Friday, November 21, 2014

By the rivers of Babylon...

Picture from
My fellow-leader, friend, who is also my brother-in-law, who is also my brother-in-grace, who is also a very fine chap indeed, read out a psalm in a leaders meeting the other night. It’s that one made famous by Boney M – ‘By the rivers of Babylon…’

It struck a chord as he read it out. It starts with these moving words:
By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?

Then moves to a prayer of devotion to the psalmist’s homeland:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

It ends with some of that psalmy violence that tend to smash and jar on modern ears:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
    blessed shall he be who repays you
    with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!

We have been through a tough time over the past couple of years. Now, to put this in perspective, we haven't faced anything like the terrors and trials of, say, our persecuted brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq. But we have seen the closure of dreams, the departure of friends, the collapse of some ideals.

At times it has felt, as we arrive at yet another guitar-and-tambourine worship session (you may have to be a charismatic Christian to get what I mean here) – at times it has felt like, ‘How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?’ In this place of desolation, where broken hopes stare at us and mock us? Zion – the ideal, the dream, the heady days of youth and optimism – seem a memory more than a reality.

Yet love has held us. The love of very faithful, very generous, very kind people. And behind that the love of a very faithful, very generous, very kind God. And now the waters are rising. Gently, new hope is coming. And I find myself ready to pray, ‘Don’t let me forget. I really do love the church of Jesus. At her best, at her most loving and given and generous, this Jerusalem of Jesus really is above my highest joy.’

But what about that last stage of the psalm? Am I ready to take the ‘little ones’, the attractive, alluring, cute things of the world – entertainments, distractions, diversions, pollutions – and ‘dash them against the rocks’? To use Jesus’ words, ‘to enter violently’?

Almost. The tide is rising. I want to live for God. I want to live for Love.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Foolscap - a poem


The blinded window,
like a discarded page of empty, lined and yellowing
foolscap, says nothing,
but stares balefully back, while

the silhouetted money plant
is an elaborate blot of inky black and messy
coinage, worth little,
but for curiosity, when

the lights from a passing bus
flicker the length of the page
and make it a window again.

Since it has been said that
what you see in spilt ink,
(tealeaf like?) is a window to the soul, and
since the page is blank and yellow, and
since the money cannot be spent, and
since the light was there and gone -

why should I rise?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Goodness doesn't know

Yes, goodness knows
The Wicked's lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The Wicked cry alone
Nothing grows for the wicked
They reap only
What they've sown…
Last week I went with my family to see the musical Wicked.

It has some fab tunes (by Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Prince of Egypt fame) – and, more than that, a thought-provoking story. The musical is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, which is in turn a subversion of L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the iconic MGM movie that has taken audiences over the rainbow and along the yellow brick road since 1939.

Avoiding major spoilers, let’s put it like this. The story takes that gloriously 2D baddie, the Wicked Witch of the West, and tells her story in a way that turns it on its head. Villainess becomes heroine. The witch, Elphaba, is a sparky, inventive and idealistic young woman with a gift for casting spells. But she is rejected for being different (in this case ‘like a froggy, ferny cabbage…unnaturally green!’) Sealing her fate, Elphaba falls foul of Oz’s corrupt political masters who play on general ignorance and fear to spin her as an enemy of the people – hence the version of the story we see on our TV screens every Christmas Eve. The way the plot manages to twist and turn all those familiar motifs – from scarecrow to broomstick to ruby slippers – is truly, well, wonderful.

The show opens with a spectacular musical ensemble as the citizens of Oz celebrate the witch’s recent death. (You can listen to it here, with lyrics here.)

Forget ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’ – this number, with its blending of major and minor strains, is musically ingenious, and here’s why. Remember Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky? The genius of this poem is that the first verse, complete with all its made-up words, is identical to the last verse – but means exactly the opposite. The first verse is sinister and menacing, the last verse – though using exactly the same words – is joyous and celebratory. Well, Wicked’s opening works similarly (though in reverse). The opening number is a joyous celebration of the witch’s death. The closing number is the same song – but now the minor tones come to the fore and it takes on a sinister, even tragic feel, and the words become deeply ironic.

The reason? In the interim we've ‘got to know’ the witch. We've been told her story. We understand her. We love her.

So now we cannot celebrate her death, but only mourn her as a terribly maligned scapegoat.

It strikes me that Wicked has a thing or two to teach us about prejudice and scapegoats. Those who seek power – political or religious or social – need scapegoats. They need someone to blame, someone to direct the fear and hatred of the populace toward. Hitler and the Jews is a very obvious example – but there are examples closer to home.

Fear the immigrant. Fear the gay. Fear the scrounger. Fear the Muslim. Fear the ‘other’. Et cetera. Fill in the blank according to your brand of prejudice.

It leads to soundbites and spin at best, violence and persecution at worst. ‘Goodness knows’ (that is, of course, we know) ‘the wicked deserve everything that’s coming to them’.

Until you get to know them. And then you discover that – who’d have thought it? – they’re human too. And sometimes, they might just have a thing or two to teach us.

So, my reflection for today: don’t judge others. Get to know them. Hear their story. Grow to love them and they'll no longer be ‘them’, the other, but part of the big ‘us’ that is the human race.

Don’t judge others. And certainly not by the colour of their skin – even if it’s green.