear. Surely life is more than food, and the body more than clothing!  Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are?  Can any of you, however much you worry, add one single cubit to your span of life?  And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his royal robes was clothed like one of these.  (Matthew 6:24-29 NJB)


I believe God may always ask us ‘why?’ when we selfishly ask for things we don’t really need, and may ask this whenever we do things that we may know displeases Him.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to better things, or that being wealthy is in itself a bad thing, just that we can make an idol of money and begin to worship it, instead of God.  And of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting a new computer, or TV, or car or a nice holiday, and so many other things, it’s just that if we are always wanting the newest commodity instead of being grateful with what we already have, we can become shallow and obsessed with less relevant things, and perhaps as importantly we can become dissatisfied when we want new things and find quite simply we just can’t afford them.  Dissatisfaction can be a serious malaise for human beings, perhaps today and throughout history, when people want more and more, and are never satisfied till they have all they think they want; and it still isn’t enough.


All the promise of youth seems to dissipate, disappear into a mess of broken dreams, and we accept third best lives and all kinds of situations we might think we have no control over.  Then we stop believing, really believing, and just go through the motions, not expecting anything much, thinking that God is done with us and we’re just another face in the crowd that God has created and plopped on the earth for no particular reason.  But somewhere, something tells us that we should be happy, we should be doing what we want to do and what makes us happy; and we worry: ‘Is this all there is to life?’  Have I not told you: Be strong and stand firm? Be fearless and undaunted, for go where you may, Yahweh your God is with you.  (Joshua 1:9 NJB)


What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be so magnificently, fearfully and wonderfully made and yet to feel hemmed in, frustrated, seemingly without purpose and going nowhere?  So many emotions just lost in the stratosphere, all those human emotions lost to history.  We’re a whirlpool of emotions, we can be a slave to them and sometimes we can try to live without them.  But’s what’s certain is that we all have them; sometimes positive emotions and sometimes more negative emotions, and we can’t escape them whatever we do.  They are what make us human in fact, and hint at our spiritual dimension.

Isn’t it true that as we get older we lose our innocence, we lose that spark of wonder we had as kids, that ability to find enjoyment in simple things and the friendships we had as children.  We didn’t care whether our friends were poorer or richer than us, more posh or more common than us, whether they were black or white or Chinese or whatever, well I certainly didn’t care anyway, they were just my mates and we hung around and played war games and Cowboys and Indians and ran helter-skelter through the streets and dingy entries and back alleys of my childhood home.  Then we get older, we want to be successful or we want to attract members of the opposite sex (sometimes even members of the same sex!), we want to be sophisticated and worldly, cool and hip, and then we become unhappy, unfulfilled and uncertain even of who we are and who we are meant to be.  I also find that when I am angry, even if I have a right to be so, I lose my happiness, I lose my joy and the ability to laugh; and I so love to laugh!  Becoming civilised often meant ironically that humans became selfish and individualistic, they stopped thinking communally and began to divide up into hierarchies, and then came kings and wars; and then came organised religion.  Do we really need all the things so-called civilisation brings?  Do we need to be worldly and sophisticated, important and wealthy?  Rejoice with others when they rejoice, and be sad with those in sorrow.  Give the same consideration to all others alike. Pay no regard to social standing, but meet humble people on their own terms. Do not congratulate yourself on your own wisdom.  Never pay back evil with evil, but bear in mind the ideals that all regard with respect.  As much as possible, and to the utmost of your ability, be at peace with everyone.  (Romans 12:15-18 NJB)