March 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Siegfried Sassoon, 1920
March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
David Foster Wallace
January 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice seduced).”
–J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia
November 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Truly fantastic short film. In a weird way, it reminds me of a sermon. So life affirming!
November 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
“Capitalism, for all its emphasis on the free market, hates competition – that is, any challenge to its system. Anybody with a smattering of English history knows about the great conflicts between church and state. We know that traditionally there have been been two powers: the material world and the invisible world. God and Mammon.
Well, Mammon won the big battle, and there is no effective force in the west to challenge the dogma of capitalism. The church at least paid lip service to a different value system to the one Margaret Thatcher hailed as “no alternative”.
Art is a different value system. Like God, it fails us continually. Like God, we have legitimate doubts about its existence but, like God, art leaves us with footprints of beauty. We sense there is more to life than the material world can provide, and art is a clue, an intimation, at its best, a transformation. We don’t need to believe in it, but we can experience it. The experience suggests that the monolith of corporate culture is only a partial reality. This is important information, and art provides it.”
October 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’m re-reading John O’Donohue’s wonderful To Bless The Space Between Us, after giving my first blessing this week. It felt magical and powerful. Reading the book, it now feels more like reading a manual. A whole new avenue of practice has opened to me – I wish John was still alive so I could learn from him!
Here he is, reading a Celtic blessing (starts 1.20).
October 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Bill Graham, my new professor, quoted this off by heart and at length in our opening lecture of Scripture and Classics today. Not a bad way to start the day.
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
August 1, 2013 § 6 Comments
I am as surprised as anyone that I’m about to study theology.
As a gay teenager, it didn’t take me long to figure out that religion was not for me. Outside the school lunch hall, I remember being told by a newly evangelical friend that I was doomed to go to hell. Once I’d figured out that I was – in fact – fine, it was clear that organised religion was absurd, irrelevant, and cruel.
The house I was raised in was largely secular, the country I grew up in also. Yes, I went to a Steiner school and ended up singing in a gospel choir at university – but even then I couldn’t sing the word ‘God’ because it felt weird.
So why now start a masters at the Harvard Divinity School to combine with my public policy degree?
1. Systemic change outside – demands personal transformation inside
Urgh, I know. The whole ‘start with yourself’ shit. Five years ago I would have rolled my eyes at this. But from every transformation I’ve been through (coming out, becoming vegetarian, taking up fitness, recovering from my accident) – I’ve learned that the physical changes have always come after an inner transformation. Without a change in my worldview, new behaviours just didn’t stick.
Likewise, streaming through our economic and political systems swims a sea of values; what do we deem important? What do we reward? How do we understand ourselves as humans in relationship to the natural world?
Without shifting some the answers to those questions internally – how can we hope to build something better out in the world? I have learned the hard way that policy changes alone aren’t going to get us to where we need to go. The world demands more of us.
I want to point to my mentor Charlotte Millar here, for introducing me to a mindfulness practice and helping me run the project I’m most proud of – Common Cause’s Action Learning Process, where I first started putting this into practice.
2. Social action has to come from a better place than anger and revenge
It is a dirty secret, but after five years of activism, campaigning had become unfulfilling. Maybe even a little boring.
In so many conversations and meetings, I have sat with activists – all of us justifiably upset about a blatant injustice, indignant at the world’s betrayal. And although we talked about the issue at hand – I believe the hurt we were feeling came from somewhere else.
All of us had experienced the unfairness of the world in one way or another. For me, it was the exclusion and loneliness I felt being a closeted teenager in a testosterone-fuelled boys’ boarding house. For others, it was about having a stutter, being made to feel different because of race or class, a parental break-up, abuse, or something else entirely.
This pain had become our gift – it gave us eyes to see the world for what it was, and the purpose to do something about it. But it was also a crutch. Each campaign had become an opportunity to replay the revenge-cycle, to finally beat the big bad guy. Secretly, it didn’t even feel that different whether I won or lost – the fight is what mattered.
With time and healing work, these old wounds have softened. I am less angry and have more compassion. I’m more able to see multiple truths. I will always work towards justice and sustainability – but can no longer do it with the fuel of a hurt 15 year-old, because I am no longer him! So now I look to a more nurturing source, and much of that I have found in spiritual practice.
It should have been obvious, really. So many of the great social movement leaders I admire had a rigorous spiritual life. Even amongst today’s forerunners, we see these ideas brought to life at the Movement Strategy Center and the Rockwood Leadership Institute, for example.
3. This work allows me to be whole
I love the world of political activism – strategy, messaging, debate. I even have a thing for innovative policy design. And – I also love leading a group to sing in harmony, opening conversations that allow for true vulnerability, and making a space so beautiful it moves people to wonder.
Previously, I could sneak elements of this into my work – but in the world of divinity school, these things are legitimate – with experts, and rigour and opportunities to practice and innovate. I even get to take a course in sacred music!
It feels like I have found a life to which I can bring all my gifts, not just those that impress on the CV.
4. Religions know about making meaning – and meaning is what we’re looking for
I learned an important lesson in Marshall Ganz’s classroom last year. We often think we need to make changes easy for people. But really, we need to make them meaningful.
That’s what every brand tries to do. That’s what every great story, celebration and relationship does – they bring meaning to the random set of experiences that life consists of. Think of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony – chimneys coming out of the ground and bouncing NHS nurses singing ‘Jerusalem’ moved me to tears!
Religion, at its best, can do this beautifully. It can build true community, give us a place to commit to being our best self, offer wise teachings, remind us of deeper meaning and purpose, mobilise us for justice, create transcendence, help us work through the inevitable challenges of life, share inspiring stories and nurture elders.
Personally, I think most religions are doing a pretty crappy job at serving people like me in doing these things. Others agree – alternatives are springing up like the School of Life and the Sunday Assembly, while insiders like Richard Holloway are leaving established institutions.
With everything I’ve learned about the need for a new narrative of progress, the hero’s journey and symbolism – I think the world of theology has plenty to offer for someone keen to build meaning into social and environmental justice work.
There is still so much I want to do, and no doubt in five years time I will look at this with wholly different perspective, but for right now – it feels really right.
I’ll see you in the lecture on eighth century prophets or intermediate Hebrew…
July 31, 2013 § 7 Comments
Nearly four years ago to the day, I walked along the pier in St Andrews and attempted a jumping-solo-version of this move from the movie Grease and fell seven meters onto hard rocks below. I broke both my ankles and a wrist, shattered my lower legs, and double-fractured my spine.
It took one helicopter rescue crew, two weeks in hospital, three rounds of surgery and four months in bed/a wheelchair for me to be able to walk again.
This week, I’ve been back in St Andrews to have a look at the spot where I fell – a rather strange and unnerving experience. I noted down some of the things the whole experience has taught me –
You can do more than you think (with time and effort)
During the first few months of recovery, the doctors weren’t sure if I’d regain sensation in my left foot, and I worried I’d never walk properly again. Although I now have restricted ankle movement, with daily stretches, I am able to run again. (Smug face: next month I’m running my first 5K!)
What matters most becomes clear (when shit hits the fan)
When I came round in hospital, I wanted only to see my family and a few very dear loved-ones. Nothing else mattered. Although I am blessed with friends all over the world, it was healthy to realise that in crisis-time, my heart longed only for those I know most intimately.
Healing means more than bones repairing
Having just listened to this fantastic interview with post-traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk, I’m reminded of what kept me busy during the recovery months. I became slightly obsessed with Strictly Come Dancing. In order to have an outlet for pain and anger, I was given weekly painting lessons where I had to paint the dances that the show featured each week. (You try painting a waltz or paso doble! It was hard.) This, in combination with my community singing group, gave me something to lose myself in – and work towards mental recovery.
The world looks different (when you change your perspective)
Being back in my parental home allowed me to sing standards with my sister, learn all the flags of the world, and think about what I really wanted to do with my working life. Before, excitement in my life meant going to a meeting at Number 10 or a UN briefing. Now, it was taking a shower, or going to choir. Small things became enormous, and the enormous things just disappeared from my radar.
Also, using a wheelchair in a world designed for walking is really frustrating. I could be needlessly defeated by the tiniest ledge or step and receiving a hug from a standing person felt weird. (Tip: get down on your knees when sharing a hug with a wheelchair user. Feels so much better!)
The National Health Service is amazing
The care was excellent; the nurses kind yet firm, the doctors slightly arrogant but enjoying an intellectual joust now and then, the food totally fine. I will happily pay my taxes until I die, probably without even covering the cost of the helicopter, district nurses, two (left-handed) wheelchairs etc etc.
All this being said, I won’t be attempting any similar feats of aerial bravery near a steep drop anytime soon…