These four paintings carry the title 'My Back Yard'. So often we practice 'NIMBYism', being keen to keep certain people at a distance, or not realising how important they are to us. Others are simply not part of our awareness, yet fulfil a vital role. I count myself privileged that those represented through these paintings have been important influences in my life, and that I have been led to recognise the fact.
These paintings relate to Seafarers, homeless people, those who live with impaired intellectual capacity (learning disabilities, dementia), refugees.
I am in the process of writing up reflections on each of these, which will appear in due course.
How do I find beauty in this mess of pigment, oil and scribble?
Is it by capturing a memory of this, or another place, in times past - the sun’s warmth, the buzz of insects, the lazy fish gliding too-and-fro, a gentle breeze caught in the willow fronds, the vibrant colours flickering across the water? Not entirely, for you may have passed by too quickly or not have been there at all.
It is not through great measures of planning on my part, as the artist. I am aware how random much is and that I am not well-trained in the study of colour and light. I strongly sense the image is as much a gift to me, as it is to any viewer and my question is ‘How did I do that?'.
Is it natural intuition or does the Spirit move across the waters of my mind - bringing light, life and colour into being - bringing a strange order to the chaos of stroke and smudge - re-creating what the eye perceives and shaping a fresh beauty for others to behold?
I believe so. It is grace!
Two disciples are eager to see if the story of the open tomb of Jesus is true. They discover the grave cloths inside and then return to where they were staying.
It is puzzling that, while we are told that one disciples 'saw and believed', we also learn that they did not understand that Jesus would rise from the dead.
I think that I would expect a similar eagerness to discover what had happened - to discover the risen Jesus and 'put some flesh' on the experience of an empty tomb.
Elsewhere the question is asked of those seeking the body of Jesus 'He is not here. Why do you look for the living among the dead?'
The questions that these incidents leave with me are:
Are we as eager to discover where Jesus is alive today as we are to believe in the empty tomb?
How do we relate faith in an amazing historic event to faith in Jesus who lives today?
It is not easy to be recommending people to watch a film that is, in places, almost impossible to watch, but I do! “For Sama” is a documentary of life for a family and a community living through the siege of Aleppo, Syria. On the one hand it could be viewed as a place of destruction and death, yet I have not viewed a film that is in reality more full of hope than this.
I imagine that, for many, hope is most often a lifting of the spirit and a strong sense of optimism. This documentary demonstrates some of the worst in human nature but, more importantly, also some of the best in human nature and a profound hope that faces the inevitability of death.
I find much in this that is part of the Christian story, as rehearsed between Palm Sunday and Easter. As the story of the siege of Aleppo plays out in a largely Muslim setting, I am encouraged that the Christian story is not exclusive, and that the hope God offers through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is indeed universal.
Rather strangely, ‘For Sama’ has gained attention through the awards offered by the film industry (Cannes, the BAFTAs and Oscars etc.). While this glitzy world is so far removed from the situation in Syria, it has helped fulfil the purpose of the film to give identity to people who are disregarded by those in positions of power. The film’s creator Waad al-Kateab had a dress made for the Oscars award ceremony emblazoned with words from an Arabic poem ‘We dared to dream and we will not regret dignity.’ - there is no shame in seeking and holding on to one’s identity and purpose.
The reality of the situation in Aleppo, particularly during the days of the siege, that is displayed by the film ‘For Sama’ might be described by many as hopeless. A small population standing against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the threats of Russian air power, amidst threats from competing militia groups in the city, yet continuing to find within themselves and their faith in God the strength and the hope to seek life. It is not rosy. It is gritty and it is very real.
At the opening of the film we are thrust into the risky public protests of students and others. They loudly celebrate the simple act of protest, which has not been possible before, and in this glimpse a hope that their revolution might succeed.
This story of a city and its people is also very personal. The student Waad keeps encountering Hamza, a doctor who has committed to providing much needed hospital care to the besieged and constantly threatened population of East Aleppo. He is a subject for Waad’s filming, but common cause, shared hardship and hope draw them together. That everyday life, relationships and love continue in the dust and destruction is the defiant hope that undergirds the wider story the film tells. Waad and Hamza get married and there is space for the celebration with some of the trimmings you would expect, joy and dancing. But life is punctuated continuously by bombing attacks and the call to attend to the injured and dying.
The bloody scenes of death and destruction are not easy viewing, but even here hope lies in the tireless efforts of the medics and the desperate desires of family that life should prevail. There is the regular invocation of God to be active in what is happening - ‘God help us!’ - and the chorus of ‘God be praised’ when life is restored. And it reaches beyond, for even when a mother is carrying her dead son away she is encouraged to ‘Pray for him’.
It is in the midst of this chaos that Sama is born and the natural hope of an infant discovering life and a new world is evident. The greater hope is witnessed, however, in an emergency caesarean birth as the mother in rushed in having been caught in a bomb attack. The medical team make long and vigorous efforts to encourage the first breath of a very blue baby. Both mother and baby survive and one realises the hope that lies in perseverance.
Hope is not always obvious. It is likely seen when the family are able to travel to Turkey to visit elderly parents. However, there is more hope when the family make the decision to return to Aleppo as a family in order to continue their work in the hospital and filming the story of a suffering people. How hope-less would it have been if the people of Aleppo were abandoned by such committed and principled people?
There are the scenes of desperate digging in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, the final scenes of a convoy leaving the city for a safe destination, within which hope goes hand-in-hand with great risk and sacrifice.
If you watch this film it is certain that you will discover other examples of hope writ large in the midst of human catastrophe. The strength of the human spirit simply expresses the presence of the Spirit of God. I cannot think that hope comes from any other source.
Watch 'For Sama' on Channel4 or via AmazonPrime. It is due in cinemas later in 2020.
A Channel4 'How to Change the World' interview between Waad and Hamza al-Kateab and Krishnan guru-Murthy can be viewed here.
I suspect that none of us would like to be labelled as being 'narrow-minded', as it is closely associated with intolerance and bigotry and is a term we might well associate with individuals with whom we would not wish to be associated. However, the reality is that. while we may not be 'narrow-minded' we could all be a lot more 'broad-minded'. The horizons within which we live our lives are almost inevitably closer than they might be.
Part of this is naturally down to our mental and emotional capacities. In an increasingly global society we should consider the situation of others in far-flung parts of the world. The climate crisis, exacerbated most by the industrialised and consumer societies, is affecting people in the pacific islands due to sea levels, those in vast areas of the African continent, dependent on simple agriculture, due to worsening drought or flood. We need to, and perhaps want to, understand better these situations in order that we might find motivation to change our own lifestyles, yet it is impossible to put ourselves fully into another's shoes.
The world around us constantly invites us to 'look beyond' what immediately presents itself to us. Standing on a cliff-top near Nefyn in Wales we have the touchable at our feet, but are invited by the wheel-tracks in the turf to view the distance whether that is the history of their origins, the rocky outcrop at the furthest point of land, the sea-horizon which takes our imagination around the oceans, the wind-blown clouds which tease thoughts of where they have come from and where they are going to, the blue sky which is a rather plain view of a complex universe and space more visible in the stars at night.
In the realms of faith the broader view is, in my view, also better. My ecumenical work in the church has enriched what I consider to be mine immeasurably. I am also aware that as soon as I feel I have God sussed I wander into the realms of idolatry, placing my belief above the God who, while being intimate with us through the life of Jesus, is always 'beyond' in a measure.
Some would counsel not looking too far ahead, as you may then trip up on what is at your feet, but in the greater economy of God I think I need to take in as much of the horizon as my mental and emotional capacities can handle, trusting that God is always more as well as being always near to prevent me tripping up.
The first thought that comes to my mind is a link to an earlier post 'God likes Jazz'. In the band each person plays a different instrument, none have any scripted music, to hear them individually one would witness different music but together they make harmony and music. In the image this is not evident, except that they all face the same way!
This group, playing in a square in Rome one summer, were clearly enjoying themselves and were full of enthusiasm, drawing their audience into the rhythm and the melody of their music, which had originally been composed by another.
This always strikes me as a clear image of Christian life and witness - we pick absorb the music of another in order to play our part sharing it for the benefit of others with enthusiasm and joy. But we each do it in our own way with the particular gifts which are ours, contributing to a whole.
This evening we will enjoy the annual City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' Christmas concert which I anticipate will be just this, but on a much bigger scale. I'm just glad that the wearing of silly hats is not an obligatory part of being a Christian!
This reflection has 'happened' as I drew the image. Based on a photo from a walk in the Cheshire countryside with friends I had in mind our personal journeys to Bethlehem and the Christ-child during the Advent season. In retrospect the star over Bethlehem appears just as much as a cross and leads one to reflect on the journey to our new birth. The fact that it comes through self-sacrifice gives us a notion as to what it meant for God to be born in our human lives in Jesus. It puts the question of the cost of Christmas into a whole different perspective!
Having said this, there are those who will be counting the cost in very significant ways:
Those who have amassed large debt in order to buy presents that will impress.
The newly-marrieds who expected some time as a couple enjoying their new life, now expecting a baby with all the commitments this means.
The wise, who recognise the significance of Jesus' birth and give something of themselves in celebration, but then discover that they are to return home a completely different way.
We all might consider what it means to celebrate and share in the 'incarnation of God' as we and He muddle along in the mess of human life.
This image was given to a dear friend who had terminal cancer, carrying the Gospel that we journey, not to an end, but to a new beginning and life. I trust that it continues to carry this message for her grieving family.
Another friend has commented that the picture has the sense of evening time for him. Perhaps it is when we are in the evening of life that we are most aware of the promise that lies ahead of us?
In relation to the whole climate crisis debate and response I am quite surprised how muted any response has been from the Christian community. Not that nothing has been said, but that it has been said quietly. And yes, there was a Christian presence amongst the climate protesters on the streets in 2019, but given the church’s presence in every community around the country ….! The growth of the eco-church movement is good to see, but here again the vital matters around climate change are, more often than not, low down the ‘agenda’ considering.
Perhaps more important than joining the campaigning on the basis of science and other empirical evidence is the whole matter of faith. After all, there is everything blasphemous in only looking at the situation on the basis of ‘humanity has messed up, humanity is able to put it right’.
Not unnaturally, when confronted with news of unprecedented floods around the world my mind turns to the story of Noah. Earthquakes, wind and fire turn my attention to Elijah on Mount Horeb.
The Chester Mystery Plays, which date back to the early 15th century, include the story of Noah and the flood. This was used as the basis for Noyes Fludde, an opera by Benjamin Britten which I helped to produce in Birmingham in 2002. The story is relevant for both times. One of the comical features is Mrs Noah along with her ‘Gossips’ who are the naysayers, the Donald Trump characters, who deny that disaster is coming. However, the key message is found in the Ark and the rainbow, evidence of God’s desire for the renewal and continuation of his creation and his promise that never again will he destroy all life.
It is likely that we will jump on the rainbow promise to reassure ourselves that the disaster, which we can see coming, will not happen. In doing so we too easily overlook the simple fact that in our current situation it is not God who is wreaking destruction but our own selfish actions.
The rainbow promise holds and we can be assured, not that we can mess up as we like without negative result, but that God’s love for his creation continues undiminished.
There is no need for God to repeat the act of judgement because we have the experience of Noah as a judgment for our actions today. We also have this story of salvation and new beginnings and God’s living Word in Jesus, so a similar act of judgement should be unnecessary!!
It may be helpful too to take heed of Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 18) who found himself up Mount Horeb seeking God’s direction for his life, as he faced considerable opposition from some influential people. Sat in a cave he experienced earthquake, wind and fire but realised that in none of these did God speak, but rather in the silence that followed. For our own part we perhaps need to allow ourselves to be moved more by the evidence of God’s love - the rainbow promise, that so often comes quietly, than by the 'bangs and the crashes' of nature. We may then find a responding love and care for God’s creation and all who are part of it rather than a devotion to self-preservation.
Noah was the instrument of God's salvation witnessed in the rainbow. Jesus is God's salvation witnessed in the Cross and a faith that resurrection is his promised love for eternity. We too may be instruments of God's salvation for a world ravaged by flood, earthquake, wind and fire, but faith needs to be put into practice!
A walk in Austy Wood at bluebell time, or the park, the countryside, the national park, the seaside.
A holiday to view far-flung wonders, a safari, a mountain climb, a scuba dive.
We watch David Attenborough, Countryfile, Spring Watch, Gardeners’ World
There are so many ways in which we sample the world of nature.
We appreciate it, have concern for it, care for it, rejoice in it.
At times we enter into it, becoming part in an active way. We manage our garden, we tend plants and grow vegetables or fruit.
In our appreciation and concern, through a sense of care, it becomes a cause which we support. A local conservation project gains our interest, we donate to the World Wildlife Fund, we re-cycle bits of paper and plastics, we grow flowers for the bees, build an insect ‘hotel’, feed the birds and the hedgehog.
However, a question remains over the depth and intimacy of our relationship with the world of creation and how often we ‘pass through’ it.
Especially for urban dwellers there is a strong element of the ‘optional’ about the relationship with nature.
The countryside and our gardens are our ‘pleasure grounds’. Birds, badgers, climate change, green belt very easily become causes or projects, carrying the sense that they are ours, when we want them. The beauty and wellbeing of nature is very much a peripheral to everyday life.
For those involved in farming or any way of life whose focus is outdoors, contending with nature, working with it and in it, things are rather different but it could become ’the workplace’, with a relationship that can become detached.
Humanity and the world of nature have, from every perspective, become distanced and far from the unified creation of God’s making.
The creation accounts offered in the book of Genesis make quite clear the fact that humanity, along with every other aspect of creation small or large, belong together as parts of God’s creation. Jesus puts above all other things a love for God and our neighbours as ourselves. The unified relationship of God’s design goes further - There is a real sense that our attitude towards the world of nature reflects clearly our attitude towards God, the Creator, and our neighbours with whom we share in its care. A love for self does not give any room for a selfish, optional care for all around us.
If our relationship with God is intimate enough surely we should not be able to ‘pass through’ the natural world around us without feeling a sense of belonging and a heavy ‘duty of care’ - and this not only for those who are closer neighbours, but also for residents of the Pacific Islands or the Amazon Rainforests.
I find that amongst my collection of images there are quite a number which depict 'conversation'. It is always interesting to surmise what the conversation is about, but also to realise that conversation is perhaps the simplest and most common way in which we share ourselves with other people.
Is it the family gathering where conversation can be the most personal and often around familiar topics, events, relationships and people known.? Is it a sharing of information or knowledge or a point of view? Is it a casual encounter with the usual topics of the weather and one another's health? Is it a negotiation of business or opinion? Is it a shared decision-making over a meal menu or something of greater significance? The list could go on because conversations cover the whole spectrum of human life. In it all we share something of ourselves - who we are and how we are.
Conversation is usually the starting point for, and the ongoing foundation of, relationships. It is of great importance in our lives and yet is often not treated as such. More often than not we treat it very casually - either not giving much thought to what we say, or allowing a set pattern to shape things, depending on who we are talking to.
Then, of course, we must remember that conversation is as much about listening as speaking! How often are our minds focussed on what it is that we wish to say, to such an extent that we do not really listen to the other person, or we don't let them get a word in edgeways!
All this sounds pretty 'normal' and therefore 'acceptable', apart from the fact that the conversation we are so bad at is central to our relationships. Is it any wonder that these break down so easily, or exist in a rather fragile form? The 'conversations' that take place in the House of Commons probably mark the lowest standard, as clearly there is not much listening and the emphasis is very much on 'telling'. Questions carry an important role in conversation, as they can lead the exchange into new areas and invite the contribution of others, but Question Time in Parliament never seems to be this positive.
It seems that we have a lot of ground to make up if our society is to be renewed, yet it can begin with the simplicity of good conversations.
So to in the realms of faith, conversation or 'prayer' is a foundation for the relationship we have with God. We can believe and we might go as far as to say that we 'trust' God, but without the conversation the relationship remains rather impersonal. It is conversation/prayer that gives us opportunity to share ourselves to the fullest extent - and equally, enables God to get close to us and share what is at his heart.
Conversation - sharing self, listening and allowing times of silence, so that these are given the space they need - a central art for our human relationships that needs some practice!