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Mediocrity and the Death of Imagination

When we think of the word mediocrity it easily conjures other words in our minds too…

Dull, boring, banal, unimaginative, humdrum. Mediocrity speaks of thoughtlessness, of expediency, ‘necessary evils’ compromised ethics, maybe even bureaucracy?

The poet, the artist, the rebel, the dreamer within us wants to resist mediocrity yet we also (slowly) come to realise that mediocrity is part of the picture. The human condition has its share of highs, lows, passions and sufferings, and residing somewhere in the middle.. the mediocre; the long commute to work, the financial struggle to make ends meet, the moments of utter boredom and tedium, call-centre frustrations, and the challenges of illness or grief.

Within dull blandness, (and maybe because of it), a more sinister seed of totalitarian is may be planted. In the horrific stories of genocide, such as the Stalinist purges, Nazi death camps and the SL21 Execution Centre of Cambodia, are symptoms of a lack of imagination, compassion and ultimately boredom. Violence, it appears can come from the most mediocre places; In these horrific histories we see over and over the banality, the mechanisation, the industrialisation of death, destruction, and terror.. we might think of climate change here too. The suffering bought upon individuals is all too real; families traumatised; victims forever changed. But the process of destruction is often banal, often mediocre. This is the perverse imagination of power; destroying human imagination destroys people and destroys reverence – it numbs people, it is truly an existential threat.

If this idea of mediocrity is about banality, crushing imagination, and disposing of inconvenience. We may ask once more, ‘why was Jesus killed on Good Friday? Did Pilate have Jesus killed through passion, anger or rage; or was it simply a mundane political expediency, (a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, a pretender to the throne?
Note for example the ‘satire’ of riding a donkey triumphantly through a small gate into Jerusalem, when Pilate would have – probably only recently – done something grand on a white Stallion trumpets and flags and high pomp through the main gates. Would that imaginative, challenging and usurping satire have gone unnoticed?

At that seems to be Jesus all over; as he walked and talked, laughed and challenged, he freed the human imagination. To this day he sets our thoughts on new possibilities. opens up a world of wonder.. announces/evokes/alludes to the arrival of God’s kingdom. Like the disciples on Palm Sunday, we are asked ‘do we dare see this holy imagination?’  and if we cannot will even the stones see it?

Totalitarian regimes still to this day oppress the artists, musicians, comedians, poets and writers first; those who conjure new worlds, these are the tricksters the un-tameable; and this might be a way to think about the crushing weight brought against this beguiling Jewish teacher from Nazareth.

“The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity”. Nick Cave.

From this perspective it makes perfect sense for Jesus to be executed… who needs this kind of stirring of the imagination. And if that was so then, is it still the same today? Who wants to listen to climate change protesters, or women’s rights campaigners, who wants to see their privilege and power toppled? Who wants the status-quo to be upset? ‘Evil is banal’ wrote Hannah Arendt in her appraisal of the Nazi occupation.

And so what is the cross if not the final subversion? A resistance to numbness, a final unforeseeable act of the imagination, ‘a deeper magic before the dawn of time’ CS Lewis says…the old magic is powerful, but not as powerful as the deeper, holy magic of love. The cross resists power – it overcomes with love, solidarity, it speaks of a hope beyond hope.

And for us….? Where do we go with this?

Our lent film series was all about people’s dealings with mediocrity. Sometimes it was explicitly shown, like Lady Bird’s teenage angst and naive desire to leave a stifling home-town and to ’live through something’. More often the theme of mediocrity was subtle because mediocrity is ‘our world’; we all have to deal with the mediocre, the mundane, the humdrum. Many of the characters we met existed on the fringes of mediocrity, trying to resist, or at least compromise with it. They showed that something about imagination keeps us all free…like the dissidents, poets and writers in Gulags. In The Breadwinner, the mediocrity (and terror) are found within religious fascism – telling story becomes an escape route, a way to process horror and grief. In Leave no Trace, the father and daughter wanted to live outside, on the edge; to form identity beyond community. Yet community still calls, reaches out, both good and bad. For the Shoplifters we witnessed a different, alternate community (family), made of misfits and chancers, (like the church?), they lived beyond mainstream society, and yet something beautiful, loving and tender held them together. Mediocrity was never mentioned but always there, looming, until it broke into their world. And in Cold War we witness the machinations of political powers beyond our control, (hence the film framing characters low down in each view, like some giant presence looming above them). The political mediocrity labels, divides, terrorises and kills, yet small lives, small stories which try to live and love through these times. We are left to ask what survives, what gets broken?

The work of fostering this holy imagination is left to artists, mystics, poets and prophets, and in whose company the Church finds itself.
It is signified in the Eucharistic exchange, it is the source of our ‘mission poise’. Imagination offers a new reverence, and funds compassion, awe, wonder, the possibility of impossibility… Christ may have been killed through a lack of imagination, a resistance to what he showed people. His passion was simply too much to allow to continue… but Easter shows us that this imagination is always calling to us. In the final moments of ‘The Last Temptation’ Nikos Kazantzakis writes,

‘He uttered a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED
And it was as though he had said: Everything is begun.’

 

GS Collins, Easter 2019

Andrew Gadd

Ask, Seek, Knock

Matthew 7:7-12

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

B there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

A “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

I have ‘history’ with this text!

Given the history with my son being so unwell and so many other painful experiences with other friends in and out of hospital, a relentless unfolding of disappointment and tragedy. I often thought of this text..

Something especially about fathers and sons (in earlier translations).

And I found myself angered. The anger combined with frustration and disappointment and led to a prolonged departure from Christian faith.

And let’s be honest, who of us hasn’t come up against a wall with this one.

Jesus seems to be promising something which clearly he doesn’t deliver on…

All of us will have known disasters and unanswered prayers. We live in a world steeped in suffering. The words could almost seem to mock the sufferings of others.

Why say this?.. what are we meant to say….how do we respond?

Well one way is to try to conform experience into the mold of dogma… So this means something – I just need to obey, be patient maybe, or conform my asking to the kind of things God wants me to ask for…

Hmm.. I’m not convinced this is sust…

The alternative, (maybe?), is to conform dogma to experience; to say that my experience doesn’t confirm therefore something in what I believe had to change.. I cannot belief against experience..

Now this is a more fruitful – and risky – area to think – I suggest.. and suddenly liberates the bible from the tyranny we project on to it, and the same tyranny on God.

It’s worth thinking here about how Jesus spoke, and what he expected his listeners to do with his teachings…

We can remind ourselves of this; a simple contrast between Greek and Hebrew thinking and teaching.

Greek thinking was led from the front, it was about finding meaning in text, in idea, about finding a truth.. that once revealed everyone would say, ‘oh yes – that’s the truth – we all see it clearly!”

Hebrew thinking was almost opposite.. the rabbinic tradition (Jesus) was about dialogue and discussion.. people studying religious texts were expected to come with questions and arguments. Everyone was supposed to enter a fray of discussion, dialogue, even argument.. and ‘the truth’ existed somewhere in the middle of that – not settled, but literally residing in the wrestling.

And Jesus was coming from the Hebrew tradition. So maybe.. maybe.. what he was doing was asking a question of his listeners.. Posing a problem, leaving a riddle, a conundrum.

And remember too that in the Hebrew tradition prayers are often for blessings and thanksgiving; blessings upon food, or for a good crop, or for a new child. Prayer as petition is not so prevalent.

So I have no clear answer for this text.. all I can say is that it still frustrates me… but that’s ok, I hope it frustrates you too!

We are not called upon to slavishly follow the words of the bible, or to take them at face value.. faith is not about accepting the things we are told… it is about a living relationship of trust, doubt and hope.. it is like Jacob wrestling the Angel, it is about engaging your thoughts, asking questions .. this church (especially in café is really good at this!).

And to take that to its final conclusion .. to say “sorry I do not believe this” shows – to my mind at least – as much faith as to say “yes I do.”

To doubt then; to question, to seek, to ask, to knock… is the realistic and human process which will enable the door to a realistic faithful life to be opened.

GS Collins March 2019
Painting by Andrew Gadd, (b.1968)
www.andrewgaddart.com

wink-powers

Engaging the Powers – Hamish Preston

Hamish Preston’s mammoth project is complete!
Committed to ‘Engaging the Powers’ and to discern and resist the violence and domination in political, economic and social structures, Hamish began a task of condensing and summarising key academic texts. The summary papers take the big ideas and lay them out clearly in a few pages.

The work now exists on his own website Engaging the Powers and all the short summary papers can be found there.

If you want to think deeply about the spirituality and interiority of what is going on in the world, then these papers provide an excellent introduction.

Hamish is a respected member of this congregation and has bought many insights and gifts to us over the years, we are glad and thankful for all his work and passion.

Image taken from Walter Wink’s seminal book ‘Engaging the Powers’

ElectoralRoll

Electoral Roll

If you consider this to be ‘your church’, then can we request that you sign the Electoral Roll as soon as possible!

This tells the Diocese how many people are involved in the life of the community and gives powers to make decisions and make representation to the PCC (Parochial Church Council)

Under the Church Representation Rules a new Church Electoral Roll must be prepared every 5 years. Anyone who wants to be on the roll, whether they have previously completed a form or not, will need to complete a new form by the 13th March and return to the office.

The Form can be found here

 

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Cafe Communion – Epiphany 2019

Cafe Communion – Epiphany 2019

Journey of the Magi

TS Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

This time of year feels like a frantic liturgical race!

Jesus was only born a few days ago, and in a matter of weeks our liturgy takes us from baby, to precocious child, to (todays reading) a fledgling prophet in the temple!

I personally cannot handle that speed.. I prefer to stop and wonder for a little longer.. To linger and question.

For this week, I’m still basking in the glow of epiphany.. the first ‘revealing of a deeper meaning’. The visit of the Magi from the east.. not three.. probably not too wise either! maybe many, men, women, maybe like a band of migrants?

I want to dwell for a moment and take us away from the picture books, from the sweet images of star and camels,  crowns and gifts.

Instead I want to pause on the political nature of this story. The magi see a sign, a star, an invitation.

The air thick with magic and wonder… they leave behind comfort, security, they journey to an unknown destination – but they journey in hope.

And they encounter Herod… very powerful, and very insecure… a highly volatile megolamaniac.

They don’t do ‘wise’ very well – as they walk into a royal palace of an insecure and power hungry king and ask “where is the newborn king?”!

But then they find the child.. whatever they expected, whatever they anticipated, we cannot know – but was it this young child, toddler even?

What did they understand in this image?

We can only speculate…

But in this vision they change. Despite Herod’s insistence – they do not return. They see something dangerous and vulnerable.

They recognise that this is the time to disobey the powers of the nation.. there is something in the vision they have beheld, that compels them to effectively break the law.

They resist the powers of control, envy, greed and violence. They take another route home. They disobey…

I wonder .. as our times seem to become further and further vulnerable, what might we see in the nativity scene that could compel us to such insurrection?

Can the very nature of love, the gift of love so move us to resist the powers of violence, greed and power in our time? How far do we dare go to resist for Love? What are the smallest acts which breed such insurrection?

OF course, the politics doesn’t end there.. What happens next is nothing other than horror.. The justification of so many tyrants; ‘collateral damage, the loss of a few innocent lives in order to maintain ‘security’ to maintain the equilibrium of power, to resist that which threatens ‘our way of life’?

How many times have we heard such words – devoid of imagination, compassion or humanity. Entire systems designed to destroy the force of love and life.

It is this vision which we have hear d of in todays gospel… a gospel, which like the angel, can give us that helping hand, that secret inspiration, that call ‘to go another way’. This gospel tells us that Jesus has come to set the prisoner free. An act of imagination, emancipation, resistance and hope!

So… let us love the magi.. and their impossible, improbable story.. But let us hear the stark, harsh reality in their story too; as TS Eliot reminds us.. they travelled, they wearied, they persisted, and what they found prepared them for both life … and a new death.

Nothing would ever be the same again!!

 

Gary