Ludgate Circus

The Tate Britain has, as you probably know, a permanent ‘Walk Through British Art’ exhibition, which occupies a large number of rooms divided over periods, often by individual decade. The last time I visited I spent most of my time in the 1900-themed room.

What intrigued me most and caught my imagination was that these works were all done in an era when British imperial power was reaching its apex (all those pink countries on the map), and yet just a few years before the world would come to know devastation and change on an unprecedented scale: the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II and the advent of the atomic age, to name but a few significant events.

The artists knew nothing of what was to come.  The paintings and sculptures of those early years of the 1900’s largely exude an air of bright confidence and optimism.  The tender and powerful Ecstasy by Eric Gill, Furse’s Diana of the Uplands in silky white dress and flowered hat walking her dogs, the Mountains of Moab by John Singer Sargent casting a golden glow about the far reaches of empire.  Why, even Albert Rutherston’s Laundry Girls somehow maintain a ruddy-cheeked contentment as they go about their tedium (the models were actually vegetable sellers from a local market stall).

But it was a London painting that held my attention the longest.  Ludgate Circus by Jacques-Emile Blanche, painted circa 1910, to my mind perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the times.

Ludgate Circus: Entrance to the City (November, Midday), c. 1910, Jacques-Emile Blanche

See the lively city bathed in autumn sunshine.  The men in their top-hats and jackets, the women in bright flowing gowns.  See the few remaining horses and carriages jostling for space with bright red, new-fangled, motorised buses.  A steam-powered train – one of the enduring icons of British ingenuity and industry – crosses Ludgate Hill railway bridge (only in recent times demolished to make way for Thameslink).  And in the distance, presiding serenely over the hubbub of the streets, St. Paul’s, rising again from the billows of London’s smoke, already a phoenix-like emblem of the city’s resilience long before any Nazi bomb was to worry the heads of its proud congregants.

They never saw it coming.

That within 10 years 18 million people would die and 23 million would be wounded in the Great War; that a hopeful Roaring 20’s rebound would be immediately quashed by years of economic uncertainty and suffering, followed again by the most catastrophic warfare and genocide the world has ever seen, where an astounding 60 million people would die.  A young person stepping forward into adulthood on that sunny midday in November of 1910 could never have imagined that the greater part of their most vital, productive years would be given over to so much collective pain and destruction.  The bright amiability of Blanche’s painting seems hauntingly shallow and naive looking back with the hindsight of today.

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t now on the cusp of the same kind of human tragedy, an era where everything changes comprehensively.  When we witness even the early manifestations of global climate change – the fires, the hurricanes, the droughts,  when we read of the mass extinction of mammal and plant species across the globe, when even the insect population – those creatures that account for two-thirds of all life on earth – now appears to have dropped unprecedentedly in the past 30 years; when we take all this into account can we disagree with those who say the earth is entering a new epoch in its history, the Anthropocene Epoch, whose hallmarks are largely determined not by geology or the elements but more directly by human behaviour?  A topic for another time, perhaps; but I am quite sure that the world my grand-children are being born into is already vastly different than the one I knew as a child.

Shall we touch on the Scriptures?  We probably should.  They contain much of the wisdom of human experience, for all the ages.

The people of Asia Minor, with Ephesus particularly in focus, were faced with a completely unexpected paradigm shift.  The Romans and the Greek-speaking populations had long ascribed spiritual power and well-being to a pantheon of (mostly) helpful gods and goddesses.  The Jews living among them held to the rituals of the Law of Moses and service to a single, Almighty God.  And there was plenty of folk religion too, people turning to all sorts of self-declared holy men and women, relying as they did on incantations and dark arts to tap the power of the unseen world.

And along comes a man named Paul, in Acts chapter 19, teaching that the Almighty God of the Jews has recently been revealed in human form by a common but extraordinary man named Jesus, and that this man – having been executed and rising again in glory – now reigns in unity with God, sharing greater authority than every other claimant to spiritual allegiance.  Not only that, but Paul puts good to his claims with a string of remarkable demonstrations of curative powers, exorcising evil spirits and healing the sick in the name of Jesus, and generally threatening the livelihoods of the local holy men and women, who were accustomed to charging good money for their efforts.

In essence, a new age had dawned, significant life change had arrived, and the people of Ephesus were faced with a decision about how to respond.

What did they do?  They reacted as humankind has always done: with a variety of approaches.  Some couldn’t even contemplate the new thing: they were happy enough to dis Paul and his nascent religion, boot him out of their sphere and get back to what they knew.  Others believed they might combine a new allegiance with the old: they tried to co-opt Paul’s teaching, picking and choosing the bits they liked (the parts they could make a living from) and grafting the new onto the old.  Still others saw the new thing as an existential threat; the best thing to do was to rip it out, root and all: let’s kill Paul and his followers and be done with it.

And finally, some accepted Paul’s message for what it was, a new way of understanding the movement of God, finding it to be Good News, and embracing the new paradigm of Christ.


“If we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.”


No matter what you believe is factual in this story, it does beg the question: What is our response when God unexpectedly breaks into our life in a new way?  What do we do when we are confronted with a message that might well threaten our long-held allegiances and ways of thinking but also holds out the promise of new vitality and purpose?

Nowhere do the scriptures indicate that when God finished the work of creating the earth, God was done with creation.  Time marches on, history changes things, God is never done with God’s work.

And if we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.

What will we do?  Cling to the old?  Or move with God and our fresh perspective into the new day, whatever that day may bring.

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Finding Easter in Pulp Fiction

Maybe Jules  and Vincent (played by Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta) have something to teach us about Easter from their dialogue in Pulp Fiction.  Below is an excerpt from the screenplay.

INT. APARTMENT – DAY

The bathroom door BURSTS OPEN and the Fourth Man CHARGES
out, silver Magnum raised, FIRING SIX BOOMING SHOTS from his
hand cannon.

FOURTH MAN
Die… die… die… die…!

DOLLY INTO Fourth Man, same as before.

He SCREAMS until he’s dry firing. Then a look of confusion
crosses his face.

TWO SHOT – JULES AND VINCENT

Standing next to each other, unharmed. Amazing as it seems,
none of the Fourth Man’s shots appear to have hit anybody.
Jules and Vincent exchange looks like, “Are we hit?” They’re
as confused at the shooter. After looking at each other,
they bring their looks up to the Fourth Man.

FOURTH MAN
I don’t understand –

The Fourth Man is taken out of the scenario by the two men’s
bullets who, unlike his, HIT their marks. He drops DEAD.

The two men lower their guns. Jules, obviously shaken, sits
down in a chair. Vincent, after a moment of respect, shrugs
it off.

Then heads toward Marvin in the corner.

VINCENT
Why the fuck didn’t you tell us about
that guy in the bathroom? Slip your
mind? Forget he was in there with a
goddamn hand cannon?

JULES
(to himself)
We should be fuckin’ dead right now.
(pause)
Did you see that gun he fired at us?
It was bigger than him.

VINCENT
.357.

JULES
We should be fuckin’ dead!

VINCENT
Yeah, we were lucky.

Jules rises, moving toward Vincent.

JULES
That shit wasn’t luck. That shit was
somethin’ else.

Vincent prepares to leave.

VINCENT
Yeah, maybe.

JULES
That was… divine intervention. You
know what divine intervention is?

VINCENT
Yeah, I think so. That means God
came down from Heaven and stopped
the bullets.

JULES
Yeah, man, that’s what is means.
That’s exactly what it means! God
came down from Heaven and stopped
the bullets.

VINCENT
I think we should be going now.

JULES
Don’t do that! Don’t you fuckin’ do
that! Don’t blow this shit off!
What just happened was a fuckin’
miracle!

VINCENT
Chill the fuck out, Jules, this shit
happens.

JULES
Wrong, wrong, this shit doesn’t just
happen.

VINCENT
Do you wanna continue this theological
discussion in the car, or at the
jailhouse with the cops?

JULES
We should be fuckin’ dead now, my
friend! We just witnessed a miracle,
and I want you to fuckin’ acknowledge
it!

VINCENT
Okay man, it was a miracle, can we
leave now?

……

[Several scenes later, Jules and Vincent continue their conversation in the coffee shop:]

VINCENT
Good for you. Lighten up a little.
You been sittin’ there all quiet.

JULES
I just been sittin’ here thinkin’.

VINCENT
(mouthful of food)
About what?

JULES
The miracle we witnessed.

VINCENT
The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed
a freak occurrence.

JULES
Do you know that a miracle is?

VINCENT
An act of God.

JULES
What’s an act of God?

VINCENT
I guess it’s when God makes the
impossible possible. And I’m sorry
Jules, but I don’t think what happened
this morning qualifies.

JULES
Don’t you see, Vince, that shit don’t
matter. You’re judging this thing
the wrong way. It’s not about what.
It could be God stopped the bullets,
he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found
my fuckin’ car keys. You don’t judge
shit like this based on merit. Whether
or not what we experienced was an
according-to-Hoyle miracle is
insignificant. What is significant
is I felt God’s touch, God got
involved.

………………..

From:

“PULP FICTION”

By

Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary

as found at: http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Pulp-Fiction.html

Happy!

This was our family’s Christmas greeting at the end of last year; for some reason I didn’t think to post it here.  It features all of our kids and grand-kids (Lucas has been born since) and was filmed in three different countries.  Even though I’m late I will post it anyway, to make it part of my blog record…enjoy!

White Stone

As I write, Eva, one of my daughters, is at the doctor’s office with her partner, Matt, getting their first view of the new life forming in her womb.  If all goes well, this little child – to be born in the summer of 2015 – has every chance of living into the next century.  And he or she will bear a name which has yet to be determined.

Naming a child can be a precarious undertaking, running the gauntlet of familial expectations and traditions, cultural and linguistic considerations, and the good sense – or the lack thereof – of the parents.  For two of my four daughters, had they been sons, we had chosen the name “Abraham”.  Which at first thought might strike one as perhaps overly-biblical but not otherwise problematic.  Until one takes into account that we were living in Amsterdam at the time and the name would inevitably have been shorted to “Bram”.  “Bram Adan” would surely have been a constant source of cheer during the annual fast in our predominantly Muslim neighbourhood but methinks the teasing would have been unbearable.

Yesterday, nearly four years after leaving the Netherlands, I had another moment of homesickness for that good land.  Eva and I were driving back to Abbotsford, listening to a CD of Dutch pop music, when the song below came on.  Zelfs je naam is mooi (“Even your name is beautiful”) is a touching love song and as we sang along I started to mist-up a bit.  Suddenly Eva interrupted and recounted how a friend in high school once told her about having dinner with the artist at his home.  “Wait, wait!” Eva stopped him, “is his partner’s name Julia?”.  “Yes,” said her friend, puzzled, “how did you know?”  Eva had picked up on a clever aspect of the song: the name which is so beautiful and of which the artist sings so tenderly is never actually mentioned in all the song’s verses but, if one listens carefully, is the final word the singer says as the music is coming to an end.

There was a brief time, following my ordination as a priest, when – as I was able –  I would say the name of each communicant as they knelt before me to receive the sacrament.  I gave up this practice fairly quickly; I discovered that my familiarity with the individual threatened to turn a moment of ineffable holiness and intimacy into one that was mundane and ordinary. How could I be so sure that the name which this person’s parents had given them only a few years before was a true reflection of the identity they bore before God as they knelt to touch the veil of eternity?  Most likely it was not.  Doesn’t John’s Revelation say something about our secret name, written on a white stone, known only to the divine?

Now Matt and Eva have just come by, breathless at the door, bringing me a hint of December air in their clothing and in their hands an ultrasound image of their wee child.  They are so excited and awed by the wonder of it all.  The tears well up again, my voice cracks, I give Eva a hug; Matt looks aside, careful not to intrude in a father-daughter moment.

Welcome, child; be sure of this: God knows your name.

Most-wanted

This past week the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia released a “Ten Most-Wanted Criminals” list; two hand-counts of bad guys on the lam.  Mug-shots and criminal histories included.

My plans to move to British Columbia are moving ahead at a good clip, so it was not without some interest that I read the details of my soon-to-be-neighbours.  As I digested the litany of crimes and allegations, I found myself strangely comforted, warming anew to my home to be.  Sure, the Mounties’ list includes the usual murderers, rapists and drug lords.  Some of the photos attest to their fighting spirit.  But there is also a man, earnestly sought, whose criminal activity is described as “property offences, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle and mischief”.  All very annoying stuff, I’m sure.  But annoying enough for the Ten-Most-Wanted list of a province one-and-a-half times the size of France?  Goodness, such stuff was the weekend pass-time of most of the kids with whom I went to high school.  My heart is at peace again; all is well in British Columbia.

The list got me thinking.  If I were the world’s benevolent dictator, with no-one beyond my reach, which ten shoulders would I tap with the finger of justice?  It’s not as easy as you might think.  You soon discover that you have to start categorizing the awfulness and reach of criminal behaviour.  Okay, granted, on this particular week Muammar Gaddafi is an obvious choice, if only because his arrest would have immediate results on the blood-letting in North Africa.  But where do you go from there?  More dictators and despots?  Would their replacements be any better?  Mexican drug lords?  Little lasting effect, me thinks, as long as there is demand north of the border.  And too many of them.  Corporate tycoons who knowingly run abusive industries, enslaving the lives of thousands?  Where does one begin to quantify evil?

There are times when I purposefully don’t read the latest news reports of the world’s daily dose of mayhem and disaster.  I get tired of it; I get overloaded.  Or perhaps desensitized.  In any case, the sheer volume of brokenness and frailty becomes too much for me and I choose to look the other way.

Maybe my retreat is okay when it comes to things far away.  But what about the bit of the world that is mine to influence, where I live and whom I meet?  Why is it so easy to be so enraged with injustices that are out of my reach, and so paralyzed with the abuses going on all around me?

A memory comes of a scene from the film The Year of Living Dangerously, starring two young, emerging actors at the time: Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver.  The critical acclaim, however, was stolen by Linda Hunt and her performance in the role of an Indonesian photographer, Billy.  With Gibson’s character, the journalist Guy, in tow, Billy heads into the slums to bring food to a destitute woman and her daughter.  Guy scoffs at the gesture.  This dialogue follows:

BILLY: And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?

GUY: What’s that?

BILLY:  It’s from Luke, chapter three, verse ten. What then must we do? Tolstoy asked the same question. He wrote a book with that title. He got so upset about the poverty in Moscow that he went one night into the poorest section and just gave away all his money. You could do that now. Five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.

GUY:  Wouldn’t do any good, just be a drop in the ocean.

BILLY:  Ahh, that’s the same conclusion Tolstoy came to. I disagree.

GUY:  Oh, what’s your solution?

BILLY:  Well, I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light. You think that’s naive, don’t you?

GUY:  Yep.

Fortunately, for you and for me, there are many people who don’t believe such a simple commitment is naive.  They are the people making a difference.
The real “most wanted” in the lives of the hurting.

Friends

My most-often used social networking site – the one which has turned a 26-year-old Harvard alumnus into a multi-billionaire – tells me I currently have 191 “Friends”.  That’s not many by the standards of some.  When I look at the profile of one of those Friends of mine I discover he lists 4243 Friends.  Which, to my mind, is stretching the meaning of friendship to the extreme.

In fact, within my very modest group of online Friends there are a few whom I don’t even know.  I have no clue who they are other than that they managed to find me and ask to be my Friend.  I rarely decline such requests, but I’m likely to cull them when I have my next bout of un-Friend -liness.

This morning while I was doing the dishes from last night (a really nice stewed beef and mashed potato dinner; “thanks hun!”), I listened – as I always do while washing dishes – to BBC World Service.  In the piece I was listening to they were reviewing studies in social networks and how these relate to online networks.

Most of us have an average of five people whom we consider close friends; these may include partners and other family members.  The next circle of friendship – “close enough that you would be comfortable spending a weekend together” – averages a total of 15, including the original 5.  The next level adds another 35 individuals whom we interact with easily, and beyond that an additional 100 whom we might refer to as “a friend of mine”.  So the average person’s manageable social world (slight cultural variances aside) is about 150 people in total.  Which, perhaps not surprisingly, is the average number of Friends on the world’s most-used social networking site.

(Aside:  Churches do not escape these social dynamics.  Studies in church size show a distinct way of relating when the church is made up of 50 people or less (the 15 plus 35, above), and these churches are known as being “family size”.  Aside from the pastor, there is often a patriarchal or matriarchal figure, or leading family, who call the shots and to whom everyone in the church relates directly.  Moving beyond this size causes turbulence until the church grows to be firmly within the “pastoral size”, up to 150 people who look to relate personally to the pastor in one way or another.  Beyond 150 the situation quickly becomes untenable for a single pastor, and the church needs to take on additional staff ready to fulfill a pastoral function.)

I’ve lost some friends.  I’m looking for Mike Mott.  Or Michael Arthur Mott.  Formerly resident in Edmonds, Washington and at one time employed by General Electric.  Birth year: 1962; maybe ’61.  He was the best man at my wedding but somehow I’ve lost all contact with him.  (I know!)  Try punching his name into a search engine and you will discover there are far too many Mike Motts out there!  If you find him, let me know.

A few days ago I tried again to find Mike and finally gave up.  Out of curiosity about the efficacy of online searches, I went after a few other long-lost friends.  No problem.  Then I thought: “Okay, let’s push the boat out.  What about that girl I used to sit with on the bus back in 82/83, when we shared a daily journey from Kirkland to Montlake?”  It took me awhile to even recall her name, but once I had it, it only took a few minutes and a leap of faith or two to find she is living in California, goes by her married name, and is a published poet.  I was skeptical until I traced some photos of her.  No doubts, even thirty years on.  Should I write her and ask her to be my “Friend”?

Don’t think so; I’m sure she’d un-Friend me in her next cull.

Coughing, Fit

Renata never nags me, thankfully, but she can be fairly persistent with her suggestions, especially when it comes to my well-being.  So last week I went to my doctor about a cough which I’ve had for nearly two months.  While I took heavy breaths he listened to my lungs, left and right, front and back, then had me blow repeatedly into a little gizmo, typing the resulting numbers into a computer model.  He looked at the results on his screen, hummed and hawed, asked twice whether I smoked, and then told me what I had expected to hear all along: “Well, I don’t think there’s anything we can do, really; why don’t you come back in a month if it’s still a problem.”

The Dutch medical service is great.  And I mean that.  This is the second time I’ve been to this doctor, who happens to be the doctor for the national field hockey team, and both times I telephoned at around 9:00 a.m. and got an appointment before the end of the same day.  But Renata and I have often joked that the first visit to a Dutch doctor is to get the placebo; it’s only on the second visit that one gets any real action.  “Het gaat van zelf weg” is a phrase every new arrival in the country should be tested on for comprehension –  they’re going to hear it often!  (“It’ll go away by itself.”)

Anyway, as he watched me buttoning my shirt he finally did make a suggestion: “You might like to try getting more cardio-vascular exercise; more heavy lung activity could be useful.”  I’m sure the thought occurred to him then because he had caught sight of my middle-age spread poking out between the shirt halves.

I’m 47.  Brad Pitt is about my age; he turns 46 this December.  George Clooney too; in fact, George is older than me by 364 days.  We miss sharing a birthday by one day. But neither Brad, nor George, seem to have the same challenges I do with weight and form.  Sure, I know the focus of much of their waking hours is to maintain their slim physiques, and they have whole battalions of personal trainers, doctors, dieticians, and stylists to help them out.  But it just doesn’t seem fair.

There’s a photo of me in one of my albums, standing with my brother Paul and a friend, Andy Kostelak, at pool-side in Corvallis, Oregon in the summer of 1981.  We rented the apartment only for the summer, purely on the basis of it having a swimming pool, and we spent the greater part of each day swimming or lounging around in the sun.  The photo is remarkable.  I’m very fit.  All of about 75 kilos, trim, tan, with good biceps and a nice six-pack of muscles showing in my abdomen.

I’ve studied that photo long and hard.  I don’t know what George Clooney was doing on that day, off in Kentucky probably, in the summer when he was 20 and I was 19.  But I’m quite sure the photo captures the moment when George’s life and my own took significantly divergent paths.  My, haven’t the years gone quickly.

My cough is almost gone.  A couple of days after my doctor’s appointment Renata happened to forget to take her lunch to work, so I did the 4+ kilometer walk to take it to her – in less than 50 minutes.  That single effort, plus time, seems to have done the trick.  It’s going away by itself.

If only the stomach would.