Discourses From Camden

It is a hot spring afternoon, and I am but a drop in the sea of commuters on which the watching sun casts her rays. This is the Camden Town Underground Station, buzzing with the eclectic bustle of market goers, football supporters, urban travellers; London’s great and small. Each is contained in the self-indulged bubble of his or her own travel trajectory; this is the soundtrack of the City, everyone occupied in the bubble of their own business.

Camden’s ground-level entrance, on a Saturday afternoon, is a slow moving bottleneck; movement is sluggish as a hundred commuters worm their way through turnstiles not designed to anticipate this volume of people. So there I stand, watching, waiting, enjoying the last of the sunlight before I take the plunge beneath ground.

It is in this spirit, of the observer, that I notice two things worthy of note. First, on the left of the entrance, quietly stands a well-dressed lady with some pamphlets and free literature. Behind her, a stall stacked with give-away books, each bearing the title: “What Does the Bible Really Say?” She, a well meaning Jehovah’s Witness, I am sure, stands like the unseen pebble in a fast moving river.

Second, I notice on the right of the entrance, a man sat on his rucksack; this backpack probably contains all the possessions he owns. He has no home, no bed but the concrete. He is silent, nameless, barely perceived by the tide of passing eyes. And, just like this acquiescent pamphlet-provider to my left, he is ignored.

They are separated by barely metres, the Jehovah’s Witness and the man with no home, yet they might as well have been worlds apart. The entrance was narrow, but it might as well have been a chasm. Her books claimed to tell me what the Bible “really says,” while his situation was so far detached from hers, it seemed absurd.

Now, I am sure this lady was well-meaning and operating to the optimum in what her faith requires of her. And yet, as I pressed through that station entrance, I wondered, considering my own faith in Christ: how can any of us, of any faith, claim to have an inkling of what the Bible says, and yet still pass the homeless man without batting an eyelid?

And yet, having made this observation, it was I too who kept on walking, caught up in the self-consumed flightpath as everyone else. Her, the street preacher, and I, the commuter, obviously had very little knowledge of what this Word does; her, the Jehovah’s Witness, and I, the Christian.

When did we start finding it necessary to impose on people vast annals of literature, endless reams of doctrine, libraries of well-figured arguments, and stopped seeing the Word for what it does, the way it works its way out in our lives?

When did we start standing on street corners with the message on our lips, and yet no bread in our hands for the homeless?

For this, I realised, is what has come to compose my Christianity, our Christianity: words with no deeds, argument with no substance, doctrine without justice. We debate to no end about the subject of that lady’s books, “What the Bible Really Says,” and yet we have neglected what it does. We walk through the open station doors with our lofty opinions and well-formed theologies, and yet lift no hand for the needy in the scorching heat of day.

When Christ walked the earth, he did not stand in the pulpits or the meeting places debating the moral implications of gay marriage or women bishops or our other institutional controversies. Instead, he set the pattern of what the Word meant; his life was an active demonstration of what he said. He, the Word became flesh, lived out a law of love, of justice, of mercy, of compassion. And, with that spirit, he openly denounced hypocrisy. For, in observing the religious institution of the day, he saw the bankruptcy of their faith. He saw in them, as there exists in me, in this generation, a dichotomy between what we say, and what we do.

It is my contention, my struggle, that we need to read the Word with pragmatic, not theoretical, minds. Rather than consuming ourselves in the fires of our own doctrine, can we not live united by Christ, a life of freedom, whose yoke is easy and burden is light? For Christianity was never meant to be a subscription to an academic school, but a renewing of the mind, a transformation, eternal life.

Christ’s love is simple to understand. We’ve made it complicated. Quite simply; Act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

A Brief Story of Things

Once upon a time, in a land far away but not so much unlike our own, there was a prosperous city ruled by the good King Corporation. In his day, the land enjoyed peace and stability. Even the poorest people who, heaven forbid, could only afford to wear last season’s fashion brands, could at least afford to keep full tummies and homes with at least one extra room (that’s what the newspapers said, and they must be right!). Everyone was happy; they had Things in abundance, and as we know, with many Things comes much contentment.

King Corporation was a good, god-fearing man; after all, who could refuse to worship the sovereign Thing-god from whom all good Things come? The Church of the Most High Street enjoyed a profitable, healthy relationship with the King;  who could fail to support a regent appointed by the Thing-god himself, a ruler upheld by the Divine Hand of the Free Market?

The people too were devout worshippers of the Thing-god. Every day, extravagant services were held in the city’s many temples to appease the Thing-god. The people would gather to hear the Priests of the Most High Street divulge the Divine Commandments: the profane fashions, the sacred fashions, how to live a good, healthy consumer life. And then, when all was done, when the sermon was preached and prayers said, then would be the time to offer the sacrifices:

People would bring their offerings, big and small, to receive the blessing of the Thing-god. But this was not a system of selfless giving, oh no! For the Thing-god delighted to give to his children reciprocally. To those who had, unto them more was given, and from those who had not, even that will be taken away. The wealthiest threw their fare in the buckets, and to them would the Priests give the choicest Things.

And so it was that King and Country prospered, with the fear of the Thing-god in their minds and the love of Things in their hearts.

But one day, someone raised a hand in one of the churches, and asked the good Priest something no-one had neither thought nor cared to ask before:

“Who makes all these wonderful and beautiful Things? Every Thing must itself have some creator, some First Cause.”

“Why,” the Priest knew his theology, “The things are made by the denizens of the Thing-god, his servants, the Thing-Elves.”

But this one was clever. “Why have we never seen the Thing-Elves, Father?”

“Ah,” the Priest replied, a little exasperated, “It is because the Thing-Elves are invisible.”

And so the question was answered. And the man went home.

But the matter of the Thing-Elves continued to trouble him. So, picking up his knapsack one day, he decided to go on a long journey to see if he could see the Thing-Elves. Over the mountain he went, but the Elves didn’t live over the mountain. Down the river he went,  but still the Elves did not live down the river. Into the forest he went, but could he find the Elves? No, not even in the forest!

Weary, sweaty and almost ready to accept that the Elves really were invisible, the man was about to turn back. But then, all of a sudden, he saw a building in the distance, and, what would you know, there was a train track leading to it; empty trains going in, and full trains leaving, packed with Things! So, with hope rekindled, the man made his way there. Surely that must be the Elves!

Walking through the small entrance into a dingy, dark interior, he immediately perceived the smell of sweat, and the whiff of something perhaps a little more unpleasant. “Why,” he thought, “these Elves aren’t as clean and hygienic as us humans are!”

Then, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he started to make out figures. “Ah,” he thought, “that must be the Elves! I’ll finally see who makes the Things!” But, as he got closer, it was not Elves he saw, but children, human children! Small children, children of different colours, children with one eye, children with one arm, children with not as many toes as the people he knew; but no Elves. How curious!

“Do you know where the Thing-Elves are?” He asked of one child, a little girl with burn marks on her arm.

“No, I’ve never heard of the Thing-Elves,” she replied.

“Then who makes all these Things?” enquired the man.

“Why, that would be us! The people who keep us here have always told us that the Things are what makes the world go round, that there are Angels of the Thing-god living far away who need these Things to survive, that we are doing the work of the Thing-god. I’ve been here all my life – I know my work is very important, and necessary for the Divine Free Market, and that is why I don’t get paid much – but I do wish I could one day go and meet these great Angels who I have heard so much about!”

The sun went down that night, and all the people of King Corporation slept tight in their beds while the Thing-Elves carry on their work.

 

Grass Economy

Spring’s breeze gently stirs the stillness, carrying in her breath the cologne of freshly cut grass, barely grown to maturity, yet already cut down in youth. I lie here tranquil, my skin catching now and then the seeds of the disintegrating dandelions. In this moment I lie in the shadow of Eternity, a shadow I cannot grasp or touch and yet I am always in her cool darkness. I taste the unchanging Forever, yet Forever passes me by for I am composed of the here and now.

This, the tingling touch of the everlasting, juxtaposed with the components of which I am made: flesh passing to dust, breath passing to vapour, mountain passing to sand. I perceive the eternal sky above; yet, like the breeze that rinses through my hair, I will soon be gone, and she will watch, unmoved. My flesh, like the sheaves beneath, will be cut down in adolescence, and she will remain. Empires will rise and fall, and the wind comes and it goes; all the while, eternity taunts the hearts of men.

I pass through her sand timer, somehow imaging that there is something more on the outside of the glass jar, something more than the collapse of the days as they fall away. Yet all the while, I am all too wary that this is all slipping from me. We look up, out of that habitat, while the grains tumble down, taking with them youth, breath, life. There must be more, yet I am on the inside and she is on the outside, and I am powerless to escape the decay of time.

These moments ravage me. My fingers try to grasp at the wind, yet in futility, for flesh cannot hold breath. We are fickle creatures, are we not? We know this, that we cannot hold what we have, for we cannot hold on to vapour. Yet we play with eating and drinking and spending and sex and life and lust and romance like there will be no tomorrow to take it from us. We hope as if we are not on the tether. We look to the future like we do not know that there is an end to a length of string.

Is there hope, when every time I reach out all falls away?

Will you console me, Eternity? Or will you only tempt me, temptress? I am a caitiff living in a young man’s body, I am an old man wanting a coward’s ticket out.

Or could there be freedom in the madness? Can I embrace you, elusive Forever? Would you dwell with me, let me stay here in your shadow, until you take me from the sand timer?  Would you teach me to tread lightly, knowing that it will all be taken, and that one day, you will make it right?

Would you teach me to love with all my heart, for love will be the only currency to survive your economy? Would you help me to give all I have, for all of it is only borrowed?

Would you give me contentment, when this breath ceases to fill my lungs?

And would you hold my hand as I face Death, knowing that when I pass his gate, that is when I will experience Life in her fullness?

Ideals in Delirium

It appears to me that in the modernity and fashion of our glorious twenty-first century, most people talk about ethics as if they’re an emotivist. Emotivism, broadly speaking, is the theory that ethical and value statements are merely expressions of attitudes or feelings towards a certain moral opinion; there are no foundations to morality above a mere shouting match of opinions. To say of justice, “Justice is good,” and of injustice, “Injustice is bad,” is simply to say, “hurrah” to justice, and “boo” to injustice, no more, no less.

It plays out like this: any talk of objective ideals is meaningless in our discussions. Everyone has a view about what is good, and what is good for that person is, on the whole, respected as equally good as what anyone else prefers. It is an old dilemma: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25b). As Doestoevsky writes, if one rejects God, then “all things are permitted.”

To me, this smacks of moral laziness. Our ethical discussions seem to me to revolve around how far we can justify neglecting issues of justice, of altruism, and of benevolence, before it gets embarrassing. How far we can throw out the rules to serve our own ends before we need to look the other way.  When morality as a system of ideals is rejected as having any objective base, the law boils down to one single rule: “What seems good for me, is good for me to do.” And they all did what was right in their own eyes.

In response, some of them resorted to legalism. If modern morality has been tainted by the dismissal of morality itself, then the moralists must needs take up the letter of the law in defence, to reclaim it. But this results in action without heart, intention without motive, virtue without heroism, goodness without love. Legalism promises an answer to cultural relativism but hangs herself in the noose of apathy.

So, the subjectivists and the emotivists strike out against the Bible-bashing, scripture wielding fanatics who push that law of works down their throats, without a hint of sugar to sweeten it. And so our ethics collapses into the vicious cycle of debate, law and nihilism. Without God, no reason for ethics. With no eternity, no obligation to others. For the lazy ethicist, subjectivism feels like a field day in how to excuse yourself from the love-thy-neighbour or look-outside-yourself way of doing life.

But is all lost? All is not lost. Amidst the shouting match, there are the idealists. Those, who in seeing a world in the entropy of social chaos, of moral negligence, start to notice certain self-evident truths. Those who recognise that the “world of me” is not the world in her entirety. The dreamers and the activists. Can we prove that these ideals exist? Not by the feelingless, failing systems of philosophy and morality. The skeptics and the morally lazy will see the idealists as fanatical loons, dreamers without reason or believers without basis.

But, can we show that, with idealism in our minds, the world starts to change? Yes, that is clear. Idealism, pragmatically speaking, shows us quite clearly that the world moves to a new rhythm when the mind is set to something greater than oneself. Ideals mean sacrifice, and maybe that’s why the skeptic will keep her skeptic’s heart, and the legalist will keep his nose in the lawbook. But our eyes would be set too low and our hearts too heavy to count ourselves among their ranks.

Because, the “world of me” is far too small a fish-tank to contain hearts made for higher things. Ideals mean sacrifice for the universal good of others, yes – but they mean this also: freedom, freedom from the law, and transcendence from selfishness and meaninglessness.

The sit-on-your-ass ethicist might be able to philosophically justify why, without ideals, there is no merit nor rational explanation for why it is better to feed the hungry or care for the widow or mother the orphan. But there he will sit, getting nothing higher in life than a few citations in some academic journals and a payslip through the door.

But for the idealist? There is truth in life. And with truth, risk. With goodness, sin, and with virtue, vice. A life of spirit, not works. Above the squalor of a world permeated by indifferent voices, we can set our eyes to a “holy mountain, beautiful in elevation…the joy of all the earth” (Ps. 48:1b,2a).

The idealist may never know, via the rigorous grounds of the empiricist or the rationalist, that they’ve hit the right ideas or lived for the right ideals in every circumstance. Yet, in every instance, I’d rather live corum deo, knowing that I might have fallen flat totally, than have never lived for anything at all.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Clocks in Syria

The apathy of Time leads by the hand these children
Of a fatherless generation, making of boys, men,
Children of a war we thought wouldn’t last –

But as the shells fell the clocks dropped, shattered,
Their hands stopped still, grabbing from us things that mattered,
As their young years ebb away, silent, no ticking marks
The cycle of day to day, dark to dark.

This, our Syria, makes the screens, gone the next day
When a child shoots a man, taken up from his play,
Execution’s a day job with orange jumpsuits, while
Our eyes grow weary of this new killing style.

These things
Come and go
Go and come
Come back tomorrow for the next round of
Humanity’s depravity.

Mountain Sound

I’m climbing this mountain without a map,
Looking for clarity through mist and cloud,
Lost, alone, are you absent God?
Won’t you speak your will aloud?

And yet by some power still I stand,
As each day brings the summit nearer –
But am I to sit and wait just to hear you?
Won’t you speak your will the clearer?

Though you’re silent I know you’re there,
Your presence wraps around me when there is no voice,
Climbing this mountain I’ll not despair.
Climbing this mountain, I’ve made my choice.

One day soon I’ll see your face.
But for now, just steady this heart,
From the fear of falling, without your grace,
For, Daddy, I know the clouds will part.

Don’t Worry, Dear

“Mummy, who’s that man with the scraggly beard,

Standing beneath the granite arch?”

Him, dear? Oh, no one special,

Let’s just keep walking on.

 

“Mummy, who’s that man with the bloodshot eyes,

And the ripped green sleeping bag?”

Him, dear? Oh, he’s just a little tired,

Sleepy from a long shopping trip.

 

“Mummy, who’s that man with the gruff slurred voice,

And his face all bruised and cut?”

Him, dear? He’s just been playing a bit too rough,

Playing with his friends.

 

“Mummy, who’s that man shouting at us,

Why does he want our coins?”

Him, dear? Walk swiftly on, come quick –

We haven’t got many coins, we best be home,

We’ve already spent too much.

 

“Mummy, isn’t it funny, all those men we saw,

They seemed so very sad.

Do you think they have mummies like you,

With a house like this, and a dad?”

 

Dear, try not to think so hard,

Those men are behind us now.

They’re out there, and we’re inside,

So warm yourself by this fire.

 

And those men, out there, live on,

Colder night by Winter’s night.